Then it became the only part of her expedition that mattered. The research was meaningless, a mess of ideas failing to predict the awful horrors awaiting the expedition team. Since she watched him build a sequence the possibility of death was so certain it no longer bothered her. Max was dead, failed to save himself. Sam didn’t want to accept his final act was out of cowardice, but there was no time for self-denial. The people living below could be warned. But the task felt impossible.
And why is the death of a few hundred troubling? People died every day, all over the world. What was a village here or there? Regardless of her internal debate, she kept hesitation from her movements. The remaining members of her team were climbing the rock face of the god-forsaken cavern behind her: weakness was tantamount to suicide. With her futile musings of self-preservation she realized that if she stopped, so would they. Max’s death, technically, was a promotion. Oh shit. The realization was abruptly frightening; she might have some control, a shadow of responsibility. Maybe, maybe not. Let’s see. Reaching the rock shelf she had been roughly aiming for during the past twenty minutes of vertical accent, she stopped climbing, sitting heavily on the cold stone. Determined to test the complicity of control, if any, she said nothing, waiting.
It took minutes for the rest of them, thoroughly bedraggled, to clamber up and join her. Light from the remaining three headlamps cast skittering shadows. Once she blinded the person following her, Sam took off her headlamp and set it on the ground to provide a pool of illumination. They all sat staring, watching each member scrabbling in the dirt and lose rock as they clawed their way over the ledge, straining. Everyone was breathing heavily, bleeding through the makeshift bandages of a ripped t-shirt the original owner no longer needed. We don’t sound so good. Their arduous panting was paired with the continuous drip of water, echoing about the cavern. No one talked, merely sharing blank stares and grunts of pain when shifting, trying not to pull the rope securing them together.
Sam reached forward and shut her headlamp off to let the cavern’s damp azure glow seep out of the rock and relieve the headache of harsh artificial light. She glanced around. We look terrible.
To her left sat Sara, eyes soft in the phosphorescent burn. Her sharp facial features were refined, though her long blond hair hung limply about her shoulders, curl lost. She gazed into the darkness, questioning why the black shadow was following them as they climbed. Shuddering slightly, Sara rotated her hips to relieve pressure on her injured side. The flannel bandage stuck out oddly against her black t-shirt, cut high for her green capris that were once clean. Physically fit, the bloody gash hadn’t robbed her of determination. Not yet anyways.
Devian sat next to her, arms crossed in front of his folded legs, chin resting on his knees. The pack they took turns carrying sat beside him with a similar defeated posture. Devian’s average build did nothing for his short cropped brown hair. Sam felt a twisting ribbon of guilt winding in her gut. I am so sorry. The muted glow of the cavern reflected in his glazed eyes, taking in nothing and everything. Sam winced. If he noticed or cared that his shoulder was bleeding again, he didn’t show it. Silently, the wet blood stained a blue shirt shades lighter than his torn jeans. Devian hadn’t spoken a single word since his brother Davy fell. What was I supposed to do? Was there something I could have done differently?
Alan was straight across, dirty blond locks matted with dark blood. A trickle ran down the side of his face. Sam watched in morbid fascination as it dribbled onto his white muscle shirt, following the glistening track to his hips. He sat to avoid pressuring his shattered ankle; propped up against the wall with his foot extended, turned too far to the right. Snap. In the back her mind she heard it break again, crunching with the anguished cries of shock that filled the chamber. A group of four on the receiving end of another ceiling collapsing, Alan the only one able to free himself and rush to the adjacent passage the rest waited in. The others, if they hadn’t been crushed, were on the other side. Frowning, she shoved that thought behind a mental barrier. Not now. Alan’s pain introduced a stubborn streak, he was weary of help in a way Sam didn’t understand. She thus tied everyone together, should someone fall. Speaking of falling …
Safia. On the edge of collapse, sitting next to someone Alan-sized made her look smaller than her Asian heritage demanded. Her short, extremely dark hair was plastered to her skin, making her black eyes too large for a small pixie face. The red T-shirt she borrowed from Alan , swirling with a black dragon logo, dwarfed her, passing her shorts. Apart from the assorted cuts and bruises they all shared, Safia appeared freakishly unscathed. Until rough coughs wracking her tiny frame left the back of her hand damp with blood.
Lastly, sprawled out on his stomach, his black frame stretched to its complete 6’4’’, was Jaren. After scrabbling onto the ledge he dropped his head in his arms, dark unruly curls obscuring his forehead. Jaren could have been relaxed if not for tightly clenched fists. Sam wouldn’t blame him for falling asleep. Or passing out. That’s probably more feasible. Deep lacerations ran horizontally across his back, ruining a black shirt advertising his geekiness. As if the thick glasses he desperately relied on to combat his nearsightedness didn’t give his computer habits away. His shallow breathing worried her; they couldn’t afford another death. She didn’t know if she would stand it.
Of the twenty-seven that set out, a pitiful six remained. She looked across at Jaren and pondered his death—surprised by how urgently she cared if any one of them died. She didn’t want to lose them. Taking a deep breath she released it slowly to find her own limitations. The left side of her chest had lessened to a dull throb, a contrast to the stabbing pain of climbing. Stretching her arm, Sam bent to fix the bandage halfheartedly covering the torn skin across her calf. During the climb the dried blood had cracked, sending warm sticky liquid seeping down her ankle, soaking her sock and filling her shoe. Gross. It definitely dripped onto the person below. Feeling guilty Sam threw a silent apology at Sara. The blond caught her gaze and shrugged, shaking her head with the smallest of smiles. Sam hardly felt deserving.
Wait a minute. Adrenaline released an unstable intensity, heightening her senses. Sam didn’t know the time. Glancing futilely at her watch, broken, she felt the sweat covering her face and running rivulets down her spine freeze. This is bad, so bad. She spoke in a voice rough from silence.
“Does anyone know what time it is?”
Her voice cracked whatever reprieve had settled over the group. Everyone tuned back in, blandly surprised she knew how to speak. Even Jaren lifted his head slightly, overcast eyes hazy, peering through gritty glasses. The uncommon air of expectancy pushed her to continue.
“My watch is, uh, broken … what’s the time?”
Devian’s expression dulled, uncaring. Sara and Alan moved as one to check their watches while Safia coughed loudly. Jaren gazed sadly at his digital watch. The face was shattered, useless as hers. His expression was so comical, registering a depth of despair over such a small thing, Sam had to bite her tongue. These are tragic times we live in, not even the watches are safe. Is nothing sacred? She knew it wasn’t funny, not really, but sleep deprivation and the swirling drain of adrenaline found it amusing. With everything they survived, Jaren found more tragedy in a broken timepiece than the other traumas combined.
“Sam?” Sara’s voice brought her back to the cavern.
“Yeah.” Her brain was running slowly, faint distraction of pain robbing her inflection. What was that calculation? Turner had done the math so fast it made her head spin. Something about water mass and velocity and something. Whatever it was, they had been living by the countdown since; the hour, minute, second. A leaking hourglass until the tidal wave of water they released would reach the shores of the riverside town to wipe the village off the map in one violent, watery swoop. This kept them moving in a pitiful, limping rush.
Well, not all of us. Turner died when the roof collapsed back in chamber four. Hopefully. The alternative was being trapped in a small cavern with rubble on one side and a chasm on the other. Either way, Sam figured his demise was a permanent part of the equation. How long did that calculation take? How long to puzzle out the formula of your own death?
“Umm,” Sara stuttered, trying to get Sam’s attention. “I just mean, time-wise and such …” She trailed off, eyes wide and searching. “You asked?” she concluded somewhat desperately.
