Mobius: Eyes Above the Clouds- Chapter 14
The tips of my toes bounced off some sort of slick structure before me intermittently. The light was just barely enough to cast a shadow of my feet upon what looked like a rough, raw flesh, uneven with crag-like protrusions.
“Sometimes…” I managed to speak up, my breath heavy. “It’s hard to remember we are in fact… inside some living creature.”
Alice blew out a loud breath. “Let’s hope we don’t get digested, or something equally bad.”
I glanced up at the woman. She was danging a good body length above me, seemingly comfortable to hold position, the rope wedged between her feet. I grasped my thighs to the rope before me to balance myself while switching the lamp to my opposite hand. My tendons ached, and I could feel my mind urging me to simply let go.
Alice’s voice came to me again. “Any sign of the bottom?”
I let out a slow silent breath between my lips to stifle the strain on my limbs. “No.” I shimmied down farther another six inches or so, when the singed stub of the rope brushed against the sole of my boot. I glanced down into the light of the lantern to verify it’s presence.
“I don’t think…” I mumbled, suddenly realizing that if there were no way down, I would be faced with the now impossible seeming climb back where we had come.
The rope shook back and forth. Alice’s boots bumped together not too far from my head. “Give us more slack!” She called out, her high voice clinging to the walls in the form of an echo. She sighed and let out a humph. “Figures they can’t hear me. And I can’t give them a tug with you dragging out all the extra rope.
“I can’t make it back up there, no way.” I said lowly.
“Well, they might attempt to pull us back up soon, or not.” Alice mulled. In the shadows, her chin turned up then back down. “Can you get that lantern any brighter? Perhaps we can find a ledge to lean against.”
I shrugged my shoulder, hefting the metal fuel-filled base of the contraption upon my thigh while my knees kept hold on the rope. I rested it in the crux of my arm and wrapped my hand around enough to find the winged knob. The flame shot up against the glass. The sudden rush of heat sent a drop of sweat tumbling down my forehead to disappear into my lap. I shoved it back down and waited for my vision to clear.
“Look, Sami.” Alice nudged the rope again. “A reflection?”
I blinked the stars out of my eyes. Below us, there was a round orange glow upon a mirrored surface, showing us the bottom of my feet. The drop was just about as far as Joseph was tall. “I assume you know how to swim, Alice?”
“Yes.” She stated. “And you? Perhaps it simply won’t be that deep. Waiting here won’t answer that question for us, though.”
I gulped and felt at the final length of rope. I inched my way down, clinging to the release on my harness. As my knees met the last of rope, I braced myself, locking my joints in place. “I’ll be right after you Sami.”
I shoved the springy release of the clip on my harness, and the breath departed from my chest. I felt a hard surface beneath my feet, followed by my knees knocking into the ground and a cold sensation soaking into my pant legs. Droplets of the liquid had flown up on my cheeks, and I realized that my eyes had been closed for the last few seconds.
The light gave its last flicker as I allowed myself to return to the surroundings. The glass cover from the flame had slipped upward, likely from it slipping from my hand upon impact. The burning wick had been choked off. I pushed myself up, making sure the lantern was still within reach. Alice splashed down not too far from me, and from the sound of it, more elegantly.
“Are you Okay, Sami?”
“I’ve noticed, don’t fret.” She spoke in the manner I had seen accompanied with a roll of the eyes. “I usually have some matches on me. Though…” She stopped short.
In the once pitch black, a hazy blue-green glow crept up across from the walls and in the reflection the uneven ripples we had created in the liquid’s surface. “I’m not imagining this, am I?” I mumbled and rubbed at my eyes.
Alice dragged her shins through the pool with a muffled splashing. She approached one particular source of the strange light- a cone-shaped piece of vegetation on a rough stalk. “I suppose Sengupta was correct about there being mushrooms.”
More of the fungi seemed to sprout from the area. Some were tiny and intricate, covered in neat ridges running up to the center stalk, whereas others were gnarled and rigid, with bits of flesh absent.
I bent to the liquid and scooped up some in the palm of my hand. Any sign of odor was absent, and a hesitant taste revealed that it was, in fact, water.
“You can’t be drinking that, are you?” Alice glanced back to me, hearing my second slurp.
“Seems it’s fine.”
“Richards would give you a tongue lashing for something like that, you know. Sengupta probably, as well. Drinking that certainly can’t be healthy.”
“Joseph had the rest of my water on him. Can’t blame me for my thirst slipping my mind in a situation like this.”
“You’re so eager to please, Sami.” Alice splashed a bit more, moving about. “To a fault, almost.”
From above, I heard a loud grunting. “Sam! Miss Alice?” The dull voice echoed about. “Are you still alright?”
“Joseph?” I called up, looking for any movement in the glow.
