The light died as soon and the pair entered the cave system, and only the slight light from their helmets touched the walls of the tunnel. Their shadows stretched and played up the uneven walls of the tunnel as they walked. The Reverend lightly touched the walls and allowed his fingers to brush against the moisture spilling down the contours of the rock.
"Water..." he said.
"Yes, it’s from the ground above" said Banjo. "We think water seeps down through the mud and into the caves from the rain"
"It doesn't burn..." Aston frowned as he spoke.
"No...it doesn't" agreed Banjo. "We've heard several theories from various people into that. Some believe the water mixes with the sunlight to produce highly toxic levels, while some believe the mud reduces the toxicity of the water"
"Which did you subscribe to Mr. Jax?"
"I don't know..." he turned to look at the Reverend and watched his reactions as shadows cast over his face as he spoke, "I think there are things greater in this universe than us...and stranger" he turned away and continued to walk down into the tunnel. "We're only a small part of life" he spoke over his shoulder whilst looking down at his feet carefully judging his own footsteps.
"Very wise, Mr. Jax" commented Aston. "Tell me...did you map the mines?"
"No" came the response, "but I have spent a lot of time down here. Maybe too much time" he smiled as he spoke. "I like it down here" Banjo admitted. "It’s nice"
In the darkness the Reverend nodded and from his perspective he could understand why Banjo felt at home within these catacombs. The path narrowed as they moved down the tunnel and soon the steps disappeared reduced into a slippery smooth pathway. A small metal rail ran along the side of the wall and the pair were forced to clutch to it to aid their balance and travel deeper into the mine. From the main passageway Aston could see smaller crops of rock burrowed and tunneled from the path. "Several of these lead off into dead ends..." commented Banjo to the Reverend’s unspoken question.
"Who were the first to map and mine the caverns?" asked Aston.
"Most of the initial surveys were done by the people who run the colony" said Banjo. "The councilors...the law...those type of people. They made the first survey down here..."
"It would be the councilors who found Seem Eight then"
Banjo nodded, "and the other seems...". He pointed down a small tunnel into a rocky cul-de-sac, "most of the tunnels have areas like this where the councilors made several insertions to determine the productivity level of an area", he waved around him as he spoke, "all of these tunnels were mapped extensively by the council...and most of the most precious discoveries were made by them. You could say that is why they set themselves up as the leaders of the colony" Aston could hear in Banjo's tone that a level of resentment had built up within the colony from the miners toward their leadership. The elite.
"Tell me about the early days..."
"When we first landed.... most of us used our time to establish many of the habitations you have seen in Hope. While we were toiling away there, the few...left to explore. This is what they found" Banjo ducked as he spoke as the pair entered a smaller confined away of the system. "They spent weeks...months here, taking soil and rock samples and once they had finished declared the area an area of Prosperity..."
"Hence the name..." interjected Aston.
Banjo nodded, "They declared themselves as our saviors...our leaders...and laid instructions for widespread mining operations. While we the people worked in the mines they established trade routes and treaties with Earth, while conducting levels of operations within each of the Eleven Seems"
"When was Seem Eight closed then?"
Banjo thought for a moment, his arm resting on the low celling, "quite early on as I recall..."
"And with no indication why"
"Hmm...I can't remember" admitted Banjo, "Is it important"
"It might be Mr. Jax, it might be" From the little light spilling from the men's helmets the Reverend could see the tunnel opening before them ahead of their position. "Is that the Central cavern?" he asked.
"No... that is our angel" said Banjo smiling. As they moved the tunnel opened up around them and soon they found themselves standing in a large recess area with the tunnel stretching out beyond. In the center of the recess stood a rock formation, rising from the floor. The base of the formation spread across the floor of the cavern and rose to a rounded peak around seven feet tall. The Reverend could see two flats rocks formations protruding from the rear of the monolith which adjacent to the formation itself and stretching toward the floor. Banjo touched the rock and looked toward the ceiling high above their heads, "when the sun is directly above the cavern" he said pointing to a hole in the roof above their heads, "light spills down and touches the rock" he smiled as he spoke.
"I can see why you call it the angel" remarked the Reverend as he looked over the rock. Indeed, the two rocks at the rear could be perceived as wings, "it is beautiful" he breathed. Banjo waited for a moment considering both rock and Reverend before moving toward the once again narrowing tunnel. "Do you have many formations of this kind?" asked Aston as they squeezed through the rough archway.
"Not like that" said Banjo indicating back toward the angel, "but we do have several others...the witch...the harp...the gateway, not all of them are as spectacular, but in their own way are remarkable" Traces of coloured rock pushed through the darkened layers on the rock face and the Reverend stopped to inspect the differing rock types.
