Gone Dark



It was the distant sound of another cave-in that woke Cal from his fitful sleep.

He lay there on the cool cave floor for several long moments without opening his eyes, listening to the rumbling echos of tons of earth and stone collapsing in some far away tunnel. He wondered which one it was, if it was one of the main tunnels, or one of the half-finished holes that led to nowhere. He wondered if anyone was in there, surely dead by now if they were, crushed in an instant. Or perhaps alive but trapped on the wrong side of a cavern with no way out.

Cal sat up and shook off the half-dreams of disaster and death. It was probably fine. There were so many tunnels, and so few people to fill them. It was probably empty.

Cal looked around the vast cavern to find himself alone. The other sleeping bags were empty, supply packs gone. The map was gone too, he noticed. Sliding out of his sleeping bag, he pulled on his father’s heavy boots and coat. Mine now, not my father’s, he reminded himself. His father was dead. As he yanked the jacket on, his thoughts elsewhere, there was the sound of tearing seams. Cal swore loudly, and the word reverberated through the empty cave. The shoulder seam of the coat’s right arm had popped again. White batting spilled out.

Nothing to be done about it now. Cal tried to ignore the guilt and anxiety that was creeping up in his stomach as he turned up the brightness on the only light he had been left with, the others having taken their lamps with them. It wasn’t enough to reach the cavern’s high ceilings, but it illuminated the small, safe circle of their base camp. He grabbed a can at random from the ever shrinking pile and punctured it with the tip of his pickaxe. Prying the top the rest of the way off, he ate the wet contents with bare fingers as he squatted down in front of the ancient screen. With a relatively clean pinky finger he hit the power switch, and century old technology whirred sluggishly to life. The screen flickered, showed a second of static, went black. He gave it a thump and the static returned. Then he toggled the receiver until he landed on the frequency he was searching for, and the picture came to life.

He had half expected to see an empty camp, but the video feed showed a sleeping form laid out in a narrow tunnel, their black sleeping bag barely visible in the weak light of a small lamp.

Dana,” he said. There was no sign of movement on the screen. He checked the microphone and speakers, making sure they were on. He knew hers would be. Hers always were, even though they were technically supposed to conserve battery life whenever possible. “Dana,” he said again, a little louder. Not too loudly. Never too loudly. There seemed to be more tunnel collapses than ever these days.

The figure shifted, sat up. A tousled head turned and looked at the screen on her end, and then smiled.

Cal,” Dana said as she picked up the small handheld monitor, her voice coming out scratchy and distorted through the old speakers. She wrapped her sleeping bag around her shoulders like a blanket and held the monitor close to her face so she could see Cal better. On his full-sized screen, her face was magnified to giant-sized. “What’s up?”

Nothing much,” he replied, glancing over his shoulder into the darkness behind him. All was silent, pitch black. “I just woke up.”

Where is everyone else?” asked Dana. “It looks like it’s just you.”

They must have woken up a while ago and decided to go head out. I guess it’s my turn to monitor base camp this time. They took the map, so I figure they’ll be gone for while. We were supposed to start mapping the tunnel systems to the south of Old Man’s Cavern this cycle.”

I don’t know what the point is,” Dana said, shaking her head. “It’s obvious those tunnels only go deeper into the cave system. All the posterior caverns only lead further down, there’s nothing to gain in exploring them further. I’ve said it a thousand times, we have to keep heading up, follow the water, follow the air streams.”

So we can find more dead ends and tunnels blocked by breakdowns?” Cal said with raised eyebrows. “We keep finding more supply caches the deeper we go. If we spend all our time going up, sooner or later we’ll run out of batteries and food.”

And you don’t think we’ll run out eventually anyways?” Dana said grimly. “The tunnels can’t go on forever, and less and less of them are man-made the deeper we go. We’ve gone nearly as deep at the original team by now, soon there aren’t going to be any more supply caches to find. We’re just…surviving day by day the way things are right now. We can’t hold on like this forever.”

Cal didn’t reply. He pulled his coat tighter around himself and stared down into the half empty can he held. Hunger pains gnawed at his stomach. Meals had been cut down to once a cycle for everyone now, even the little ones.

