Chapter 38: Beat the iron while it is hot
Today, we have discovered something amazing. The Facility is more than half a million years old and it is not the only one. Sordana informed us that it is the oldest, however, and that the chamber we found is an addition to the Station. It was taken from another Station and was setup here as an upgrade. We didn’t have the chance to ask too many questions. We were afraid of the TDF not calculating the time properly, resulting in us being here for days or weeks. I will have to make a long report for the Colonel and the Council, which also stresses me. Since we are the only ones who can access it, will they believe us?
Woken up by Celina’s voice through the communication device, Eirik opened his eyes and saw only darkness. He tapped the floor around him and found the flashlight. According to his watch, the day was almost over, but he felt he could have slept a few more hours. Sleeping on only a stack of blankets had not helped his headache much, but at least he slept a little. Jack also didn’t sleep enough, but had completed a sufficient amount of rope ladders to reach the first half of the climb. Jack had even developed a system to fasten the rope around the railings and secure them in place.
“We have discovered that you can use the FastCom to make real-time videos. It’s in the menu,” explained Celina, browsing the menus on her device as she spoke. “The camera can record and transmit videos in real time to us, regardless of the light level on your side.”
Slowly, Eirik raised his head from his pillow to look around him. Seeing nothing new happening, he returned his eyes on the pad in his hand. His brain was trying to understand the menus and texts which, surprisingly, were in English. He began wishing for the drug in his system to subside so he could start reading more easily. He was going through the equipment he had brought with him. He was trying not to think too much of what could have been his life in the past three years if everything had been in a comprehensible language. Jack commented that it was making him feel like he had just walked from Miami to Los Angeles, only to be asked why he had not taken the free high-speed train that he didn’t know existed.
“You want us to make videos of the Facility on our side?” asked Eirik in confirmation. “What do you need us to take?”
“Everything you can. That way, we can have a record of your environment to show to the people what you are seeing. That would allow them to find solutions to your problems much faster and with more precision. An image is worth a thousand words,” observed Celina as she fiddled with her hair, trying her best to remain calm and focused despite the excitement of soon seeing images of their cavern. “Oh, but the doctor says he wants Jack to do it. You need your rest.”
“Jack is making the ladders. And I need to do something before I go nuts in here, so I will go and take as many videos as possible,” replied Eirik. Not waiting for an answer, he got up. He felt a little dizzy at first, but within minutes, he started his new career as a cameraman by going to the end of the corridor and filming everything on the way back.
As he walked slowly, tilting the FastCom to show what was now the ceiling and then the walls and floors, people were commenting on the quality of the video and the speed of the transmission until they were interrupted by Celina.
“Eirik, I can see that the dust on the floor is getting more condensed. It looks like dirt is covering the floor completely,” said Celina, her face shining and excitement clearly discernible in her voice.
Only an archaeologist can be thrilled by the appearance of dust on the floor, he thought. “Yes, the dust is getting so bad by the time I’ll reach the end of the corridor. It will be about an inch thick and it will be more like top soil than dirt at that point,” Eirik concurred, feeling the dirt and dampness in the air invading his lungs.
“Eirik, do you know what this means? You are safe,” said Celina, turning to her staff. “Get me a GPS and send it to them. Make sure it is fully charged!” she ordered.
Eirik, who understood the conversation and was familiar with its use in the oil industry since its release to the public six years earlier, was not sure how the Global Positioning System would be helpful at the bottom of a cave. After all, you needed to have a perfect and unobstructed line of sight with at least three satellites for it to work. Even in the best case scenario, that was at least more than three hundred metres straight up.
“Celina, can you tell me what your plan is and why is the dirt accumulation so important?” replied Eirik, who had now stopped walking and turned the camera toward him, revealing to Celina his Viking-like features.
“Dust in a house is mainly particles coming from outside and also dead skin from the inhabitants,” explained Celina matter-of-factly. “And dirt on forest floors is the result of dead leaves and plants. Given enough time, perhaps thousands of years, that accumulation of dirt can bury an entire city. So, the fact that you have a good layer of dirt in the corner tells me that there is an opening and that the dirt and the air, for that matter, are getting in from somewhere.”
“And if the air and dirt are getting in, you think we can get out?” asked Eirik, hopeful for the first time since he stepped through the transporter.
“That’s possible if the hole is big enough—and I’m sure it is. By the way, I have the schematic in front of me of what your Facility should look like. The only hole that I can see is the decompression chamber. By the way it is positioned, it would have to be on the top. Everything fits,” proclaimed Celina, overjoyed. “But of course, you are not out of the woods.”