"What are you mining for?" he asked as the light from his helmet sparkled under the scrutiny of the rock.
"Everything...anything" said Banjo vaguely. "Anything which is deemed valuable...anything we find...gold...gem...iron...doesn't matter what it is if we can profit from it, then we mine it"
"What was in Seem Eight?" asked the Reverend.
Banjo shuffled uncomfortably, "Look" he admitted, "I don't know...all I do know is we were instructed not to mine the area and it was sealed off. I know it’s not what you wanted to hear, but it’s all I have..." he paused before moving away from his companion and whispered through the darkness, "sorry".
They continued into the Central cavern in silence, and while the Reverend continued his expedient exploration of the rock face, touching and stroking the illuminated gemstones glowing beneath the light from his helmet torch, Banjo concentrated on their progress through the tunnels. He felt stupid...no not stupid, ignorant after his admission and suddenly realised how little he knew about the environment that he worked within on a daily basis. He had no idea what was in Seem Eight of why it had been closed, and realised he had never even questioned the motives of the council in their decisions. He had simply complied, just like everyone else in the colony. The pathway opened up around them as they walked and soon they stood in a vast open space. Around them, lead various tunnels leading in several directions and from the bowels of the tunnels men and women pushed carts in and out of the darkness. In the center of the cavern laid a large bucket which was being filled with materials extracted from the mine, which was heaved into the air and through the opening in the cavern high above.
"This is the main extraction point" explained Banjo. "As you can see, many of the shafts lead into the cavern where they are loaded into the buckets and taken through the roof into the mine where they are refined" As the Reverend watched the activity around him, he could see one of the tunnels at the rear of the cavern was sealed with heavy planks of wood which obstructed passage into the tunnel.
"Yeah, the tunnel to seem Eight" confirmed Banjo as he rummaged through a large box at the edge of the site. "The entrance was sealed for health and safety reasons by the council months ago"
"No..." Banjo trailed off in thought for a moment before continuing with his answer, "treacherous conditions...I think was the official statement". Aston continued to watch the activity around the site while he waited for Banjo to complete his search. Crates were pushed along dirty rails, filled with rocks and emptied into waiting carts. The looks on the faces of the miners, both men and women seemed haggard in the semi-darkness and Aston considered most of the workers to be pushing the point of exhaustion as they struggled to hide their true feelings beneath a masque of quiet contemplation. He wondered whether the atmosphere within the mine workings would have been different if he wasn't reviewing the scene unfolding around him. "Here..." the sound of Banjo's voice disturbed him from his revere and he cast a quick glance toward the miner who was standing over the box with two hand-held torches in his hand. He threw one through the expanse of air between the pair. Aston reacted and grasped at the bulky black plastic, pulling it close to his chest. "The light in Seem Eight is kept to a minimal...mostly only natural light, we'll need these if we are to traverse the conditions safely" explained Banjo. Aston nodded and tested the torch by stabbing his finger at the small button concealed in the handle. The light illuminated his face briefly, before the Reverend turned the device off and followed Banjo across the cavern toward the sealed tunnel.
Banjo stood before the tunnel and grasped at the wooden boards covering the entrance. His muscles strained with the extra effort of pulling the planks from the hole in the rock face and Aston briefly considered assisting Banjo in the removal of the wood. The first of the boards subsided suddenly under the pressure of Banjo's attempts and the miner staggered back a few steps as the moorings which held the wood finally released the barrier. The remaining planks were quickly removed and the pair soon stood before the yawning chasm of darkness which stretched out before them. Banjo switched his torch and shone it through the darkness, where the beam of light was quickly consumed by the gloom. "Ready?" he asked.
Aston James nodded and copied Banjo in his actions and shone his own torch into the tunnel. The beams of the torch illuminated only a very small area of the tunnel, played and entwined within each other’s light stream before wandering across the walls and the floor of the tunnel. Rough planks stretched along the uneven floor of the tunnel and reached through the darkness and down into the depths of the cavern system. "Be careful and try to stay close" warned Banjo. He paused on the threshold of the tunnel and faced the Reverend, "I don't want to sound harsh or anything...but these corridors aren't as well defined as the others. They haven't been processed for continued use, if you slip or fall there is no way of knowing if the floor will give way into a sink hole and I won't have time to help you. So don't dawdle and try to stay close"
"Do not worry about me Mr. Jax" replied Aston, "I shall be alright...I have my faith guiding me. Just you concentrate on keeping yourself safe and doing the job that you were instructed" Banjo smiled inwardly and moved into the tunnel with the Reverend close behind.
