Mobius: Eyes Above the Clouds- Chapter 8
The air was suddenly humid and warm. I crouched down to the ground to steady my shaking legs and catch my breath. Alice tugged at one of the ropes lining the diagonal path down the side. The way seemed longer from down where we were than from above. The rope pulled away from the hidden anchor up higher, falling down below us. She slowly reeled it back in.
Babir peered over the edge as the cord ran up the side. “Interesting.” He muttered. “A knot that releases on demand.”
Alice smirked and stood, tucking the last bit in her folded arms. “You learn a thing or two when you’ve worked around heights for as long as I have.”
Babir nodded slowly in response. “Ever visited the Himalayas? Everest still has no master.”
“Crazy talk. That peak can belong to no one. Besides, the world wouldn’t recognize a woman climber for such an achievement.”
Daniels cleared his throat, offering a heavy hand on Alice’s shoulder. “People said the same thing about us. Perhaps when we return, they may give such an idea a chance.”
Alice shrugged off his hand. “Shall we keep some equipment here? If we need to find the way back up.”
Daniels rubbed at his stubble that seemed to have thickened overnight. “I wouldn’t worry about it. We may exit another way than we came in.”
“Lovely.” She sighed, fumbling with her remaining gear.
Above us, was a large flap, like that of a wing, extending out into the sky. The skin underneath my feet seemed much more tender and smooth. I played with the clips just below my neck holding the collar of the flight suit up. There was a deep, earthy odor about this particular place. I noticed that the sound of the wind had mostly died out, save a tiny whistling along the outer edge.
Some of the others had disappeared. “Captain!” Babir’s voice called out from deeper in the depression. I stood up and looked around for the source.
Daniels leaned against the inward wall of the area. He followed it into the dim light deeper inside. I held my breath and looked for something to focus my mind on to rid the shaking from my hands. Joseph was partially dressed down from his outer layers, the man quietly arranging some of the haphazardly thrown supplies farther away from the edge. Harris was at one of the packs of supplies, taking a drink of his water.
I approached Joseph, offering my hands out towards him. “I’ll take something from you,” I said, grabbing a more manageable sack from his arms. As I lifted the weight onto my torso, I saw the big man stumble and hold at his shin.
“Are you well?” Harris spoke up, wiping his lip.
“I… landed, hard.” Joseph mumbled, pushing himself up off his fingertips.
“No doubt.” The doctor nodded, approaching. “Roll up that leg, allow me to take a look.”
I rounded Joseph and shoved the equipment on the floor, planting myself in the way should the captain return. Joseph sheepishly rolled up the thick cloth from around his ankle, revealing the growing purple bruise below, lying just above his sock.
“Hmm.” Harris adjusted his glasses, running his hand back across the temple and behind his ear. “This happened when the stopper fell, did it not?”
“Do not tell captain.”
“Are you able to walk?” Harris urged.
“Then it can’t be anything broken.” The doctor decided, running his thumbs down the big man’s shin. “I shall look at it once again when we stop for the night.”
Harris Richards was barely just older than me. Just old enough to have been drafted into the Spanish-American war when he had turned eighteen. Being the son of a doctor who had seen a fair share of the workings of a human body, he was relegated to working with the medical staff rather than ending up straight in combat. He had said once that he was both thankful and resentful of such a fact. He had described his adventures of being on and off a boat for two weeks straight, discovering that he would become hopelessly seasick the entire time.
He was discharged some time after, citing that the he and the service were not fit for one another. Some time after, he returned up north to finish his schooling and head into medicine full time. He set up a practice in the same town as the factory my father ran, and as a result, saw many of his workers. After seeing a pattern of many of the workers with the same affliction- a certain chemical burn in the mucous membranes of their mouth and throat- he sent a letter to the factory, with intent of it reaching my father.
My father got his hands on it, despite some of the foremen wanting to stop it. He went immediately to Mr. Richards’ practice, ready to confront him. He asked the doctor to explain what may come of it, and how to prevent it. Richards recommended a type of mask, used to filter the air before the workers could breath it. Despite the costs the equipment would require, my father went forward to purchase them. After they went into use, my father went to confirm that the ailment was no longer bothering them- it was not.