Sara never interrupted even the blatantly uninformed. Despite her muscles, Sara suffered from terminal shyness. The two of them fell into friendship at the hotel. Sara’s intelligence was blurred by layers of politeness, but Sam was happy to appoint her to section leader for the design unit. If we hadn’t met, would you be here?
“Sam?” Sara questioned again, voice framed with desperation.
Sam heard her name muffled, like bad reception on a phone. Pain was shifting from a feeling to a concept. She was gone before she fell, barely registering the slump of her shoulders as she collapsed limply off the precipice.
Wincing at the bright light filtering through the airline window, Sam attempted to convert time zones. Paris was the final stop of her months touring Europe, begging the ostentatiously rich for funding. Studying abroad in China led her, blundering with her degree, to fall for the country’s history. Her host family had relatives along the river, miles from the Three Gorges Dam site. History seeping from the canyon was amazing, artifacts discovered daily. But long-underway construction was flooding the shores with backwash, raising the water level hundreds of feet for miles. The government would do nothing, and less than half a percent of the Dam’s funding was set aside for archeological preservation. Typical.
Sam’s research was not preliminary; she discovered rotting site plans while studying the Three Gorges progression. Bringing attention to the company’s failure to mention the discovery of a hidden chamber and proceeding to flood said burial chamber gave her leverage for a grant.
The plan pulled through frantic months later, sympathetic donator’s generous contributions pushing her worries into the green. Weeks turned to months and the water level continued to rise. And 200 applicants sent me over a thousand emails, easy. Combined with organizing supplies and balancing funds, Sam was glad to have Max.
Sam let a smile crease her face, waiting to disembark the stationary plane. Max had saved the project. Working with someone who had a minor in public relations proved to be a godsend. Thinking of Max prompted her to fish out her phone. Max’s last email was rife with frustration over the lack of media their expedition was receiving. Sam wasn’t concerned. Her ambitions were abundantly straightforward: explore the intact chambers, record what was there, and maybe get her name in on a publication.
The phone trilled to life as passengers around fought with the avalanche of overhead bins. The woman in the aisle seat tugged viciously on a horrifically green strap. Don’t drop that on me, lady.
Picking Max’s name from speed dial, she punched the call button, phone pinched between her ear and shoulder as she stood on disgruntled legs.
“Come on, pick up,” Sam muttered. Max finished his hunt for funding last week, left for the site early.
Someone spoke her name, but it wasn’t Max. The phone was ringing, but she knew Max wouldn’t answer. He hadn’t answered.
“Sam, hey, you gotta wake up.”
That wasn’t right either. Jaren wasn’t on my flight.
The plane was fading away. Blinking hard Sam flinched her way back into consciousness. In a flurry, events jumbled to order. Max hadn’t answered. He never did say why he ignored my call.
Feeling rushed back and Sam became acquainted with how much her leg hurt and how loudly her side could scream. I’ve been stabbed. Or crushed. Something happened involving my ribcage and a blunt object. A reluctant groan escaped. Goddamn.
“Wha happen’en?” Sam got out thickly. Not quite what I was shooting for but that works.
“Hey!” Jaren’s face filled her vision, crazy black curls sticking out, glasses pushed up the bridge of his skinny nose. “You’re not dead!”
He proclaimed his statement so happily she smiled reflexively, despite the layers of pain. Impossibly, his expression brightened more. He maneuvered Sam carefully, with weak assistance from her to prop her against the uneven rock wall. That was pathetic. Moving aggravated her side; she lurched like a puppet on uneven strings and pinched her eyes tight, grinding her teeth to contain a shout. Opening her eyes, Sam tried to organize the visual mess in front of her.
Sam’s view oriented slowly around Jaren. She was sitting against the cliff wall, as far as possible from the edge of their shelf. Sara sat on her knees on one side, Jaren cross-legged on the other. Devian remained folded up, Alan was eyeing her uneasily. What’s his problem? Safia had deposited her head on Alan’s leg, lying limp, distinctly uninterested. Sam watched blood run from the corner of her mouth, sliding along her check before she raised a hand to wipe it away, leaving a dark stain on her face.
“What—” Sam tried again, tearing her gaze off Safia.
“Well, you passed out and fell off the ledge,” Jaren interrupted.
He stated this very matter-of-factly, as though Sam needed to go to the store and get something she forgot. And by the way, I almost died.
“How am I not dead?”
Part of her knew there was a good reason, but she couldn’t think. Cocking his head to the side, Jaren pointed to the rope securely knotted around her waist.
Sam blinked. “Oh.”
The rope was Sam’s doing. It was Davy, Devian’s brother who scared her into forcing group reliance. Davy and Devian were a year apart and had uncannily similar smiles, though Davy had about fifty pounds of muscle on his little brother. In spite of clear differences, Sam hadn’t bothered to untangle their names in her mind. She hadn’t even known who the surviving brother was until later, when Alan had offered a few broken apologies.
Hours after the chaos descended, the team reached a geological abnormality. Walking along the edge, the remaining eighteen stumbled along on instinct, unsure and motivated by the panic of impending consequence.
Running her hand along the cavern wall, Sam ducked and wound around the constricting tunnel her headlamp reflected at her. She didn’t bother avoiding the puddles on the ground, her shoes were already scratching with silt. After I spent all those funds on waterproof boots, here I am facing death and destruction in sneakers. She was far from alone in her unpreparedness. The morning crew reached a consensus that an informal tour of the least flooded chamber would boost morale among team members grumbling about sleeping in tents.
All this to stop the bitching about no hot showers. They had filed in, oohing and ahhing, scuttling to orbit areas of their professions expertise. Sara was drooling over the architecture, Devian had his nose brushing against the art, Jaren was scooping handfuls of mud and peering judgmentally at the particles seeping through his fingers. Nerd. And Max was missing. Right up to the second before the entrance caved in. Then he was in the middle of it all, pushing around groups that were trying to dig out the entrance.
Sam had seen him adjusting the carved blocks on different pedestals, but left it alone. Maybe he needed the distraction. He was setting up an order, building a sequence Sam couldn’t be sure anyone else witnessed. Max, what did you do? When the last block fell into place, the far wall opened.
The rest of the group was eager to test out a new direction; their efforts were having little effect on the caved in debris. They followed without great debate, leaving the injured with unfulfillable promise. To drown. We left them to drown. In the second chamber Max did it again. Then everything went to hell.
Sam remembered her shock when people died. Death happened to old people or on the five o’clock news, not to her. The group they left was not returning, and what she hadn’t been able to accept then was a fact now. She had needed to focus on what was in front of her.
And what’s in front of me is fucking ridiculous. The type of challenge that did not exist beyond the realm of B movies. The earth did not crack into yawning chasms, no ancient civilization would build a fraying rope bridge to cross.
Sam walked quickly to the edge for a better view. There was a hand on her shoulder before she could lean out. Thinking it was Max, Sam had “fuck off” on her lips. Over the past hours she found his help irritating. Turning, she found herself face to face with one of the brothers. Davy. Sam hadn’t bothered to know him then.
“Be careful,” he warned, as if moving closer might pull him in too. Surprised by his comment, Sam didn’t reply. Her disbelief drove him off, muttering an unlooked for excuse.
A resulting argument with Max was followed by a group meeting and conclusion they had to press on. Safia, the lightest, volunteered. She displayed her confidence, skating across a fraying relic of rope with childish ease. Something about that girl was unsettling. Additional rope was wound around the naturally formed pillars; one ran at ground level and the other at waist height. A few team members scooted across as deftly as Safia, a bit of coaxing required. Sam had slid her feet slowly, gripping so hard her hand cramped. They sent the lightest first, building up. The men played it tough, laughing and checking and re-checking the ropes.