“Sam!” A cheery call returned. I eventually saw the set of massive boots continuing down, before effortlessly dropping off and into the water. More of the liquid was splashed upon me in fat droplets. “You are safe.”
“Lomeli?” Alice asked. “Why are you down here, and not belaying?”
“The captain and Mr. Chase and Mrs. Mary held the rope to get me down here. The rope just went limp, I felt. They said to go and check, cause I can yell back real loud.”
“Well, obviously.” Alice snapped. “The rope didn’t quite reach the bottom, as you can see.”
I looked back up at the dull end of the cord, barely visible in the light, an arm’s length or more out of my reach. “This may not be good, Joseph. Was there any more length up there? Or if they have a bit more.”
Joseph had already turned his attention away. His feet splashed loudly trough the water as he approached one of the glowing mushrooms. “They light up.”
“Joseph.” I spoke up.
“Lomeli!” Alice followed suit. The big man finally lurched his shoulders in compliance. “What about you yelling back?”
“Right!” He jumped and rolled his head back. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he shouted a loud reverberating cry up the tube. “Mister Gupta! We are safe!”
In the expanses above our heads, up where the glow from the strange fungi was able to reach, I saw a pale orange flashing. “Well, if nothing else, Babir should like to see what’s down here.”
“That flashing looks like morse.” Alice mentioned. She took long strides around the chamber, evidently looking for a dry spot to rest her feet and legs.
“What did it say?” Joseph pondered aloud.
“I don’t know it well enough.” Alice huffed. “Sami, you?”
Joseph still had his head cocked up to the darkness. “There he is! Mister Gupta, did you hear me?”
“Of course,” came the reply of the dark man as he went hand under hand, leading himself down little by little. “Else I wouldn’t be coming down this way. My, this is quite something.”
Alice approached the landing zone, forcing Joseph back with her arm to clear the area. “Sengupta, what were you signaling up top?”
“Just the same as this big man reported. That you found a safe way down.” At the bottom of the rope, Babir let out a ‘hup’ and allowed himself to drop down, causing a gentle, guided splash into the water. “And how fortunate I would be able to join you down here. Bioluminescence.”
“Huh?” Joseph mumbled.
“They produce their own light.”
“Babir,” I closed into him as he began his primary examinations of the fungi. “Where are we? We aren’t going to be digested, are we?”
“I should think not.” He hummed, touching his hand to the wall. “If this were some sort of organ… the structure would be much… different.”
Another sound joined the mix of the splashing feet, the grunts of another individual coming down the rope. “Well, if we haven’t come across another interesting structure.”
“Captain.” Alice called up to him, her voice heavy with stress. “How many of us do you plan to send down here?”
“Relax, Padilla.” Daniels scrambled to the bottom of the rope. “Out of the way.”
Daniels landed hard in the water, catching himself on one hand. Another person up the rope began to shake it back and forth.
Alice offered him a hand up, while she maintained her stiff gaze. “Who is belaying you?”
“We found a proper anchor-point. We aren’t leaving anyone up there to tend to the centipedes alone. Cruel, that would be.” He finished with a loud laugh.
“We won’t easily make it back up this the same way.”
“There must be more than one way out of here.” Daniels shrugged and pushed out of Alice’s way. “Where’s your sense of adventure? Sengupta, where are we? Sami, what happened to your light?”
I hid my face and hung the choked-off lantern behind my leg, the same tired grip holding onto it. I allowed Daniel’s interest in the fungi to distract him from begging my response. The rope was still trembling with the movement of someone making their way down, and Alice was attempting to rid her face of her signs of frustration, looking up to it.
I glanced about, looking again for another spot that might be dry enough for me to finally set down the heavy metal and glass lantern. The glow of the mushrooms continued off into a crevice. The smell of the area finally crept upon me, thick and sticky, like a sty or compost. I followed it back, trudging through the water upon the uneven bed beneath it. Before I could move in too far, I heard a loud cry over the otherwise low voices.
I flipped around, instinctively turning the lantern up in an attempt to see better. Richards had touched down with the others. There was a faint light of another torch from above. Babir flipped on his battery-powered torch and shined it up the rope. The fungi seemed to react instinctively to the unnatural light, extinguishing themselves immediately. The cord danced side to side as the second to last person was reaching the bottom- Mary. The final person, holding the light was Chase, still a decent way above the rest of us.
“I think it may be losing traction!” Mary called out.
“Don’t get hung up.” Daniels called up to her. “Lomeli, see if you can’t catch her.”
Joseph jumped up and held out his hands. Wide ripples formed outward from his legs as he danced back and forth. I saw Mary’s hands bunch up before finally releasing the clip from her harness, still several feet from the end of the rope. She landed roughly in Joseph’s safety, her legs flapping as they met with his open arms. Chase was just coming into view from the darkness.
“Back, back, now.” Daniels hurried Joseph out of the way. In the light of the lantern, Chase’s face displayed a pair of darting eyes.
