Free Fiction of the Month

 

 

The Time Mine

by Rebecca S. W. Bates

 

Chelsea paused under a ponderosa pine, cupped her ice-cold fingers around her mouth, and called out with the last of her breath. "Jade, where are you?"

A breeze moaned back at her, echoing how she felt. A branch creaked overhead, and a jay scolded her from somewhere up the side of the mountain. But no response from her best friend.

Dammit.

She wished she could take back their argument the night before at the campground. If anything happened to Jade, alone in the wilderness, blowing off steam, Chelsea would never forgive herself. She checked her cell phone one more time. No texts. Nothing. Sighing, she trudged on up the path.

Several switchbacks later, she came across a piece of rusted equipment and the yellow pile of tailings that indicated a gold mine nearby. Oh no. She ran closer, gasping in the thin air, until she found the ragged slit in the side of the mountain.

Don't let the miner within you get locked up, too, Chels.

That's what Jade had told her last night. At the time, Chelsea thought her friend had been laughing at her, teasing her with those outrageous campfire stories of gold mines, missing miners and soul-catchers. The two of them, growing up together, had always laughed when they were scared. Now they were plenty scared by the idea of separating for the first time in their lives.

Chelsea squatted and poked her head inside the meter-wide opening. "Jade, are you in there?"
Her temples throbbed. How many times had she dragged Jade away from places like this? Boarded-up buildings, cordoned-off ruins, rock slide warnings. Wherever there was a "danger" sign or "keep out," Jade always thought it read "come on in."

Damp, dark air touched Chelsea's face. Her knees felt weak. She steadied herself against rocks, and they bit into her palms. Backing away, she glanced over her shoulder at the clouds boiling up over the continental divide. Jade had been missing too long from their campsite, and now an electrical storm gathered its forces for an explosive afternoon display. Chelsea had to find her before they both got fried.

Wait'll I get my hands on you, Jade!

Chelsea gritted her teeth and ducked inside. The dark hit her like a wall, stunning her. The phone's flashlight mode automatically activated, but the beam of light was a mere pencil scratching against ink. Faintly, it illuminated rotting beams and rough walls of chiseled rock. Darkness surrounded the probing light. Darkness would smother her, too, blanket her with its emptiness. It was a cool and musty emptiness, this passage through time.

She tried to laugh at herself for sounding like Jade, but the laugh came out as more of a gag. "Jade," she choked, duck-walking farther into the tunnel where the ceiling yawned and she could stand up. "I know you're in here."

They'd been best friends since babyhood, growing up together but on opposite sides of Boulder. Jade said being born two days apart, daughters of best friends who'd met over a diaper box in a woo-woo quirk of fate, made them "soul sisters." Whatever. Chelsea knew there had to be a more scientific explanation for their connection. Something she didn't understand yet. In all their history, even though they were drifting in different directions, they'd never had a serious argument - until last night.

"Answer me, Jade!"

A rush of air spit dust at her bare knees, as if in response. She shivered and followed her pencil light into the mine. Soul-catchers, Jade had called the abandoned veins that riddled these mountains.

A blast of cold air hit her, a cold far more chilling than the cold she would expect to find in underground tunnels. It was like the chill she'd felt last night under the crisp star drop of a mountain night when Jade calmly explained her belief why so many miners had disappeared from these hills back when the gold played out. Because, she'd said, gold was still locked up in the ores, luring the miners to probe deeper and deeper until they were caught. Their souls would remain as locked up as the gold was locked in ore.

The pause. And then the burst of laughter.

Only Jade could laugh in such a way that left room for doubt, and it produced a slow-steaming anger in Chelsea. Jade always teased her for being the logical one of the pair, the left half of their mutual brain. It used to be a joke, but not anymore. Not now that Chelsea had received a last-minute offer from the astrophysics grad department at Kansas. She'd never expected grant money, but now that her future was real... She trembled.

"What do you want to leave the hills for, anyway?" Jade asked the night before. What she really meant was why was Chelsea breaking them apart for the first time in their lives.

"Who says I want to?"

"Chels!" The slick fabric of Jade's sleeping bag rustled, whip-like. "You have to go. I know you. You can't stick around here forever."

"Why don't you go with me?"

The wind hummed a lazy, lulling tune through pine needles long before Jade finally answered. "Because I'm locked up in these hills, and you aren't. Just like the gold."

They listened to the wind's song again, and then Chelsea whispered, "I'm going to turn it down."

"Not on my account, kid. Hey, I'd go with you, but I happen to like white water rafting. Can't do that in Kansas."

"I don't have to go, Jade."

"Yes, you do."

"It's my life."

"Not really. This is bigger than you and me. Everything has a purpose, and you've got a job to do. An important job. Dammit. Don't make me prove it to you."

"I already have a job."

Jade snorted. "You got more important dreams than your old museum. Look to the future, girl, not the past."

"The museum's important, too, and I happen to like my job."

"What you mean is it's safe. That's not the same thing, kid. It's safe to sell tickets and direct tourists to the restroom. That's always been your problem, Chels. You always choose the safe path. Don't be so scared all the time, you jerk! Don't you see? You're too smart to throw your life away watching other people go places."

