Chapter 17

The initial drop weren’t bad, not in the asteroid’s light gravity.  I look back up the hole; so far the drone ain’t following me in, but its dim light plays over the rim of the mouth of the pit. I got a bad feeling about this place but I try not to let fear affect my judgement.  What to do?  It’s either forward into the deeper cavern, or wait for the drone to pass on and go back to the plateau where the ships are.

Is the drone smart enough to figure out where I’ve gone?  I climb up a ways and poke my helmet back through the hole I came through.  I look past the rocky exterior best I can, but I don’t see the murderous lights.  I drop back down and peer into the opening to the deeper cavern.  The opening is big enough for me to enter, although sharply pointed rocks protrude from the lip like fangs.  The cavern ahead looks stable enough to enter.  But I can’t see very far.  I maneuver past the jagged stones, scraping my backpack and chest piece against their dangerous edges and hoping like hell that I don’t slice any of the exposed hoses sticking out of my suit.  I come to a roomier spot and flip on my helmet lamps to look over the way ahead.

It goes on a few meters, then veers off to the side.  The ceiling is low but the cavern is big enough for a man to navigate.  But then what?  I’m thinking maybe I should chance heading back to the ship and do what I can to help the crew—and help myself, since I’ll run out of atmo sooner or later down here.  On the other hand, I’ll probably get shot going back.  The cavern could be worth investigating.  Maybe it would pop me back on the other side of the CM, where they’re not expecting me.  But that don’t seem likely.

I’m stuck trying to make a decision when I hear a familiar voice in my headset.  “Ciao, Straker,” says Sophia.  Her voice surprises me and I jump up a little, hit the hard roof of the cave with a grunt, and ricochet back to the floor in the light gravity.  I wrap my arms around a rock to keep from bouncing up again.

“Were your friends glad to see you?” she continues.  “Did you have a pleasant reunion?”

“Look,” I say.  “They are not my friends.  They ain’t even who I thought they were.  And I wasn’t sending them information because I like them.  They said they were government.  Turns out they’re Alliance, I think.  I don’t know about highfalutin politics—I’m just a worker.  And I thought I had a deal with them.  It was supposed to be a good thing.”

“Oh.  You didn’t tell me that.”

“Well I’m telling you now.  My life is complicated and I don’t gotta tell you everything.”

“But I like to hear about your life!  I want to know all about you!  Don’t you know that?  I so look forward to talking to you.”

“OK, you like talking to me.  I’m gonna ask you a question.  Did you know that ship was coming before you told me?”

Pause.  Finally, she responds: “Yes, I knew it was coming.”

“When did you know?”

Another pause.  “I knew when they left lunar orbit.”

“What?  What kind of scope have you got?  How could you know that?”

No answer.  It’s aggravating—she’s always gotta be the mystery woman.  She’s really starting to torque me off.   “OK, never mind,” I say.  “Let me tell you what you’ve done.  If we’d a known they was coming, we could have packed up all our crap and left before they got here.  But we didn’t know because you couldn’t be bothered to tell me about it.  And now a man is dead, and maybe the captain too.  Maybe all of us.  Murdered.  Because of you.”

“Murdered?” she asks.  “Somebody was murdered?”

“Officer Nastez.  He stood up to them, and I actually agreed with him for once.  But they killed him for it.  They hurt the captain and probably killed her too.  The other two are captive; God only knows what’s gonna happen to them.  And you’ve probably killed me too, cause I’m on the run with a machine chasing me.  Hope you’re proud of yourself.”

“Straker, I’m sorry!  I can’t tell you everything about myself, I just can’t, you wouldn’t understand.  Telling you about that ship coming before I did is…it’s saying too much about me.”

“Jeez.  Is that your excuse?  What the hell am I even talking to you for?”