What’s that on your coat?” Dana asked, squinting and holding her monitor closer to her face. One brown eye filled Cal’s screen. “The picture quality is awful on my end. Did it rip?”

Again, yeah.” Cal tugged uselessly at the tear. “It’s falling apart, no matter how many times I sew it back together.”

It’s over eighty years old, of course it is. Everything is.” Dana raised the edges of her sleeping bag towards the camera. The image was grainy, but the patches and holes, frayed seams and clumsy stitches were obvious. The zipper was rusted beyond use. “That’s what I’m saying. We’re just buying time down here.”

Down here. Cal wasn’t entirely convinced that there was an “up there.”

When he didn’t respond, Dana’s expression softened. “I’m sorry, Cal,” she said. “About your dad. I’m sure you can fix the coat.”

Cal shrugged. “When are you coming back this way? I feel like I haven’t seen you in person in about a hundred cycles.”

I’ll come back when I find something, proof that there’s still a way out.”

Cal opened his mouth, but Dana cut him off with a flash of anger.

I know what you’re going to say, and you know how I feel about it. Our ancestors came down here, and they didn’t intend to stay. We aren’t supposed to exist, not down here, not like this. I’ve read the reports, so have you. The drill was a failure, and they got themselves trapped down here when that stupid thing brought down all the anterior tunnels. We’re just lucky that so few survived the first cave-ins, otherwise all the supplies they left would have been used up by the time our grandparents were born. I know there has to be another way out. We just haven’t explored enough.”

A way out to what, though?” said Cal weakly.

To something better than slow starvation, I can tell you that much,” she replied.

Cal glanced at the numbers in the corner of the video screen, ticking relentlessly on, day after day, year after year. 8/23/2122, 08:16:05. Eighty years, eighty years in the deep. Their great-great-grandparents had passed on stories of the surface, stories that their children and grandchildren, those who had been born in the darkness, had clung to — at first in hopes of rescue, but now just as stories of sunlight and rainstorms and open skies that they told to little children who asked where people went when they died.

Cal picked at the peeling label of the can in his hands. The ancient, slightly water-damaged paper was illegible.

Dana,” he said, looking up at the screen again, but he got no further. He could hear a strange rumble, and for a moment he thought it was the sound of yet another cave-in nearby. But then he saw Dana’s head whip around, and he realized it was coming from her end.

What’s going on?” he asked, his heart rate picking up.

A cave-in?” she said, though she sounded doubtful and she peered into the darkness of the tunnel that stretched behind her. “But it can’t be, it sounds so far away, and this tunnel doesn’t go much further. It’s a dead end down there, all blocked off by old rockfall.”

Dana, get out of there,” Cal started to say. But before he could get the words out, the rumbling sound rose to a crescendo that drowned out both their voices, and turned from sound into just a powerful vibration that rattled the speakers on Cal’s end. Dana was scrambling to her feet, rushing to grab the lamp that was perhaps ten feet out of reach, without which she could never survive in the pitch-black labyrinthine cave system that stretched for miles and miles and miles — and then there was a sudden explosion of light, so bright that it whited out Cal’s screen entirely. It lasted for one second, two, and then the screen suddenly went black.

He leapt to his feet with a cry and thumped the side of the video screen. The feed did not return.

Dana!” he called, hitting the antique machinery again and again. “Dana! Can you hear me?”

Nothing happened.

Cal stood here, his heart pounding in his chest, his breaths so quick and shallow that he was growing lightheaded.

He looked around the base camp. The map was gone; the others had taken it with them. They’d taken the handhelds too, assuming that Cal, left at base camp with the bulky, full-sized video screen, wouldn’t need one. But he knew the tunnels well, and he knew the anterior tunnels better than most, apart from Dana. He’d spent enough years exploring them with her until he couldn’t justify wasting his time looking for a way out that didn’t exist anymore. He didn’t even know exactly where Dana had been — but he did know the general area she had gone into, and he knew her mark. That was enough. That had to be enough. He grabbed his lamp, his pick, and his hard hat, cracked almost in half, passed down for four generations after it had saved his great-great-grandfather from dying in the collapse that had left him and the others trapped underground.