My father thanked Harris for his honesty, explaining that no other person would have had the gall to make such a call against such a big business such as his own. He then offered up to Harris a deal- to treat exclusively his workers and their families for free, in exchange for a salary from the company. Harris had told me he saw dollar signs in his eyes at that moment, but much more than that, the knowledge that he could have a roll in the community as a whole. When the details of this expedition started to come together, it was clear that Harris would be the medical expert to ask to come along with us.
“Lomeli!” The captain’s throaty cry came back out towards us. “We need your arm.”
Joseph shoved the wrinkled cuff back down to his boot and rolled himself forward and onto his feet. Harris brushed himself off before retrieving his own pack. I looked back into the depression, catching the sight of the whites of someone’s eyes inside.
Joseph continued inside, the doctor and myself trailing after. There was a dim orange light flickering off the walls. Babir was crouched and intently staring at a rugged patch of wall as Chase waived the lighter around.
Daniels followed the small arc of the chamber around. “Richards, you know a thing or two. Why don’t you have a say?”
Babir waived him closer. “This does not look to you like gills of a fish perhaps?”
“I’m not partial to seafood, I’m afraid.” Harris sighed, running his hand down the dull material. He pulled his hand away as if out a reflex and rubbed the tips of his fingers together. “Mucus membrane, no doubt. Or something like it.”
“Yes.” Babir hummed. “Wait in silence, if you could…”
Chase held in place, the light still flickering in his hand. A few moments passed, my eyes locked in place at the strange texture of the walls. Just as I felt the urge to shift my weight, the flame flickered. There was a rush of air past us, and the wall trembled slightly, causing tiny vertical slits to open up.
“Just like we saw.” Daniels spoke up.
“This is how is breaths, then?” Harris looked up and around in wonder.
“So we can agree that it is, in fact, living.” Mary tapped her foot.
Babir stood and regained his balance, attempting to avoid touching the walls about him. “It could be that the motion of its wings both keep it aloft, and flex the appropriate muscles to draw in air.”
Alice bit at her lip and turned her head back to the entrance before looking again to the group. “This was supposed to be our entrance, the way inside this thing.”
“Perfectly possible, still.” Daniels said, patting the wall with his hand wide. “We can enter its respiratory system and not have to worry about how we’re going to breath.”
“Likely, based on its size…” Babir began, “It is filled mostly with some sort of gas.”
“So I don’t see the problem here.” The captain added. “Lomeli, see if you and I can’t open up one of these… what did you say, gill type structures open wide enough for us to prop it open.”
Joseph nodded and approached the captain. He shoved his hands against the wall, the tips of his fingers pressing hard against the shiny, soft surface.
“Gently, now.” Babir spoke up, peering around from Joseph’s side.
The big man’s meaty fingers found purchase in one the slits, slowly digging in. Daniels stepped in beside him and began tugging the opposite direction. The orifice opened up slowly, then closed with a loud slap as Joseph’s finger slipped away.
“I can’t imagine it is comfortable for the creature.” I said, shifting uncomfortably.
“Nonsense.” Daniels stood back and wiped his brow on his arm. “We’re like an ant to it.”
“He’s right, though.” Harris said. “We’re not interacting with the calloused outer skin anymore.”
“Sengupta.” Daniels said, ignoring our words. “You had a wide blade, did you not?”
“I can’t recommend…”
Daniels interrupted. “Since when has science ever stopped at harming some lower creature?”
“Lower creature…” Alice mumbled under her breath.
Mary caught her eye and wandered about, grabbing Alice by the hand. “Come on, m’dear. I’ll help you wrassle up some of these supplies.”
Babir sighed and placed down his pack. In the shadows, he unrolled it, pulling the stubby but wide curved edge out of the pocket by the hem. Daniels moved in, leaning down to take it from him, blade first.
“Perfect.” The captain flipped it over in his hand. “Shall I allow the doctor, the steadiest hand no doubt, to take a try at cutting away what we need? Lomeli and I can help you fillet it nicely.”
Harris flinched as Daniels waived the point of the blade towards him. He flipped the handle around before the doctor would approach it. Babir pushed his pack to the side and stood up to examine the region.
“Give us some better light, Mr. Dunn.” Daniels ordered.
“Yessir.” Chase stepped in his tip-toes, shining the light down up the sealed bit of flesh.