It should have been fine, everyone should have made it. Three men left, three out on the ropes when it hit. The aftershock shattered the tentative relief from conquering the gap. Alan was the furthest along, then Davy, then Max. Max wasn’t the biggest. He chose to go last because he was team leader. Did he only want to know if it was safe?
Devian and Sam were standing closest to the lines. They watched the oldest brother swing his full weight on the higher rope following the first tremor, sending the guiding line twanging. Sam was unbalanced in the next wave of rocks cracking, smacking her bruised hip and rolling too close to the edge. Ow. Hooking the nearest pillar with her elbow, she looked for the bridge and found a cracked pillar across the gap, empty space. Ignorant of caution, Sam leaned over the rocky lip, following the trail of rope into the dark.
“Hey!” Sam yelled, catching sight of the men clinging to their lifeline. “Get up here!” Smooth, very comforting in this time of crisis.
“Workin’ on it,” Sam heard Alan grunt.
Glancing over at the pillar the rope was wound around, Sam watched rope dig into the freshly split stones, fibers stretching and splitting.
“Climb faster!” Sam shouted, aiming for encouraging and nailing panicked instead. What do I do, what do I do? “Devian!” Sam yelled, casting around the nearest source of help.
Wrapped around a stalagmite a foot away, Devian responded quickly, staying low to the ground. He caught the rope and wound it around his shoulder and arm, taking the weight with a yank. That won’t last.
Sam mimicked his belly crawl to examine the fraying rope. The futility of watching strands part hit her. There wasn’t anything she could do from this end.
“I can’t fix this,” Sam said unnecessarily. Devian nodded shortly, face tight as he struggled to lessen the tension. “I’ll uh, tell them.” If Devian thought that was a good idea, Sam didn’t wait to find out.
“Hey!” she shouted down, glad to see Alan was nearly within arm’s reach “The rope won’t hold for long. So, uh, faster would be better.”
Any words of affirmation from Alan or Davy were blocked out by Max.
“What? No—get out of my way! Move!”
Leaning with an arm and her chin over the ledge Sam couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She remembered wanting to yell back but was preoccupied with hooking an ankle around the nearest pillar and catching hold of Alan’s offered arm. I can’t do this, he’s too big. Grasping his sweat soaked fingers, Sam had a view over his shoulder, knew with abject confidence she was the only one watching Max.
Max had shifted, with one hand on the rope and the other fighting for a handhold on the wall. Good idea, Sam had thought. Find something to hold onto if the rope gave out. Then Max let go of the rope entirely to produce a knife from his belt. Where did he get that? Max hadn’t hesitated to slash the knife along the back of Davy’s legs. Davy screamed, all the panic, pain and confusion surmised in a rough shout. Did he ever know what was happening? Max didn’t stop, stretching to shove the blades edge into Davy’s lower back. The older brother convulsed, releasing his grip, and fell into the chasm. Max grabbed the rope as Davy tumbled, one less obstacle in his climb to the top.
The earth jerked, like it was startled, and bounced Devian and Sam a few inches. With the crook of her knee folded around a narrow pillar, the force of the ground’s movement helped her heave Alan from what she saw but hadn’t believed. Devian took the weight of the rope, frantic to rescue a ghost when the stalactite impaled his shoulder. He lost his grip, dropping any lingering evidence of murder.
Nobody blamed Devian for Max and Davy’s death, and Sam was too stunned to say anything. Max was gone. Another life dragged down. At the next wall she had them roped together. I owe Davy that much.
“We have two hours.”
Sam jumped slightly at Alan’s gravelly voice. She struggled to refocus on the group as a whole, the bigger problem. Max was old news, they sorely needed to press on.
Alan’s grave news constricted her throat, she had to remind herself to breathe. Two hours before they started paying for their actions, the outcome of being invasive. Sam lowered her gaze, pretending consider the options. The pocket of water they released in the second chamber had poured down the channel they arrived through, blasting spray all the way to the people they left behind. Turner assured her this was followed shortly by the blocked entrance dissolving and an underwater geyser blasting water into the river. Escape was no longer the singular concern.
As they sat, silent and bleeding, water was coursing into the river they sailed up to reach the cave. Their accidental diversion of the underground reservoir would send a flood to the river and endanger a town located downstream. The singular town between them and the cave entrance, on a stretch of unpopulated river. Someone could have noticed the impending wave, but the likelihood was unpleasantly unrealistic. That leaves us.
Sam allowed herself a flare of indignation. Who builds a town into a canyon wall bordering a river? But her anger couldn’t sustain itself. Rage wouldn’t undo the part she played.
“I suppose we ought to continue,” Sam said shortly, hoping that if she voiced the intent out loud, their task would become easier. The group reaction was anticlimactic, featuring minor shuffling on the part of Sara and Jaren as they stretched and mumbled.
Reaching, Sam’s hands found two reasonable holds. Inhaling, she made a fantastic failure to stand, completely with grunting, muttered swearing and a little flailing. She slouched back limply. The rock face of the cliff had offered no moral support and her arms alone were not up to the task.
Unwilling to make eye contact, she tried again. Sam gained several inches before sliding back, uneven rock face scratching at her clothes, feet skidding.
Practicing some weak decorum, Sam tallied who was watching with a subvert glance. Sara and Jaren had started a small conversation to her left, Devian’s head was buried in his legs. Safia locked eyes with her the moment Sam’s gaze swept her way, but the look was flat, uncaring. Which left Alan, who was chewing on his lip and using his fingertips to gently brush Safia’s hair out of her eyes.
“Hey Alan,” Sam said, anxious to sound casual, “give me a hand? My legs are asleep.”
With downcast eyes and a shrug too small for his huge frame, Alan took his time carefully repositioning Safia. Rocking forward on his good leg he shuffled over to stand above her. Has he always been that tall? Sam reached out a hand for support, but he didn’t move.
Her hand hung out in open space, awkwardly wavering up and down, visibly shaking.
“Come on,” Sam said, staring at his light eyes.
Sam let her hand fall back down to her side. “What do you mean?” He’d spoken so softly she was honestly unsure of herself. Then again, she was completely unwilling to accept why he might have said it. Oh hell no.
Alan opened his mouth slightly, and then turned his head. His body posture curled in, shoulders hunching, knee bending as he leaned against the wall. For someone so large, Alan attempting to take up less space was unsettling. Sam knew before he caught his breath, before he spoke there was nothing she could do. He wants to leave me behind and he would be right to do so. She bit her tongue at the thrill of fear jumping on her nerves. It didn’t help.
“You fell …” His halting phrase summed up all of the danger she posed to the group as concisely as it could be said. Her falling posed a threat. Sitting on a ledge was one thing. Climbing was different. If she blacked out up front, she would drag everyone down with her.
Alan was the spelunking expert, they followed his instruction. She wanted to yell at him but there wasn’t anything to say. Closing her eyes Sam searched for a deeper conviction that this was the right choice. Deeper conviction was harder to come by than she anticipated and she quit searching. Explaining to the others wouldn’t be easy. Opening her eyes Sam nodded to Alan, who shook his head in return, face tight. The hell was that supposed to mean.
“Well then,” Sam began, nonplussed. What does he expect me to say? Goodbye? Good luck?
“What?” Jaren’s voice broke in with usual tactless grace. His confusion, unlike hers, was not an emotional crisis but true lack of comprehension. He can’t know. There had to be a convincing lie, but Sam hadn’t found one yet. She stared at Jaren, lips slightly parted, willing her blank mind to surrender some reasonable course of action.
“Sam’s swapping you for last position, no biggie.” Sara, Jaren and Sam turned to Safia. Her throaty voice was pinched, pooling black eyes calm. Sam couldn’t help but hear Safia as mocking her inability to handle the situation. “Alan told me it would be better, so we could support her if she fell.”