Cal ran through the tunnels, the echoes of his feet slapping against the cool stone rebounding off the walls ahead of him faster than he could catch up, and lingering behind him for minutes after he had already gone. He met no one as he ran. Sometimes you could go days without running into another team, if you were far enough away from the central chambers. He passed several more video monitors as he ran, some brought down there by other reconnaissance teams, others left to gather dust where their original owners had left them almost a century before. Though many were long broken, a few were still functional, but Cal didn’t stop. He didn’t dare waste time searching the hundreds of frequencies in the hopes that someone, somewhere, might be active on one of them.

It wasn’t a straight path to the anterior tunnels. He had to circle around the Pit, the impossibly deep borehole at the bottom of which the broken metal corpse of the drill lay. Hot air rushed into the maintenance tunnels that branched off of the Pit, hitting Cal in the face like a wall, billowing up from almost fifteen miles down and rising another mile and a half up the shaft. Cal and Dana had spent their childhoods sticking their head out of the maintenance tunnels, into the pit, and staring upwards, convincing themselves that they saw glimmers of lights high above from the surface, letting the hot air that the bowels of the earth belched up catch their hair in its current.

Cal gritted his teeth, shaking off the memory. He pushed himself harder, ignoring the stitch stabbing in his side.

From there the passages were angled at an incline, and soon Cal’s thighs and calves were burning worse than his lungs. He passed through one of the countless natural caverns filled with white calcite that glittered like a million winking eyes in the light of his swinging lamp, and then across one of the man-made chambers strung with broken lights attached to generators that hadn’t worked since before Cal’s father had been born. And more tunnels, always more tunnels. He squeezed himself through narrow fissures on his hands and knees, he climbed up groaning ladders that rose to dizzying heights up near-vertical shafts. It was ages before he finally reached Witch Finger Cave, one of the highest chambers. He stumbled to a halt on the metal gangway that led across it, above the pool of icy water that covered the cavern floor. Hundreds of huge stalactites, white and rosy pink, hung low enough to nearly brush the top of Cal’s hard hat. Dana was somewhere ahead, in these northernmost cave systems. He caught his breath, wiped tears of exertion from the corners of his eyes, and forged ahead.

There were ten times as many tunnels and chambers up here are there were deeper underground. Nearly all of them were man-made, and they were interconnected in a web-like maze. Most of them he and Dana had already followed to dead ends in the past. He saw their marks as he passed dark tunnel entrances, his own X in a circle and Dana’s five-pointed star, carved on the walls beside dozens of other markers from previous generations of explorers. All led to cave-ins, to dead ends, to nothing but walls of impenetrable rock.

Then Cal came to passages he did not recognize and he slowed his pace, checking the mouth of each one. He saw Dana’s mark again and again, most of them old. Her star, and below it, one line, two dots, four lines. Dana went down that tunnel on cycle one hundred twenty-four. It must not had led anywhere, though, and she had backtracked, because he found her mark on the next tunnel entrance ahead, dated the one hundred twenty-eighth. The one after that, one hundred thirty-six. There was no sign of Dana’s mark on the next tunnel down the path, so Cal backtracked. He pulled out the small pick from his jacket pocket and added his own mark beneath Dana’s. An X in a circle, and underneath, one line, seven dots, nine lines. His lamp held aloft, its light so weak in the face of the pitch blackness beyond, he plunged onwards.

The next tunnel was marked the one hundred thirty-ninth. The one after that, the one hundred forty-fifth, but crossed out. A dead end. He passed that one by, continued to the next. The one hundred forty-sixth. Then the forty-eighth, the fifty-second, the fifty-sixth. Four more crossed out, and three more times having to backtrack to previous tunnels. He marked his own path each time, moving through the tunnels that took Dana weeks to explore in only a few hours, following the path she had already marked, avoiding the dead ends she had already stumbled onto. The further Cal went, the more dead ends Dana had marked. Each tunnel was getting shorter as well, branching off into two or three forks after only a few hundred feet. Cal began to feel claustrophobic in a way he hadn’t since he was very small, when he had been made to squeeze through narrow openings and tight tunnels that the adults couldn’t fit through. He suddenly found himself facing a breakdown, an unyielding wall of bedrock that had collapsed from above, blocking off the tunnel ages before. He hurried back the way he had come and checked the passage mouth, relieved to see that he had just missed Dana’s crossed-out mark. He tried to shake the image of her crushed body beneath all that rubble that had risen unbidden in his mind. He moved on to the next tunnel entrance, checked for her mark. Not crossed out, dated just one cycle ago. Cal felt his breath catch in his throat.

