Tuesday, March 15, 2011

We Dare Not Linger--TCE prompt eleven

***I decided to leave the Atropos series for this one; the prompt is "If I keep your secret, what's in it for me." Rough draft; unsure about title still.***

We Dare Not Linger
The light poured golden from our headgear into the open space of the cave. The sump, a puddled footprint of some giant and ancient god, stretched before us in the chamber some fifty meters. With the lamps, its waters were both the cool blue of ice and the gold of the light and yet somehow still black.  The black of boundless darkness.  At the toe of the sump there splashed a cascade falling from a squeeze similar in size to the one through which we’d made our descent, about a hundred meters above, zipping down the height with our ropes and steel and gauges, touching the almost smooth inverted ceilings as we went. A nasty tight squeeze. The walls were slick with damp that marked our hands and bodies; there were no stalactites or mites here, only rock rippled and layered with the ages of the earth. Brown, ochre, red, cream, and then repeating — yet all the while, this blackness. But the damp smelled good and clean and right.
 Jim twisted to me from the heel of the sump, adjusting his flippers at the edge.  My headlamp shined on his face for a moment.  
“Bring that G7 camera over here, will you?”
I brought the cam to the water’s edge.  Allen, who was the youngest of the entire thirty-nine-person expedition and a complete waste of training, followed me as if I was about to drop it.  Asshole.  Then again, we did need to be careful.  Couldn’t afford another piece of equipment breaking.
“You know,” Allen said as I straightened, “according to the American Caving Accident committee, cave diving deaths averaged 44 per year until 2007.  This year there are only twelve dives scheduled at even half this depth on the whole planet.”  
Jim flicked his eyes up to Allen.  I couldn’t see his face well because of the drysuit and goggles, but I knew he was snarling. This was day seventeen of the expedition.  That’s how I knew he snarled.  Nine of of those days the way was dark but for our own light. By now, in this world where darkness eats that light instead of the other way around, we knew each other the way we knew the feel of rich earth and stubborn rock under our palms, the way we knew in the lightless crawls that down was down and up was still up. You’d think that would help everyone play nicely, knowing each other like that. It doesn’t.  But at least you don’t have to mess with mincing words.
“Shut the fuck up, Allen.”