“Maybe not... but I’m sure that Jack can stop making his ladder and get to the top alone and see,” replied Eirik. “If he can get out and use the GPS to tell you where we are, then you guys can come and rescue us.”
“That’s all good Eirik, but we need to take a medical assessment break,” insisted Doctor Novikov as he cut in to the conversation.
Eirik let out a light chuckle. “I’m feeling fine. The pills you sent earlier are making me feel like I can climb mountains or maybe fly out of here altogether.”
“Well, can you return to Jack’s position so he can check you out?” asked Novikov.
“No point arguing with you. After all, you control the drug supply,” replied Eirik, as he broke in to a drunken laugh, knowing that they already received more than enough of the codeine supply for a small hospital to last a year. That was all in line with Jack’s policy of when you believe you have enough of something, double it.
After less than an hour of filming, Eirik’s arm started hurting again so he returned to Jack, who was now lying on the stack of blankets with his sleeping bag on top of him and the dog on top of everything else. It had been two days now and the cool fifteen degrees was starting to get to him. Eirik, although injured, was fine with the cold, thanks to either his Norwegian blood or the codeine.
He didn’t reply to the doctor’s scheduled check up and went to sleep wrapped in his sleeping bag. He was soon warm and relatively comfortable, and dozed off.
When they both woke up, it was in the middle of the night. Doctor Novikov had tried to reach them, but their FastComs were both closed and Novikov went to sleep, leaving the medic to monitor the frequency. Jack was the first to break the silence and reported in. He was already briefed on Celina’s plan and would be attempting the climb the minute he could get all the gear, food, and water together. Celina was still awake and as she heard his voice, patiently waited for Jack to finish his debriefing with the medic to jump in and tell him what to expect from the climb.
Celina had been left in charge of the Castaways by Lawson and continued focusing on Jack’s progress. He was communicating with her on the go as he climbed, attaching the rope to each anchor point of the railings. He hanged himself and swung his body from left to right and tried to pull the railing off the wall to test if it was safe, before resuming the climb. Soon, he reached the ten-metre mark and the rope had been passed through about twenty or so anchors, so he was fairly confident that his position was secure. Having to raise his body only half a metre to attach the rope was also making the job easier. As for the doorways, the first few had been scary, but now he was taking advantage of them. He used the door frame to place both feet securely as he leaned forward and made locking knots on the railing above with both his free hands. He was almost at the mid-point of the climb when he saw the angle changing. The corner was now clearly visible on the other side of his position and he would soon need to switch to continue his climb. Fortunately for him, the railing turned with the corner and he could see that it was anchored on the wall on both sides.
He took a second to explain his plan to Celina, not only to keep her informed, but also because saying it aloud helped him review it in his head. He loosened the rope a little to give him enough freedom of movement to switch to the other wall and push off with his feet. He didn’t reach the other side on the first attempt and crashed, back first, into the wall he had launched from. As he bounced around, he pushed with his feet again, arms straight, and managed to grab the railing with his fingers. He then lowered himself a little and secured his legs on the doorway below. He took a minute to take a breather and secured his equipment to the other wall with a second length of rope and remained seated on the doorframe, peering inside the room with his light. He was surprised at what he saw but didn’t pay much attention to it at first. It seemed that in the corner of the room were some items that didn’t resemble Builders’ furniture or equipment. He wasn’t there to explore the place, however, only to climb to the top and get their location.
Before pushing upward, he secured the first end of the rope at the edge, creating a bridge from one side to the other. Then, he pushed himself up, guided by the railing, and reached the anchor above the corner. But it felt weird to the touch and he pulled his hand away. On the second attempt, his hand didn’t grab the railing, but he touched something on top of it, something much softer and rough, like a root or a small roll of leather. A little afraid but resolute, he squeezed it, but the sound didn’t match anything his hand was feeling. The sound was more of that of dry grass. Knowing he was securely attached to the railing, he pulled and swung his other hand to grab the top. He almost made it when a terrible noise resounded above him and his hand let go of the root-like material. He just had time to see what it was before it fell in an avalanche of dust.
Jack, shielded by the wall, felt a massive rope bounce all the way to the bottom. He couldn’t be sure of course, as he was in the dark, but he assumed that the rope was very long. Maybe it had been long enough to reach the top. He was shocked and it brought back memories of the first time that he fell off a cliff and was sure that he saw his life flashing before his eyes, until the rope tensed up and stopped his descent with a sharp jolt a few metres below. He had hated it then and he didn’t like it more now. He slowly tried to breathe normally, but the cloud of dust hovering around him made him cough a few times. He then grabbed the rope with both hands, climbed back up to the door frame, and sat on the ledge again. He picked up his communicator and answered Celina, who had been asking repetitively if everything was alright.