“No, Straker, please!  You don’t understand!  I’m sorry!  You are so important to me…”

Enough.  I pull the headset connector from my chest piece and everything goes quiet.  I sit for a good minute or so, marinating in my own anger, trying to control my breathing and calm down.  I’m determined to turn this situation around, one way or another, and breathing up all my gasses ain’t gonna help matters.  Gotta make it frosty again.  I think about that secret paradise that I often visit in my dreams: the water, the sunshine, the beautiful tall buildings, the warm air all around me…

And in the corner of my eye I see a yellow light flicker across the rocks at the pit entrance.  The drone is zeroing in on me.  No choice but to go deeper.  I pick myself and, stooped over in the low space, shuffle my way farther in, then down, down, deeper into the dark abyss.  The passageway opens up a little; I am able to stand up straight, much to the relief of my lower back.  The path meanders to the left, then downward.  It looks like it leads deep into the asteroid, formed maybe eons ago by water vapor boiled out by passing close to the sun.

There ain’t no straight lines in the cave; I must make my way through turn after turn, climbing over mounds, ducking under rocky dips in the ceiling, lowering myself into ever deeper, darker pits.  The light behind me is not giving up.  The labyrinthine branches of the cave work to my advantage to evade the drone but I ain’t sure I will ever find my way out.  I’m trying hard to memorize each turn but there are so many.  Eventually I give up.

My only hope is that I’ll find a branch in the cave system that will lead me to another exit, out of sight of the Kestrel and her killing machines.  Maybe when I get out I can find a way to block the exit and trap the drone.  Then I can find my way back to the ship on my own terms.  I can find a weapon, kill whoever I gotta kill, and free Louis and Katya—and the captain, if she’s alive.

The drone is getting closer.  I can see shadows behind me cast by its lights, sweeping back and forth.  The machine is searching for me, robotically checking out every crevice and passage.  I disable the claws on my hiking boots—they’re only slowing me down in here.  Then I shut off my helmet lamps again.  Now I am engulfed in the utter blackness of the cave.

Step by step I shuffle along in the absence of light, guided only by hints that show up in my helmet display.  The suit’s infrared cameras work off of differences in temperature, but this far down the temperature of the rock is nearly all the same.  And it has probably been that way for a very, very long time.  I come to a straighter section of the tunnel and realize that the roof is low again and that I can touch it with my outstretched hands.  I move with my arms above my head, hand over hand, stumbling on the rocks at my feet.  But I’ve got a rhythm going and I can pick my path by feeling the ceiling.  I don’t have to worry about bouncing up and hitting the ceiling in the low gravity.  I pick up speed by walking this way.  I still bash my head a few times but nothing my helmet can’t handle.

I come to a big fork in the tunnel and I pause, not sure whether to go right or left.  I look behind me.  The drone is relentless, its lights coming up from behind, dimmer but still searching.  I choose the left branch.  I think it’s more likely to lead me to an exit.  The ground is more uneven here, slowing me down.  Plus, the farther I go into the tunnel, the less effective my infrared is.  It’s to the point where I’m moving almost entirely by feel.  The blackness is disorienting and claustrophobic.  I hum a favorite old western tune, Red River Valley, although with my breathlessness and trembling the sound of my own voice is not very reassuring.  But it’s better than panicky silence.

I try to concentrate and move forward best I can, stumbling, falling, picking myself up and moving on.  There’s a hollow feeling in my chest, increasing with every step that I take, as I wander deeper and deeper into this strange place.  Turning around, I can still see the flash of the drone’s headlamps behind me, moving into each branch, shining lights, no doubt checking for the infrared signature of my footsteps at each turn.  I have to keep going.  I come to three-way fork; this one with a branch heading up and another two heading left and right.  I grunt and curse in my exhaustion, pulling myself into the upward leading branch, hoping it will lead to the surface.  But instead the new path veers left and then after a bit it continues back down.

I look back.  For the moment, at least I’ve lost the drone.  I figure I am a good 200 meters into the tunnel.  My O2 is starting to look grim.  I am breathing hard and my heart is slamming like a jackhammer.  My infrared is worthless; I switch it off to save power and move along by feel alone in the blackness.   I figure I’d rather suffocate in the dark than be burned alive by a machine.  That’s my calculation, because at this point I’m pretty sure I ain’t never making it out of here.  That wouldn’t be so bad except that I would rather go out trying to save the others.  And I think about Mason and Macey too, growing up without anybody caring about them.  Maybe I deserve this, but they don’t.  There’s got to be a way.

