Continuing the series with three additional stories. Connected to Whispers Through the Veil of Being.
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A Late Autumn's Dream
An Inverted Observer
Static through the padded wall.
I was waiting in the prepping room with the team, getting ready for the mission. While I still had time, I decided to check my equipment one last time - all the necessary tools seemed to be hanging from the belt in order, so I looked up to see how others were doing. Perkins seemed nervous, having trouble hooking his safety harness properly. He fumbled with the clip and cursed, then looked at the captain, who had already finished with his own checkup and was now waiting for us to get ready.
"Sir, I think this clip is broken. It doesn't click shut like it should."
Davish turned to face him, examined the clip and answered;
"It's not broken, you're just fumbling with it."
Perkins tried hooking the clip again and succeeded this time. He looked up and gave a nervous smile.
"It seems you were right. Sorry Sir, it's just, I know other teams have already been down there, but it's my first time and-"
Davish interrupted him;
"It's all right. I know what you mean." He then turned to Williams. "Do you have everything ready?"
Williams gave a few good tucks to his safety harness and answered;
"Ready to go Sir." He said to Perkins; "It'll go fine. There's nothing to worry about – as you said yourself, we're not the first ones down there."
Nelson joined in the conversation, saying with a smile;
"Yeah, don't shit your pants Perkins. You got through the tests with highest scores, remember? You're the best we've got."
Perkins let out a short, nervous laugh. Davish didn't appear amused, but offered some words himself as well;
"I know we're all nervous, and for some of you this is the first time down there, but try to keep chatter at minimum. Beyond the prepping room there's no shielding anymore, so make sure your helmets are properly sealed and radios in working order." He turned to me and added; "The elevator is tight and all, but lacks the EM-field as you know, so you really should have helmets sealed tight by then. Once we hit the button there's no quick way up."
I looked around and noticed most of the team having gone through their checklists, now only waiting for the captain's word of approval. We didn't need to wait for long when he spoke again;
"Right, everything ready? Nelson, check the drill – and Johnson, have you made sure the seismograph is all set?"
I turned to my little cart where I had my things set up, ready for leave, then glanced at the monitor one last time, making sure it was projecting the correct waveform.
"Yes Sir, ready to go."
Davish put on his helmet and turned at the door.
"No point loitering then. Radio check in the elevator. Let's go."
We entered the small, shielded antechamber which was adjoined to the elevator. This was the last place with an EM-shielding, making it effectively the last chance to make sure our helmets and suits were properly in place - we all remembered how the first recon team had fared with faulty equipment. I didn't want to linger on the memory for long, so I quickly suppressed the thought, focusing on the mission ahead.
As I looked around I noticed Perkins fiddling with his equipment and Nelson, despite his usually cheerful nature, also handling the various cables of the drill, even though it all had been checked multiple times already. Only Davish and Williams seemed stoic, uncaring of the situation, though I'm quite sure both of them were anxious as well – they just hid it better.
Suddenly Davish's static voice echoed in my helmet, getting my attention;
"All right team, the elevator is almost ready. We'll make a proper radio check inside, but I'm assuming you can hear me clear already. Remember, after the check we'll stick to the protocol and use the radio only when necessary. Nod if you've understood."
He looked at me. I nodded. As the captain turned to Nelson I heard Perkins' shaking voice through the radio;
"Yes, uh, yes Sir." Then; "Sorry Sir."
The elevator in front of us let out a sharp "ding," indicating the decontamination and self-check procedures had been completed. A few seconds later the massive leaden steel doors began opening with a pneumatic hiss, revealing the white, circular chamber with a few tool cabinets fixed to the round wall. I breathed deep. No turning back now.
After the doors had fully opened the captain stepped in first. I went after him second, pushing my little cart in front of me. Behind me soon came Perkins and Nelson hauling their massive drill. Williams entered last, and when he was in Davish pushed the button. As the doors began slowly shutting in front of us he spoke once again through the radio;
"All right, radio check now. Johnson."
I lifted my hand to the helmet and pressed on the send-button;
"Check. Everything ok."
Captain nodded and continued;
Perkins answered, his voice faltering a little;
"Check... check, yes, all right Sir."
Davish was about to speak again when I heard Nelson's voice;
I turned to him. He'd accidentally dislodged one of the pipes from the drill while fiddling with it. After a few tries he got it back without much trouble, though still cursing himself. I couldn't help but reach for my radio and remark;
"And here I thought we were professionals."
Nelson let out a nervous laugh. Captain looked at me with disapproving eyes, but said nothing. I heard Nelson through the radio again;
"Everything all right Sir. The cooling tube just got loose – don't worry, no coolant got out as the drill hasn't been powered up yet."
I could see Davish sigh in his helmet. He said;
"You haven't even done the test run yet? Get on with it man, for goodness sake, we're soon at the bottom!"