Sitting up, Safia demanded a sign of compliance from Alan with raise in her eyebrows and purse to her lips. Incapable of lying openly Alan nodded with a short jerk of his head.
“You want me to lead?” Jaren questioned intensely, turning from face to face “I don’t lead.”
“It’s alright, I don’t mind,” Sara interjected. She spoke quickly but met Sam’s eyes with enough confidence Sam knew she had no idea what was happening. As long as she thinks she’s helping, it can’t be that bad. Sam tried forcefully to unlock the mental hold her brain was inflicting. The world around her was in stop motion, each person acting a predictable part as Safia directed.
Sara first, then Devian, then she’ll have to put Jaren next so he doesn’t suspect, then her, then Alan. It was brilliant in its simplicity. Protect the team from the weakest link. Successfully manage damage control and eliminating debate over the ethical ambiguity of abandoning her with handpicked placement. Sam would never have thought of it, and in a small way she was glad her mind couldn’t contort as readily as Safia’s.
“Let’s fix the order then,” Sam said heartily in the overly zealous tone she reserved for small children. Let me help design my own demise, keep your conscience clean.
“Okay,” Sara replied, tracing her fingers smoothly along the slick rope.
Sam fumbled unsuccessfully with her knot, the last link connecting her to the group. Her fingers slid over the rope, cold and sweaty. What am I doing? Her frustration began to surmount any pretense she had for composure, her movements became less directed. No, not like this. Erratically, Sam clawed at the edges of the knot, hating her inability to summon even mediocre courage. I’m sorry.
“I can’t.” The words spilled out with a few tears. “Just let me try, please, I feel way better, don’t leave me here,” Sam said, addressing Safia, the only team member blatantly willing to condemn Sam to her own personal hell. “Give me a chance. I have the right, don’t I?” Alan hid his face, shoulders shaking. Sara and Jaren were confused, puzzled expressions of innocence Sam didn’t need. Safia had Sam’s full attention now, holding the supreme power, the moral prerogative.
“You’ll kill all of us!” Safia’s face contorted, childlike features warped by disgust. Mouth drawn, eyebrows angled she wobbled dangerously. “You know the risk, and you don’t care. If you fall again, we all die.” She spat out accusations but was cut off by her hacking cough. Sputtering, she shook her head, raking everyone with her piercing gaze, daring them to speak.
Sam tried to find a defense, but there wasn’t anything justifiable. This still doesn’t feel right. Only the knowledge that Safia was making the decision for her bolstered Sam’s doubt.
“I’m sorry, but—” Sam started.
“Sorry? Oh hear that? As if sorry will convince them to leave you after that little outburst, as if sorry is going to save any of us now, now that you’ve made it abundantly clear you can't deal with your own problems, sorry—” she cut off again, coughing.
The unnatural break in her speech gave Sam a chance to rally. Safia’s point of view no longer felt as stable as she proclaimed. Her taunting fired up Sam’s disgust. This isn’t up to you alone. They all made this choice, the risk could be shared among all of them.
“Look,” Sam said, “Any one of us could fall—if you leave me behind, who’s next?”
Sam’s question turned gazes from her to Safia. Sam may have been de facto leader, but she was not going to let a misplaced captain-goes-down-with-the-ship mentality trap her here.
“Nobody else has fallen,” Safia hissed, unfolding from beside Devian’s pack once her coughing fit subsided. “You’re going to kill all of us,” she stated lightly, voice fading to a whisper. Safia didn’t sound like she was trying to convince the group anymore. Eye’s adjusted to the phosphorescent lighting of the cave, Sam took in the minute details. Safia’s eyes were moist, reflective, an overlarge contrast to her skeletal body. Sam was discomfortingly aware of Safia’s posture. This conversation is wrong, something else is wrong too. One of her arms was hanging loosely. The other was vibrating with the effort it took to keep her elbow tucked behind her back.
“We should at least take a vote,” Sam’s voice was weak, she bit her cheek and hated the way she sounded. Like everything else, this situation was a spiraling tailspin of lost control.
“What are you doing?”
Jaren’s voice was loud, cutting across intensity between Sam and Safia. Sam’s attention jerked to Jaren when he shouted, but Devian was faster, already moving, standing, grabbing Safia’s arm. Safia, who reacted just as quickly when Jaren shouted, made a lung for Sam with a piece of climbing equipment.
But Sam wasn’t attending to the attempt on her life; or the clacking of a climbing pick hitting their ledge. It didn’t matter that Alan was helping Devian control Safia as her cough made her convulse, or how she was momentarily suspended in the air between them. To Sam, none of it mattered because Jaren didn’t get up. He slumped, like a failed attempt to do a push-up, landing on his wrists. The impact nearly jarred his glasses off. He lay there panting, looked at the rock beneath his hands. What did we do to deserve this? Peeking from behind the curtain of dark curls he made unfortunate eye contact with Sam. In that moment, they reached an understanding neither could refute. Neither of them could stand. Neither of them would be leaving the shelf with the group.
“I’ll stay,” Sam’s voice was louder, had lost its waiver. She was calmer now, not happy but she found that deeper clarity she was hunting for minutes ago. Minutes. That and an equally fucked friend is all it takes. There was no black and white, nothing was supposed to happen this way. It had. Plenty of choices, many options, and too many excuses; but suddenly this made sense. If he stays, I stay. And the other don’t need to know.
The struggle in front of her quieted, Devian and Alan holding Safia in her place. Sam shrugged, tugging lightly at the corners of the knot.
“We’re running out of time. This, what’s happening right now, is wrong.” Sam found Safia’s face and forced her gaze down. “If you all leave now, maybe you can stop this.” Sam finished working the knot, the rope loose around her waist. “The faster you move, the sooner you can send help.”
Amazingly, Sam didn’t sound desperate. She was collected, smooth, potentially convincing. Adjusting, Sam slid the rope free, held it out to Sara. Sara took her lifeline with trembling fingers, fighting her own tears but unwilling to impolitely question Sam’s decision. Devian opened his mouth and shut it, then followed Sara’s lead and picked up a helmet. Alan, towering over the rest of them, choked on a small sob before nodding. He looked horribly guilty, pushing his tears away roughly. It’s not your fault. It’s not anybody’s fault.
Safia was frozen, not even her persistent cough returning to shatter this stillness. Her pale cheeks were smeared dark with dirt and blood. An upsetting fragility was apparent, though the blood around her mouth made her look predatory. Sam jerked her head shortly towards the cavern wall, indicating she should go. She wasn’t doing this for her.
And then there were four.
Sam didn’t watch as Sara started climbing. It wasn’t a matter of resolve, but how she wanted to be remembered. Devian followed suit, then Alan’s hobbling. Safia would be the only one to notice then, Sam realized. She would have to carry the extra weight.
Safia startled when the rope at her waist cinched tight. She gasped, eyes riding the line connecting her to Jaren. He had placed his head back in his hands, and shifted enough for her to pull the rope free from where it wrapped about him.
Safia hesitated. The dripping in the cavern grew inexorably louder. Alan was making serious progress, her time was running out. Jumping, Safia fussed with her pocket, pulling out a dark square and offering it to Sam before dropping it in her haste. Unbalanced, she rushed to the wall, searching for handholds and stifling a cough.
Sam reasoned it took half an hour for the group to pass beyond earshot. The candy bar Safia left hung limply in Sam’s grip, unopened. Her estimation of how long they sat there wasn’t based off of anything. Her watch broke hours ago, like Jaren’s. The heartfelt sadness he had expressed at losing his digital countdown was oddly prophetic. Time ran out for both of them.
He hadn’t spoken to her yet, and Sam wondered if he was angry. By giving up her fight with Safia, Sam essentially condemned them both. More unfairness added to the list of things gone wrong. Where did it start? With Max? Was the cave in really an accident?