A silence settled over them after Jade's outburst. The silence was more chilling than the night air near timberline.

More chilling than the discovery of Jade's empty sleeping bag in the morning. She'd gone off alone to sulk, Chelsea understood. It wasn't the first time her friend had disappeared for a long walk to brood about whatever troubled her. So Chelsea let her be.

When Jade failed to return by noon, Chelsea knew something had gone wrong. She set off in search of Jade, which brought her into this icy mine shaft, and now she was heading deeper and deeper into the mountain. The way the miners had done, according to Jade. Forever seeking gold.

A loose rock chucked away from her cross-trainers into the blackness outside her phone light's range. It skittered and tumbled and stirred up a collection of pebbles, rolling and sliding and dropping. Down. Down into a pit, one of those shafts, probably, to a lower level of the mine. A sound stirred from the hole, but it didn't sound like a tumbling rock anymore. It was more like a flock of birds taking flight, or maybe rapids rushing around a boulder, or trees flailing in Chinook winds. Chelsea couldn't name it, but Jade's voice came to her in her head, calling it the sound of a disturbance in the natural order of things.

Keeping her light beam aimed at the floor, Chelsea followed a narrow trail skirting the edge of the abyss that had swallowed the rocks she'd just kicked. Her pulse hammered, its sound squishing in her ears. She pictured a pile of centuries-old bones down there, and... Don't let Jade be down there!

Chelsea's teeth clattered, and she stumbled, hurrying away from the pit. Finally it lay behind her, along with the slice of waning summer light from the tunnel's exit. Another step and that was gone, too.

A rush of disturbed air blew dampness into her face, and it carried a faint humming sound like thousands of pumping bat wings. Ewwww! She winced, and the phone slipped out of her clammy palms. Its fall doused the light. Darkness shrouded her.

She jerked to ramrod attention, shocked by the degree of her clumsiness. No wonder. None of her high school and college awards had been for anything other than academics. Unlike Jade's awards - rock climbing, skiing, and outdoor survival.

Chelsea fell to her knees and groped in circles across the dirt and rock floor. The phone was here somewhere. It had to be! But her fingers didn't connect to sleek metal. She hoped it hadn't rolled into another pit. Her stomach knotted at the thought.

Then a new sound pulled at her. Like...humming. Distant voices. Murmuring together. Maybe they were ghost voices of the miners, lost forever within the mine, leaving behind only the memories and echoes of their lament.

Among the whispers she heard what sounded like her own name. "Chels-s-s-s," it breathed. At first she couldn't be sure if it was the soughing air current or a ghost voice or her imagination voicing her hopes within her head. Then she recognized the sound as Jade's voice.

"Jade! I'm here! Where are you?"

"Hur-r-r-ry!" Jade's voice sounded faint and far away.

She must be hurt, Chelsea thought. Something was broken, and that's why she was stuck in this tunnel. In typical Jade fashion, she would remain upbeat about it. "Okay, Jade, I'm coming after you. Stay calm and don't move."

Calm? Chelsea felt her chest heave. She took a couple of deep breaths and squinted blindly at the darkness, willing herself to see the walls. Yes, she could definitely see them closing in on her.

She rolled the daypack off her shoulders, sat on the drafty earth, ratcheted the zipper open, and groped inside. Her fingers found the wildflower guide. Hell, the pages were loose anyway. She shrugged back into the pack, ripped out a page of the well-used book, then secured the paper under a loose rock. The paper trail would lead her out if she lost her way, and this knowledge pushed her shakes to the back of her mind. Page by page, she advanced farther into the dark passage.

The humming sound rang in her ears as she pushed onward, blindly, pausing only long enough to plant pages. A chill wind rattled the anchored pages.

"Chels-s-s-s..."

Then the wind died. The sudden stillness of the air numbed her more than the wind ever had. Her blood squished on through her veins, her heart thrummed in her ears. She'd reached the eye. She wanted to laugh at herself but couldn't. Had she really thought that? The eye? She was in a mine, forgodssake, not a hurricane.

She edged forward, following the sound of Jade's voice. Ahead, the dead air looked less black. Maybe her eyes were adjusting.

As suddenly as the wind had died, it came to life again. Dust particles sandblasted her, and she dropped onto her belly. The wind had changed direction. Now, instead of pushing her back the way she'd come, the wind tugged at her, pulling her farther into the mountain. The wind tore the remains of the wildflower book from her frozen hands, and the bundle of pages flapped away toward the grayness growing brighter at the end of the mine's tunnel.

She shimmied over to the side of the tunnel where the force of the wind was less fierce. Clinging to the rough edges of the rock wall, she pulled herself back up to her feet and inched along. One wrong step and the gray force at the end of the tunnel would inhale her the same way it had yanked the guidebook out of her hands.

"Hurry, Chels! You've got to see this!"

She crept around a jutting bend in the passage and saw her friend, bathed in dim gray light. Jade - no broken bones, thank god - stood upright, squeezed into an alcove next to the gray light at the end of the tunnel.