“Sorry for not replying sooner. I was sort of falling off my perch,” answered Jack, still out of breath and coughing until he managed to take his water bottle out and drank a little.
“Are you alright?” repeated Celina, concerned and whishing she was there.
“I’m ok, but he is not,” responded Jack, looking in the corner of the room, as he had done before trying to climb to the second portion and failed.
“Who? Eirik? What’s wrong with him?” asked Celina, visibly concerned.
“I’m fine. I ran to the end of the corridor to see what that noise was all about,” replied Eirik, looking at the debris as the dirt slowly settled. The statement confused Celina, but she didn’t have time to ask for precision as Jack spoke again.
“Celina, you will not believe it,” shot back Jack, feeling relieved despite the spooky scene in front of him. “I think we will be able to get out of here. There is a guy here. If he managed to climb down, I’m sure we can climb out.”
“There is a guy with you now?” asked Celina incredulously and cutting Eirik who had tried to ask the same question.
“Well, it could be a girl. I’m not an expert in skeletons, but for sure if he climbed down, we can climb up. I grabbed his rope, thinking to gain purchase on the upper railing, but the entire damn thing collapsed,” explained Jack.
Used to mummies, tombs and skeletons, Celina felt excited by the discovery and had totally forgotten that this was a rescue operation and that Eirik was injured. “How long has he been dead?”
“I don’t know. He is sort of dry and there is no skin,” replied Jack, equally fascinated. It seems we were not the first to discover this Facility.
“I have to see it,” Celina told them excitingly. “I can’t help you from here anymore and I’m sure we can get out now, so I’m coming.”
“Absolutely not!” shouted Eirik and Jack in unison.
“Well, my gear has been ready since yesterday and Lawson and Johnson are sleeping. So, that makes me the highest-ranking person here,” objected Celina. “Besides, just try to stop me. Clear the area. I’m coming.”
Knowing that he couldn’t stop her and feeling exhausted from the climb and the setting up of rope, Jack descended, testing the knots as he went down. He soon reached Eirik at the bottom. They called Celina and told her to wait for them, and that they would make sure that the place was clear before she arrives. Also, knowing that they wouldn’t be able to dissuade her, they pushed the stack of blankets under the first transporter pad and waved at her to go ahead.
As soon as she appeared, she could see them as they pointed a spot light in her direction. She was facing down and started falling immediately. Bending her knees, she had just enough height to shift her legs toward the ground and landed on her feet, taking a step back to regain her balance. Before Jack had the time to catch her from behind, she was stable. Unclipping her backpack and letting it fall to the ground, she lunged for Eirik’s neck as she hugged him for a few seconds, then turned to Jack and said hi to him with a laconic smile.
Jack stared awkwardly at the two, bewildered at what he had just seen. “Have you two... I mean, you know?”
“A few times, since I started studying Norse mythology. I always dreamed of having my own Viking,” replied Celina, giggling. “When I saw him, I felt the attraction and knew he wouldn’t play hard to get very long.”
Eirik didn’t say anything and just looked at Jack and shrugged. He was happy to see her and at the same time concerned for her. But if he had learned one thing about her, it is that she was strong-willed and an exceptional athlete. They had both married young and divorced equally young, and had lost faith in the nobility of love. Today, it was fun. Tomorrow was too far to think about.
Celina was fresh and well rested despite the lack of sleep, and she had no intention of spending too much time discussing the ordeal she had willingly agreed to trap herself in. Climbing to the skeleton was the reason she was there and, like her father and mentor, who had been a blacksmith all his life always said, “Beat the iron while it is hot. Polish it at leisure.”
Eirik, who was still cold and had taken the opportunity to lie on his side, petted the dog as he watched Celina prepare the ropes and ladders. She was struggling a little with the stuffiness in the air, but remained focused. She had decided to kill two birds with one stone. She would bring the ladder with her to secure it to the railing where Jack had left off. As she climbed to the room, she had to promise not to climb higher. But she had no intention to attempt it, at least not yet.
As she got ready to go, the two men were talking and they had agreed that Jack would go with her for safety reasons. She had already thanked him twice by the time they reached the end of the corridor. However excited she was of starting real archaeology, the thought of going alone in a cave the size of a few Empire State Buildings was not too reassuring. As they arrived at the pile of debris, Celina knelt and extracted a piece of wood entangled in the rope. The rope was old, very dry, and almost disintegrated as she pulled the piece of wood and turned it around as she examined it with her head-mounted light.
