It feels like he's been crawling forever. Although the air gets colder as he descends, drops of sweat fall on his self-term. He manically wipes it dry. His hands are raw from the rocky ground, and dust fills his lungs.
Through his earpiece he hears:
--Come in, Jack. How you doing?--
He'd never complain about the tunnels. None of them would. Burrowing is life. That's what they teach the kids when they learn that there's nothing above their underground warren but scorched, uninhabitable earth.
He rechecks his equipment: gun with two precious, specially-made bullets; headlamp; self-term. Good.
He crawls on.
That stupid Olsen kid. It was his own damn fault, exploring old tunnels, Jack thinks. I shouldn't be here, alone and afraid, my knees and back aching. I should be with my wife.
He's sorry then, remembering the child's death. Grisly. The balance must be kept. A life for a life, or those things will venture closer to the occupied tunnels, hungry.
From his earpiece:
--We've detected it. Directly ahead. Keep moving forward and shoot on command.--
His headlamp flickers. He carefully adjusts it. He won't let himself think about what would happen if he loses his light.
His earpiece shrieks:
Startled, Jack bumps his head on the ceiling. His headlamp dies.
--We've lost the signal.--
“What? Jesus! My light's out.”
--Quiet. It hears you. Just listen. Move forward.--
Jack crawls through absolute darkness. There is no sound except his ragged breathing and the relentless dragging of his hands and knees, left, right, left, right, through dirt and rubble.
A whisper from his earpiece:
--It's behind you now. Turn slowly.--
He stops. He's hyperventilating. He forces himself to turn around.
Jack fires twice.
--You missed. We're so sorry. Self-term.--
Hands shaking, Jack unhooks his self-term, unlatches the safety. But he hesitates. He wants a moment to remember his wife.
-- Please, Jack, self-term. It's less painful…--
He's a terrified old man, crouching in the dark with a monster. Is a moment too much to ask?
--Jack, if it…gets you, we'll owe them two deaths.--
He activates self-term. Nothing happens.
Something scratches the ground, a few feet away.