The deepest cave on Earth, Krubera, is 2,197 meters. The cave we were climbing in was a lot deeper.
The turn on with big caves for me is the difficulty. Each has treacherous obstacles, insane tests of endurance, and, at points, stunning beauty that will steal your breath and send a jolt of pure awe straight to your heart. Imagine climbing a mountain, in the dark, sometimes underwater. Now imagine doing that on another planet, with a new team member, who, in your opinion, might just get you killed.
Our team leader Forrest is one hell of a solid caver. He has a hawkish nose, pale blue eyes, and a sense of humour that is bone-dry.
Matthias joined us about a week ago. He is short, chunky with muscle, black hair and a square brick jaw. He speaks decent English but it isn’t his first language. He gave me the once over when we met, saw that Forrest and me were an off and on thing, and decided he didn’t want any part of that, which was a good decision for him.
Matthias rubs me the wrong way. He seems condescending, though I can never pin the condescension down to a certain moment. There’s also an air of amateurism about him that makes me nervous. But I’m always more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt than call him out, and maybe that’s why I hate him. I’m afraid of him and his reaction if I confront him. For a girl like me, that’s a tough confession to make.
I go by the name Nichole. I’ve been with Forrest for about two years. In that time we’ve trialed at least five additional team members. Funny thing is that I’ve never liked any of them.
We have to perform a controlled descent down a slide featuring precariously-balanced blocks and boulders. You could walk the slope without trouble on Earth. Here the gravity makes the safety line necessary.
I’m in my harness and I slap down the bolt, a card-sized device that extrudes three drill bit-like anchors into whatever surface you hold it against. After that I’m moving down the slope, giving each boulder a safe birth.
I come out and pass through an arch into a spectacular hall with a green river running through it. The ceiling must be eighteen meters. Several long drips of crystalline rock hang from it. You know what I said about beauty that steals your breath? I’m looking at it.
Forrest descends last. I’m testing the slime in the river with a dipper when I hear him shout, “Below.”
Looking back, my head lamp illuminates the boulder-strewn slope. One of the big old rocks is moving. It crashes into another one, and that one hits another, and I’m looking at a cascade of boulders. I’m thinking, oh fuck…Forrest. Of course, he’s up above the cascade. It’s me and Matthias in harm’s way.
No choice but to jump into the green river and hope we can ford it. The boulders thunder down like the evil demon god of this world laughing off his evil demon god ass.
Everything happens really fast And then it doesn’t. Then we are clear on the other side of the green river waiting for the rocks to stop falling.
It takes an hour. When it’s quiet, we confirm what I knew would be the case. I’m sealed down here, trapped 847 meters under the surface with Matthias.
The saving grace is that we still have radio contact with Forrest. After he chews us out for not leaving the hall as soon as we made our descent, he tells us he’s headed back to the surface for digger bots. These are robotic vehicle’s used in mining. They make a mess out of a cave. We don’t use them to explore, especially living caves, but it is that or die down here.
Forrest will have to climb up far enough to be in radio contact with the diggers and summon them down. Best case it takes him thirty hours. Climbing solo is asking for trouble. If it were any other caver, I would not have given him much chance.
The first sign something is wrong is when Matthias notices a tiny puncture in his jumpsuit. Between our helmets and our jumpsuits, we’re pretty much insulated from the external atmosphere. Before we come down here we get a regimen of inoculations and do complete readings of the environment. There’s a lot more oxygen on this world than on Earth. Gravity is 107 percent Earth’s. It’s actually fairly hospitable to human life, except for the radiation on the surface. We don’t have to worry about that down here, though. There’s a whole lot of rock between us and it.
So we slap a patch on his jumpsuit and think nothing of it. I’m all for continuing the descent. There’s two of us and we’re both fine, perfectly healthy. We can’t do anything good just sitting around.
Then Matthias peels out of his jumpsuit so he’s naked.
"Matthias, are you crazy? What are you doing?"
"It’s burning up in here. Aren’t you fried?"
“Get your suit back on.”
His face glistens in the light from our headlamps. "I think I’m going to be sick,” he says, and he is sick, which is not pleasant for either of us.