“There is a white part, there-” Babir described. “It looks like a tendon, holding it tight. Slice it just right of 6 o’clock.”
“I see it.” Harris steadied his grasp. “Though, this is hardly a scalpel.” He placed his knuckles lightly against the wall to steady himself while the other hand went up, blade first. The tip of the metal met with the flesh, digging in just slightly. Harris brought the blade down effortlessly, curving in the manner Babir had described.
Daniels pulled on the opening once again. It offered itself up more easily. The opposite side at Joseph’s end seemed to flap open. Chase shoved the light forward and into the newly opened space.
Harris stepped back, bringing down the knife. Back in the light, the shiny metal flashed with a covering of a new liquid. Babir rubbed his fingers across the flat edge, bringing the blood to his nose. “Slightly bluish. Copper?”
“You would be the one to know.” Harris huffed, shoving the fat handle of the blade back towards the dark man. “That should be enough, I hope?”
Daniels clapped his hands, pulling our gazes back up to him. “No doubt. Well then, the day is still young. And there looks to be a labyrinth to explore.”
“The woman filled up another o’ the lanterns las’ night, too.” Chase spoke up. “Mary, wer’ are ya?”
I smelt the odor of kerosene burning, followed by a more vigorous flame dancing off the ceiling. “I figured we would need these sooner or later. Here you are, Wess.”
The captain reached out his hand, taking the second lantern from Mary and guiding it through the others. He turned back around and presented the light to the dark tunnel. The flesh shone with a bright glean, seeming to be lined with irregular ridges. “Big enough, even for Lomeli. Hey, grab your share of the supplies, and we’ll set off, then?”
I nodded as the others hummed in agreement. At the rear, Alice had appeared already weighed-down with her own gear.
I returned to the outside to drop the narrow pack off my back holding the cloth chute that I was glad hadn’t yet been used. The clips still hung to the bundles of gear, which I used to attach to the sack to free up my hands. Mary helped Chase lift the stove to his back, followed by her picking up both other packs. I caught sight of Joseph wincing as he slung the jugs of water over his back.
With all of our material items stowed either in arms or across our backs, we made our way back to the strange orifice. Daniels allowed Chase to move ahead first, followed by Alice who had been passed the lamp, Mary next, then Joseph, myself, Harris, Babir, and himself.
The tunnel of organic matter was claustrophobic and gently warm. My suit was untied down to my waist to allow some air in. Speaking of the air, it still seemed fresh, despite the kerosene burning noxiously in a path leading back from Alice. Despite having a bit of clearance above his head, Joseph walked with his neck hunched over out of reflex. I glanced back to make sure that we hadn’t lost the other behind. I caught Babir gazing around while the Captain interrogated him.
“If this is how the thing breaths, then where will this lead us? Its lungs?”
The dark man shook his head. “If it has lungs, yes.”
Harris cleared his throat. “No lungs, diaphragm, windpipe.”
“Then?” Daniels growled.
“It could simply by cycling air for oxygen.” Babir wriggled his fingers in the air. “Something so big… lungs would be a burden, too much work. It does not seem to inhale like any creature with lungs, or, yes, a diaphragm.”
“So if it only comes in one way, there is a way out, obviously. Can’t go that far.”
Babir shook his head and dragged his fingers across the wall pensively. “An animal is an animal. Many organs nonetheless.”
My ear to the conversation was suddenly interrupted by running into Joseph’s back, who had stumbled and began to limp slightly. He looked back to me and then down to the heel of his boot, which had slipped off his foot.
“What’s the hold up?” Daniels called out. The light shined still from behind, but the one ahead of us was slowly creeping away.
Joseph rolled his shoulders roughly, adjusting the strap around his neck. “Nothing. Slippery.”
“You’re our anchor big guy.” Daniels pestered. “Keep it up.”
I managed to make eye contact with Harris who nodded knowingly before poking me forward. Joseph had continued his pace, allowing only a slight sway in his step.
The walk continued on for several more tens of minutes, when the pace finally crawled to a stop. Mary called back from the front, her face glowing in the light of the lamp from Alice beside her. “Captain! We want to know how much longer you intend us to go?”
I glanced back at the captain to judge his response. He had a slight gleam of sweat on his brow, and his bottom lips shifted back and forth in thought. “Why don’t we stop here.” He conceded. “Grab a seat, get some water in you.”