"It took you long enough, kid," Jade said, extending a hand to Chelsea.

For a moment, Chelsea was speechless, caught between anger and relief. Relief won, as it always did, and she squeezed Jade's hand. "Okay, I'm here. Can we please go now?"

"Not until you take a look out there." Jade jerked her head backwards, indicating the gray end of the tunnel. "Don't lean too far, though, or it'll suck you into it, like it did to all those miners. Hold onto me."

"Jade, goddammit - "

"Look!"

Chelsea heard the urgency in her friend's voice. She couldn't dissuade Jade. Had never been able to keep her friend from the edges of cliffs. She clutched Jade's arm and peered around her shoulder, around the rocky protrusion that protected them in this alcove. It wasn't gray light. Not a gray wall at the end of the tunnel. In fact it wasn't gray at all.

It was silvery starlight.

She and Jade huddled together on some mountain's ledge where the wind whipped wildly at their hair. They stood there gaping at nothing but sky - no tundra, no timberline, no valley far below their ledge. Only sky. Above and below. Nighttime sky, dotted and slashed with stars and comets. Dizziness swept through Chelsea. Somehow, the mine's tunnel had opened into the void of space.

"Star gazing in 3-D," Jade whispered, allowing awe to creep into her usually unwavering voice.

"But...this is impossible."

"It's a wormhole, Chels."

"You're joking."

"Hey, am I laughing?"

Chelsea didn't fully understand Mr. Einstein yet, but she knew wormholes were a reasonable possibility to scientific thought. That was in space, however, where the curvature of space-time could fold over on itself. Certainly not in the side of a mountain.

Chelsea stared through what looked like a window onto the universe. A meteoroid drifted by. This had to be another of Jade's tricks. "Okay, how'd you do it?"

"You give me too much credit," Jade said. "This is bigger than I could ever imagine. It's not just a soul-catcher, although it's caught mine. No, kid, this is a wormhole. I'm just the one who found it, and now you're the one who has to explain it."

"But why? Why you and me?" Chelsea gasped. Could Jade be right? Were they standing on the threshold of time?

"Don't try to confuse the issue with your cosmic philosophy, Chels. Don't you think it's beautiful?" Jade peeled Chelsea's fingers from her arms and inched closer to the edge of the star window. "It's not like anything you've ever seen, is it?"

Jade had a gift for the understatement. The impossibility of finding stars inside a mine's tunnel had closed her mind. It was an illusion. She blinked, and the illusion of a night sky as viewed from an empty cliff still hung before her.

Okay. She took a deep breath. She didn't know what was going on, but she had to look.

"The arrangement isn't familiar," she said, looking for Cassiopeia, the Corona Borealis, the dipper. Anything. "It's an illusion. This isn't the sky from Earth as we know it." She heard her impossible words and tried to laugh, but a choke cut off the sound.

"Of course not, Chels. Jesus. Like I told you. It's a wormhole. And it sucked the miners into it."

Chelsea scanned the illusion. "No," she whispered, then mumbled her thoughts aloud. "It's like...a view from another place in space. Or in time. From the same place, the constellations would shift over time."

"Look at all those comets, would you? There're so many of them! Makes you feel kind of light-headed." Jade pulled herself nearer to the alcove's perimeter. "Their tails are so long and delicate."

"They're all very near to the Sun. Near us, wherever we are. Wait a minute... That's odd."

"What? What?"

"I'd say there's an unusually large amount of stars tinted reddish orange."

"I'll bet the miners thought it was gold glittering in the dark!" Jade's voice rose, and she leaned closer to the edge. "They were always chasing gold!"

"We're seeing an aging universe." Adrenaline flowed through Chelsea, replacing any fears with thoughts of comet studies and orbital dynamics and the speed of light.

"Then, you're implying Earth gets blasted by a comet?"

Chelsea didn't respond.

Jade turned away from the starscape and stuck her face in Chelsea's space. "And this doesn't make you want to go to grad school where you can solve the world's future?"

"Too much to do..."

"Someone has to do it."

"Maybe deflectors..."

"That's it, kid. Now you're thinking."

"No, it's useless."

"You've got to follow the gold, Chels, just like they did."

"No, Jade. Be serious for once in your life."

"Hey, what'll it take? Shall I go through that wormhole so you'll have to learn how to rescue me?"

"It's not a wormhole."

"Then there's no problem, kid." Jade stepped away from Chelsea and staggered closer to the edge. The force at the end of the tunnel waited to suck her into its depths.

"Jade!" Chelsea screamed, diving after her, catching her friend's wrist.

She pulled harder than she'd ever pulled on anything. "You're going to get yourself killed!"

"Jesus, Chels, take it easy." Jade stumbled back into the alcove and grinned. "You don't have to protect me anymore. It's going to take a whole lot more than a wormhole to separate us."

Chelsea started to protest, but then she realized Jade was still teasing her. And she was right. Their life together - from the diaper box onwards - had meant to lead to this moment. Chelsea would go on. Space and time could never break up soul sisters.

* * * * *