"I feel strange," he says wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
"You just threw up about ten days worth of rations. Of course you feel strange. You have to put your suit back on. Where are the meds?"
"Already had them," he says. "When the burning started." Then he explains about the burning he felt on his skin where the puncture was in his suit. “It start after we get out of the river,” he says.
I’m staring at his hairy chest, his ridiculous abs, alarms are going off in my head. I’m thinking, this is a bad situation. I’m thinking, Matthias has enormous thighs, but a teeny tiny cock. Actually, it’s huge, too.
“You have to put your suit back on.”
He says something in a language I don’t speak. Then he says, "Poison. Snake poison."
"No. Snakes live on Earth. We’re not on Earth."
He says, "You, Forrest, are my favorite human."
"I’m not Forrest. I’m Nichole. Gotta put your suit on, Matthias. You want help?"
"I know you very excited to come to my home," Matthias says. "But it is too soon."
He’s delirious or something.
"You ever been to Earth?" he asks with a big smile.
"Yeah, I was born there."
If I can keep him talking…Maybe the meds only need time to work on his system, clear out whatever alien toxin has infiltrated his boosted immunity.
"I must reach Earth and find the man they call Forrest. He is a human. There all humans on Earth, you know?"
"You don’t say."
"You will give me pass to travel to Earth?"
"When we get out of this place. You bet we’ll go to Earth."
"Yes. Yes, to Earth. I like to eat human. Very tasty."
"What?" I know he’s delirious. I still put a hand on my gun. If he moves, I plug his ugly face.
He starts to sweat and drool. His body convulses forward and backward. He urinates. I kind of feel sorry for him. A big piece of man brought low by some little alien germ.
I spike the water jug with more meds and give it to him. “Drink this,” I say, and he does, gurgling like a baby.
I’m checking the time almost every minute. Stop it, I tell myself. Do not check the time.
An hour passes. Matthias tells me all about his life on planet DX7126. I think the creative side of his brain has gone into overdrive. Apparently, he has wings like a dragon, sings in a holy choir, and calls for human delivery every Friday.
"You know, human? With the apple sauce? Or maybe…you say tomato?."
" tomato sauce? You’re…You’re talking about pizza, Matthias."
"yes." He smiles. “Very delicious.”
Hurry up, Forrest, I think. You’re not going to be happy with me if I have to shoot this guy. Except, it’s a joke in my head. He’s too vulnerable to shoot.
Finally, I decide I need to sleep. Matthias is wide awake, but mumbling to himself and breathing shallowly. Before I stretch out, I tell him, "If you need anything, Matthias. Just nudge me, okay?”
Of course he does wake me up. He wakes me up by spraying me from the water jug. "You ass," I shriek. "Why did you do that?"
He looks at me and his mouth opens and nothing happens. No words come out. Then I see his tongue and begin to scream. His tongue is green and it has two eyes on it, two beady eyes that glare at me.
Then I feel the burning, and that’s when I notice the green slime in the water, and the neat cut on my suit. He’s sliced open my suit then sprayed slime on me.
"You infected me," I say hoarsely. Matthias nods.
Then I’m violently sick. I know what’s coming. Delirium, sweating and drooling, babbling like I’m an idiot. I will not think about what I saw in Matthias’s mouth. I will not…
I check the time. Six hours until we can expect any hope of rescue.
The hours pass in agony.
At last I hear the vibrations of the digger bots. Matthias is rocking back and forth in anticipation. The larva extends from his mouth. It senses prey.
Six or seven times I wanted to shoot Matthias. But I was afraid that I’d do it when I became delirious so I ejected the rounds. I don’t remember if I have been delirious. I think I’m lucid now.
We can hear a voice on the radio. It keeps shouting something. I think it wants us to answer. I toggle the microphone but don’t say anything. I’m trying to remember what I’m supposed to say. My brain is squashed by something
Then we see the diggers break through. A human isn’t far behind. He’s wearing a second skin. Why do humans wear two skins? Do they think it makes them harder to eat?
"Why didn’t you answer your radios? Why are you both naked? God, are you sick?"
I pull out my gun. It’s time. I point the gun at the human and fire it. Nothing happens.