“We are in Africa; I would say likely Gabon or Congo... more likely the rainforest of Congo. This is a piece of mangrove tree bark and this type is region-specific,” she explained, handing the piece to Jack for confirmation, but received none. “The rope is very old. So, it’s possible that the hole that your skeleton used to get in is likely still there. These roots don’t grow that much because all the water and nutrients they need can be found at the surface. So, all we have to do is find a clearing and call our people to pick us up, or so I hope.”
“Well, let’s start attaching the ladder and go up,” proposed Jack. “I was still hoping we were on Earth for easy rescue, but I kind of hope now that we could be on another planet. It would make things simpler.”
“What do you mean?” asked Celina, surprised. “At least now we have two possibilities to get out.”
“Let’s take a minute to think about it, assuming that you are right,” started Jack, looking at Celina who was looking back with her does two-plus-two-equal-four look. “We are in the middle of a jungle, possibly in the middle of a warzone, even. Totally screwed is what comes to mind. I wouldn’t count on a fast and easy rescue if I were you.”
“With everything in English at the Facility, they should be able to have the transporter up and running in no time,” reassured Celina calmly. “But, I’m not too concerned. A lot of archaeological digs are conducted in dangerous areas, controlled by guerrilla forces where kidnappings and summary executions for trespassing are also common threats. Congo is no worse than Belize or Iraq,” she offered, as if talking about the weather. With that, she pushed off the ground.
The climb was fast. Celina, at thirty-three, was very fit and her dexterity impressed Jack a lot. She was climbing first and was joking that a wall at sixty degrees was easier than walking up the hill to her apartment in San Francisco. With their ladder completely secured for the full first half of the climb to the surface, they had easily climbed inside the room and lowered themselves to the bottom in less than thirty minutes. As they swept the floor with their flashlights, they found a chipped dagger with a moldy leather-covered wooden grip and several blocks of wood that have crooked inscriptions carved on it. Although Jack couldn’t understand a thing from the writing, he thought it might be Arabic. It seemed that Celina was right and she elaborated on the details on how the skeleton was most likely that of an adult male, one who was able to read or write in Ajami script, and—based on what she could discern from the carved script—likely spoke Congolese. She had changed her mind a little about where they were and now estimated them to be either in Congo, or least likely Angola, but not Gabon. At that, Jack was not feeling any better. Both were warzones and that wasn’t good. But again, he remembered his training and just sucked it up.
Celina didn’t have to investigate much to realize that the poor man had been stuck in the room until death had come to him. She couldn’t read the exact words from the inscription as it seems to have been shoddily made, but it was rather clear that he had recorded his final thought on that piece of wood. Maybe his last wishes had been to his wife and kids, to whatever gods he believed in, or simply his regrets for going a little too far. At any rate, he had died there and the numerous possibilities as to why he ventured out here and the circumstances around his death raced through her mind. She willingly trapped herself in that situation to have the chance to experience what being the first to discover a new archaeological site felt like. And now it was too late to change her mind.
It took her almost an hour to examine the remains and the rest of the room. They found a few dried waterskins and stones that she had seen before, the kind wildly used even today in Africa for cooking. She tried to catch her breath in that arid, dusty room as she examined the artefacts they had gathered, the general ambience of the place reminded her of a modern crypt than anything else. She stared at the skeleton and imagined what the doomed man’s days in the Facility had been like. Was there any power when he had first entered? If so, how much was he able to access? If there was no power, what did he make out of the fact that the Facility was on its side, if it was at the time? It was already a challenge for most of the employees at the Facility in Norway to understand and adapt to the new technologies without adding all the philosophical debates about who ultimately created these incredible places.
Did he think about who created this metal cave? It would probably be a god most likely, as it would have been the easy way out at the time. That’s still the case today with some people. Or perhaps he was just happy to have found a place to hide from these white people who smelled like wet chickens, who combed the jungles and villages to take people like him over the ocean in the belly of great wooden beasts to the cotton fields to a life of slavery. The random thoughts flooded Celina’s mind as she tried to make sense of the material that she has at hand.
“Celina, are you okay?” asked Jack, looking at her and seeing that she had been focusing on the same carvings for a few long seconds.
“I’m fine, thanks,” she answered as she slowly recovered from her reveries and started collecting a few bones, a jar, and some stones, and placed them in her backpack. “I was just thinking that he was a pioneer just like us. The evidence clearly shows that he stayed here for at least a few days. By the time I’m done with the carbon dating and the translation of these blocks, I’m sure we will discover that he was here to explore this place, just like us.”
“Well, let’s hope that we end up better than him,” replied Jack.
“No, we will end up exactly like him,” she offered solemnly. “It will just take a few more decades, if we are lucky.”