I come to a place where the floor ain’t so uneven; actually, the farther in I’ve gone, the smoother the floor and the walls seem.  Strange I hadn’t noticed that before.  I slide down against a wall and sit on the ground, struggling to catch my breath and hopefully allow the suit’s ventilation vents to clear up the fog on the inside of my visor.  I look around and, for the moment at least, I don’t see no light from the drone.  I take a chance and turn on my helmet headlamps.  And what I see is amazing.

There dust here is, well…completely different.  It’s a reddish color, thick and smooth.  It hovers above the ground up to maybe half a meter, then stops—almost more like a liquid than a haze.  And instead of jagged igneous rock surfaces, I find myself sitting in a circular tunnel that looks, crazy as it sounds, like it was drilled out.  The walls, floor, and ceiling seem too smooth to be formed by nature.  It’s like one of the dug-out mines back home.

I ain’t a geologist, and the eons-long processes that create an asteroid ain’t necessarily the same as them what created Luna, or the Earth or Mars for that matter.  But growing up on Luna gives you a working knowledge of rocks.  Hell, rocks is what we’re all about.  These are different.  I run my hands over the wall next to me, amazed by its smoothness.  It don’t even have tool marks like you would see in a mine, so it’s actually smoother than the spaces back home.

The other puzzling thing is the color.  There are iron and nickel bearing minerals in here, embedded in the walls, just as we found on the surface.  I’ve gotten used to looking at them after two weeks on Hrothgar.  Mostly the silvery taenite with its distinctive crisscross stripes of kamacite.  They shine back in the white light of my headlamps in the usual way.  But there is something else, something I ain’t never seen before.  It’s a mineral that clings to the rocks and fills the spaces between them almost like a mortar, Earth brick red in color, but smoother than bricks.  Same color as the dust.  Is it the same stuff?   To my gloved hand it feels different than the other minerals I’ve encountered.  It ain’t as hard as the other minerals.  It gives a little to pressure from my fingers.

Then I feel a jolt in the ground.  I gasp and look around—is the tunnel going to cave in?  There’s another quick lurch.  This one feels bigger, like an earthquake, or like when we were back on the Allgood getting pelted by space rocks.  A couple of chunks of taenite dislodge from the wall and fall into the dust.  I reckon that by now I’m on the side of Hrothgar that Sophia told me was unstable.  Didn’t want to come here, but what choice did I have?  Don’t trust that woman no more anyways.

I look up and glare at the tons of rock perched above my head.  I picture myself being buried under untold mass of asteroid, never to be found by anyone, and leaving the Allgood crew—what’s left of them—to die, not being able to start their engines because I have the key, each being murdered by rhino-man Gristle in some humiliating, perverted way.  But there’s something else going on; I perk my ears up to listen.  I press the side of my helmet against the wall.  I hear a sound so low in pitch that it’s almost unhearable; it’s a mighty throbbing, a palpitation, coming from deeper in the cave.

My heart pumps even faster.  Oh, man, I am in deep trouble now.  I listen harder and hear a long, low wail, like a moan of agony or terror, as if coming from some crazed critter, a creature of unimaginable size.  There’s something alive down here.  A wave of chill ripples down my back.

I ain’t alone in this cave.  I’m in here with something that wants to kill me.  I am its prey.  I jump back on my feet and run through the strange tunnel, searching frantically for a way out.  I ain’t sure which turns to take to get back; I make a half-dozen guesses as I pick my way out.  I can only hope I’m moving away from the ominous sound, but I can’t tell which direction it’s coming from.

I see a shadow moving ahead.  I stop.  In a panic I snap off my headlamps and again I’m in the dark.  I look up the tunnel passage and my heart sinks; there is the dreaded moving shine of the drone’s lights.  It’s headed my way, back on track. The machine is methodically eliminating all the alternative paths to find me and will be here in minutes.  I gotta admire the software but would kill the guy who wrote it.

