Hollowed Memories, chapter 7, part 5

January 25, 2015

The moment Yarec was out, he was moving like a cat.  It took him only a couple steps to adjust to the feel of the slick cement underfoot.  He crept up toward the first gaping black mouth that opened on the left.  He had only the small light on his wrist to illuminate the way now.  It was getting darker outside, and there was no longer any useful illumination reaching him from the entrance.  He reached the edge of the empty doorway and crouched down to peer inside.  There did not seem to be anything there—just puddles of dirty water and spots on the ceiling where the limestone and cement were being converted into narrow stalactites.  The passage, perhaps four meters wide, bored straight away into the darkness, as far as Yarec’s feeble illumination extended.

He walked a few paces down the horizontal hall, splashing cloudy fluid on his waterproof boots.  Nothing seemed to change as he moved, and there was nothing suggestive of recent human habitation.  So he turned around and headed back to the stairs.  He headed up to the next hallway, which was larger and less saturated with moisture.  He cast a faint light around the lip of the doorway.  This hall looked no more promising, except to the extent that it was higher above the water level and thus a bit more commodious.  Yarec opted to follow this tunnel further, although he had little choice, since the stairway ended at this level.

Yarec stuck to the left wall.  His jacket was impervious to the water trickling down the wall, although he could feel its slickness through the vat-grown fabric.  With a tap, he turned up the output from his wrist light; however dim he might have tried to keep it, anyone on guard would still have seen him coming a long way off.

The passage started bending to the right, with a gradual curve and a slight incline.  The hall should lead up into the chambers carved directly out of the mountain.  There had been some minerals in the heart of the rock, but mostly the upper excavations had been used for storage and workshop space.  Since the facility had closed down—mining contractors and particle physicists packing up their most valuable machines and leaving the rest to corrode away in the dilute mist of chemical effluvium—various parties had operated out the upper chambers.  Vagabonds, brigands, and especially smugglers had camped here and stored their materials.  However, as the population of the surrounding lands drifted slowly away, the location became less and less viable as a base of operations, and the place had of late been quite abandoned.  Even the handfuls of casual visitors who might occasionally have happened by were generally deterred from entering by the flow of the Little Snail River.

Yarec reached a junction.  On his left was a mostly natural chamber, with rock formations that looked heavier and ropier than those in the drill-cut caverns.  the floor had been cut smooth, so that carts and vehicles could be wheeled across it, but the ceiling was an irregular mass of sagging draperies, mostly dull gray-brown, but occasionally shot through with ocher.  Humans had stopped using this place, except as an occasional stopover, long ago.  So there were no visitors to see these formations.  Yet there was another cracked plaque bolted heavily to the wall.  The engraved letters, now dripping with miniature stalactites of their own, identified each of the largest limestone formations—which had facetious names like “cave parrot” and “sarsaparilla Buddha.”  These pareidoilic artworks might have lain unseen for decades, unless the most recent arrivals in the mine had also stopped to marvel at them.

Yarec gave the formations a few minutes of his time.  Then he needed to move on.  There were several exits.  The two on the far side of the cavern were both small; they were natural tunnels that had been widened to allow humans easier access to the further galleries beyond.  However, there was another much larger archway as well, right beside the one through which he had entered.  It angled slightly downwards, at roughly right angles to the passage that had brought him up to the glistening cave.  It was difficult to be sure, amid all the dripping water, but he thought he saw evidence that something had travelled that way recently.

The hallway sloped down, and Yarec eventually saw that it opened onto a large chamber.  He turned off his light and felt his way with an outstretched hand, since there were traces of illumination coming from the cavern.  Pale white fingers traced up across the tunnel’s mouth and grasped vainly against the ceiling of the passage.  The light was too faint to reveal anything about the contents of the room, but its presence was a sure indication of contemporary human activity.