Allen stood a bit back from us, kicking now and then at bits of rock, using the edge of his undershirt to free his hands from the dirt and clay. Why, I don't know. Probably missed the manicured look.
“I’m just sayin’,  you’re being a fuckin’ prig; going ahead with the dive after the probe broke.  You want to become a statistic? Come on, Jim; we don’t have any idea of what you’ll get into down there.”  Rich kid always talked like a jerk and managed to render anything sensible into something people just really didn’t need or want to hear.  
“He’s right, Allen.  Shut the fuck up.”  What a dick … it was his fault the ROV probe broke, anyway. Millions of dollars down a hole, literally. Dick. If he’d just tried to save the probe, Allen might have broken his leg and remained above instead of Juan, and Annie with him, unfortunately. But of course he hadn’t tried to save it and Juan had, and now Allen would look into the face of a darkness no other man had seen before, and not even really see it. Too privileged and too young.  He just couldn’t get it. Plus, he was clumsy. Dick.
 Jim began checking the diving gear we’d already gathered.  Allen stomped off, muttering about taking some rock samples, his longish post-college-boy hair flapping from under his headgear as he turned.   
“Dick,” Jim said as he continued adjusting himself, “I don’t know why he just doesn’t go the fuck back up.  I don’t need him down here; you don’t need him down here.  He got to see what his daddy wanted him to see.  He should go back. He doesn’t know the first thing about all this.”
“I can still hear you, prig. Your voice carries.”
“Good. Why don’t you, then?  Go back, I mean.”
“Right.  Like I’m going to leave you all behind for no good reason. You think I’m going to tell my father, who practically paid for this project, that I up and decided to skip the last stage of the expedition? Let you get all the glory?  You must think I’m stupid!”
“Actually — ”
“Hey! Knock it off, you two.”  I walked over to the makeshift camp.  “We’ve got way too much shit going on for this.  Allen, quit ‘collecting samples’ and help me with camp. I’ve got the tent and all the personal gear ready;  you start setting up the equipment.  Jim, you keep checking everything and let us know if you find anything out of order.” Neither argued.
While we did our duties there was nothing but the rush of the cascade; a form of silence all its own. It is a loud silence only found in the deep chambers of the world, where man cannot linger but time can, so that some bits of it, of time, seem frozen, and we ourselves move within that frozen time.  And we cannot know that we are moving while all else stays still, for there is no way to know that sort of thing, and thus we ourselves slowly become that which some other creature millennia from now shall discover and wonder, how is it that they lingered? But we dare not linger in places like these.  Which is why we do.
This kind of thinking does no good.
I walked around the circle the tent made with the equipment to the table Allen had set up, and pulled a map from the pile of papers.  I shook my head, feeling my lip turn down at one side. There was just no way to tell how long or deep this sump was, for all the dye traces and measurements at every seven hundred meters that each individual unit of of the team made sure to note. It should be the last and final sump; but then again this cave wasn’t supposed to be as big as it already clearly was, and there was no way to tell.  Even with the decompression system Jim wrangled from the university …  I shook my head again.
“What?” Jim called.
“Nothing.” But I couldn’t keep from shaking my head again.  Paying no attention, Allen walked toward the squeeze in the ceiling through which we came, taking with him one of the medium-sized Cannon’s.  
“Sam,” Jim said.
“What is it?” I went to him, near the edge.
“You tell me.”
I looked about. This cave really was spectacular. A real beaut. When he dived, Jim would be enveloped in the waters which had touched no man on the planet.  Cold, pure blue water, the color of the crooks in sea glaciers.  He would see finally the end of the earth, wrought in pinnacles of stalactites and stalagmites far, far below, shining cool ivory in the water.  He would see the wide-eyed blind creatures, should there be any, hidden among flora and swirls of sediment.  He would see the fine bubbles of his breath expire in the cold water surrounding; little silken orbs of life floating like stars, stars of breath and of life.
I sighed.
“There’s just too many variables.  I … I don’t know about this.”
“You think the kid’s right?”  His voice was very low, mouthpiece dangling at his chin.
“No.”  I looked over my shoulder to Allen in the distance.  “No.  But … I just … it’s nothing.”
“Nothing.”  Now his low voice was flat. “Come on, Samantha. I know what you’re thinking. I also happen to know that you’re jealous, and want to trade places with me.” Which made me smile.  He was right.  Of course.  But I wasn’t the one chosen for this; he was.  Besides, I didn’t have the training yet for this kind of dive — dives, really, since he was going to do three, maybe four jumps. We’d calculated as best we could; three jumps, ten meters per jump, maybe more.  And he would navigate and emerge from new abyss after new abyss. The though made my flesh cold but my heart burn. 
Suddenly he laughed, then slipped quickly into the water.  I squatted to watch him surface.
“Want me to tell you a secret?”  The laughter was gone and now he was serious again. Spending so much time away from the world of sun and stars and man could do that to a person; could strengthen the pull of the heart, and weaken the pull of the mind, so that mood swings were quick and frequent.  
“What do I get out of it?”
“What?” He looked surprised, even past all that gear.
“I mean, if you’re gonna tell me some big dark ugly, I should get something out of it, right? I don’t wanna carry around something awful for free, you know.”
“Sam,” he said, sounding low again and exasperated, “I could die when I do this, and you’re making jokes. I have to tell someone, and you’re my best option. C’mon, we’ve been on how many expeditions together? You know me better than almost anyone; I’ve got to tell you.”  One by one he checked his primary and secondary lights under the water, flashing greeny yellow beams across the blue; the black still visible beneath.
“Oh whatever. ” But I knew he was right.  “Well.  If I keep your secret, what’s in it for me?  That’s the deal; take it or leave it.”
“My undying thanks ... and relief.  That, and I won’t haunt you.”
“Alright; deal.” I leaned towards him, to the edge.  Suddenly, he seemed very still.
“Every time I explore a new cave, I end up fucking someone when we first get into town. Hotel clerks, police women, journalists. My wife …  my wife doesn’t know. Neither do the kids.”
He remained very still; now I was too. I’d ask what he'd been thinking, ask why, but I think I already knew.  There was something in the forbidden things of the world, and not just the something in the good damp cave walls of earth, or something in the bits of frozen time in the underworld, but something in that … darkness, in every sense, which tugged at Jim the way it didn’t a lot of other people.  But that was just a guess.
“But now it looks like…” he swallowed, continued, “it looks like one of them … is going to be having my baby.”
“Holy shit.”
I couldn’t help it; it slipped out. I’d thought it would be more along the lines of “Sorry, but I ate the last of Allen’s cookies back in Raleigh; don’t tell.” Not, “I’m a new baby’s daddy; don’t tell.” Big difference.
“I know. I know.  She’s a secretary at a law firm over in Houston.”
“Double shit … Well?  What are you going to do about it?”
He turned his head from the flash of my headgear light, a pale yellow on his face where there was no suit.
“Hopefully?  Not die when I go under.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“You? I want you to take care of it for me, if I don’t … I mean, I trust you; you always do the right thing when it counts. So just … do that for me, if I don’t come back.”
“If you don’t come back.”
Jim nodded.
“If I don’t come back.”
Twenty minutes later, Jim slipped again under the surface of the water.  His ripples bent with the ripples flowing from the cascade’s splash. He slipped under, and under.  Allen and I stood at the edge as he went down; then finally we went over to the table and watched the video feed. We watched until the screen went black.

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