Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Hut 37. Part Two.

Aldous dreamed he was a tiny, furry creature, trapped beneath an impenetrable layer of -- sand? -- he wasn't sure, but it was a crust so thick and so hard that he instinctively sensed his own death, and thus dug harder, and harder, with the panicky exhaustion of the soon-to-not-be-able-to-breathe. He woke up into near-pitch blackness -- a dim gleam from around the switchback shed some small amount of blue-white LED wash onto the rough gray ice floor of the tunnel.

He could hear the digging sounds dimly emerging from the around the corner; that's not good, he thought. That meant Max hadn't turned another corner yet. Less than twenty feet. Shit.

He groaned, and checked his chronometer -- 6 AM. Four hours sleep. And he dreamed about digging the whole time.

Aldous pondered the little creature he'd been in the dream -- some sort of beaver, or ferret -- with a whole family to fend for, and stuck beneath a cap of gray, frozen, ashy cement. Not much metaphor. More descriptive. Except that the beaver was a natural-born digger. Aldous was a Digger; but not a digger in the actual digging sense. More as in "I dig this scene", less shovel, scrape, shovel, scrape. Thank god Max had packed an ice axe for the waterfall coming down from Peak Lake. A spark of Absolute Madness had proved to be Pure Survival. Without it, they'd have gone nowhere fast. The icy gray cement, which is what it more closely resembled than ice, was hell to dig through.

Chunk. Chunk. Max was pounding out the rhythm they'd picked up over the last three days. Once they broke through a layer, the stuff seemed to relax into a condensed slush that they would occasionally have to push behind them, nearly filling the shaft; they could still sneak back through a small space at the top. The air was stale, but they could still breathe -- Max theorized that there was enough air trapped in the Gray Stuff that they could survive only by digging.

And dig they did. Night and day, sleeping as little as possible. Conserving food, and water as well -- the hut had an emergency canister, but experiments with melting the gray sludge and trying to distill drinkable water had met with abject failure, as if there was no water in the stuff at all. Yet it was freezing cold, and looked and felt just like gray ice.

Andy shrugged off his fatigue, thinking of the creature. That beaver-thing wouldn't sleep; no, just dig until he died. Aldous rose from his pad and sleeping bag, stretched, and called out the old Wombakinnon howl. The chunking stopped, Max answered, and Aldous smiled as his brother's tangled head poked out from around the corner, fitted with a blinding LED headlamp.

Max removed the light and set it gently onto a ridge of refrozen gray slush.

"Aldous! You only slept like four hours. What are you doing up?"

"I was dreaming of digging. Might as well dig."

Max shrugged. "It's getting harder and harder. Stuff's really bad. What are we at, like a hundred thirty feet up? Hundred fifty?"

"Maybe a hundred. No way to tell. How's the axe?"

Max grimaced a little, and twitched his mouth a little. "Starting to dull up. This shit's like stone. I fucking hate it."

Aldous grinned widely at him, just to cheer him up. "Let me eat something, and I'll take over."

"I'll hack 'til you're ready, bro."

Aldous looked at Max seriously for a moment. "What the hell is this, Max? It's not snow, and we've gone ten stories up, and there's no end to it. What's the rest of the world like? What happened?"

Max looked down for a moment; then his eyes flicked up, with a sharpness that indicated he'd been pondering this very question. He leaned back a little into the gray wall of the tunnel.

"I think this has got to be some sort of catastrophic global event. Big ice asteroid hit the Plains, or something. It's got to be something like that. There's nothing I know of on the planet that has any properties like this crap. Therefore, I think it's extraterrestrial. At least, some part of it that then converts terrestrial matter to -- this --" he gestured at the tunnel.

"You think it's worldwide?"

Max nodded grimly. "I saw that frickin' cloud. That boiling gray thing. It was like CGI, Aldous. Not real."

Aldous sighed. "Yeah, I getcha. Not real. But it sure feels real to the axe."

"Eat. Meetcha up at the Face."

"Ooh, 'the Face', that sounds -- professional."

"Yeah, well I feel like I've been digging all my life."

"Let me cook up some oatmeal. I'll be up."

"Don't smoke the last bowl!"

"I've got more in my medical bag."

"Okay, then."

"Dig, brother. And I shall dig after you."

Max smiled, grabbed his headlamp, hefted the axe, and disappeared around the sharp edge of the switchback. Aldous stumbled around, feeling for his flashlight. He found it, and began to prime the stove.

Two days later, Aldous hit a new layer. He yelled out to Max, who rushed up and around the switchback, as if expecting to see daylight.

Aldous gestured above his head with the now-stubby axe. "Look at this."

Max looked up to see the flat bottom of a black crust, clearly delineated from the Gray Stuff. Aldous chunked the axe into it, and pulled down a small piece -- Max picked it up. "Asphalt. Looks like asphalt." He sniffed gingerly at the chunk -- "No, not asphalt. Something else. Smells like -- metal, burned metal, maybe."

Aldous chunked the axe into the black ceiling again, and pulled out a larger chunk. "Maybe it's the surface, finally. I mean, there's got to be a surface, right? We're over two hundred feet up, maybe more."

Max looked at him. "Let's dig."

"I want the honor. Still my shift." Aldous leaned into the next blow with the fervor of the perhaps-reprieved. Maybe it was only a couple of feet to fresh air. He thought about real food and water. It drove him -- he drew on his last reserves, and his shoulders rang with each pound of the axe into the Black Stuff.

Thirty feet up, on Max's shift, right after the axe's main pick had broken off, and Max had exploded into a fury of frustrated rage with the axe's last bit of head, he broke through. Max shouted with joy, Aldous came running, and together they cleared a passage through the last of the black crust.

Max emerged first, and what he saw as his head popped up high enough to see the horizon startled him enough to stop clearing the last edges with the axe. It was night, evidently, although he thought he saw a faint light emanating from the thick smoke or fog that dominated the landscape. He could see, he realized, beyond the reach of his headlamp -- a dim light was scattered over the surface.

Aldous grew impatient. "Go already!", he prompted. Max climbed out slowly, and stood up on the black crust. He took off his headlamp, and looked in every direction as Aldous concentrated on fitting through the still-sharp edges of the hole in the crust.

"Well?" said Aldous. "What do you see?"

Max said nothing at all. Aldous looked around, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light beyond the small, sharp circle of Max's headlamp. The black crust extended in a flat plane, for as far as he could see. Some undulations; but no peaks, no valleys; no mountains at all. It looked for all the world like a parking lot planet.

"Crap", said Aldous. "We'll have to wait 'til the sun comes up and see how far this goes."

Max held up his watch, and pressed the glow button.

"It's almost noon, Aldous. July 23rd."

They fell into silence for a long moment. Aldous kicked at the black crust.

"Well. This kinda sucks."

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