Sher was surprised at how fast the descent really went. They had never returned to a route so soon after the first trek. Muscle memory helped as much as the ropes they had left. Depths seemed shallower. Footholds were easier to find.
In these times, when the descent was predictable, when the way was already clear and there was nothing especially interesting to look at, Sher almost felt she could navigate in the dark, no markers, no headlamp, no lead. Sometimes, she pretended this was what she was doing. She pretended that her mastery was preordained, that her wrists were strong because they were always meant to be strong, that the practice of a few years had unlocked a talent she had always been meant to harness.
Birg enabled this with his talk of finding something big. If she was meant to do this work, then it followed she would be the one to uncover something that mattered. She would never say a word of this to Birg. But she couldn’t deny she was hoping for it.
Eight hours had passed when they reached The Ballroom. “Not a bad time,” said Birg, after telling it to her.
“I want to fix what I did with the entry height,” said Sher, digging into her pocket for a pencil.
“Keep it simple,” said Birg. “We have an exit to find.”
“Don’t we have to do a break?”
“Not tired yet,” he said. “You?”
While Sher sketched in corrections, Birg stepped into the center of the room and aimed the beam of his headlamp high, running it over the walls for signs of an upper passage. As he turned, his lantern caught Sher in the eye, and she blinked away the bright. But in its wake, she saw something.
“Birg,” she said. “Stop turning.” Sher sidled over to it, the tall crevice by their entry point that before, she’d taken for just a split in the rock. “Back here,” she said.
Birg crouched in front of her, illuminating a narrow opening and a dark drop. He kicked a stone into the pit, and after two-and-some seconds, here came the answer. “That’s no trouble, then; anchors away,” Birg said, and he let out the rope.
“I missed it completely,” she said, erasing furiously. “What I’ve got makes no sense. Let me adjust.”
Birg was already down the pit to his shoulders. “Sher,” he said. “I promise we’ll come back, firm up the details. But if we keep going we won’t have to; we can be the ones to find the ancient lake of diamond.”
“Don’t tease.” The lake of diamond was from one of her programs.
“Going down,” said Birg, tugging the rope like he was ringing a bell.
Sher watched down the hole as Birg turned small, a dim halo, a shift in the color of the dark. She felt the ghost of his weight pull and settle on the rope, settle and at last slack. Then the flash of his lantern, and down she went after him.
The sound of her touchdown traveled back to her, oddly mute. Usually Birg was there, talking up into the drop as if she could hear, refusing the radio, leaving her to wonder what he said or decide to tune it out. She turned her headlamp brighter. “Birg?” she called.
He always waited.
Sher paced the floor. The opening in front of her was barely stooping height, the formations reflecting dull amber-pink in her light, shiny and bulbous like an animal’s gums. They hourglassed at irregular intervals, obscuring the shape and size of the passage, hiding its exit. But Birg must have gone through here. He wasn’t talking, so he wasn’t stuck. There was nowhere else for him to be but on the other side.
And Sher was a master of this work whose intuition could bear no mistake.
Sher crouched, crept forward, steadying herself along the chill walls. She wound through the tight formations, aiming her light around each corner to gauge what lay ahead. It wasn’t long before she could see a tunnel opening up straight ahead, and soon enough she could stand full upright in it, could walk.
She found Birg ahead around the curve about forty paces, lantern at his feet and casting a halo outward. His elbows out like a pirate.
“You didn’t wait for me,” Sher said.
He turned his head, waved her over.
She saw before she reached him. A wide cavern, stretching far in front, much farther than the lamp could light.
“This is huge,” said Sher. “This could be the main artery of the whole system.” And then she shut herself up, because this was wishful more than it was sensible. She didn’t have a reason to think it other than wanting it to be true.
“The floor’s plenty solid,” said Birg.
“Time to go?” Sher asked.
Birg nodded. “Keep to the middle.”
At no point as they walked did Birg’s light show the whole height or width of the cavern, but Sher could make out a rough idea of length, could mentally trace the shaggy layers of dolomite that walled them in. A straight and solid road—a caver’s dream, a natural wonder. “Priest’s Path,” she named it, but Birg was not stopping and gave her no time to write it down. Sher tamped down her curiosity and looked only where his light shone, watched only where her feet landed. Birg, likewise, conducted them businesslike, indulging in none of his usual teasing, his elaborate theories of what lay beneath the land, of what magic grew and sustained the tree. He was all procedure, calling the turns, alerting her to slopes, narrow passes, sudden dips. Over and again, “Watch your step.”
Single-minded. She hadn’t seen this from him before—the conviction that they might actually find something.
Marching forward, their last rest break long past, they reached a boulder-bound passageway, a cleft in the wall like a pistachio shell. Birg turned sideways, dimmed his lantern, clipped it and his supply pack to his belt. He edged inside. One arm hugging the wall, snaking behind as a guide.
Sher swallowed. The air was getting damp. She switched her headlamp off, the light too piercing in such dark, and followed close as she could to Birg’s warmer glow.
Lower. Dark. The grade sharpening, the floor dropping. Birg was pulling ahead of her, little by little, and all of a sudden she was held back, trapped by something in the dark he left behind him, and she was past her limit, overtired; the protocol wouldn’t come, she didn’t know how to get free.
