Mobius: Eyes Above the Clouds- Chapter 13
After drinking down some of the water infused with the strange fruit, I felt the malady inside my throat abate, just slightly. It seemed to fill my stomach slightly more than usual as well. Daniels gathered us around as he looked up to the membrane, slowly projecting more light upon us.
“Sengupta tells me of the jungle you three came across.” He looked to me and Joseph. In his hands was a tin mug of coffee, lazily letting off its last bit of steam. “Seeing as how we found the terminus on our end, I say there’s no better way than to continue on.”
Richards was intent on cleaning the lenses of his round glasses when he cleared his throat. “What do you suppose we could make our way into?”
Babir paced around beside Daniels, looking out into the dim expanse. “A digestive system, perhaps. A primitive one, if I had to guess.”
The doctor nodded. “It has no shortage on carbohydrates, it seems, given these pods or whatever you found.”
“Anything to get out of this odor.” Alice grumbled, rubbing her nose against her knees propped before her.
Daniels smiled and sauntered between us. The supplies had mostly been packed up already by his order, save one pack between Mary and Chase, just at the wall. “Mrs. Dunn.”
“I found them like you asked, Wess.” She spoke up. One of the packs she had been holding onto was wide and flat, meant to rest against her back just under the pack for the chute. She unbuckled the wide flaps and flipped them open, revealing the wide tear-shaped leather sections, stitched together at one side.
“Perfect. I heard it was quite the dense vegetation.” Daniels spoke up, bending down to pick up one of the instruments- a machete. The metal of the blade shone as it hit the light. “Lomeli, how are you with sharp objects?”
“I am allowed to trim the hedges and grass and tree branches at the Rees estate.” Joseph responded, counting off each of the tasks on his fingers.
“Perfect.” Daniels smiled, waiving the blade up in the air. “I would assume the next one could go to Sengupta?”
Babir finally turned back to us, studying the weapon in Daniel’s hand, then looking to Lomeli, who was sitting up, fixed upon the same item. “As long as I am not in front of that man.”
“It is decided then.” The captain recovered the leather pouch from the ground and slipped the machete back inside. It closed with another strap of similar material. “Leave behind anything you don’t think you’ll require for the next few hours or more. Chase, make sure to gather up the bog rolls and any medical supplies Richards can’t handle.”
“Right, then. Form up in five.”
I stood and rubbed at my throat in hopes to detect if any of the soreness had subsided. Mary came out of the airway, carrying her and her husband’s bed rolls, returned to their cylindrical shapes and wound with twine. She placed them beside the wall with the pack holding the stove and other supplies that had been stowed already. I jumped off the pad beneath my bottom and rolled it up similarly, preparing it to join the others.
“Do you feel better now, Sami?” Mary asked as I sorted the rest of my things.
“Just fine.” I answered shortly. My voice still held onto a bit of dryness.
Mary nodded slowly, flipping out a tarp to guard the supplies from any excess moisture. “Don’t push yourself too hard.”
I had heard the same words many times previous. My mother had died shortly after I had become school aged, and my father was at work much of my childhood after. I was raised by maids and servants it seemed from that point on, but whenever my father was present he tried to dote on me. He did so in the manner of hiring tutors and teachers to teach me how to read, write, do mathematics, even going as far as someone to teach me how to speak formally- but never once how to speak for myself.
At age 9, I snuck out of the manor one day to attempt to find Joseph and play around with him. After traversing much of the outside of the building, I went to the gardens and tennis court area. Not being able to see him from anywhere, I attempted to climb a tree, an act I had read much about in books like Huck Finn, but had never seen attempted. I managed to reach the first branch before scraping my leg. I created a sizable scratch down my thigh, at the time it seeming to me life threatening. So much so that I could not wrap my head around the notion of returning to the ground. In that tree I remained for anywhere between five minutes to two hours, a time period to which my child brain could not comprehend in its panic.
A search party of a butler, two maids, the gardener, and Joseph eventually came across me, my eyes stuck closed red from the bawling. Joseph was able to reach me without an effort. I was returned to the interior of the house safely, and treated with the sting of isopropyl to the scratch, adding the final insult to injury. My father had already revived a message at his work, and was already on his way home. When he did arrive, I dumped out before him my entire recollection of the experience. I was scolded, despite my father barely knowing how, being told for the first time in my memory ‘not to push myself too hard’. He then scooped me up in his arms as a reminder that I was his sole child, and that being taken away from him would be greater than any business failure.
