Underworld

The calendar said it was supposed to be Wednesday and the periscope didn’t work anymore. It wouldn’t turn and it made a nasty scraping noise when he tried to force it. Whatever had happened topside had driven it downwards so that the optic was at crotch level and he had to squat low to look into it. He found himself thinking that his bodily posture was somehow indecent and worse than that, symbolic, so he found himself blushing as he pressed his eye into the worn rubber-cup.
“So what does it feel like?” David was his twin brother but he’d been born ten minutes earlier, so he out-ranked Toby but by only the narrowest of margins; Toby knew that he really wanted to look into the eye-piece himself, but didn’t want to push his luck, so Toby ignored him .
“What do you think’s happened to it?”
It was a stupid question. Anyone with a clue about conditions topside would have a pretty good idea of the answer but he tried to keep his voice neutral as he replied.
“Probably a big wind pushed the garage wall over on top of it. I guess the weight of the bricks forced it downwards. Hope it didn’t bend the tube: That’d be just about impossible to fix.”

“You think its worth fixing?”
“Dunno, probably-it’s the only way we can see the surface.”
“Doesn’t help much – just see black sleet, not much of an aid to morale.”
“Yeah, true, but its not up to us – any decision involving the surface is Dad’s call anyway, you know that.”
“Der. I can’t see him taking much of a risk for the ’scope, though – he’ll play it safe.”

As it happened, Toby’s guess turned out to be wrong. For reasons that were never made clear, the General opted to have the damage to the scope examined by a surface recce, which would also place a set of battery-cams topside connected to the habitat by microwave link. Toby and David were the Recce team, their protective equipment would be checked by lieutenant-general Marjorie before they left. It was only when the General said that, that Toby realised how much trust was being placed on his shoulders. He could barely taste the lunch of Meatloaf “that he had time for” before they had to get ready. The Meatloaf wasn’t really meat of course but made of “Surv paste” that had been flavoured. Neither of them recognised the flavour, never having tasted real meat in their lives, but the flavour was very familiar to them and they both found it comforting.

The protective suits were airtight and very heavy, the body, including the flexible joints were shielded with lead. The thick glass faceplates were leaded. They had more recent suits, but both of them were in larger sizes and exclusively reserved by the top brass and had developed faults in the video pickups that replaced the faceplates. They offered arguably better protection but Toby found the immediacy of the glass view preferable to the often streaky and black and white vision offered by the VideoView (C) suits. In his whole life Toby had only seen the inside of the front airlock door twice. Once on a tour given by George the Master-at-arms on repelling theoretical attempted incursions into the Habitat, and once on a illegal mission of his own where he’d taken David’s dare and actually touched the inside of the door himself. David had laughed from the corridor outside thinner door of the lock, but he hadn’t repeated Toby’s act of bravery – a fact that Toby still held near his heart. From the General’s office there was a short corridor to a locked door; behind the locked door was the lift, but the lift didn’t matter, the lift hadn’t worked in either of their lifetimes. It was into the lift by forcing the concertina mesh back, then poking the hatch in the roof up with the stick that was always there. Toby gave David a boost up and David went first.

The main core of the habitat was an empty cylinder about twenty metres across and sixty metres high. The rooftop of the cylinder was a metre and a half thick steel, in the past it had apparently opened. To get to the top of the cylinder David and Toby climbed the main ladder, which was steel and bolted to the wall. The ladder was rusted, melted slightly out of shape and vibrated as they climbed into the distorted mesh gantry. The higher they got, Toby’s ass puckered at the knowledge of the dank black void underneath him. A half- melted rickety gangway, another heavy steel door, another corridor, matching the one underneath, but this one was only five metres under the surface. Occasional puddles from the leaking cold stream pipes. The acrid smell of hydraulic fluid and the softer smell of congealing lubricant. Another heavy steel door. The ready room. The suits were waiting, hanging like corpses from their charging rigs Lieutenant-General Marjorie was waiting, sitting in one of the original office chairs, resting her feet on what had once been the duty officer’s desk.
“You’re here! O.K. The suits both check out as fully optimal, David, though, I’d pee before I got outside, O.K? The relief system seems pretty manky, possibly dodgy, not sure f it’ll expel properly. Davey, the suit on the left is slightly larger, so that’ll be yours. You boys strip off and we’ll get you changed in time for the changeover; I’ve been up since 0:400 and I need something to eat.”