I flip infrared back on, and the virtual display inside my helmet brightens.  The tunnel around me has heated up enough for me to see my way, but just barely.  I don’t know why that would be; perhaps the sun is shining outside now, heating the rock.  But I gotta turn back around and head even deeper into the tunnel.  I have no choice.  As scary as that living sound was, I know that the drone will kill me.  I’ve seen what it can do to solid rock.  I’m working on pure panic now.  The drone lights get brighter; I pick up my pace.  I feel a heavy vibration in my feet.  I touch my helmet to the wall and listen again; now the sound is not so low as before, but rather in the pitch of a whale’s call or tiger’s growl.  What the hell is it?

I check my wristy.  I have trouble focusing on its display.  I got a nasty headache all of a sudden.  My O2 is running out, and the CO2 level in my suit is high.  I need to find a way out, a way back to the Allgood, and I gotta find it fast or I will surely die.

But then…maybe not.  I think about just giving up.  Maybe I should just lay here and let it happen.  Death from CO2 poisoning ain’t the worst way to die.  And when you come down to it, what’s the point.  I am mighty worthless as a person.  I done nothing good my whole life.  I betrayed the crew of the Allgood even though they were halfway decent to me.  My own Pops didn’t think I was worth being around.  And to top it off, I even pulled the plug on Sophia, who actually showed an interest in me.

I plug the headset back in.  I try to call out to Sophia, hoping maybe I can hear some last words from her, but I don’t got enough breath to speak above a whimper.  I’m crying inside my helmet.  Pathetic.  Warm tears trace down my cheeks and down my neck; I have no way to wipe them.  I fall to my knees.  I place my hands on my helmet latches.  All I need to do is snap them up and pull the helmet off.  It will be over in seconds.  I will finally be at peace.  At peace.

A beam of light flashes across the red dust covering my boot.  The drone has a bead on me.  I imagine the fire coming my way and again I find the energy to stumble a few more steps.  I find a side tunnel and duck in there just as a bolt of laser energy shoots behind me, my infrared showing a glowing streak on the wall where the beam had grazed it with its heat.

I stumble and fall to my knees again.  I look up and in my mental fog I see that I’m in a large cavern, the outlines of it showing in infrared.  The vibration from the ground is stronger now, and rhythmic, like mighty footsteps, shaking the walls.  I look up.  The display shows something moving in the darkness ahead of me.  Something big.

The lights of the drone are coming.  There is no side tunnel here.  I’m exposed.  I can’t breathe.  Whatever is ahead is moving, coming my way.  I can’t quite make it out…

I try to get up to run but my legs can’t pull my boot up high enough to clear the ground ground and I twist and fall flat on my face into the red fog.  I struggle to pick my head up in my exhaustion.  I am dizzy, my visor is scratched, not broken, but so fogged from my own breath that even the infrared display is indecipherable.  No air.  I can’t pant any harder.  I roll over on my back and what I see—Oh God!—makes me shriek silently in terror.

It’s a monster.  No other way to describe it.  Claws and teeth and mouth parts and eyes—a dozen shining, crystalline eyes on a huge, misshapen head, glaring, staring, popping with animal fury.  The creature is bending over me, a forest of jagged fangs thrusting from its multiple mandibles, slime dripping from its obscene, scabby lips.  The monster roars.  I can feel its anger.  But I can’t move.  I breathe and breathe; it brings no relief.  Alarms are going off inside my helmet but they go unanswered.  I can do nothing.  My oxygen is gone.  I am done.

The hideous creature rears back its head to strike.  This will be the last thing I ever see.  Just mouth and fangs and drool, huge and disgusting and horrible, hovering above me.  I lie there, waiting, unable to move, my chest heaving uselessly, waiting for death.  Pops will never know what happened to me.  Wish he had said goodbye.  Goodbye Sophia, whatever you are.

Then…what?  I’m not sure if I’m hallucinating—I must be, this can’t be real—but is it real?  I know my brainpan is only halfway working, but I see the monster stop, then retreat and just stare. Its dozen eyes haze over. It leans back against the wall.  And somehow or other, it starts…just…dissolving in the dust.

Lights flicker.  I look over at them.  The drone is right above me, its lights blinding, those angry thrusters holding it up.  I feel the heat of the pulses through my suit.  I see the lens of the laser turret turning.  I know what’s coming, soon as it rotates towards me.  After all this I’m still gonna get burned.