From that day on, I saw more of my father, as well as a manageable addition of responsibility to my daily routine. I still heard the warning not to push myself more that necessary more than a few times, to a point where I could anticipate it. Alas, somehow I turned into a fine young adult somehow, it seemed. I remember now the last time I heard the particular warning too- when my father finally decided that heading out into public to manage the creation of the flying craft was impossible in the state of our affairs. It was I who mentioned that I could take it over. After all, I had heard or seen second hand everything that had gone into developing it and the team around it. My father told me that taking over such a thing would be too much of a burden. In the coming weeks, I saw a slight desperation in his actions, not being able to be a part of what was going on at the warehouse. It was shortly my nineteenth birthday, and when asked what I wanted, I replied that I should want to take his place, and nothing else. A few moments of silence followed, ending with him preparing himself to utter those same words- but instead, he stopped himself, and smiled.
The trek deeper into the jungled section of the air bladder started off, Babir taking the lead. Daniels was just behind, followed by Joseph, and the rest of us jumbled up out of file. I heard the calls of amazement from behind me as the others who had not joined us the day previous first laid eyes upon the vegetation. The half-decomposed muck was just as deep, also becoming unpleasantly fragrant as we turned up more of it.
The plant life began to reach up to our shins. I could feel the root systems intertwining underfoot. Daniels was the first to lose his balance against one of the hidden pitfalls. He glanced back at us, likely me being the only one to catch his misstep. I caught his burning gaze for a fraction of a second before feigning that my attention was also at my steps.
“Not going to get any easier, I suppose.” The captain called out. “Lomeli, switch with me. Watch where you swing that blade, big guy, huh?”
Babir readied the blade in one hand, running the tip of his pointer finger on the opposite hand across it. Joseph stepped forward with the tool ready before him. The big guy looked up and around, attempting to find the best point at which to start. He flicked it up in the air, knocking aside the wide leaves danging just above his view.
“Side to side.” Babir waived his own in the air, demonstrating. He took a wide stride over a low, fallen stalk and chopped away at the first of the big obstacles.
“Side to side.” Joseph repeated, his eyes fixed on the blade, turning eventually to the foliage. Babir was already a couple of steps ahead, trimming forth his own path. Daniels was following after, leaning far to the side opposite Joseph.
I squeezed ahead and gave Joseph a gentle push. “Don’t let us get left behind.” I joked.
Joseph licked his lips and leaned into the motion, knocking away just enough of the brush to continue on forward. Chase and Mary wriggled past me, going over the fallen stalk. A few wide swings later, we were onto our way at keeping pace with Babir and the Captain.
The smell of the freshly severed greenery was intoxicating, like the first rain proceeding a summer heat wave. There was a mixture of wide, fat leaves hanging down from the canopy above, mixed with criss-crossing vines and stems that were met with quick, exited swipes of the machete blade. The disturbed foliage felt to the ground and joined the moist, loamy muck that allowed the passage of low tendrils of the fern-like vegetation. The surface of the leaves were coated in a fine layer of moisture that shone with a dull tone in the dim light.
Babir and the Captain were still a few wide steps before us. I caught sight of one of the dangling, brown fruit pods, pointing it out to Dr. Richards, who had kept the same pace as I so as to stick right behind my back. “There’s one- like we brought in yesterday. Alice, do you see it too?”
Alice was a few steps just behind, lingering in one spot. She had her back arched around, looking at something near the heel of her boots. “Alice?” I called to get her attention.
She jumped up, letting out a scream and attempted to whack wildly at her pant leg with the bundle of her rope. “Get it off of me!” She called out, dancing about. I wound around Richards and attempted to inspect what she had come across.
Daniels and Babir sprinted up past Joseph and joined me. I was the first to spot the long insect, made up of countless legs attached to bulbous sections. “Get it, do something you fools!”
Daniels grabbed at Alice’s shoulders while Babir reached down and scooped it off between his hands. He juggled it back and forth. Alice jumped away, her legs bouncing up and down while she took shelter behind Joseph. “You didn’t get bit, I pray.” Daniels scoffed, looking back between Alice and Babir.
The brown man had one end of it between his thumb and forefinger, causing it to flail back and forth. “It has no poison, this one. A centipede.”
“I don’t care what it’s called!” Alice shuddered and turned herself away. Mary reached her hands up to the other woman’s shoulders, rubbing them back and forth.
Daniels clicked his tongue, examining the specimen from a safe distance. “Could have assumed there would be something like that thing here.”
“I have not seen such a particular species.” Babir noted. He had already pulled the pack from his back with his free hand. From inside the roll, he extracted another vial, this one filled with a clear liquid, corked off. “His brothers down on the surface, though, eat other insects only. Not humans.”
He released the stopper from the glass tube with his teeth, and carefully introduced with wiggling insect into the liquid. It thrashed about, splashing some of the contents about. The liquid inside fizzed as the creature came to a rest inside, eventually going dormant. With its entirety captive, Babir replaced the cork before tucking it back into his pack.
