Happy Tuesday to all you fine sophonts! After the Snowmageddon of last week (seriously, two full snow days, and two 2-hour delays), and then – and then!! – a blasted holiday weekend, I’m finally getting into restoring my poor, shattered and tattered routines. On the upside, I’m managing to get traction toward a renewed work-out regimen, which travel and holiday shenanigans mostly put paid to. So that’s a goodness. Meanwhile, on to the fiction! In which our hero overcomes challenges, only to be faced with an untenable situation…
Chapter 18: Out
The hole I’d just climbed out of gaped black in front of me. The light from my sigil shone only a few feet down the shaft. What I’d already taken to thinking about as my digging claws glowed, but as I’d discovered, not very brightly. They gave just enough light to see the stone in front of my face as I climbed.
I’d cut hand and footholds out of the stone of the wall, regularly removing the stone overhead, which had been far more finicky than I wanted to deal with, but I hadn’t managed to figure out how exactly to do that from a distance. This despite the dreams I was more and more certain were some form of tutorial. The Book in my head had proven unhelpful. Fortunately I’d grown up doing similar things mining asteroids with Mom and Dad, and I didn’t collect too many bruises in the process.
I felt like I should be experiencing some kind of mixed feelings about the hole where I’d been fundamentally changed. I mean, one moment I was a prisoner, and the next – at least subjectively – I’d be able to do things no human had done for untold millennia.
Mostly, I was just glad to be out of there. I’d spent more than enough time worrying about being crushed by rocks when I was young to want no part of it when grown. I felt my lips twisting in a sardonic grin at the irony of finding myself in exactly the place I’d left the Belt to escape. Ah, well.
I turned away from the prison I’d just escaped to the one that loomed over me. I un-traced my sigil, and the glow dimmed and died, though slower than when I put the digging claws away. Those just cut off as if they never were, which had given me a bit of a start, the first time. I still felt the same anxiety. What if I couldn’t get them out again?
It was false anxiety, as it happened, since they’d popped back into place as soon as I ran through the startup and spoke code phrase. I did it again, though, just to be sure, then put them away, again. Just as soon as I had a minute, I was going to rearrange the way I thought about my new abilities.
The tunnel looked far different than when I’d left it last. I mean, when I’d been sucked out of it and into a realm of burgeoning madness was another way to put it. A way I studiously avoided thinking about. I had more, ah, pressing things to think about.
Two supports were cracked, that I could see. Half a dozen of the supposedly indestructible solid-state lights set into them were out. Those could be severed power relays from the force of the tremors or a result of cupidity on the part of Warden Jaems. Their diffusion seemed broken, too. Whatever the reason, they left the tunnel itself an odd patchwork of light and shadow. I could see cracks in the stone walls of the tunnel I didn’t remember, however, which stirred in me an intense desire to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. And quickly.
I strode toward the other end and immediately pulled up short, swearing, as I smashed my bare toes into something lying in a pool of darkness on the floor. I’d have been more surprised to see my vibropick spin away if I hadn’t been in pain. I’m sure I looked very dignified, hopping about on one foot as the best profanity of the Theban Assault Corps poured from my lips. In my defense, it hurt.
I stuck my foot into the light from the closest lamp. Nothing was turning odd colors, though that wasn’t immediate even from light bruising, and I’d really whacked my poor digits. A diagnostic wiggle suggested everything was in more or less working order, so I went in search of my abused pick.
I found it a few meters down the tunnel. The power readout indicated it had barely an eighth of a charge. Normally, that’d still be enough to mine for half a shift. Of course, if I needed to mine, I had other resources, now. I tucked it under my arm and walked, more gingerly now, toward the lift.
I found further evidence of the tunnel’s sudden disrepair as I went. Warped supports, and more broken lights. Chunks of stone on the floor ranging from pebbles up to larger than my head. Unease flowered in my middle. If the shaft they’d driven for the lift was as warped as the tunnel supports, I’d have a hard time getting back up to nominal civilization.
I skirted my way around a particularly large boulder. It had been part of the tunnel roof not long before, but the duraplast sheet bad buckled and fallen, and now blocked my way out. I wanted to spit, when I looked closer at the edge of the fallen panel, but my mouth lacked the moisture. The edge showed the panel to be half the thickness I’d have used, and racked with plastic rot, besides. Small chunks of duraplast littered the tunnel floor. Reaching up to the ceiling support just over my head, I broke a bit off with just my fingers.
“You’re a cheap bastard, Jaems,” I growled. It was true. There should have been a better way to run the operation all around. I suspected the warden, himself, had come up with using prisoners in the first place. The fact that he wouldn’t have to pay them, and his “bonuses” were ultimately saving him money just came from his greedy nature.