“And what about the toilet?” Chase called out.
“Don’t tell me-” Mary admonished him.
“The bucket is still around here somewhere, isn’t it?” Daniels said with a stifled chuckle.
“Dumping any waste here…” Babir pondered aloud. “It would not be healthy for it.”
“We’ll keep it with us until we find a spot.” Daniels smirked.
Joseph slumped down on the ground, spreading his legs out before him and tossing his pack to the side. From it, he separated out the dented metal bucket from one of the ropes, releasing the handle. He passed it forward to the beginning of the group. “Thank ye.” The cook called out. “I’ll disappear up ahead for a moment, if you don’t mind.”
I followed Joseph’s lead and took a seat myself. By the time I had found a comfortable spot, he had already offered a bottle of water back my way. I held my hand up to him. “I can wait. Don’t want to end up in the dark with my pants down like Mr. Dunn.”
Harris leaned towards the wall uncomfortably, held up by his hands. The others moved to rest, the sound of light breaths filling the chamber.
“What’s that?” Harris spoke up, “-Shh.” He stopped up before we could respond. His hand drifted around the surface, his face intent.
I moved my hand near the wall where his was placed. Below it, I could feel a slight even rhythm of something pounding away.
“A heart beat?”
“If only I had my stethoscope.” He mumbled.
A metallic banging ran up from the dark. Chase reentered the light, the bucket banging by his side. Alice shoved herself back against the wall, shoving her hands up near her face. “Don’t you dare run around with that thing if it’s been used!”
“No, Ma’am.” Chase exclaimed and shook it about. “Cap’n, up ahead, there’s something. Felt it in the dark.”
Daniels hunched back up to his feet. “What, exactly? A monster?”
“Some sort’a bigger room.”
Babir huffed and stood back up, his pack and all. “Another way off inside this creature,” he pondered aloud.
Harris pushed himself off the wall and slung his strap back over his shoulder. “Better than this cramped space for a rest.”
“Well, let’s get a move on, then.” Daniels ordered.
Joseph slung the water jugs around his neck once again and stretched his knees, sending him up. He offered a hand down to me as I struggled against the weight of my own cargo. “Thanks.”
Chase pointed back in the way he had come from, as Alice pointed the light ahead of her. The air was suddenly warmer, and slightly humid. We began the slow trudge again. Babir, behind me, held his hand to the wall, guiding himself through the dim light. The wall began to curve outward, and the ceiling higher above our heads. “Right ‘ere.” Chase called out.
Babir squeezed past us, approaching the front of the line. In the light beside him, I could see him running his hand across a wide, rough opening. “Scar tissue.” He called back.
“It was injured?” Harris asked. “Or perhaps, a pulled muscle?”
“Captain, it’s open here.” Alice poked her head through. “Shall we continue?”
“Go on.” Daniels waived ahead. “We’re here to discover, aren’t we?”
The first few shoved their way through the opening, wedging their packs in the tightest spots. I found myself next in line after Joseph who had just managed to fit through with the pack taken off by his side.
The smell inside was musty, but breathable. The structure was still the same shade of reddish pink, but more open. Daniels finally found his way in last. The lamp in his hand flickered.
“I smell… farts.” Joseph spoke up, lifting his nose to the air. Alice groaned, while Mary let out a small giggle.
“Now that you mention it…” Harris said in agreement. “Methane?”
“It is lighter than air.” Babir spoke up. He had crouched down to the ground, which seemed to be covered in a thin layer of dark muck. He ran his fingers through it, before jumping back up, panic in his voice. “Lamps, off now.”
“It’ll be quite dark.” Chase rebutted.
“Just do it.” Daniels ordered, flipping the cover over the wick of his own lamp. “Methane is plenty flammable, so I’ve heard.” Chase’s light went out next.
I felt the others shuffling uncomfortably. As our eyes adjusted to the dark, a faint glow began to become visible through the ceiling of the area, some twenty feet above our heads. It resembled a pale candle through a lamp shade, and criss-crossed by a pattern than resembled twisted roots of a tree.
“Is that the sun, shining through?” Mary finally broke the silence.
“The skin was not as thick as we thought.” Harris stomped his feet. “Where are we, though?”