The human holds up its own gun. The other host attacks him with its body. There are loud bangs. No one is shot. The human is subdued.
"What’s happened? Why are you doing this? Nichole?” The human stares bewildered. "I’m sorry for causing the avalanche. I came as quick—“
Something sparkles behind my eyes. Another consciousness wrestles with me.
The other consciousness forces my jaws to open. Its hands lift up and grab me and begin to pull. I squeal and jerk and spasm.
I don’t want to leave. But I have not had long enough to mature. It rips me out and flings me down and lifts a chunk of rock.
The rock crushes the parasite and I reel back, panting. Matthias, he’s still infected, but he couldn’t stop me and hold Forrest down at the same time.
I have to get the parasite out of Matthias. But I’m so weak.
Matthias has Forrest in a headlock. At the same time he’s trying to tear the helmet from Forrest’s head.
What did I do with the rounds I took out of my gun?
I bring the rock down on Matthias’s head. Not hard enough to do serious damage, I hope. Enough to stun him.
But it doesn’t work.
I could leave them, get into a digger and drive out of here. But I’m bigger than that.
Then the helmet comes off of Forrest and Matthias tears off Forrest’s ear and eats it
Where is Forrest’s gun? There it is. I pick it up and shoot into the side of Matthias’s head. Nothing happens. The gun is empty or broken.
The parasite protrudes nearly half a meter from Matthias’s face. It’s segmented body with its waggling appendages reminds me of the giant centipedes back on Earth, the ones that catch and eat bats. What I thought were eyes have pushed out and become antennae.
Disgusting, I think. Then I think, it’s exposed.
I grab the card-sized bolt used to anchor our safety lines and slap it against the parasite crawling out of Matthias’s mouth.
Obediently, the bolt screws itself in. It sounds like the anchor points dig into bone.
Matthias let’s go of Forrest. His hands move to the bolt and fumble to release it. But I’m on the other end, pulling with all my weight.
Forrest is on his side, blood streaming from his head. He’s not going to help. I yank but Matthias runs after me to gain slack.
I can’t outrun him. He’s going to release the bolt. What’s a girl gotta do to pull the alien parasite out of a guy’s mouth?
I jump on one of the robot diggers and hit the reverse. It double-times it back toward the surface. Matthias follows, dragged by the bolt anchored to the parasite in his mouth.
As Matthias slides by, Forrest lunges and wraps an arm around Matthias’s waist. With his other hand Forrest grabs a projection of rock.
They are almost at the river.
I hit the brakes, a cold fist of fear twisting my guts. If Forrest loses his grip on the rock I could drag him through the river. “Let go,” I shout.
Forrest shakes his head. "No," he shouts. "Gun it."
I have to close my eyes. Then I ease the digger forward.
Above the grind of the digger’s engine I hear the sound of the parasite coming free, a squelching, scraping, slimy noise, a giant plunger being pulled out of a long fleshy tube.
I hit the brakes again, then ease the digger forward through the river, slowing it so I don’t splash water on the two men.
Matthias and Forrest have rolled away from the huge parasite. It thrashes like a landed fish, its body long and covered in masses of writhing filaments. It pulses green and disgusting and I drive the digger over it again and again.
That cave on Earth, Krubera, the one that’s 2,197 meters deep. It’s no joke. But that one we had been climbing in is 6,940 meters, three Kruberas. We would never have gotten all the way. The temperatures would have melted us.
IN the hospital aboard the research shuttle that brought us to planet DX7126, we are being closely monitored.
Seems we have filaments left in our bodies. There’s a chance the filaments might grow and become fully-fledge parasites. Or our immune systems might adapt and destroy them. Personally, I’m hoping for the second option.
Forrest comes in to show us his new ears. He says to me, “I think we have finally jelled as a team."
“Yeah,” I say. Privately I think, all it took for me to warm up to Matthias was to yank a huge disgusting alien parasite out of his mouth.
"Glad you think so,” Forrest says. “Because I’m thinking of recruiting a fourth member.”
“Really?” I ask.”
“yes.” Forrest grins. “I think you’ll really like him.”