At least the overhead seemed stable. I stared at the fallen panel and grunted, not particularly thrilled with my options. I picked up a rock and slung it at the panel. The duraplast boomed as the rock struck it. The way the sound filled the tunnel told me only the edge of the panel was rotten. Also, that it was stuck fast against the stone of the floor. Dammit.
“Gonna have to be careful, or I’ll be doing Perseus’ work for him.”
I lifted the vibropick. After all, if it worked on stone, duraplast shouldn’t be able to hold up to it. I stepped to the fallen panel and eyed it. The buckling ran nearly across the face of it, but the biggest structure issue was the rot. I could almost certainly trim off just enough of the closest edge to slip through. I snugged the pick into my shoulder and squeezed the trigger.
And nothing happened. No buzz in my joints, no hum: nothing. I looked down at the device.
“Voidspawn,” I swore. The readout showed a similar nothing: just the dead black of an unpowered display. I pulled the capacitor, rubbed the contacts on my leg, and plugged it back in.
“What in all the hells,” I groaned. I’d used this model of capacitor for a lot over the years, for more than just mining, and they just didn’t lose charge that quickly. They were practically a solid state technology, and almost indestructible. On purpose, as it happened. You could get them to explode, but it involved some fairly esoteric skills. And tools.
“Alright, fine: Plan B.” I set the pick down on the floor, and brought my digging claws into existence, keeping them short. My stomach growled, again, audibly, and I almost staggered as a wave of fatigue crashed over me.
“I need to get out of here and find some food.” Not only had I started talking to myself, but I was becoming more of an idiot as time passed. I banished the frustration which gave rise to the self-flagellation, and flat ignored the gnawing pang in my middle, and bent to my task.
I pushed the claws slowly into the panel, and then dragged them sideways in an arc. I carved a shard of duraplast a meter long and a third of a meter wide out of the edge of the sheet. Slowly, very slowly, and listening very hard for the sound of groaning rock or creaking duraplast. At last, after an eternity that must have last almost thirty seconds, my claws snipped the shard loose from the main panel. I pushed the duraplast shard through the open hole, and released the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.
Slipping my body through the hole after was even more hair-raising, but I managed it. Then I picked up the fallen shard, and only after that dismissed my claws. The cut edge of the duroplast didn’t feel at all warm to the touch. Which struck me as odd, but I have other things on my mind.
The tunnel opened right into the lift antechamber. Here, all the lights shone; their diffusers were undamaged. The effect was of a large room made of duraplast, lit in directionless light. A nine square meter hole in the ceiling allowed the lift to descend from the surface and settle to the scuffed floor.
I wasn’t surprised at the lift’s absence. No doubt Jaems and Crind rode it up as soon as Prometheus snatched me. It also wouldn’t surprise me to learn they hadn’t sent anyone back down to investigate. I was of two minds about that. I certainly wouldn’t have sent anyone down into a mine during an earthquake strong enough to damage purpose-built supports and solid state tech. At the same time, I wanted to blame them for abandoning me. On the gripping hand, Crind had seen me “eaten” by something metallic and seemingly alive.
I grinned at the idea of the cruel thug discommoded by my apparent demise. If the gods were kind, I’d get the chance to see him before I left.
The idea of leaving Tartarus gripped me and my entire body started shaking. I suddenly really, really wanted to get away. Away from the planet, the prison, especially away from the mine, and away from anything related to Thebes and its royal family.
The lift had an auxiliary control panel built into one wall. It was mostly a call screen next to a button marked “DOWN.” Above the button was an override with a thumbprint lock. A quick glance at the screen showed the lift in working order – a surprise – and that it was currently all the at the surface.
Once again, I wondered how far away the surface actually was. I suspected it wasn’t that far, given a few things. We only needed the masks to filter out the dust and occasional pocket of gas, rather than pressure-related toxicity. Jaems and his goons claimed the long travel times in the lift were to prevent the bends. I was pretty sure it was to conceal how deep we were.
I eyed the call button, contemplating my chances. I stepped to the edge of the scuffed area where the lift set down, and looked up the long, black shaft. I could call the lift, but it would log that, and I was dead certain nobody was supposed to be down here. I couldn’t use the override, as that was tied to the personnel files. It would almost certainly show that I – that Burtran Avendur, at least – had tried to call down the lift. I suspected, from past incidents, Jaem had set the system to alert him and Crind if my file was flagged. For anything. So that was out.
I could climb the shaft. If it weren’t that long. And if I had the energy for it. I wasn’t sure about that last. Gravity didn’t feel like as much of a drag on my frame as it usually did at the end of a shift in the mines, but the gnawing in my middle was becoming unbearable. I needed food, and if, as I was coming to believe, the use of my Promethean abilities took energy from me, trying to climb what might well be a kilometer long lift shaft using main strength and climbing claws was tantamount to suicide.
Motion out of the corner of my eye grabbed my attention away from my predicament. I looked to see a flashing indicator on the auxiliary panel. I took a step closer, and swore. The lift was headed down.