“Birg, stuck,” said Sher, “stuck,” her body wedged tight, rock jutting into her side.
Birg craned his neck, turned on his headlamp. Sher recoiled from the blinding blue-white.
“You’re clear,” he said, “I know it feels like you’re not, but you’re clear.” With difficulty he rotated himself to face her, holding out his hand to help her. “Squeeze left, move on forward.”
But Sher stayed where she was, eye to eye with a floor-to-ceiling spike of crystal. “Would you take a look,” she breathed.
What had looked in the dark like nothing twinkled gently now, intermittently. Birg’s lamp tilted, catching patches of crystal embedded in the ceiling, studding the walls. Sher twisted her body, pulled her pack around, freed her notebook. “Gypsum, probably,” she said. “I’m not sure.” She jotted her estimates. The plane of the floor and the density of the stone. And more—information she knew from training but rarely got to use. Guesses on pressure, humidity, age.
Birg’s light waned across her page. His lantern jostled against his leg with each forward pull.
He was leaving her.
Sher realized. He wouldn’t wait anymore, wouldn’t tell her to move it along. This route could end in a minute or a mile, and Birg needed a checkpoint, needed somewhere they could rest and recover before climbing back up. He might be flaunting the rules some, but he still had to keep them safe. That was his job.
She pocketed her notebook. She caught up.
The floor of the passage stopped its rough decline and instead began to elevate—an oddity that Sher pondered only briefly before she saw that the tunnel was done, that Birg was out, standing strangely still, his headlamp casting a dim column of amber light straight at the floor. Beyond his silhouette the walls receded, the space emptied out. The light around him wavered with airborne dust, like a stale lagoon broken by the passage of a boat.
Sher came up behind him and stopped, still half in the tunnel, because she could not join him. There was no floor beyond the small outcrop Birg stood on.
“That’s a lot of air,” Birg said. “Breathe it in, huh?”
Sher did despite herself. It shouldn’t have been any different from the dust and dank of the rest. She thought maybe it was more metallic, and felt a little afraid. Birg’s enthusiasm was probably making her invent things.
“It opens out again here,” he said.
“Is what you’re standing on safe?” she said. “What’s below us?”
Birg unclipped his lantern from his belt. He clicked it on, piercing white, the light sprinting up to meet them like unleashed ghosts. Sher’s hand flew up to her eyes, and from under that safety she peered out.
Springing from the walls, driving down from the ceiling. Some nested, like rows of shark’s teeth; others single and sinister, spikes in a demon crown. Clear as moonlight, polished as hard candy. The outcrop Sher and Birg occupied looked out over a glittering shallow crater, a broad and generous bowl, sprouted everywhere with low leafblades of crystal.
An impossible stage, an abandoned amphitheater. So shining the air was almost singing.
Sher sank a slow fist shallow into Birg’s upper arm. “No,” she said. “Don’t even say it.”
In her side vision, Birg smirked.
The lake of diamond, said her brain for both of them. This is the lake of diamond, so make your wish. Any one you want.
Before she could do anything, Birg scooted forward, pulled himself up so he was sitting on the edge of the outcrop. Shifted forward, tested his weight. Threw a leg over the edge.
“You’re kidding,” Sher said, still clinging with one hand to the tunnel opening. “It’s not a playground. You’ll break it.”
“I won’t,” said Birg, grinning kiddish. He pushed off the edge and touched down, one foot and then the other. He shuffled toward the center.
“Let me know the basics,” Sher said, reaching for her notebook. “I’ll estimate the rest. Good enough to show the coats.”
“A pocketful of pebbles would be enough,” Birg said. “I’m pretty sure they’ll be interested.”
Sher got her notebook out anyway. Casting forward through her pages, she counted. Eight hours when they reached the Ballroom. A good ten on the Priest’s Path. The long trek on the Corridor, six hours at least. All at once, Sher felt the time catch up.
“We’re late,” she said to Birg. “We’ve blown our 20 hours. We have to stop. Don’t we?”
Birg turned to her, exasperation hardening his face. “Sher,” he said. “The coats know exactly how late we are. They’re probably on their way after us now. In the interim, we get time. We need more time. The 20 hours rule keeps us slow and stuck, keeps us from finding anything good, from them ever having to pay us more than the cost of our rent. Go back if you want. But if we’re going to spend our lives breathing dirt, I want to get you rich enough that you can keep your apartment that you like, and maybe get some goddamn real people furniture. And I just want to have ever found something good, and I’m not like you; I’ve never even imagined this place would have anything good as this. It’s the one good thing I’ll ever find, and I only want to see it up close.” And he edged down into the center like a slow, determined meteor, the only spot of light in the room.
Sher sat on her heels. Checked her wrist though there was no watch. Tugged the sleeves of her jumpsuit down over her gloves.
Saw too late the change in traction; saw Birg lose his feet, slip-sliding into the center of the crater and landing hard, face-down amid the blooms of crystal, lantern knocked from him. Saw him reach for it. Heard the crack under his weight, then the shatter straightaway, so easy, so total. Like an icicle knocked from a roof.