The last thing I see—or I think I see—is a snake, or is it a long red tentacle, shoot from the wall.  In a flash the tongue wraps around the drone and slams its steel shell violently against the rocks.  The drone’s thrusters pulse on and off frantically, flailing, as it beats itself against the wall, trying to break free of the tenacious, gummy grip that holds it.  The red tongue thickens, then tightens.  The drone splits in two.  The crushed halves of the machine smoke and spark and tumble to the ground and are still.  The red fog flows over to completely envelope the pieces.

Damnedest thing I ever saw.  I chuckle.  Then I die.

*       *       *       *       *

I am shivering.  I pull the thin bedclothes tightly around my neck.  I wish I had my sweater but I am too weak to climb down the ladder to put it on.  The sweat on my face dampens the sheet and the dingy pillowcase.  I’m nine years old.  I already know what hell is like.

The dimly lit, windowless room has rock walls.  I feel the wall next to me radiating cold, sapping heat from my fevered body.  The other boy in the room, in the bunk beneath mine, is my cousin Ted.  Not my real cousin, just as Aunt Latisha ain’t my real aunt.  The Children’s Home brought me in and fed me but they don’t love me.  Nobody does.  Not no more.

Ted is sick too.  He coughs and sneezes and throws up and is miserable just like me.  Aunt Latisha sits beside him on the bed, stroking his back.  He is her favorite.  She whispers loving things to him.  She hums lullabies to him.  When he needs to blow his nose, Aunt Latisha gets him a tissue.  When he’s gotta throw up, Aunt Latisha holds the bucket for him.

I share my upper bunk with a bowl full of puke.  Last time I threw up—just a few minutes ago–I didn’t have the strength to fully lift my head.  A glob of upchuck missed and lays in a puddle beside me.  It stinks, and the bowl stinks, and my body stinks.  My mouth tastes like acid.  “May I have some water, please?” I croak.  Just the effort of that sentence makes my head swim.

Aunt Latisha stands, her hands on her hips.  She’s looking cranky, and to a fevered nine-year-old, mighty scary.  She takes my cup from the little shelf beside my bed.  Reluctantly, she pours some yellow water from a pitcher into the cup.  “This stuff ain’t free, you know,” she says, slamming the cup down on the shelf.  “So drink up, little Yuuta, drink it all up, drink the life out of this place.  Us poor folk just can’t do enough for you rich Earthers.”

“Sorry,” I say, and lift my trembling hand to the cup.  I manage to get the cup to my lips and swallow some down.  The water is gritty and smells bad but it’s better than the taste of puke.  I collapse again against my pillow, my body shivering more from the effort.  The cold goes right through me.  I can’t get warm no matter what.

“We wouldn’t be in the fix if it wasn’t for your father,” she says.  “You little shit.  You and your family.  You LITTLE SHIT!”  She holds up the back of her hand, ready to strike me.

“Sorry,” I whisper, too weak to cringe from the slap I know is coming.

“We shouldn’t oughta never taken you in—the money they pay us ain’t nearly enough.  And now here you are, drinking up our water, puking up the room, and not doing no chores.  One more thing that I have to do for you, one more misery you inflict on us, you little…”  Ted calls for her from below.  Thankfully, she lowers her hand and goes back to tending the other boy.  I am left alone to my misery.  I cry as quietly as I can.

I see a door to the outside: it’s a big metal door that swings on heavy hinges.  It’s a door to vacuum.  If you ain’t in a suit, it’s a door to death.  Sweet and peaceful death.  I’m just in my dingy underwear.  I unlatch the door—alarms go off and lights flash, I laugh at them—and I swing the door open.  The air rushes out in a torrent from behind, blowing my hair into my face.  I laugh.  It feels good.

Finally, all is quiet. I step out into the sunlight, my bare feet sinking deep into the warm dust.  I look up at the endless sky for the first and last time with unshielded eyes.  It is beautiful.  I exhale.  My chest and lungs convulse, fighting to save me but I don’t want to be saved and there ain’t nothing to breathe anyways so best just give it up.

I fall to the dust.  I die smiling.  I have won.  They will find my frozen body but it will be too late.  Maybe Pops will love me now.