Cleve is the exact sort of man you would want out in the wilderness. He seems to have a head for appropriate supplies and knows how to shoot a gun. He also has that sort of rugged “man’s man” look to him. Brown cargo pants, rumpled off-white safari shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows, wide-brimmed leather hat concealing most of his short sandy brown hair. He’s a white man but with skin reddened by sun exposure, which somehow hasn’t faded in a hundred thirty years. He has a full mustache, but the rest of his face looks to only have a week or so of stubble on it. Suddenly, I realize mine might, too.
I pull my mirror from my shaving kit and inspect the ravages of time. My hair is a little matted from lying on it for a hundred thirty years, so I fluff out my curls a bit. The stubble though? Unacceptable. I can’t meet new people looking like this! Dry shaving is not ideal, but I do have oil in my kit for these sorts of emergencies. And a small chance of razor burn is better than a certainty of stubble, anyway. I place my mirror on a convenient branch of a mushroom bush, hook my cane through another, and set to work with my straight edge.
“Are you a barber?” Cleve asks.
I glance over at him and try not to chuckle with the blade against my neck. “If you need help with that scruff,” I say, gesturing at his face with my razor, “I can give you some advice.”
“But you… you worked with Morgan?” I’m starting to wonder where this game of twenty questions is headed, when Cleve surprises me with a more direct, “What did you do?”
“I provided the vital service of matching potential explorers with berths on the ship. So things like presenting the plans for the expedition, matching that with people’s resumes, conducting interviews…” Cleve’s scowling at me, but I’m beginning to think that’s just his resting expression. This isn’t a performance review, I remind myself. This is the man who can keep you alive, and he’s asking you for actionable information. “I was a salesman,” I say bluntly.
“Oh.” That one syllable is full of disappointment. “So any skills related to any of this?” he gestures vaguely all around us. “Hiking? Camping?”
I’d love to please him with a useful response, but I’ve started down the path of honesty here, and it’s better for both of us in the long run if I continue along it. “This is the first time I’ve been outside a city,” I admit. I can’t help but add, “Isn’t it great?” with a huge grin, delighted to actually be here, even with the furry beetles and the oversleeping. I turn back to my mirror and quickly finish up my shave. I look fabulous as ever, the sideburns once again sharp and crisp and no hair marring my upper lip or chin. With the kit stowed back away, I return my attention to our marvelous alien surroundings. The air is shockingly clean. Or at least, I presume it is. It smells different from the streets of LA, with their morass of human bodies, waste, and fossil fuels. Is this what dirt actually smells like? And there must be all kinds of new pollen here. “So, do you think they heard our shot?” I ask Cleve.
“Dunno,” he replies. He has spotted something useful though. His rucksack is further downhill at the edge of a sinkhole. “I’m going for my kit,” he tells me. “Keep an eye out.” He starts down the slope, and I follow, continuing to look around for any dangers. Or really, just anything fascinating at all. There’s a briar-like fungus coating the ground here, knee-high and rather sticky. I let Cleve set the pace, and when he picks slow and careful, I don’t object. I make good use of my cane, batting aside brambles and bracing myself for uncertain steps as we make our way down to the edge of the sinkhole. When I look behind us to judge our progress, I am surprised to see that this fungus undergrowth has sprung right back up to fill in where we’ve trod, though our route is still evident.
Some of these caps are small enough to be flower-like, so I decide to remedy my lapel’s lack of boutonniere. With my straight edge, I clip off a grayish mushroom with a tall, pointed purplish-red cap. It complements my existing color scheme perfectly. Then I resume my downward trek. It takes us about twenty minutes to get close to the edge of the sinkhole, and at no time do we hear any additional gunfire or see creatures of any kind. The rucksack has not moved either, as far as I can tell. I hold my cane out to Cleve, offering it for him to use as a hook so that he does not need to risk falling in.
Cleve catches the bag by one of its straps and yanks it back towards us. He looks disappointed at how light it is. All that’s left inside is a blanket and another one of those accelerated healing shots. Still, that’s better than nothing. Cleve transfers a few items from his pockets to those on the rucksack and then straps it on his back. I lean forward, looking further down into the sinkhole. “Hey, is that your rope?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Cleve says, when he catches where I’m pointing. “I brought a lot of it, good high-tech polymer weave, too.” He studies the edges of the sinkhole and frowns at how regular the shape is. The interior is remarkably clean of vegetation, as well.
“Does that circle look machined to you?” I ask. I press my cane into the ground, wondering if there’s a manufactured structure under us, but all I hit is dirt, nothing metal.
Cleve gives a shake of his head. “I think that if we’re going to go after any stuff down there, we should do it before whatever made this hole comes back out.”
My eyebrows shoot up, and an even worse possibility occurs to me. “Assuming this isn’t just some giant mouth that will close on us.”
“Oh. Good point,” Cleve acknowledges. “Some sort of fur worm or something.” He snaps off a fungus branch and throws it down into the sinkhole, but there is no reaction.
That rope is only ten feet down, less than the height of the room we woke up in. “You know what?” I say to Cleve, “I’ll go get the rope, and you cover me. If anything starts moving, you can shoot it.”
“You know what you’re doing?” he asks me. The man loves his questions.
“I’m going to get a rope,” I reply, not sure what answer he is fishing for here.
That one seems good enough. “All right,” Cleve agrees, unlimbering his rifle.
My whole way down he calls out handholds. I’m not sure if he’s trying to be helpful or if he really thinks I can’t handle this. You’d think he’d remember that I fished him up out of our crashed ship not an hour ago. And I’m about six feet tall. If I held onto the lip at the top, I’d probably be able to just drop the rest of the distance totally fine…. Well, on a good day. Considering my bruised arm and recently chomped leg, caution is in order here.
I get to the bottom without incident. As I wind up the rope, I look around the sinkhole from this new angle. It really does seem to be a very regular shape. Given how large it is, and the tremors that disrupted our ship, I wonder if this is the explanation. Early studies of Chiron that Deirdre shared with me reported seemingly random seismic activity. Maybe it was not geological after all but caused by an enormous burrowing creature. Probably best not to linger here. I fling the rope up to Cleve and make short work of climbing back up it. I think I hear Cleve mutter something about “officer material,” but I can’t quite make it out over the sound of brushing the dirt off my slacks.