— 259ae —
49 years, 7 months, 26 days to jump
“Stop! Stop!” Seno Toru yelled out. His voice was useless over the din of the giant drilling machine, grinding away at the rock ahead of them. He waved his hands over his head frantically at the driver of the rig. “Stop!” he yelled again.
It took awhile for the spinning drill blade to wind down. It took even longer for the operator to back the mammoth, tractor driven drilling machine away from the wall surface they’d been excavating. All the while, Toru bore the constant beep, beep, beep of the backup warning horn. Even though it wasn’t one of the massive tunnel carving machines, it was still a slow-moving beast. The operator sat in the enclosed cab, staring at him. He had a look of dismay, wondering what he could have done wrong. Toru put his hand up and simulated cutting his throat, the kill signal. The driver turned the engine off. The mine tunnel went silent. Toru didn’t bother trying to talk to him again. Instead, he just gave him a thumbs up.
Even though he was wearing large, noise-canceling earmuffs on his ears, he knew what he had heard and what he felt. Toru, a miner by trade, had lived most of his adult life underground, and he knew the sound a drill makes when it hits a pocket. They were rare but often dangerous. When bedrock suddenly gives way, there was a change in the pitch of the whine of the bit as it vibrated against the rock. Usually, the sound was accompanied by a burst of trapped gas, or worse. This time something else happened, something he wasn’t expecting at all. There was an unexplainable feeling of the air being drawn into the hole, accompanied by a sudden decrease in the noise of the drill. The fact that he was still breathing was the only thing that kept him calm at the moment.
“Kuso,” he cursed to himself. There weren’t supposed to be pockets here. The survey clearly showed solid igneous, far down into the mountain’s core. They weren’t nearly that deep.
He pulled his pick hammer out of the loop on his belt and cautiously, slowly, went to face the wall they’d been drilling. Just as he’d suspected, there was a small black hole, right where the bit had been chewing away at the rock. He moved closer, but his body cast a shadow from the front-facing lights on the rig behind him. He flipped on the headlamp attached to his helmet get a better look. Cautiously, he stepped closer and leaned in to peer at the hole. There was a deep, open space. The rock near the puncture point looked strange. It had a uniform, tight grain. He took a couple of whacks at it with his hammer to break off a sample. The first chunk that broke loose fell back into the hole. He stopped to listen. Then he remembered his hearing protection.
He pulled off his helmet, along with the earmuffs and dropped them to the ground. Now that he was without his headlamp, he situated himself between the drill and the wall so he could have just enough light to give him a clear view. He started to swing at the rock again but stopped. It wasn’t rock at all. He took his gloves off, tossing them to the floor next to his helmet, then reached out with his hand to touch the opening. It was concrete. Now that he knew what he was looking at, he realized that the drill had exposed a half-meter thick layer of formed concrete. Somehow they had punched through a wall.
“Well,” Toru said to himself. “Would you look at that.”
He left the wall and walked around to the back of the drill rig. There was a long, flat shelf formed by the engine cover. On it was a water cooler, a selection of hand tools, and a small box that contained the radio equipment that kept them connected to the signal booster up the shaft a bit. Also in that box was his portable. He opened the box and pulled out the device and turned it on. The screen came to life, and, after a moment, the security screen disappeared, replaced by the app icons. He tapped on the icon that launched the maps. A red dot appeared in the center of a long, straight hall. It indicated where he now stood. He panned the map around, then zoomed out. There were no other shafts, no planned excavation anywhere near his position. The whole thing was getting odder by the moment.
Scratching his head, he went back to the wall. A couple of swings later and the hole in the wall was big enough for him to put his head through. He stopped and scanned the floor for his helmet. He retrieved it and put it on, tightening the chin strap down. He turned the light on again and wedged his head through the hole for a look around. What he saw made him back away for a moment. He blinked to clear his eyes and took a couple of deep breaths. His heart was pounding. Then Toru stuck his head back in again.
The space beyond the wall was a hallway, a proper, manufactured hallway. Where Toru’s head poked through was about a meter and a half above a smooth, painted floor. The walls were perfectly linear, painted a light grey. Electric conduit ran along the ceiling and was intersected just in front of him by a square lighting fixture. From the looks of it, the whole thing could have been made yesterday.
On the far wall was a placard. It was yellow, with black writing. Toru shined his light directly at it as best he could. The letterforms looked familiar, but the words they spelled out did not. It was some language he didn’t recognize. The symbol above the words seemed vaguely familiar. It was a black circle, with three yellow triangles, pointed towards a smaller yellow circle, just in the center. He thought that should mean something, but he couldn’t quite remember why. He tried poking his head in a bit further, but his shoulders wouldn’t allow it. He was tempted to go back to the drill and get his sledgehammer. He backed away again, seriously considering having the drill operator break out a bigger hole, big enough for him to get into the hall beyond. Toru’s conscience tugged at him. He had to report it, but that would mean shutting down the whole operation. It would mean days, maybe weeks of indecision, second-guessing by men in suits. The only thing he could think of was how to get assigned to the team that got to go into that hallway.