She'd never gone this deep.
Gyre wriggled her armored body another centimeter into the crevice, then eased her bag of gear after her. The plating on the back of her calf scraped over the stone, and she winced at the noise. Nobody had warned her that the opening to the lower cave system was so small—or empty. To be fair, she hadn't gotten a lot of warning or preparation. She'd been too eager to get below the surface to question if there should have been more than the limited orientation she'd received.
Still, when she'd signed up for the expedition, she had assumed three things:
One, that there would be a team assisting her, monitoring the readings from her suit from afar, pulling up maps for her when possible, and keeping her company in the dwindling light as she left the surface.
Two, that she would enter through a giant borehole into a mining camp, and would stage in that camp before pressing deeper into the ground.
And three, that the amount of money she was being offered would be directly related to the sophistication of the expedition.
And yet here she was, alone in a tiny crevice in an unknown site, her helmet speakers silent.
"Caver here," she said for the fifth time. "Would appreciate contact, base."
For the fifth time, there was no response. The only sounds were her breathing inside her helmet, the soft pulsing of the alert system displayed in front of her face, and the groan of her suit against rock as she contorted her spine and pressed through another few centimeters.
Gyre paused, leaning against the curved crevice wall. Maybe she should go back. Maybe her suit was malfunctioning. At the hospital where she had been fitted into it, she had gone through the regular check and double check of all systems, including communications transmission. Everything had been fine then, and her year of helping other cavers into similar suits told her that all systems were go. But she didn't have a death wish, and going any farther without comms was suicide. Her eyes flicked over the readouts inside her suit again.
Everything was normal.
"Beginning to suspect suit is shot," she said anyway, addressing the emptiness. "Preparing to abort."
The speakers in her helmet finally came to life. "Negative. Do not abort. Caver, continue." The voice sounded female, clipped and authoritative. More important, it sounded real—not a computerized response.
Well, that got a reaction. Gyre's lips twisted into a bitter approximation of a smile. "Roger," she muttered, and shuffled another few centimeters.
The crevice widened abruptly about half a meter farther in, and Gyre stumbled out, reflexively moving to dust herself off. But carbon polymer just scraped over carbon polymer, a frustrating reminder that for the next several weeks—or even months—she wouldn't be able to feel her own skin. She shook her head.
The suit was her new skin, filled with sensors and support functions, dampening her heat and strengthening her already powerful muscles with an articulated exoskeleton designed to keep climbing as natural as possible. She wouldn't even remove her helmet to eat or sleep. Her large intestine had been rerouted to collect waste for easy removal and a feeding tube had been implanted through her abdominal wall ten days ago. A port on the outside of her suit would connect to nutrition canisters. All liquid waste would be recycled by the suit. All solid waste would be compacted and cooled to ambient temperature, then either carried with her or stored in caches to be retrieved on her trip out. Everything was painstakingly, extensively designed to protect her from . . . elements in the cave.
And, all the while, her handlers would be monitoring her vitals and surveying her surroundings for her. It was Gyre's job to move and climb and explore; it was her handlers' job to document.
"Caver, continue," repeated the woman from before....