Running her hand over the glowing incandescence of the cave wall, Sam wracked her brain for a reasonable explanation. There was little to gain from the destruction of a small cliff town. Increasing the water mass in the river they figured would break through a small, newly constructed dam in a chain of concrete barriers that paraded down the river towards the Three Gorges monstrosity. Then what? For her, that was reason enough to hurry. People who never heard or cared to hear of her were endangered. But what else?
“Jaren?” If Sam had his attention he didn’t show it. “Listen,” she insisted, hoping he wasn’t that angry. Or passed out. “What else could happen because of what we started?”
There was a long pause in which Sam began to doubt he was conscious.
“Destroying an entire town isn’t enough for you?” His commentary was sarcastic, but held no menace. Without bite the words were brittle, old and resigned. Sam hoped her parting sentiments to the rest of the team hadn’t sounded as hollow.
“No, it isn’t,” Sam pushed, impatient inside the unlimited time they could debate. “What else could this cause?”
Jaren sighed dramatically, mumbling incomprehensibly to the ground.
“What’s that?” Sam knew, deep down, this couldn’t possibly matter. I can’t help it.
“Well ...” He was thinking now, slowly unburying his head from his hands. “If the water mass is strong enough, it could start a chain reaction.”
“How so?” Sam was stuck by the futility of their conversation, but she liked having something to think about.
“The water from the dam’s reservoir would add to the mass of water already present, increasing its velocity. Any other dams along this river’s path could be destroyed too.”
“Even if we evacuated the people in immediate danger this thing’s only going to get bigger?”
“Essentially, yes.” He frowned. “Why didn’t I think of this before?”
“We haven’t exactly had time to stop and think lately,” Sam reminded Jaren, watching him out of the corner of her eye.
His nose was bunched up in a scowl she had seen before, and he tapped his glasses back into place before he noticed she was watching. “What?”
“Nothing, I guess.” Sam looked back over the edge of their safe spot. If I hadn’t stopped, would we be here? If I kept going, would I have blacked out anyways?
“Thanks,” Jaren dragged her back.
“For what?” It wasn’t Sam’s intention, but the she came off callous.
“For not telling the others.”
It was the last thing she expected. Sam settled for staring blankly. Her mind, moments ago plagued by potential what-ifs? was blissfully blank. There was simply nothing to say. Why would I tell them they were losing another group member? Her outburst was demoralizing enough as it was. Jaren stayed silent. She followed his lead, nothing more.
“Honestly,” he pushed, as if she were denying, “I didn’t want them to know. I don’t think they could have handled it. Especially after you decided to stay.”
This is ridiculous. The sole reason she gave up demanding the group take her with them was because of him. Because he couldn’t get up, because he was too hurt to keep moving and the options changed. I’m no hero. I didn’t want to die alone, that’s all. Now he was looking at her with this awful adoration, this respect. As if not advertising to the rest of them she was holding him hostage to her fears was a good thing. Sam wanted to scream at the absurdity of what he said. She had given up, abandoned their potential survival in a vain attempting to cling to a shred of dignity, something that would read nice in the police reports, all because of him. I guess I should be thanking you.
“You think they’ll make it?”
The topic changed and Sam missed any rational opportunity to defend her personal shortcomings in the flow of the conversation. Backtracking now would serve to confuse him, and her. Sam nodded numbly. “I wouldn’t have let them leave if I didn’t think so.” The bravado tasted fake, but his assumption of her good intentions had sunk in. Maybe playing hero isn’t such a bad thing. It felt better then admitting her growing certainty none of them would leave this cave alive.
“Yeah, I figured.” He tilted his head back, resting it against the wall and gazing into the space above them. “You saving that for someone special?” Sam blinked. She had completely forgotten about her candy bar, parting gift from Safia.
“What? Oh, not really.” Sam twisted the wrapper’s edges in her fingers. “You want some?”
“Let’s split it.”
They munched in silence, chocolate taste unparalleled. The bittersweet knowledge it was likely their final meal did little to dampen a milk chocolate snap. Thank you, Safia. Sam sent a short surge of affection towards their wacky anorexic would-be murderer. Maybe this final gift will balance out some of your bad karma.
“The weird thing is,” Jaren started, chewing hungrily, propped up on his elbows, “I’m starting to think we might have been better off if we stayed in the second chamber.”
Sam paused mid-chew. “The chamber that Max opened? The one flooding all of that water into the river?” Jaren, what the fuck? “Sure we could have stayed. Somehow I don’t think the people living downstream would appreciate us waiting around for a rescue,” Sam said, unimpressed. Apparently his survival instinct only kicks in after the fact. I thought we were playing hero here.
“Well, I’m not sure they need to be anymore. It’s like you said isn’t it? I haven’t had a chance to think about it all at once. We just kept moving.” He gestured wildly with the remains of his candy wrapper. “It just came to me now.”
Jaren had a fantastic gift for talking without saying anything of substance. Sam didn’t let him ramble, fueled by her earlier impatience. Somehow, the knowledge that it didn’t matter how much long they talked was more irritating then when they were on a countdown.
“The hell are you saying?” she demanded.
“Once that water started flowing into the river, we assumed we needed to warn people of the impending flood.”
“But what if all it did was unblock the cave entrance?”
At this point, Sam had to interrupt. “Pretty sure you and Turner worked this out back in chamber two.”
“Would you let me finish?” Jaren snapped. Sam pulled up short, surprised. Jaren rarely sniped at anybody, let alone her. “What I’m trying to say,” he continued, “is that unblocking the cave entrance and releasing the water might not have been enough to cause the damage we were predicting.”
Jaren cut her off, channeling her past impatience. “Sam, I saw Max messing around with the blocks on the mural wall. He did something, and then we had a way into chamber two.” Sam said nothing. “Then he did the same thing in chamber two, and the flooding started.”
The memories resurfaced, bubbling like boiling mud. The less-injured group had followed the narrow passage until they reached the second chamber. Their path had wound around and opened into a sloped cavern; it felt like standing in the bottom of an emptied swimming pool. They scrambled up to a raised platform on the far wall, Max leading the way to a few more tunnels and a blocked wall. While they argued and examined the tunnels, Max left the debate to examine the blocked wall, pushing around more piled, carved stones. Whatever he did worked. Except better than expected.
A door had opened: on the far wall water gushed and swept down their former trail in an explosive burst. They watched horrified as their exit was filled to the brim, sat in shock imagining the team members soon to be on the receiving end of this deluge. Then Turner piped up with a new horror—releasing this underground pocket of water might cause a flood and endanger the people in the riverside village they passed.
As if in confirmation, the earthquakes started a few minutes later. They hurriedly decided to push on, following the most naturally formed tunnels—they hit the chasm, chamber after chamber flooding and collapsing in their wake and swallowing up straggling team members until six remained.
“Think about it,” Jaren insisted. “This cave system cannot physically be rigged to collapse. Most of this is formed naturally. It isn’t possible. And the likelihood of the earthquakes being coincidental is infinitesimal.”
Sam nodded, wishing he would get to a point.
“The only way the chambers behind us could have collapsed was if they were under enormous pressure. Like pressure from a river’s flow.”
“Jaren …” No he’s wrong he has to be wrong.
“We didn’t flood the river,” Jaren said grimly, “we diverted it.”
Sam bit the inside of her cheek hard enough to draw blood, a weird mixture of relief and disgust churning in her chest.
“At best we lowered the water level a few feet,” Jaren continued. “That chasm might eat up some of the flow, but it will all sink back into the ground water eventually. Might even be connected to the main channel somewhere near the bottom,” he said. “The rivers been flooding in behind us, causing the instability. We must be just ahead of it.”