The office of the Sheriff was quiet. He sat alone in the darkness of his room and stared at the door. Where had it all gone wrong he considered to himself quietly, he was supposed to be the official figurehead of the law in the colony and here he was hiding, alone in his office. The doors and windows remained firmly shut in position and the kettle sat whistling on the stove. The Sheriff shook his head and sighed, he was a symbol wasn't he? he was the law. So why was he hiding? A feeling of shame struck him savagely and he cast his mind back to the early days, when he had been a prominent miner and making the first discoveries within the caverns. The things he found...
Where had it all gone wrong? He buried his head in his hands and let out a long hard sob as memories surfaced, and secrets rose in his gut. He had kept his mouth shut for all these years...and now with this H.O.S.T operative investigating, how long before everything would be revealed. The Sheriff knew he had been rewarded for his part in the deception at Prosperity, and his silence. The things he found...
The tunnel stretched out into the darkness before Banjo and as he peered through the dank atmosphere the light from his torch touched and caressed the walls of the confined space. Sharp stalactites hung from the ceiling like teeth extruding and caused the pair to stoop and maneuver their bodied through the corridor of black. The small pieces of wood which laid, caked in mud underfoot were threatened by the consuming paste beneath their feet and as their feet pushed down on the fragile wood, mud swelled over the extremities of the walkway and swallowed traces from the sides of the planks. The beam from the Reverend’s torch would reach over Banjo's shoulder as they walked and swayed indiscriminately from side to side as it searched for evidence along the tunnel of the reason that operations had been cancelled in this part. It was a question that Banjo was beginning to raise in his own head. Yes, the tunnels were thin...granted, but no more treacherous than some of the other tunnels he had worked in across the mines.
"How far does this tunnel stretch?" the question pierced the darkness and startled Banjo's train of thought.
"To be honest Father..." he admitted, "I actually have no idea" he shrugged apologetically in the tunnel and immediately thought the action foolish. There would have been no way the Reverend would have seen his movement, "I've never actually been down here. The council sealed off the area before any digging began" He stopped and turned to face the Reverend, "how far do you want to go?"
The Reverend was running his hand over the rock face and examining the surface of the rock with his torch. His fingers traced the contours of the rock and ran through the damp streams of water which coated the wall. The Reverend withdrew his hand and stared at it for a moment under the intense scrutiny of his torch light before raising his vision toward Banjo. "Sticky" he commented and firmly pressed his hand against the wall once again. Banjo watched in morbid fascination as the Reverend moved his hand up and down the rock face before realising what the Reverend was examining. Slowly he stretched his own hand toward the rock surface and pressed it down against the cold surface. The surface was sticky, but Banjo realised that it was completely smooth. "Has this area ever been processed?" Aston asked, still running his hand over the surface of the smooth rock.
Banjo shook his head before verbally answering, "No... well not to my knowledge" He turned to face the other side of the tunnel and pressed his hand against the surface. The other side of the tunnel was in complete contrast to the smooth complexion of the tunnel wall and Banjo moved his hand slowly over the rough crags which protruded from this side. Aston moved his face toward the smooth surface and pressed his ear against the rock. "What" exclaimed Banjo.
"Sssh!" hissed the Reverend waving in Banjo's direction. They stood for a moment in complete silence before Banjo spoke.
"What are you doing?" he whispered.
"Listening" commented Aston simply.
"I don't know Mr. Jax" admitted Aston straightening from the rock, "I was rather hoping to hear something..." his voice trailed off as his attention wavered toward the uneven surface of the adjacent wall. He copied his previous actions and pressed the palms of his hands against the surface allowing the sharp pieces of rock to pushed against his skin. Banjo watched as the Reverend moved his hands across the jagged terrain of the wall until he reached a small round circular opening at waist height. He flicked his torch to the hole and ran his finger around the outside the opening. Aston knelt before the hole and shone his torch into the darkness, where the light of the torch was swallowed by the gloom. The beam from the torch swept across the tunnel and picked out several more holes all at different heights, but all of about the same width and diameter. "Have you any ideas what could have made these?" he asked Banjo.
Banjo shook his head and knelt beside the Reverend and examined the hole with his own torchlight. "None at all" he admitted eventually.
"Could they be bore holes?" asked Aston tracing the outer reaches of the hole with his finger. "For mineral samples..."
"No..." said Banjo carefully, "We don't have anything which could penetrate the rock that deep" he said as he peered into the depths of the hole.
