The ascent to the surface took no more than four hours, but the treacherous roadway was littered with mud and stones making the effort seem like days. Mona led the way with the torch in one hand, and the blue stone held firmly in the other. Her strong and sure-footed stride moved forward with purpose, but was continually hampered by the stumbling and clumsy progress of the hunting party. It was unsurprising, as water was a continual presence in the mine. It seeped from the walls and rained from the ceiling like a light drizzle, a cascade of tiny lights glowing in the torchlight that showed the way ahead.
Although there was an occasional side tunnel or maintenance duct detailed by the artefact, Mona could see that it was this large access tunnel that would bring them quickly to the surface. She remembered as a child, seeing the giant anti-grav mining vehicles descending into the ground through tunnels like this. Once in the underground chambers, these vehicles could move unconstrained in three dimensions across vast excavations and seams of ore, feeding giant counterparts that carried buckets of unrefined material to the surface for processing. It must have been one of those load lifters that brought the strange blue craft down into the mine, else it had chosen to make its way there for its own purpose. Mona imagined it was the former, since the Sansica Corporation that owned these mines was well known for its interests in alien worlds and technologies. If it had chosen to hide something this far from prying eyes, it might be a secret that it was willing to keep unknown at any cost. While Mona listened to the excited chat of her party discussing salvage rights and percentages, she sensed that even when they reached the surface, they might not yet be out of danger.
It was the young woman in the hunting party who saw the ghost first, crying out fearfully as she looked over her shoulder to the depths below. The party stopped immediately, and Mona was forced to return to the group to peer into the gloom with the others. Mona snapped off the torch in irritation, to prove that nothing was there. The blackness of course was profound and absolute, which only served to frighten the young woman even more. Mona set off again and this time did not wait, forcing the party to follow her or be left in the dark. The group complained that they needed rest, only to be reminded that it would be nightfall when they emerged if they did not move faster.
It was in a maintenance bay, nearly an hour before they reached the surface, that they found another decayed body. It wore civilian clothes, and judging by the safety badge and hand computer lying nearby, was a scientist or engineer. The hunting party averted their eyes and moved on, but Mona paused a moment before hooking the hefty handheld device on to her equipment belt. If there was a story to be told about what was in the mine and how these people died, it would be somewhere in the holomatrix of a personal log or notes. A sudden pang of guilt about robbing the dead made Mona glance around to see if the party was watching, and saw what seemed to be a human outline glowing in the dark. She stood quickly and shone her torch down the tunnel, but there was nothing but rock and water. Mona shivered. As vast as the tunnel was, it felt as though the walls were starting to close around them, and she set the pace again with renewed urgency. They would reach the surface before sunset, even if it meant her carrying them there.
Tellurium East was another of the abandoned satellite facilities attached to Monazite Creek, frequented these days by smugglers and worse. Mona smiled when she remembered how her father had chosen her name, Mona being short for monazite, the ore from which lanthanum and other rare earths was extracted. The party were smiling too, as the first of several radio messages made contact with Candor City. Mona's smile soon faded when news came that a Sansica representative was on his way. Even though her father owned the old buildings at the Creek, the shattered remnants of Sansica still held an interest in the area. Something told her that the old landlord was not interested in their wellbeing.
Mona stood in the cool breeze, holding the blue stone tight in her right hand, while the unaccustomed weight of the computer hung from her belt; a nagging reminder that she ought to be elsewhere when the company man arrived.
V3 figure with Shadow Dancer outfit and Erin Hair. Landing platforms are custom models created in Hexagon. Terrain topology is derived from a DEM of Telluride, Colorado.
Scene assembly and final rendering in Vue 6 Pro Studio. Post processed in Photoshop CS2