The sat in silence, staring at each other. So much for my daring heroics. All we were ever trying to do was save ourselves. That somehow felt more fitting. But there was something else, nagging, digging around her skull. “Jaren,” Sam said, her curiosity barely a half-formed idea, “what do you think Max was doing?”
“With the carvings?” Jaren shrugged. “Not sure.” He frowned, rolling his shoulders and wincing. “I wasn’t really paying attention.”
“Because I think—” Sam swallowed. Do I really want to say this out loud? “I think he opened those walls up. On purpose. The one leading to the second chamber. And the—” She stopped, throat tight. He’s dead. And maybe he didn’t mean it. How could he have known about the water behind the second door? He couldn’t have.
Then again, the collapse at the entrance had been so damn convenient. The team consensus was incredibly resistant to knocking down chamber walls without a full crew present. Even if the resulting flood was an accident, Max had his wish for a smaller audience by shutting them away from the outside world. He could have all the credit for the discovery. And all the press from an archeology team trapped by disaster. Attention and personal fame.
Come to think of it, Max was the one who suggested we tour with the smaller group first after I refused to let him go up there alone. The phone call on the plane. He didn’t pick up. There was plenty of cell reception at the hotel. Where was he?
“The other wall,” Sam got out. “He opened it.” Jaren rubbed the back of his neck distractedly. “I think—” Sam blinked. “I think the walls with carvings open.” Sam’s heart hammered uncomfortably in her throat, making speaking difficult. “If I’m right …”
“What?” Jaren shifted so he could look her in the face. Sam’s gaze was locked forward, she couldn’t look at him. How could we have been so stupid?
“There were others,” Sam said hoarsely.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Jaren said sharply.
“But the first door—then after chamber two—we kept moving up—” Sam stuttered.
“Yes,” Jaren conceded, “it led up. But then the second one released an extremely deadly pocket of water,” he said emphatically. “If we started kicking down every wall with carvings we would have most likely—” he paused midsentence, mouth stretched wide around the next word.
“Found a way out,” Sam finished. “Above the pocket of water. It was draining down, into the river, and we’re above it.” She could see the processing through his lenses, behind his eyes.
Jaren swallowed. “We passed those carvings in every chamber. Sam, we could—”
“Could we?” Sam spoke softly, testing each word. It was so impossible, and stupid, and they already wrote themselves off and out of this story. She should just shut up, eat her candy bar. But the wrapper was empty. She already finished.
Jaren was looking at her expectantly.
Sam frowned. Why do I have to come up with the plan? “How long do you think we were climbing?”
“It felt like a long time,” Jaren’s response was automatic and honest.
They sat in silence for a moment. Sam longed momentarily for the contentment of her candy bar. Things happened so fast. Not even a minute ago, she was happily devouring a sugar-filled final meal, and now she felt worse than she had the entire trip
“What should we do?”
“What …” Sam started and stopped. She intended to say, “What can we do?” but that sounded too much like a complaint. The hope weaved into their discussion was starting to blur as the possibility of survival awoke panic from earlier.
“Come on, seriously.” He gave her a shove and she winced, hand coming to a rest on her side.
Pain she hadn’t been attending to crawled back across her senses. The sandpaper coating of her throat made breathing difficult. “Serious, okay, getting serious.” Sam couldn’t help it, the words rolled out thoughtlessly. The conversation had lost its theoretical cushion—the situation couldn’t get any more serious. They admitted to a horrifying miscalculation, one that may have cost them every team member since chamber three. Look at us. Playing hero without thinking, pressing on because we decided we had to, and for what? Nothing. Nothing at all. There was no rationalizing anymore. No greater good. We were in such a hurry to save the day, we didn’t stop to think. We rushed forward with the exits right in front of us, every earthquake costing more lives as the river we thought we flooded followed us and tore apart the chambers we passed through.
“We don’t have any rope.” Jaren was apparently less burdened by their revelation then Sam, and slammed straight to the point.
“True,” Sam started. Jaren steamrollered over her interruption.
“And neither of us can stand.”
“Well I haven’t exactly been applying myself—”
“We don’t know how far we climbed to get up here.”
“So what, we all should have stayed home today?” Sam’s frustration at having him nail all of her fears bubbled over. I know this. Reminding me does not mean I have any solutions. “Okay then,” Sam said, irritated, “we have a choice. Stay here or try our luck.”
Jaren didn’t reply, suddenly preoccupied, staring at the ledge.
“I’ll go first?” Sam offered. Somebody has to do it, and putting it off won’t help.
Jaren glanced at her, distracted. “Don’t fall.”
“Thanks,” Sam said, trying to quash the self-loathing of their incredible idiocy into something more motivating. It wasn’t like I did it on purpose. We thought we were helping. Dipping her feet into the dark, Sam’s attention was violently pulled from any bigger picture musing. Now was not the time.
Taking a deep breath, she refocused. Moving gingerly, she worked to not swing her bloody calf against the edge. She wasn’t sure if that foot would support her weight. Looking around, Sam picked a few decently smooth, fist-sized pieces of protruding rock to cling to while she rotated her hips. The plan was to flip onto her stomach, then lower her legs until she could blindly find a foot or toe hold for her good leg to rest on. Considering a deal of the hard work on the way up was delegated to her legs, Sam was uncomfortably aware her arm strength could give out as she lowered herself. Let’s not think about that right now.
Tamping down the swirling fears with a mental hammer, Sam buried her disbelief in a cascade of details. The way her feet felt swinging out in empty space. The dripping color of the glowing cavern wall inches from her face. The way her arms burned, the taste of sweat, dampness of her hair, how the makeshift bandages were tugging at her skin.
Feet waving wildly, Sam unfolded her elbows as her stomach scraped across the rock face. She became aware of the possibility a second before her fingers cramped. Shit. Sam was suddenly, disproportionately confident her death was happening now. That could be for the better. Then I won’t have to explain to anybody that I could have saved my team.
Sam felt Jaren’s hand on hers. He said something, pulling at the back of her shirt. Sam’s foot finally, of its own accord, found purchase and she was able to shift weight off of her wrists and down to her uninjured leg.
“I have a better idea.”
Finding no reason to argue, Sam jerked her head affirmatively. “Great, cause this plan sucks.”
He tapped the back of her hand again. Sam grunted. She needed help, not … whatever it was he was doing. Something is off. He looked excited. Nervous. His eyes were huge, shining behind filthy glasses, red rimmed from grief and sleepless exertion. It gave him an unhinged quality.
“Actually, this plan may not be better,” he conceded, twisting his head to the side, gazing past her. “But I can’t climb like this.”
With her weight no longer supported solely by her arms, the amount of pressure Sam was placing on her leg had become problematic. It felt as though her toes where carving out a new hold in the stub of rock she was positioned on.
“I don’t really have time for specifics, Jaren,” Sam hissed, feeling around with her other, considerably less reliable leg. I couldn’t save them, I can’t even save myself.
“Umm … umm.” He licked his lips, eyes darting around. “Sorry.”
“For what?” Sam craned her neck, searching, but he was gone. She could hear him, barely.
“Keep your feet together … and tuck your arms in …”
“Jaren,” her voice was tense, pent-up pain seeking an out. “What the hell are you—?” She felt his hand against hers, accumulated filth rough against her equally dirty skin. Sam was about to escalate to a shade less thoughtful profanity, when he started peeling her fingers off. “Stop!” Sam yelled.
I sound like Max. Sam didn’t want to be like him but the moment passed and she fell, last tortured finger pulled free.