“We shall continue now.” Babir returned to his feet. Daniels pushed the machete back into his hands, and they went off back to the head of the group.
Richards leaned in to whisper into my ear. “Does that mean there will be other insects hiding about then?”
I pursed my lips. Alice had stepped off with Mary, where they followed behind Chase, sticking to the middle of the path. Joseph returned eagerly to chopping more of the undergrowth away, his head continuously looking up and down for any other signs of little creatures.
The slow trudge through the thicket continued on for another half an hour or more. I kept watch down at my feet, seeing the wide footprints began to disappear back into the loam before I could step into them for myself. The membrane began to soak up more and more of the light still shining from above. I continued to look upwards, able to barely make out the the thick ridges running through it.
“Notice something, Sami?” Richards asked, following my line of sight upward.
“Yesterday-” I stumbled, trying my best to follow Joseph’s wide stride. “The ceiling opened up- bathing the whole area in light.”
“Sounds a bit like a miraculous experience.” He chuckled.
“Babir mentioned photosynthesis- the sun allowing the plants to grow properly.”
I caught the doctor looking up the same. “I will never get over the complexity of this such organism. And to think, the only of its kind.”
I struggled to take in the words as my mind turned again to catching up with the large man before me. “The only one…” I mumbled to myself.
Babir’s group was still several meters before us. The growth was never a consistent density, sometimes thick around our waists, others growing low and forcing us to duck our heads. My clothing crept with dampness, including my feet, which I could feel caked with stickiness and uneven masses under my soles. My nose was saturated with the heavy odor of the freshly hacked plant life. Joseph also smelled with a salty, pungent odor. My mouth was suddenly dry despite the humidity. One of our remaining jugs, partially filled with the sweetened water was at Joseph’s back, another carried with Mary ahead. I knew that if I called to stop for a drink, Daniels would either stop in frustration, or simply go on ahead without us.
I persisted for another five minutes or more, when I thought salvation had come to me. Mary was stopped ahead, and the men in her group were spread out at the front of the path. The canopy had thinned out, and in the distance, there was a shadow that continued off into emptiness as far as I could see.
Daniels raised his arm before Joseph, stopping him in his tracks. I crept up and looked around his thick forearm. The ground beneath my feet felt spongy. The dimness obscured anything past us.
Chase cleared his throat. The gear on his back jumbled around. “This is quite the impasse.”
“Are we safe to have the open flames again?” Daniels turned his nose to the air. “We’ve cleared that thick area of methane, I’d suppose? Sami, you have a good sense of smell.”
I took in a deep sniff, rattling the mucus still hanging in my sinuses. Other than Joseph and a bit of the others, the air was mostly fresh. “Seems we’re… clear.”
“If we light ourselves up-” Chase jabbed at me. “It’ll be yur, fault, eh?”
“Give him a break, dear.” Mary interjected. “Pass the lantern here. You have the lighter, still?”
“Yes, m’dear.” The cook sighed. In the darkness, I could see the sparks flying from the device, holding a tiny flake of flint and a compact clay canister of flammable oil. Alice held her breath and backed away a few inches, carefully looking at where she was stepping.
The lantern caught light, the flame enchantingly surrounding the holes of the burner. The orange glow flowed out across the area, creating new shadows among the foliage and behind our legs. I looked down at my boots, which were caked in both the inky loam, and a feathered network of white powdery root systems.
“What is this mess?” Richards complained. “Sami, its on you too. Everyone.”
“Mycelium.” Babir commented, ducking down in the light.
“What kind’a word is that?” Chase hung the lantern low.
“It is… the root system of a fungus.”
“Mushrooms.” Daniels hummed. “You figure they could be eaten, Sengupta?”
“If they are akin to these plants… it may be impossible to tell.”
Mary cleared her throat. “Gentlemen…” She called our attention. She was crouched to the ground, poking at the edge of the dark precipice. “We best not let our minds wander to other topics in this location.”
Daniels stepped closer to it, sliding his rear foot back for balance. “More ways down. This could be a sort of way into its digestive system you said, Sengupta?”
Richards let out a suggestive hum. “This doesn’t look natural to me.”
“Not natural?” The captain clicked his tongue. “We’ve hardly know a thing about this creature.”
“I must agree, Captain.” Babir spoke up. “All of this fungi… the depression is not even shaped, nor structurally sensible. Out of place.”
Daniels rubbed at his chin. He held his arm back to Chase, who passed him off the torch. He hung it forward in his hand, dangling it from the curled tips of his fingers. Joseph inched towards him and grabbed at his free arm to support him.
