The diamond headed drill snagged on the rough granite for an instant and Tonmo’s mouth went dry in fear. A noise of grinding, tearing, whirring action became distinct and the drill moved forward, suddenly smooth.
‘It’s off.’ Dirket said, redundantly but significantly. Tonmo nodded silently.
The two men sat in the cab of the drill and were carried forward by the circular momentum. The sunlight faded behind them as they were corkscrewed into the cliff face, darkness broken only by the faint artificial lights within the cabin and the miner’s lamps strapped to the men’s foreheads.
The open mouth of the drill sucked broken granite in and, if all was going to design, kicked out the rubble behind them, closing off the exit route as they went. Keeping the route airtight, keeping it hidden. Both of them knew that this was designed as a one way trip.
An air ventilator hummed in front of them. The minimal control panel, most of the machine worked on feedback loops that were pre-programmed, blinked forlornly.
‘How long?’ Dirket asked.
Tonmo frowned. ‘You know that. You were listening.’
‘I know, but tell me anyway. Let’s talk about something not just sit here… waiting.’
A sigh. ‘Estimated impact time is four hours. Best guess anyway.’
‘Four hours of this. Granite all the way. One hundred metres of rock for each hour of darkness. Descending at an angle of fifteen degrees.’
‘Don’t clam up on me. Talk to me.’ Dirket’s face contorted into a pleading, begging form. Tonmo realised with a jolt that the younger man was frightened, realised that it was his role to keep the younger man together and focused.
‘Okay, okay.’ He tapped one of the blinking lights, an empty gesture to buy him some time. Time to think. ‘What do you want to talk about though?’
‘Why did you volunteer?’ Tonmo grimaced, he disliked intently talking about himself and today, under the circumstances, it seemed less worth the effort than usual. But Dirket was there. And four hours had to pass somehow.
‘I volunteered because I was curious. I want to see what is causing all of this. How about you?’
‘They offered my family a lot of money. A way to get off this planet and find a new life, a better life, somewhere on one of the moons. Opportunities like that don’t come up very often.’
Tonmo nodded, understanding these motivations. ‘I don’t have a family to worry about. Not anymore. My wife left me a decade ago, complained that I spent too much time on work and not enough on her and the kids. I don’t blame her. Not at all.’ Not anymore. Ten years of solitude had dulled the rage. They were all better off without him anyway, there was so little doubt about that.
There was silence between them, broken only by the roar of the motor and the crushing noises around them. Tonmo began to feel the weight of rock above them, could feel it bearing down upon him, crushing the breath from his body despite the safety of the machine. He could feel himself beginning to pant. Not again, he thought, not now.
Dirket was facing away from his partner, peering intently at the rock in front of their windscreen, seeing nothing but memories.
‘I miss them already.’ He said, his voice breaking with emotion and loss. ‘They left this morning, I waved them off at the spaceport with a smile on my face and then I went back to my empty house and broke the furniture apart.’ He chuckled mirthlessly. ‘If there is a way out of this then I have nothing but a mess to go back to.’
Tonmo forced himself to focus on the words, the sounds, the reality around him. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about the thousands of tonnes of rock, the taste of earth and grit in your mouth, the way the dirt covers your eyelids and gets into your mouth.
‘What do you think we’ll find?’ Dirket asked, turning to Tonmo. His eyes widened in shock at the obvious paleness of his elder colleague but he controlled himself and said nothing about it.
‘I don’t know.’ Tonmo said, his tongue thick in his dry mouth.
‘You must have some idea?’
He shook his head.
‘I think we’ll find a whole lot of nothing myself.’
This was a surprise. ‘Really?’
‘Yeah. I think they’re just clutching at straws, hoping to find a way of explaining something that has no explanation.’
‘It’s a theory.’
‘It’s more than that. There’s nothing scientific about what we’re doing after all. If they were really expecting something out of it then they would have given us a way out. A way back.’
‘There’s the cameras…’
‘Bah. They don’t even know if they’ll work all the way down here. The cameras, the whole expedition, it’s just a blind.’
‘Didn’t expect me to think like that did you.’ Dirket said bitterly.
‘Well, no. I thought I was the cynical one.’ Tonmo smiled to himself, just the ghost of a smile but one that was genuine and possessed just the smallest amount of warmth. A strange and rare sign of pleasure.