Sam couldn’t begin to process the shock, she wasn’t even angry. Confusion was set to be her final emotion as the wall blurred beside her, ghostly green smear her final sight. She wanted to scream, to do something. What did he say? Feet together? So when she hit the ground her locked knees could be driven through her lower intestine and end up in her throat?
Sam did it anyways, half second before she slammed into the ground. The surface split and she was consumed, drowning.
The blinding shock of transitioning from falling to her death to immersion in water was mind-bending enough Sam abandoned processing and swam. This was not here an hour ago.
Kicking against the current, she broke the surface and gulped in huge amounts of air. The surprise of hitting the water damped the pain of her injuries, and she was able to move without caution. Disoriented, Sam found herself up against the muted glow of the cave wall she had grown to detest. Pushing off from the rock, she angled towards the shore.
A few strokes out there was a splash. Three guesses as to who that is. Wait. Technically, someone from further up could have fallen. Well shit. Ignoring that thought and straining to keep her eyes open, Sam crashed into Jaren. He was floundering, but the shore was close and the slick clay beneath her feet was enough to drag him with a degree of success.
Shoving him towards the shallow water, something tapped her lower back. Jumping reflexively, Sam slapped away one of their helmets. It spun away with a skid, floating in the water as she went scrambling madly to get it back. A light source was not to be taken lightly.
After retrieving the helmet, she waded through the water, feeling her movements beginning to cost her. Finding Jaren slumped in a soggy heap a few feet out of the water, she slogged up to join him, smacking her rear into the clay harder then she meant to. Fitting.
“How,” Sam began, discovering she was out of breath, “did you come up with a plan like that?” Moments passed before Jaren was recovered enough to speak, but she didn’t mind the wait. The water and the shock of there being water was energizing; she was seeing things through brighter eyes. Even with the added weight to her clothes, the plastered feeling of hair spewed all over her head, just feeling different was enough.
“The plan,” he began, “was based off the fact we would never make it if we followed your plan.”
Well that stung. Whenever he had a brilliant idea, Jaren became unpleasantly haughty, but she wasn’t going to challenge him. He was right, after all.
“Remember how I said the river was probably filling in behind us? Since stuff behind us was flooding, I guessed there would be enough to land in.”
“And you threw me off first to what … see if you guessed right?”
Biting his lip, he averted his gaze to watch the swirling water they crawled out of.
She coughed once in disbelief. Sam was too stunned to do anything else. Well, we were both dead up there anyways. If Jaren was wrong, the difference would have been the matter of a few days. And yet, part of her knew he hadn’t been thinking about that when he pried her fingers from the ledge. Jaren had next to no forethought when it came to physically moving himself. He could calculate carbon dating in his head instantly, but snap decisions were not his style.
“Seriously?” she asked, turning to look at him. My life is worth exactly one hunch?
“Yeah ...” He winced, from pain or her reaction, she couldn’t tell. “Sorry about that.”
“Oh, okay,” Sam, fired back, smacking her hands against the slimy clay shore they sat on. “As long as you’re sorry.”
“Are you mad?”
“Who, me?” her voice was laced with sarcasm, the words as soaked and dripping as their clothes. “Psht, noooo. Shocked, maybe a little,” she continued, feeling her eyes bulge slightly as she swallowed a snort. “Amazed, at what our friendship has boiled down to, fearful, that my life is …” She might have continued with “so meaningful to you” but she choked up. Her words caught up with her brain. What possible purpose can yelling at Jaren serve? Putting her face in her hands, Sam decided she was either going to start crying or laugh hysterically at the incredible stupidity of it all.
It started as a giggle.
Laughing hurt, but that in and of itself was funny as hell. All of the events, the revelations, the taking it with a straight face was too funny to let go to waste. She had worked so hard to orchestrate her death; securing funding, researching, calling all of these people together to die. She needed Max so badly, needed his help and support and he was as cowardly and self-serving as she was discovering herself to be. Nothing she had based her life on, her academic integrity and hard work, had any meaning down here. This is it. Her defining moment. If nothing else, her failure was spectacular.
“Hey,” Jaren’s voice caused a second’s lapse in her summation of self-loathing. Hiccupping, she left her face in her hands. “Enough of that.”
Of what? She wanted to scream. Of being honest? But she kept these words inside. After the glorious mess of stupidity that erupted from her the last time she opened her mouth, she felt this was wise.
“I get it, this sucks.”
Oh, he gets it, does he? She pressed her lips together, dropping her hands to curl fingers into the clumpy clay and leaving deep indentations.
“And I know I should have told you what I was thinking, but there wasn’t enough time.”
And he can throw excuses out. Amazing.
Which, again, makes everything better? Her wrists were beginning to shake, fingers cramping and she couldn’t dig any deeper into the muck. There wasn’t another layer below the mud; there was simply too much clay to make progress.
“So, should we go now? I think the water level is rising.”
Time to move on. Slowly, deliberately, Sam pulled her fingers from the ground. Staring at her hands in the dim green lighting, she forced herself to nod. Time to go. Time to move on.
“Maybe shift the round one over to the left?” Sam said, squinting.
“Like this?” Jaren waded over to the cracked orb, splashing through the tiny waves that lapped at his shins to give the chair-sized rock a hearty shove. It scooted a few reluctant inches. They paused, listening. Nothing happened. Again.
Sam blew air out of her nose in a short burst, casting around with the headlamp for any clues. They had limped along, following the rising water current for an indeterminate amount of time, ducking out of the glow from the climbing wall and back into the stale darkness of closed tunnels. It had been slow going with a singular headlamp, but Jaren spotted a pack floating along during their hike. After a brief struggle with the current, he produced a few glow sticks from the muddy pockets.
The glow sticks in question were now strategically placed around chamber six, a space Sam could easily fit the studio apartment of her dreams in. There was an entrance—collapsed—and the exit they had come splashing through, and a mural wall with five waist-high shelves and three shoulder-high pedestals crowded in front.
What did Max see in this? The carvings were crumbly from age, depicting swirls and symbols Sam was unfamiliar with. She was here to unearth physical artifacts, not interpret art. And Jaren is a glorified mathematician.
“Your turn,” Jaren said, plopping down in a few inches of water. Sam studied the wall as the headlamp flickered. Her heart was pounding; the river carving a channel in the mud on the far side of the chamber was inching higher. They had some time, Jaren assured her, but the water had been leeching warmth from her skin, the ache in her side was a growing distraction, and the gash on her leg had started weakly coloring the water around it. Wait.
“I think we’re doing it again,” she said abruptly, bringing a finger to her lips.
“Doing what?” Jaren said, futilely scrubbing his lenses with the tail of his shirt.
“Overcomplicating,” Sam said, rubbing the back of her neck. “We said Max opened the murals by moving these things,” she waved her free hand distractedly, “around. But he was trying not to draw attention so he could have the credit.” Sam bit her tongue. “I mean, maybe.”
“Yeah, we can stick with that,” Jaren said flatly.
Where did that come from? Sam pressed on anyway. “But if I don’t care if anyone is watching …” Sam pushed through the water, picking her heavy steps carefully. Reaching the mural, she ran her fingers along the damp surface. In the pale gleam of the glow sticks, the carvings had barely enough light to cast shadows between the raised markings. Sam traced the tips of her fingers along the curves, tracking the indentations to a long steam in the rock. Here.
Grunting, Sam pressed her shoulder into the wall and pushed. There was the faintest of scraping. Her breath caught. Holy shit.
“Jaren, get over here,” Sam said taking a half step back. Jaren stood up with a grunt and made his way over.
“Yes?” he asked, looking to her and not at the wall.
“Help me push this.”
Jaren looked at her skeptically. “Do you want this to fall on you?”
Sam paused, “Okay, so it’s not a perfect plan,” she shrugged, glancing around again.
“You may have flipped from overcomplicating to oversimplifying.”