There were no indications that anyone had heard Yarec approaching or seen his light, but he had to be alert to the possibility that he had been noticed.  Whoever was there might have set an ambush.  Yarec squatted down, as unobtrusive as he could make himself, but he still felt exposed.  His ankles were in cold water.  His breath sounded absurdly loud, although the rational part of him recognized that even the slow dripping of water from the ceiling was actually louder.  The drops had a weird syncopated rhythm; half a dozen stalactites were producing drops, each of a different size and marking a different beat.  It was the kind of sound pattern that people played through wireless earbuds as a relaxation aid.  And gradually, Yarec also was able to relax.  He waited long enough to be assured that no one was coming to find him.  Then he started advancing again, slopping almost silently, in a cougar-like crouch, toward the dim gray aperture at the end of the hall.

There was a trickle of current moving down the slight incline.  It ran from one shallow, ragged-edged tarn to the next.  At the end of the hall, the floor fell away, and Yarec was at the top landing of an ancient metal staircase.  The landing was a grille, perforated with holes, through which  the mineral-rich water dribbled, leaving a craggy crust of wet limestone dangling down into space.  A heavy railing, corroded but still thick and solid-looking, enclosed the landing, then angled down to the right, following the metal stairs’ descent along the concrete wall.

From his vantage at the tunnel mouth, Yarec could see that the chamber it opened on was vast—dozens of meters high.  The wan play of light revealed a flat ceiling, about as far above the landing as the landing itself was above the floor.  He could not determine the horizontal extent of the chamber.  It was too huge for the light of the inhabitants’ single electric lantern to penetrate to the farthest corners.  The light source itself was situated near the base of the stairs, on top of a grimy plastic crate.  Either its rare earth battery was almost out of power, or it had been turned down to a minimal intensity intentionally, to conserve.  However, the weak illumination was enough to limn out the forms of five seated humans.  Around them rested a clutter of oddments and useful devices—a makeshift table stacked with mismatched bowls and cups; soft bedrolls sheltered under transparent tarpaulins and elevated off the wet floor in various ways; and a long box like a coffin with vaulted lid.

One of the people said something, and the others reacted.  One of them stood up and walked over to fetch something; it might have been a pot of stew or gruel.  She sniffed at the contents, then prodded them with a wand-like implement.  The four figures still sitting had all turned to follow her movements, and one of them asked her a question, to which she replied in a monotone.  None of their words were intelligible, amidst the omnipresent drip and thrum of the tiny cascades.  However, from the intonation, Yarec guessed that they were speaking the common local dialect.

Someone else stood up and went to join the woman, who was still poking at whatever was in the vessel.  They all seemed completely oblivious to his intrusion—going about their mundane tasks, worried about supper and whatever else.  That left him with a choice.  He probably could have shot them all dead before any of them could really react, but he was not here on an assassination mission.  The mere fact that these people had not noticed his approach and had left themselves to Yarec’s mercy suggested that they were not part of a militarized threat.  Either that, or they’re really, really slick, and they’ve fooled me into letting down my own guard, Yarec admonished himself.

For a while, Yarec just watched.  The inhabitants moved around some more.  One of them laid out dishes for a modest meal, and another disappeared into the great darkness of the chamber.  Yarec strained to make out what he said as he strode away, feet splashing heavily through a centimeter-deep puddle that sat adjacent to the encampment.  It might have been something about “rust traps,” by Yarec could not be sure.  The last person to leave her seat strode four paces over the vaulted sarcophagus and placed her hands on the lid.  Her back was to Yarec, and in the dim illumination, he could not discern what she was doing, but she stood there for quite a while, while the sludge was portioned out at the dining table.

Yarec drew back from the brink of the chamber.  He could have spied on the inhabitants a while longer, but eventually he would have to show himself.  He particularly did not want to wait until he was noticed.  If he revealed himself voluntarily, that gave him the initiative.  Moreover, since these inhabitants were potentially friendly, it would be better for him not to be discovered skulking around; forthright exposure would do a lot more to engender trust.

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