The Reverend moved his fingers slowly into the small crevice and allowed them the follow the shape of the hole. "Fascinating..." he breathed as he withdrew his hand. "Please, Mr. Jax..." he indicated toward Banjo to copy his action. Banjo looked into the hole and shone his light into the gaping chasm beyond again and slowly raised his hand toward the opening in the rock. From his semi-kneeling position before the hole he could see the light from the torch stroke the inside of the tunnel and grimaced inwardly as small droplets of water dripped from the roof of the opening. He paused with his hand hovering over the scar in the rock and glanced toward the watching Reverend. He nodded toward the hole and mouthed "Go on" as he urged the miner to place his hand into the hole. Banjo tentatively eased his fingers into the gaping maw and immediately pulled them back and wiped them on his clothes. "Put your hand in" whispered Aston by his ear and once again Banjo found his hand wavering over the hole before it fell by his side. A blur of movement from his side caught Banjo unexpectantly as the Reverend grasped at his arm and thrust it deep into the hole, "I said Mr. Jax...put it in" he hissed as he held Banjo's arm forcibly in the hole.
The sudden movement of his arm caused a contraction in the sides of the hole and Banjo felt a tightening around his trapped arm. "Fascinating isn't it Mr. Jax" whispered Aston, "how it reacts"
"It?" gasped Banjo.
"How does it feel?" urged Aston. Banjo could feel revulsion rising in the pit of his stomach and he desperately fought the increasing gagging reflex growing in his throat. "Describe it"
Banjo reluctantly struggled with his arm under the intense scrutiny of the Reverend, "it feels...it feels..." he stammered.
"It feels disgusting!" grimaced Banjo.
"But what else?"
Banjo frowned for a moment and allowed the senses in his hand to relay the information to his brain before speaking, "it feels...moist" he said, "no... clammy"
"What else?" urged Aston., leaning forward to Banjo. The miner could feel the warmth of his breath as he spoke softly and gently to him and he could feel his body almost relax under his presence.
He eased his fingers around the constricting hole for a moment, "it doesn't feel like rock" he admitted after a while, "more like clay...soft and malleable" he could feel the softness of the surface inside the hole oozing through his fingers as he spoke.
"Does it remind you of anything?" asked Aston. Banjo shook his head, "mucus..." urged Aston, but still Banjo shook his head. Aston released his grip on Banjo’s arm and the miner thankfully withdrew his arm from the hole wiping the moisture on his clothing.
He looked at the Reverend for an explanation, "What do you mean? Mucus"
"When I first felt it, it reminded me of the surface of your tongue" he explained, "soft and moist with a constant covering of a mucus substance"
"I suppose..." stammered Banjo quietly.
"Does the tunnel lead in any other direction?" asked Aston. Banjo shrugged, looking inside the hole and shining his torch into the depths of the hole. "Onwards it is then" he said, "let's get moving"
Banjo stood and glanced around at the several holes close to his body and peered down the tunnel into the growing darkness in the distance. He paused and watched at the figure of the Reverend as it disappeared down the tunnel, the light from his torch bouncing off the walls as he walked. Banjo sighed and moved further into the tunnel, pushing his way through the tightening walls as the tunnel forged a path deeper into the cavern system. He walked slowly and carefully behind the Reverend and held a begrudging respect for the dexterity of the man in front of him. He watched as Aston steadied himself on the walls of the tunnel as his foot slipped from beneath him. "Careful!" called Banjo in his direction.
"Ah, Mr. Jax" remarked Aston, "not sulking back there are we?"
"No... it’s just" Banjo trailed off slightly ashamed in his next remark, "that whole thing..." he glanced at the wall as he spoke and looked through the beam's light at the pitted wall, "it moved, I know it did...it moved...it was...was" his voice trailed off as he searched for an explanation.
"Alive?" queried Aston.
"Interesting isn't it. How can a wall of stone be alive?" Aston had stopped in the tunnel to allow Banjo to catch up, "consider this Mr. Jax, we have a seem which has been closed to the general mining faculty, a hole which contracts to touch...and have you noticed that smell?"
Banjo hadn't really thought about it until Aston had mentioned it, but there was a curious odour seeping through the walls. He sniffed and involuntarily moved his hand to his nose, "what is that...gas?"
"No... I don't think so, it isn't strong enough" said Aston in response, "but I do think we could find the answers further down this tunnel". Despite his own feelings of growing fear, his curiosity was growing with every step. They continued to walk along the tunnel as the walls began to close around them. As they struggled through the pressing tunnel, the tunnel walls pushed down against their clothing and Banjo could feel the moisture from the walls begin to seep through his outer layer of clothing.
"Walls are narrowing" he remarked as they forced their way further into the tunnel. He attempted to glance over the shoulder of the Reverend, but the confined space limited his line of vision. "Can you see anything?" he asked.