“Well then,” Sam scowled. Thinking was increasingly difficult as the numbness in her feet travel up her thighs, “how about at the far edge?” Jaren continued to look unimpressed. “Or we could continue pushing rocks around,” Sam grumbled.
“When you put it like that,” Jaren said, “what the hell.”
Moving to the end of mural, they ducked down and ended up on their hands and knees in the water, following to where the carvings petered out with the natural curve of the cave.
“Here?” Jaren asked.
“Uh, sure,” Sam said, feeling the cave roof dragging at her dripping hair. Looks as good a place as any. Despite her offhand optimism, Sam hadn’t actually expected the wall to crumble on their first shove. Sam let out an abbreviated shout when the rough stone spider web cracked from the edges, falling in small chunks on their outstretched arms.
They both stopped, staring unblinkingly at the two hand-size holes they punched through the thin, gushy clay wall. After a second of hesitation, they moved in unison to pry at the edges of the hole, methodically digging fistfuls of clay free. In fifteen silent minutes, they had an opening large enough to squeeze through. The ground on the other side sloped upwards, but illumination from the glow sticks didn’t offer much else.
When she deemed their progress acceptable, Sam waded back and snagged the headlamp from its perch. Shivering, she splashed over to their newly formed exit and caught Jaren’s eye.
“You want to lead this time?”
“Oh no,” he said, putting his hands up in mock horror, “ladies first.”
Sam rolled her eyes. “That bumps me to the bottom of the list.” It was a weird feeling, to tease and be teased. The words came naturally but had a filmy aftertaste.
Jaren stuck out his tongue. Gesturing as grandiosely as he could on his knees, he swept a hand sideways to present the gaping wound they clawed in the wall. “Please,” he insisted, “after you.”
“Much obliged,” Sam sighed, dipping down into the water and tucking her chin as she passed through the hole. The other side tilted higher. She stayed on all fours for better traction; with the low ceiling the best she could have done otherwise was crouch. Leaning her head all the way back, she shone the headlamp up. Slowly, she put a hand over her mouth.
“Well?” Jaren said, voice muffled.
Sam let a shaky breath out, disbelieving.
“We’re in business,” Sam shouted. Jaren whooped and hurried to crush in behind her, ducking extra low to avoid scraping his back. We might survive this after all. Sam could feel herself shaking with relief. She could feel it in her wrists, her shoulders, all the way down her spine. Even the grainy pebbles next to her were shifting, pushing off each other in jittery excitement.
“Sam!” Jaren shouted, “I think we have a prob- prob- problem,” his voice bouncing with the rock. Sam whipped her head around, throwing the unsteady beam of light over Jaren as he struggled to find balance between smacking his head on the rock above and below.
With a splintered grinding, the ceiling dropped half an inch.
She didn’t waste time with words. I am not leaving anyone else. Not to another fucking earthquake or whatever the hell this is. Flattening to her stomach, Sam grabbed a handful of Jaren’s ruined t-shirt and hauled. Worming around, she dragged him along behind her as she kicked off the shaking earth, pulling until he was next to her and they could scramble side by side up the narrowing passage.
This is so monumentally fucked up. Sam’s chest was heaving, a tearing nail of pain was digging into her ribs as her knees scraped against the rocks, new cuts opening to smear the stone with thin trails blood as they frantically crawled. She could barely hear Jaren’s gasping over the pounding in her ears. She couldn’t keep the headlamp steady, searching for handholds in the greying light. It wasn’t until she smacked against the ceiling following a particular vindictive jolt and the helmet was knocked off Sam realized, dizzily, she could see without the lamp.
“Sam, come on!” Jaren had a hold of her now, tugging at her shoulder as the helmet bounced once, rolling into the dark. I can see him without the lamp. The revelation was of muted importance. Sam abandoned it to follow Jaren’s direction. He led the way as the passage flattened out, pausing briefly to pull her to standing so they could run as the tunnel widened. Leading the way, he ran smack into the leading member of a search party.
There was a minute of jumbled confusion and rapid commands. Sam stumbled and was caught by a pair of gloved hands, had her arm looped over a shoulder considerably shorter than her. Jaren. She caught a glimpse of him in front as the ground rolled. Sam tripped and stumbled; she tried to keep pace with the body she was leaning on.
The tunnel steadily brightened as they hurried along. Sam squinted as pockets of light spilled out of gashes in the ceiling. She was moving, gasping, gritting her teeth, taking step after jarring step and they were out.
Sam’s knees buckled. The search and rescue member she was using as a crutch caught her and slowed her decent. She let Sam slump ungracefully onto the gravel before returning to the cave entrance, shouting for others. The earth continued to shudder and twitch as Sam laid panting, eyes tight shut. Just a minute. Just give me five minutes.
She sat up with a gasp and regretted it immediately, folding in on her side as it screamed in protest. For a moment, her reality was sharpened to the intensity of a cracked rib, before surroundings leaked back across her sense. The ground had stopped shaking and the world was a little less blinding. Air, hissing between her teeth, was undeniably fresher. The rocks she had planted herself in were warm and there was a crescendo of voices near and far.
Scrubbing her hand over her face, Sam opened her eyes. The scene in front of her was a messy blur of color and movement. Much too much to deal with right now. Sam closed her eyes quickly. Maybe later. A few more minutes passed, blissfully unimportant.
“We made it,” Jaren appeared out of nowhere, casting a welcome shadow over her.
Sam shook her head, peering up at him. “Yeah?” she said, unsure.
“Yeah,” Jaren assured her, “and not just us.”
Sam leaned sideways to look around Jaren’s skinny legs. The rocky dirt she sat on rolled out a few yards then turned to a mossy carpeting underneath a row of tables and tents. Trucks with oversized wheels and matching red insignias were parked in a haphazard line, people in uniforms were unloading boxes. Others in mismatched outfits and blanket capes were milling around, clutching water bottles or sitting patiently as the rescue team administered gauze and painkillers.
“We weren’t the only ones with the mural idea,” Jaren said, sounding a little disbelieving. “The groups we got separated from when the tunnels collapsed went back to the third and fourth chambers. They found a way out and called 911. Or whatever the Chinese equivalent is.” He shrugged and offered her a hand up. Sam took it gratefully.
From across the way, someone detached from the herd. A flash of blond hair, followed shortly by a big guy with a limp. Devian came stumbling out last, followed Sara and Alan to crowd around Jaren and Sam.
Sam looked around shortly. Do I want to know? She swallowed, “Safia?”
Sara bobbed her head, “They helicoptered her out an hour ago, but she seemed okay.”
Sam’s shoulders sagged. “And how many—”
“Most of us,” Sara assured, “not the three from the first room, and I don’t think Max or—” she cut off with a worried glance at Devian, who had stiffened, “but other than that, a lot of people are okay. They’re okay,” she repeated, as if she needed as much convincing as Sam.
We’re okay. The concept was so foreign Sam was rendered mute. They had done everything wrong, and some of them—most of them—made it out alive. It made up for exactly none of the lives lost, but the impossibility, the upheaval of what she expected after giving up on the ledge was enough for now. We’re okay. It wasn’t what she had thought mattered, what she had been pushing them for when they started this madness—but this was better, so much better. We’re okay and we’re alive.
Sam laughed, and it was catching. First Jaren, as giggly and sleep deprived as her, then Sara, politely covering her mouth to stifle her petite smile. Alan had no such inhibitions; his laugh was booming and set the rest of them off again. Devian was the last to crack, shoulders bouncing, eyes watery when he finally snorted at the group’s hysterics. They stood there, leaning against each other, laughing and making desperate eye contact to be sure the others were there and Sam knew, now, that this was the only part of her expedition that mattered.