She knocked the steel wastebasket with her feet as she put them on the floor and stood up. The steel base of the bin screeched on the concrete floor. By the time Toby had looked back at David, his brother had stripped to his pale grey shorts and was engaged in rubbing the goose-pimples from his crinkling body to get the blood flowing.

Marjorie apologised. “Its is a bit much, the place’ll heat pretty quickly, though.” She twisted the dial of the thermostat while David hopped his legs into his suit, dragging the unwieldily bulk of the suit up his legs even as his feet slid into the attached thick-soled boots, which were already dusty from their brief contact with the floor. Toby watched as David’s narrow chest vanished into his “city-camo” armour and walked overt help Marjorie manoeuvre the attached helmet over David’s head. The business-like snap of the helmet locking into place was a good reliable sort of sound and put them all in a better mood. The look in David’s eyes changed from trepidation to a kind of worried determination that gave Toby confidence as his shivering naked back sank into the welcomingly warm interior of his own suit. “Right, lets light this candle!” Toby wasn’t surprised as David’s voice, rendered atonal and metallic by the external speaker on his brother’s suit; spoke the most inspiring line from their favourite 2D; For a moment he was proud of his elder brother; the quote was an almost perfect fit for the moment.
Marjorie didn’t have to admonish the boys to be careful, her feelings were implicit in the way she patted their helmets on their way past her to the door. The sound, and the emotion it contained seemed to ring in Toby’s ears past the fifteen centimetre-thick steel door and all the way up the next ladder. They were now technically on the surface, although there was no hint of it. The walls on each side of the corridor they were in, the General had taught them, were four meter thick, lead-shielded reinforced concrete. The roof was three metres thick. It was thinnest shielding from the outside that the Habitat offered. They took weapons from the racks beside the ladder-hatch. David took a Stirling MK and two extra clips, which he slid horizontally into the pockets on his chest. Toby took a Bullpup F90. He had no idea how long he’d be carrying whatever he picked around so he wanted it to be as light as possible, and of all the weapons available it was the one he scored best with, so he switched barrels to mid length, heavy calibre – somewhere between self protection and overwatch, since they both saw his role as Keeping the point covered; and in this case David was going the point, and he most definitely did not want to anything fuck up. The final corridor was so narrow that Toby’s shoulders almost brushed the sides as he walked. The ceiling was so low that the top of his helmet would scrape the concrete if he bounced on the balls of his feet as he walked. David’s head lights cast him into stark silhouette as he walked in front, stooped slightly to protect the top of his helmet. The corridor was thirty metres long – quite enough for Toby to develop a nasty crick in his neck, to match the lower back pain he’d developed from walking crouched to avoid the lower roof. As it terminated, the corridor opened out slightly till it became a small room nearly two metres across. Toby found David squatting on the floor resting his back against the wall. Directly opposite the main door – forty centimetres of carbon steel, painted pale institutional green that overpowered his eyes and forced his attention,

“There’s a note from Mum-“

David pointed and Toby saw the small page stuck to the door by some inexplicable glue. Across the top was printed the words “While you’re out”. Someone had ignored the possible messages beneath the words and the tick-boxes next to “phoned” and “PM’d” were unticked and underneath that someone had written in a highly recognisable form of block-capitals mutated into running-writing, “CHECK- EVERYTHING AGAIN”. The word “again” was underlined with such vehemence that the pen had torn through the cheap paper. Toby set about checking everything. He recognised Lt: General Margorie’s hand writing and knew that it was quite likely watching on the closed circuit in preference to being present in person an emotionally charged time. She was like that.

David took the hint from Toby, they both checked the clips on their weapons, took turns topping off their air packs so they both had the regulation two hours normal exertion load. Both suit radios still worked, there was a slight crackle in the “receive” on Toby’s but it didn’t seem important and could not be fixed without access to the electronics lab which was down about ten levels and probably twenty minutes walk. David contacted Marjorie, again as per regulations, and she agreed that it could probably wait. So they didn’t wait, they went.

The spyholne in the door was no help, the door was very thick and since the view hole on the inside was a circle two centimetres in diameter, and the outside port was presumably the same size and the door was forty centimetres thick, the view was never going to be great, especially as it seemed to be night outside. At 01:45 David looked quickly at Toby, rested his Stirling on its stock muzzle up and leaning against the wall and took hold of the big wheel in the centre of the door. It was hard work but with their combined strength they got it turning, and by the second full revolution the door was visibly opening with a tooth grating screech of rusted metal. The Gale outside blew the cloud of rust from the hinges into the room and Toby quickly found that it was coating his faceplate in a thin but visible layer. The door stopped opening when it was open to ninety degrees , they stood back and examined the outside. It was history of a sort; as far as they knew they were now as far out of the habitat as anyone had ever been. It was almost jet-black outside. The atmosphere which was completely unbreathable, highly radioactive and had a temperature of minus sixty C was moving horizontally past the doorway at, the gauges informed them, between forty-five and fifty kilometres per hour, with occasional gusts up to seventy. The outside seemed to flash as passing methane ice-crystals caught the light from the doorway and reflected it back into their faces.