Dana?” he called, as softly as he could, in case the path ahead had been dangerously weakened in the collapse.

No response.

Dana,” he said again, only a fraction of a decibel louder.

Silence echoed back at him.

He swung his lamp from side to side, but the tunnel went too far for the meager light to illuminate anything other than grey stone walls, worn smooth with better tools than Cal’s pickaxe. He edged forwards, trying to move as quietly as he could, searching for any signs of a collapse. Others had been found alive before, he reminded himself. Sometimes you weren’t crushed, only trapped or pinned. His father had been left alive, and if someone had only found him quicker…

He could get Dana out, or go get help, as long as she was still…

There was a light ahead. A beam of light, bright white light, piercing the darkness ahead of him. He rushed forwards and found that there was a turn ahead. He whipped around it, heading straight for the light, and almost ran right into the pile of rubble that blocked the tunnel. It was a boulder choke, a few huge pieces of fractured limestone, and about a ton of broken rock fragments had collapsed from the ceiling. Cal scrambled back, his hand trembling so badly that he nearly dropped his lamp. He angled its beam at his feet but was only able to look out of the corners of his eyes, half expecting to see a limb sticking out from beneath the boulders, or perhaps a pool of dark blood seeping out.

Nothing.

Cal released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. He raised his lamp a little higher and slowly approached the shaft of light. It was spearing through a gap between two stones, only a finger’s width wide, but whatever was creating it was bright enough to burn Cal’s eyes. Few lights he had ever seen were that bright, and Dana’s lamp certainly wasn’t one of them. He edged towards the crack, wanting to press his eye to it to see what was on the other side, but he couldn’t get that close to it and keep his eyes open. He looked away, blinking until the spots faded.

It didn’t matter if he couldn’t see what was on the other side. It hadn’t been a complete cave-in, that was all Cal cared about. Tipping his hard hat low so as to block out the worst of the white light, he stuck the flat end of his pickaxe into the crack and put all of his weight onto the handle, levering the stones apart. They shifted, the gap widened, and more blinding light streamed through.

Dana!” he called, wedging his pickaxe in place again. “Can you hear me? Dana, I’m coming, I’ll be right there, I’ll get you out, just hold on!”

He thought he heard something, a muffled voice on the other side. Someone called out something unintelligible, and it wasn’t Dana’s voice. A split second later, there was a blast of light and rocks and air that sent Cal hurtling into the stone wall of the tunnel, and everything went blissfully dark.

* * *

The first thing he became aware of was light. It was bright, agonizingly bright, and red. He flinched and tried to shy away, but found that he couldn’t do more than move his head slightly to one side, and even that sent stabbing pain through his neck and skull. He tried to groan, but barely managed a squeak.

A voice said something garbled and impossible to understand, and the light retreated. Cal blinked, and realized that his eyes were already closed. The red light had just been something shining through his closed lids.

With an effort of will, he pried one eye open. Something was leaning over him and he jerked in place, a startled gasp choking itself out of his dry throat. It was huge and square and white, with a shiny black face and it loomed over him against a backdrop of whiteness and shadows. Cal tried to pull away from the thing, but found that his arms and legs wouldn’t move. He somehow forced his head up a fraction of an inch to look down at his body. Straps held him down by his wrists and ankles, and wires and tubes ran from his arms into machines he didn’t recognize. He opened his mouth to scream, and the thing above him put a long, thin needle into one of the tubes in his arm. A few seconds later, he felt the terror wash away, to be replaced with a fuzzy sort of confusion. He still didn’t know what was going on, but it suddenly didn’t seem so very important.