“Seems to go down a ways.” He concluded. He shifted his weight back, taking Joseph’s sleeve for support. “Padilla, care to take a look down?”
Alice folded her arms and shook her head. “I wouldn’t trust any of this terrain around here to anchor in to.”
“Well then.” Daniels insisted. “There are plenty of strong men here who can support you. It’s not all of us who are needing to come down with you.”
“Its too dangerous in the darkness.”
Chase scoffed. “Danger. Plenty of it had already.”
“You will do as are you paid to do, Padilla.” The captain waived her forward, brushing his hand against her wrist as if to urge her to uncross her arms.
“You don’t pay me.” She countered, stepping back and placing her hands at her hips.
“Sir Rees, then. Whomever.” Daniels stamped his foot. “Don’t tell me you’ve gotten a fear of heights all of a sudden?”
“Stop this nonsense.” Babir huffed.
“This ain’t ya’ worry, brown skin.” Chase wiggled his head in Babir’s face.
Alice dug her foot into the soil. “After yesterday, it would be a distinct possibility. Down in enough strange places, I’ve been.”
“Stop!” I called out, my voice cracking.
Daniels’ face twisted up before attempting to make a sympathetic face to me. “What do you think, Sami? You’ll have to be our tie breaker. That’s what you’re here for, am I correct?”
“I will go down there instead. I’ve practiced enough.”
Chase laughed a hearty chuckle. “An’ drop the lamp, like ya’ did with the fire wood?” Mary slapped at his stomach out of retaliation.
“Sam is just as light as Miss Alice.” Joseph spoke up. “I can hold his rope, no problem.”
“No, Sami, please,” Alice urged.
“If you won’t do it,” Daniels glared at her. “you have no right telling someone else they can’t.”
“If he goes first, with the light, I can follow up.” The short haired woman sighed.
“Settled, then.” The captain took up his smirk. “Pass your rope here.”
Alice unbuckled the bundle from her ruck, and threw it into Daniel’s arms. He undid the knot, and passed the majority of the bundle to Joseph. “Don’t let it go.”
Joseph nodded emphatically, digging around for the loose end. Daniels began feeding the opposite side down into the hole. Alice nudged at my back, presenting me with the harness. “I think this one was yours. All tightened down.”
I took it and slid my shoulder out from the strap of my backpack. I left my gear with the other things that the Dunns had deposited, before stepping into the bands of braided fabric, careful not to not smear any filth on them from my shoes. They fit up around my hips and groin, digging into my clothing.
Daniels passed me a section of slack, allowing me to clip in. “All set?” He asked, patting me on the back. I nodded a a response, to which I received a deceptively pleasant smile. The captain pushed the thin metal rod handle of the torch in my hands. “Go and get ‘em” he added.
The metal and glass gave off a toxic heat against my chest and arm, despite the flame being turned to its lowest setting. The liquid fuel inside seemed just slightly less than half full, causing it to slosh back and forth cumbersomely. With my free hand, I entrapped with rope with a death grip. Joseph and Daniels allowed me to walk back slightly, the clip introducing me to more slack bit by bit. The doctor joined the line, picking up more of the rope to add to the support. Babir held my shoulder as my feet met the edge behind.
I gulped as the ground disappeared from beneath my heels. I managed a glance backward, just enough to cause my heart to race. “Bend your knees.” Alice instructed. She was just head of Joseph, clipping herself in. “Make sure your feet are in contact with the face for as long as possible.
The lamp dangled down into the abyss. My right foot met with vertical wall, and my right hand strained harder against the rope. My left foot followed. My body weight pulled against the rope. I took another step down against the slight sponginess of the wall. I could see the edge slowly creeping up past my vision.
The third step down ran me into a patch of slippery material. All the breath left my body as I lost my footing, causing me to swing into the darkness. The lantern banged into my knees, and the jerk forced my clip to let me down another slight amount. “Do you still have him?” I heard Alice ask.
“He is as heavy as ever.” Joseph replied.
I found my breath once again. “I’m… fine.” I called up.
“We’re going to keep you going down, then, Sami.” Daniel’s voice attempted to assure me. The light reflected against the wall with a sheen as I continued my helpless descent. Above, in the dim light, I saw another pair of legs following after me. Alice eventually caught up with me.
“Still got a hold on the lamp, Sami?” She asked. Her face was fraught with shadows from the low, flickering flame.
“I’ve… still got a hold.” I strained.
“No sign of the bottom, yet.” She mumbled. “You know… thank you for heading down first.”
“I…” I searched for the words. “I didn’t think it was fair for you to have all the fun.”
She laughed with a stifled giggle. “I was worried I might run across another one of those… centipedes in the dark down here.”
I strained to lift the lamp up from its dangling place at the end of my arm. “None that I can see.”