David stood up; “According to my schematic,” he waved his paddlet, “the periscope should be like eight metres that way,” he pointed at the corner. “So I reckon if I walk five metres straight out, turn ninety degrees right and walk five metres straight, – I’ll be right on top of it.”
“I’m coming out as far as the five metre mark.”
“Alright. Bring a piton ring and a hammer. The five metre mark can be our second anchor point.”
“Good stuff.” Toby fished a aluminium piton out of the small satchel at his hip. There was a hammer in the steel toolbox to the right of the corridor entrance. The wind was like a force of gravity, almost stronger than the invisible force that held them onto the planet, the wind was another force, fierce and elemental which wanted to push them off it, sideways. Toby knew well that without his suit he would have been dead before he could have taken his second step, so he took his third one and fought the urge to look back instead concentrating on David, two steps ahead of him. Davids tether-line ran out and stopped solid at waist level, a straight line between David and the anchor-point at the habitat’s door. David turned, stepped within range and uncoupled the tether from his waist, clipped it onto the belt on Toby’s middle. Since Toby was closer to the habitat anchor point if only by a half metre, he felt the slack in the rope whipping in the wind, dragging at his balance. David squatted, scrabbled a piton out of his waist pouch, pressed the point into a crack in the concrete ground and thumped it home hard.
David clipped his second tether line, which was made of bright pink woven plastic onto the ring in the carabiner. He stood, bracing himself against a sudden gust in the onslaught of the gale and gave a quick thumbs-up; Toby could not see his face through the shit the wind was throwing past between them and the dark behind his brothers visor. At that moment, a larger than usual shard of the black sleet hit his visor with a resounding splat and whipped away into the murk. Toby felt sick, even a crack in his visor would probably kill him quite quickly. His suit sensors put the outside temperature at minus sixty and the atmospheric pressure low enough to cause the faceplate to explosively outgas in the event of damage, and the completely poisonous atmosphere, or what there was of it, would do the rest – after he stopped trying to hold his breath.

David braced himself and pulled hard on the tether. The Piton was good. It held “Should be alright; if you think I’m getting off true tell me.” David’s voice was so clear in his ears it was as if they were sharing the same helmet. They shook hands, hugging while wearing the suits, was not worth it. David turned and set off, after two steps he turned his suit lights on brilliantly illuminating the ground before him and highlighting him in a halo of whipping sleet. By the time he had gone ten steps;
“You’re getting harder to see, for such low atmospheric pressure there’s a lot of shit flying around.”
“ Shit happens- sometimes I can barely see my- what the fuck is that?”
“What the fuck is what?”
“Such witty repartee.” David seemed to be breathing heavily.
“ It looks like a whirlwind. The sleet is going into it, and in the lights from my suit, its all silver.”
Toby heard wonder in David’s voice, but no fear; nevertheless he crouched and connected his second tether to the same Piton, set off after his brother
“Incredible!”
“What is?”
“Well, you know how whirlwinds move in relation to the surface they’re attached to?”
“I suppose so, why?” But Toby could already guess the answer.
“They have to move, its a physical requirement- either a circle, or an infinity symbol or a meandering snake -type course; the moment is a mathematical requirement of the forces that form them.”
How like David to seize this strangest of opportunities for a lecture.
“So what’s incredible?”
“ I‘ll tell you most emphatically, what whirlwinds do not fucking do;
They do not travel along, then reverse direction. They do not fucking stop spinning on way and the start spinning in the other fucking direction.
And they most fucking emphatically do not stop spinning altogether and stand there like a fucking tree trunk ,fucking looking at me !”
“Whaddaya fucking mean, looking at you? Shoot it Davey!”
“Shoot it? Its not even really there!”

But he heard the sound of David firing, on full automatic over the voice link, until the communicator gave a Nasty electronic screech and shut up for good. After that all he heard was his own ragged breathing as he pulled himself hand-over-hand along his tether line into the full fury of the wind.

(c) Alex Rieneck, 2018

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