The figure above him was talking again. He couldn’t understand a word it said, and only stared back mutely, following the shiny black rectangle of its face as it swam back and forth. The thing rose up and turned away, waving a great, gloved hand. Cal’s slightly unfocused eyes tracked the hand wave, and saw another one of the things standing a little ways away. It turned and fiddled with something on one of the white walls. Suddenly the lights dimmed, and after a few seconds Cal could see more clearly. The thing above him turned back, leaning low. It wasn’t a great, black rectangle for a face after all. It was some kind of domed head covering with a little window in it, and now Cal could see the human face staring back down at him from inside. It was a woman, someone he had never seen before. She was speaking to him, her voice strangely muffled from inside the full-body suit. Cal attempted to shake his head, and the world spun dizzyingly around him. He was suddenly grateful he had been strapped down, otherwise he thought he would have gone tumbling away.

I can’t understand you,” he said thickly, or at least, he thought he did. He couldn’t quite figure out where his tongue was in his mouth. “Dana, where’s Dana?” He couldn’t remember why he needed to find her, but her name was lingering in the front of his mind, along with a nagging sense of worry. Something about Dana, something important.

The woman was still talking. The other thing — no, it was a person, a person in some kind of a suit, he had already figured that out, hadn’t he? — came over as well. It was a man, grey-haired and serious. The woman seemed to give up trying to talk to Cal, and the two people began to speak to each other instead. Cal listened, and didn’t understand a word. Whatever they were saying, it wasn’t anything that he recognized.

Except…

It was hard to focus, especially as a warm sort of nothingness kept threatening to overtake his thoughts, but he kept dragging himself back to reality. He didn’t understand much of what he heard, but there were definitely familiar words in there, words he knew. The more he made himself listen, the more he seemed to be picking up, though every bit that he was able to follow was surrounded by what seemed to him like utter gibberish.

Survived the blast, thank God…

all this time, I can’t believe any survivors…

supposed to be just a basic research mission…

abandoned the drill project after the earthquake… all… dead…

not all, obviously…

five generations in almost complete darkness…

what the devil have they been eating…

these suits in case of gas buildup, never thought we’d need them for…

Jesus, a common cold could probably kill…

likely a significant language change after so long in isolation, communication could be…

how many others do you think…

if there are two, there must be more, perhaps many…

a community?…

could be… a major ethical dilemma here…

government involvement, this will be a shit show…

anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists… a uniquely isolated culture…

poor bastards are going to end up like lab rats…

can’t just leave them all down there…

might be better for them, send some supplies, hush it up…

this isn’t Roswell…

Cal’s head was starting to throb again, and his vision was growing blurry around the edges.

Dana,” he said again, his voice a dry rasp. The man and woman stopped talking and stared down at him. Their faces swam before him as if from underwater.

What is your name?” the woman asked.

Dana,” Cal repeated. “Where’s Dana?”

The man shook his head. The sedative…can’t question them until…

wish we could explain…feel bad for having to restrain…

can’t risk them hurting themselves…

I know, I know, I just don’t think…

think they know each other?…

wheel the gurney…might keep them calm until Dr. Abrams…

The man grabbed the end of whatever it was Cal was lying on by his feet, and the woman moved to his head. Together they pushed him across the space, carefully wheeling along the machine that was connected to Cal by tubes and wires along with them. He let his head roll to one side and he looked at it with half focused eyes. It reminded him a little of the video monitors, only this machine was beeping softly, every second or so. It was almost hypnotic.

The woman came around to Cal’s side again, opposite the machine he was transfixed by. She gently turned his head so he was facing her with one rough gloved hand.

friend is here… she said loudly and slowly, and she stepped out of the way. Cal’s gaze took several seconds to focus. After what felt like a hazy eternity, he realized he was looking at a shock of dark hair, a pale face, and half closed eyes that he had known his whole life.

Dana…” he groaned. She blinked at him, her eyelids opening and closing with leaden slowness, as if they weighed more than she was used to. Her lips pulled back from her teeth in a weak attempt at a smile.

Cal,” she whispered back.

Cal reached out his hand, stretching his fingers as far as they could reach despite the straps around his wrist. His fingertips grazed the back of Dana’s hand, rubber tubes and bandages getting in the way. One of the people in the suits, Cal didn’t see which, nudged his gurney so it was pressed right up against Dana’s. He grabbed her hand and held onto it tightly. She squeezed back and closed her eyes. Cal decided to stop fighting the sleep that was threatening to overcome him too, and let himself fall back into familiar darkness.





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