Alice watched the swaying end of the cord gradually dropping lower. “Drop the gear if you have to, fool!”
Daniels frowned but didn’t respond. Chase rolled carefully back, side to side, looking for a place to safely let go of the lantern. Just before he could let go, the rope above released its tension, dropping itself and the final passenger downward.
Joseph nearly dropped Mary from his arms in an attempt to save her husband. Chase met the water, his pack first, followed by the lantern, which crumpled on impact, the glass shattering. Chase folded backward upon the gear still strapped to his shoulder before falling off sideways into the water.
“Chase!” Mary called out, running to him. Daniels jumped beside him and pulled his face out of the water.
“Get me some light!” He said, looking back to Babir.
“Don’t move him!” Richards shouted, taking a place beside the Captain. Babir flashed his torch down at them, the light shining over their sweat-slickened faces.
Mary supported Chase’s head, while Richards grabbed at his neck, running his fingers up and down either side of his vertebrae. “Cut him free, Wess.” He insisted, nodding to the straps on the pack.
Daniels grit his teeth and pulled the long knife out from the leather holster on his belt. He flipped the blade under the braided straps and yanked it upward, freeing Chase one arm at a time. “Can you hear me, Mr. Dunn?”
Chase took what seemed like his first breath in over a minute. It was hoarse and hollow, followed by a weak cough. “Got… the… wind… knocked outta’… meh.”
“Breathe.” Richards had moved down to the cook’s ankles, grabbing them tightly in his hands. “Can you feel this? Tighten up your toes if you can.”
Chase huffed and struggled, pulling up his knees in the process. “Leggo.”
“I don’t want to risk moving you yet!” Richards spoke up. His glasses had begun to slip down his nose, and his hands and pant legs were soaked in the water.
Daniels had stood back to his feet, looking around for something. “Sami, get your lantern lit! I can’t see a darn thing!”
I felt at my pockets in the dim light, hoping to come across a box of matches I had imagined myself having at some point. The device in my hands swung back and forth helplessly and still devoid of light. I looked to any of the others to see if they would be able to offer me up some sort of fire starter. Mary, who I remembered having the strange flint and fuel device was too occupied by her husband, knelt at his side and grabbing at his hand.
Alice was pacing around the area, her head looking up above. She found the loose end of the rope sitting in the water, the knot at the end wrapped around a long woody branch and root system, stripped of leaves and leave stalks. She grit her teeth and threw it at Daniel’s chest, who was distracted. “Proper anchor, like hell.”
“This isn’t the time, Padilla.”
“You could have killed him, the rest of you too.”
“If you want to press this issue, I’ll see to it that Sir Rees hears you failed to fulfill your duties.”
Alice scoffed and turned away. “You vindictive-”
“Sami.” Daniels interrupted. He unfolded the flap from his breast pocket and tossed a tin of matches at me. “You of all people should be supplied enough. Go help Padilla find a spot that’s out of this rancid water.”
I fumbled with the lid of the tin before I was able to grasp at one of the matchsticks. I lit it after a swipe against my thigh, the orange flaming creeping up to my finger tips. The metal around the wick inside of the lantern was already moist with kerosene. I dropped the still-burning match into the glass cover from the top, causing the liquid to instantly ignite. The flame danced and died back to the frayed, browned ends of the wick.
My eyes glimmered as my pupils dilated back from the newfound light. Chase had been dragged off from his pack, and laid back against his wife’s legs. “Take a deep breath dear. Does it feel bad anywhere?”
Alice wandered around behind me, inspecting the dim path into a separate chamber. She maintained her path a few steps ahead of me. The light from Babir’s torch flickered behind me. I glanced back to see the dark man passing it off to Daniels.
“What do you think this place is?” I whispered back to the captain.
“Not a pleasant place.” He said plainly. His eyes toured all the bits and crevices the light of my lantern was making. My feet dragged through the ankle-high water. In the newfound glow, I noticed an oily sheen hanging across the surface, glinting with a faint pallet of colors reminiscent of a rainbow. I felt suddenly the slick feeling inside of my mouth.
There was a faint trickling of water somewhere in the distance. The puddle of water continued off into a tight corner. The walls were still lined with various sized of fungi, now dormant from the light. “More of these…” Babir commented.
“They weren’t anywhere else above.”
“Fungi like this… they are birthed from decay.”
I looked back in the direction from which we had come. “There was plenty, though, right? Generating the methane?”
“They much prefer… oxygen. The same as humans do.”
Alice crouched down in the shadow, following the sound of the water. She poked her head back up and stared at me, causing her eyes to flash in the light. “The water is headed down here.”
I posed my hand up against the wall. It felt slick with humidity and fat droplets of water. I managed to lift my feet to the thin bank, allowing my shoes to drain of water. “Daniels… Richards…” I called back. “There is a bit of dry ground here.”