"I think the tunnel begins to widen ahead" remarked Aston, "I can see a light..."
"It’s from the wall..." said Banjo moving his hand against the smooth surface of the rock. Slight streams of light ran through the rock and gave off small visuals of light. "Natural fluorescent" he said, "We've seen it in a lot of the other tunnels, and used it to assist our operation"
"And the smell is becoming stronger"
"I had noticed" smirked Banjo, "It’s pretty hard not to notice", his hand snaked to his face where he made an effort to clutch at his nose.
"I can't quite place the odour"
"Sulphur?" asked Banjo, "we do have pockets in certain areas throughout Prosperity"
"No... I don't think it is" Aston sniffed, "there's something else...something I'm missing"
"If it isn't Sulphur, then what could it be?"
"It reminds me of something..." said Aston as he pushed further into the tunnel. From ahead of them, light glowed through the tunnel walls and the need for the torches soon became redundant as visibility cleared. The walls opened around them as they walked into the large cavern and despite himself Banjo found himself standing beside Aston in awe at the scene before him.
They stood on the precipice of a high ridge overlooking a large lake situated in the center of the cavern. Four waterfalls meandered through the rock and water dived from the openings into the murky pool. Large clumps of white rock rested around the outer limits of the pool and scattered across the floor of the cavern and from their viewpoint they could see small pools over the floor of the cavern. Small fronds rose from the floor and covered parts of the surface while formations of rock rose and fell from flooring and ceiling and droplets of moisture ran from the extremities of the ceiling above their heads.
"Amazing" gasped Banjo.
"Yes it is, isn't it" agreed Aston. "We can get down there" he continued pointing toward a small ridge running from their opening and stretching toward the cavern floor, hugging the wall as it ran. Banjo followed the Reverend as he stepped onto the small ridge and a sudden thought crossed his mid. One push...one quick push and the Reverend would fall to his death, surely from such a height? He shook his head...no the fall probably wouldn't kill him, but it could cripple him and he could just leave him here to die. No one would find him...but could Banjo be that callous. Cass. The thought of her bound and gagged flitted into his mind and with resolve he edged closer to the Reverend. Carefully Banjo moved into touching distance and tentatively reached out toward the Reverend’s shoulder.
"Bad breath!" exclaimed Aston, the suddenness of his voice cutting through the cavern caused Banjo to pull back slightly. "That's what the smell reminds me of...bad breath. Calcium decay"
"I don't understand"
"The smell isn't toxic in origin, just unpleasant. The odour, Mr. Jax is reminiscent of a calcium deficiency and it is my belief that those boulders on the base of the floor could be high in calcium deposits" Banjo watched as the Reverend continued down the slope. He stood transfixed to the spot and inwardly cursed his own inability to act to the instructions of Dillonger Creed. The figure of Aston had reached the floor of the cavern where he was crouching over a large white rock. He could see the Reverend running his hand over the surface of the boulder, before he moved off down the slope to join him at the foot of the cavern. "Ah! Mr. Jax" commented Aston as he heard the gentle footfalls from behind him, "come and look at this". Banjo approached keeping a distance between them and peered over the shoulder of the crouching Reverend. He could see a sheen glazed over the surface of the white boulder and Aston was running his hand across the rough edges, before pulling his hand away and staring at the glean spreading across his palm. Banjo slowed as he neared his back and stared around the ground at his feet, taking stock of the surroundings. Around his feet were scatterings of the white boulders which had captivated the interest of the Reverend as well as normal stones and rocks of varying sizes.
Banjo bent close to the Reverend’s back and seized a large rock, pulling it from moorings of the mud in which it sat. He weighed the heavy boulder in his hands for a moment before straightening to his feet. Slowly and carefully Banjo walked the few feet which separated the two men and hoisted the heavy grey rock against his chest. This was it, he thought to himself as he watched in silence the movement of the Reverend. Was he really going to do it? yes...he had to, what other choice did he have. The Reverend was still examining the white boulder resting at his feet as Banjo raised the rock above his head. He could feel the sting of saltwater as it rose in his eyes, and pearls of sweat began to course their way down his back.
"Do you know what these are?" asked Aston, oblivious to the threat behind him. "They aren't rock or calcium deposits...they're fat. Great big fat deposits..." his voice trailed off as he looked around the lake, "all around"
Banjo could feel his hands shaking as he stood behind the crouching form of the Reverend, tears swelling in his eyes, his stomach tightening and a nagging persistence in his head that this was fundamentally wrong. The rock weighed heavy in his hands and in his soul and in one quick sudden flurry of activity, Banjo brought the rock crashing down...