In the meantime, she reassured herself that expeditions were always top-heavy. They could afford to be, 'had' to be. They were standing on a veritable mint deep below the surface of Cassandra-V, the only thing keeping the colony halfway viable, and decades of mining had taught them a few things.
Like the fact that early teams that went down to establish mines or take samples ended up dead. Ninety percent failure rate. Big groups, small groups, solo explorers . . . it didn't matter. Something always killed them.
Something always killed them, until somebody got smart enough or desperate enough to try wearing a drysuit down, alone, into a cave. Even now, nobody was sure if it was because it blocked heat rising from the body, or smell, or something else, but one person, in an enclosed suit, could survive. One person, though, needed help keeping watch while they slept, and the suits became more and more elaborate to provide for longer and longer survey missions. Now missions had at least five or ten techs topside. She'd seen it firsthand, working support on two medium-sized operations. A year ago, she'd helped her first caver into a similar suit—a hotshot guy with two expeditions already under his belt—and it hadn't been nearly as elaborate and high-tech as this one. This was top-of-the-line and must have demanded an even larger crew.
So where were they?
The sensible thing would be to call off the mission and walk back out, while she still could. But she'd sacrificed too much to get here, this deep, with this much money on the line.
She didn't want to go through it all again. Next time, her embellished work history might not stand up to scrutiny. And if she was wrong, if there was a team, and she walked out? Nobody wanted to hire a caver who would breach contract. Not when there were so many others waiting to be picked.
Not when there are a hundred other kids as desperate as I am.
Gyre rolled her shoulders back to center herself, then clipped into the rope at hip level, attaching the duffel to her suit. It was the first of several she'd be ferrying in that day, the rest stacked and waiting for her on the other side of the narrow crevice she'd entered through. She reached behind her to the hump of hard carbon seated across her shoulders. All her equipment was slotted into the suit itself, and the storage space on her back protruded almost like a satchel. As she ghosted her fingers over the release sensors, her HUD displayed what was stored there. Her rappel rack was within easy reach, and she released it from its slot, then hitched it to the front of her suit and threaded the rope through its bars. Once it was secure, she glanced over the edge again.
Her readout display blinked as it measured the distance down with a few sonar pulses: 70 meters. In normal light, the bottom would've been pitch black, but her HUD's reconstruction showed it in full detail as if it were only a few meters away. She crouched to check the , even though she'd already practiced this hundreds of times since signing on to this project.
Nothing about cave exploration should be done on autopilot.
Everything looked fine. She'd been trained—or rather, she'd taught herself—to place her own anchors every time, but the other, shorter drops she'd already done had been anchored correctly.
Base had confirmed this one had been placed for her.
"Caver, continue," her handler said, her voice flat. Emotionless.
Gyre straightened, checked her device one last time, then stepped off the edge.
Her first camp was just shy of a quarter kilometer from the entrance slot, and five hundred or so meters below the surface. Just as her handler had said, she'd found a cache waiting for her, but additional fresh supplies would still be necessary. Even with high-density, compact nutritional canisters, she'd need more than the few stashed here if she was going to stay under for longer than a month, and then make the climb back out.
She spent two days making three trips back to the surface to retrieve gear. The topside base said nothing else after the beginning of her second trip. At first, Gyre was relieved; the woman on the other side of her comm line, so far her only contact, was abrasive and cold. Her silence left Gyre to make her own decisions. It was comforting for a few hours, as if this job were just like all her solo practice runs. But then the overbearing quiet became too much. Five hundred meters of stone separated her from human contact, and she felt it in her bones. She'd never been under for more than a day on her own before—one of the many small details she hadn't exactly been forthright about when signing on.
So she murmured and sang to herself, trying to distract her itching nerves, the sound never leaving the confines of her helmet as she settled into camp at the end of the second day. It was a quick task. No fire, no sleeping bag, no cooking. Instead, she patrolled the perimeter, administered her meal for the night, then tried to get comfortable.