Both Nelson and Perkins performed a nervous salute and got on working on the drill. The captain continued, turning away;
"Williams. Everything all right with you?"
Williams stood in the corner and answered;
"Yes Sir. Good to go."
He then leaned against the wall and remained there, observing Nelson and Perkins working on the drill. I stood still, feeling anxiousness growing inside me like a living, festering thing as the elevator slowly made its way down, towards the fast approaching entity.
There were no windows in the elevator, so I could only stare at the gauges to see how deep we were. The descent seemed to take much longer than it should, and I was about to mention it when I heard another "ding" -sound, indicating we'd soon hit the bottom. I turned to captain, who remained still in front of the doors. He reached for his radio and said;
"Get ready. Less than thirty sec."
I glanced at the waveform, which of course only showed uninteresting noise, picking up the elevator's ambient vibration. I hoped the shaking wouldn't affect the sensitive calibration, but there was nothing I could do about it now. Captain looked at the gauge and said;
"Ten sec. Johnson, behind me."
I was already on my position, so I remained still. After an uncomfortably long time the elevator stopped with a loud thumb, then let out again a "ding" -sound. The doors slowly opened and Davish stepped out into the darkness. I grabbed the handle of my cart and followed.
All the powerful lights around the elevator lit up, revealing an enormous cavern that extended farther than any eye could see. It seemed much bigger now in real life, the ceiling being hundreds of meters above us, dimly illuminated by various species of fluorescent fungi and other, miscellaneous living tissue. Even though this area was relatively clear of growths – our landing site was that of a roughly fifty by fifty meters large clearing of sorts – all around us, beyond the clearing, impossibly tall, black appendages rose up, most of them reaching the ceiling, burrowing through into the surface, infesting it with their noxious presence and causing all the problems for the whole of mankind we were painfully aware of. I heard Davish through the radio, pulling me back into the present moment;
"I know it looks impressive, but we need to get going. The surface seems stable enough for the time being, but you can never be sure in this place."
I clicked my clip to the safety railing and stepped forwards onto the sticky, oily surface of the entity. Despite our specifically engineered boots the 'ground' was quite a challenge to walk on. Sucking each footing half a dozen or so centimeters in, it gave the impression that without the extended surface area of the soles the semi-viscous flesh of the entity would quickly engulf the hapless traveller, sucking him into the bottomless depths.
With some effort I rolled the cart to my designated area and started lowering the sensors into the surface. While working I glanced up and noticed Nelson and Perkins standing before the elevator, looking up in amazement, no doubt in the same manner I had mere moments ago done. Davish hurried them on and they set on planting the drill to their own designated target. Williams soon followed, being the last one to exit the elevator, and stayed with the captain to collect samples and keep track of the mission progress.
Soon I had my seismograph working as intended and could start examining the waveform. It projected the most curious patterns, unlike anything I'd ever seen on the earth's surface. The moment was, quite literally, historical as this was the first time anyone had ever measured the 'underground' activities of the entity. I let the seismograph be to record all its data onto the drive and set on working with the sonar.
Being so focused on my work, I almost forgot where we were until I heard Nelson scream through the radio. I looked up and noticed he had gotten his left foot stuck into the ground somehow. Davish, Williams and Perkins were soon there to help him, and although they got him out of it quite easily, it seemed to distress Nelson quite a bit and acted as a reminder for all of us that one couldn't let his guard down even for a second in this hideous place.
I got the sonar planted next to the cart and powered it up. I didn't quite understand what I was seeing, as it was all a mess – complicated oscillating patterns and shapes, constantly moving and forming anything unlike I had seen either during training or previous missions, when we'd studied the appendages on the surface. I switched to 3D-view in order to make sense of it all, but it proved useless. I reminded myself that my observations didn't matter much, as the data was constantly being recorded and broadcast live via the elevator to the central command, where it would be safe even if we all were to perish down here.
After a moment I heard Perkins' voice through the radio, not nearly as nervous as before;
"Sir, the drill is set up and ready to go. Shall we begin?"
Captain had walked some distance away from us to collect samples with Williams. He raised his hand at the radio and said;
"Wait. I'll check the situation with Johnson first."
He then started walking towards me while Williams stayed further away to collect samples. Davish positioned himself next to my equipment and remained there, first examining the seismograph, then the sonar. He asked, after having stared at the monitor for a while;
"I can't make any sense of this. Can you?"
I thought of saying something insightful, to try and sound like I had a better understanding of the situation than him, but in the end stayed truthful;
"No Sir, this – it's... well. It's stable at least, but other than that, your guess is as good as mine."
He stared at the monitor for a while more, then asked, eyes still fixed on the screen;
"Tell me, honestly - do you think it's safe to start drilling?"
I was little taken aback by this, as it was ultimately the captain's decision how to proceed. I remained truthful and answered;
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