The Mponeng Mine
My feet rest on solid ground, but my mind is far from easy. On the pathway to the edge of sanity I approach the abyss, until standing on the brink I am as vacuous as the unfathomable beyond. The savage wound gouged into the earth is terrible to behold, yet my eyes are drawn to inexorably probe the heart of darkness leading to the infernal depths of the mine. Even my eyes must travel lightly, for staring induces a pressure like a heavy object tearing its way through a suspension of thin fabric.
If you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.
I try to focus on the thick web of interlocking ground tunnels, chutes, and ore haulages that network across the chasm, but without fail my eyes return to the emptiness of the void. How quickly an awareness turns to a fear, and just as swift does fear transform to a self-destructive fixation. Warm air rises from below as a lover’s seductive whisper, and though I am mortified with terror at the prospect of falling, it’s impossible to deny the liberation promised by that endless release.
My name is Ender, or Sergeant Maston as I’m referred to by my troop. I have been contracted to perform a security sweep of the Mponeng mine in South Africa, the deepest mine in the world. The squad was boisterous on the way here, but no one has spoken a word since we’ve entered the parlance (a large cage elevator).
We are lowered incrementally for the first few feet before the parlance is dropped to plummet downward at a sickening rate. It takes just 6 minutes to travel the first 1.5 miles into the ground, and one of my men has already puked by the time the metal chain screeches and catches at the bottom. Out of respect for his dignity, I pretend not to notice the sound of his retching. From there we have to walk to a second shaft which takes us an additional mile downward to where stone walls can reach up to 140 F and will immediately fry the oils in your skin if you’re careless enough to make contact.
The tunnels of Mponeng’s gold mine spread nearly 300 miles, many of which have been infested with rogue miners and thieves who live down here for months at a time. A combination of poor nutrition, absence of sunlight, and refining gold with mercury and other toxins has turned these miners into pallid ghouls. The “ghost miners” we’re hunting are difficult to locate, and often retaliate against their discovery with gunfire or explosives to demolish the tunnels.
I never would have dared this expedition if we didn’t already have someone on the inside. Ramose, one of the ghost miners who now accompanies us, has betrayed his operation for a prize of 10,000 USD promised upon our safe return. He sold us maps detailing the location of Azgangi, an elusive subterranean refinery of pirated gold maintained by one of the criminal syndicates. He walked at the forefront now, navigating the endless black corridors without hesitation. His ivory skin glowed with an almost internal radiance under our flashlights: a translucent sheen giving clear view to the blue veins in his neck and arms.
I didn’t take my eyes off him for a second. My finger hovered on the trigger of my M9 handgun. One wrong move and he would be buried deeper than the Devil. I didn’t discount the possibility that his allegiance was a ruse, and that rounding a blind corner we’d lose track of him only to be buried in an immeasurable payload of rock. He kept glancing over his shoulder with great pale orbs that bulged from his emaciated face, constantly licking his lips against the dry air. His eyes traced the gun in my hand each time, fully understanding the risk he accepted in this undertaking.
“Close now.” The words slipped past his darting tongue. “Flashlights off.”
My hand tightened on the gun.
“You do not want them to see you coming,” Ramose added impatiently. “Tunnel collapse before you fire a shot. I go alone, give password, then come back for you.”
I looked back at my troop behind me. Six men, each putting their lives in my hands. Now Ramose was asking me to trust their lives with him as well. The more trust is spread, the thinner it becomes, but I couldn’t see another option. I could almost hear the skin of my face cracking in the silence, and my eyes were so parched that I wondered if the fluid had begun to evaporate. What abominable conditions men will subject themselves to for gold. But how could I pretend that I was any better when I accepted the contract to come here? I relented and gave Ramose a curt nod.
“Speak loud. In English,” I instructed him. “We’ll put out our lights, but you keep yours on.” I didn’t have to tell Ramose that I wanted his light on to make him easier to shoot in the back if he pulled anything funny. His maniacal grin told me that he already knew.
“Put your worries to bed, my friend,” Ramose said, smiling with teeth as bleached as his skin. “I need you more than you need me.”
I flashed the signal and the lights behind me cut with military precision. I turned mine out last, intent on Ramose’s face for any sign of deceit. His fey countenance was impossible for me to read however, and relinquishing my own light to the encompassing darkness felt like surrendering my soul to the mercy of a prayer.
Ramose held his own light over his head to illuminate himself like an actor bearing the focus of a stage. He walked purposefully down the deserted way, humming to himself with careless ease. The proximity of the light gave his skin an even more pellucid shine, and for a second I’m positive I could make out the contrast of his cervical spine and collarbone.
As he moved away from us, the full weight of the darkness bore down upon me and the troop. The presence of the mountain of earth looming overhead had never felt more evident, and the atmospheric furnace which engulfed us filled our lungs and begged escape with each breath. No movement. No sound. Despite the intolerable conditions, my men held their composure while we bore out the pregnant silence. I couldn’t help but grin at the mutual respect we all felt for each other. This wasn’t the first group of pirates we’d brought down, and sure as Hell it wouldn’t be the last.
Ramose stopped about fifty yards down where the tunnel terminated in a blank wall. “The void calls us to her.” He articulated loudly to no-one in particular.
“And you will answer the call.”
A hundred years may rob from me those I love, my sight, and the very memory of my name, but no eternity will diminish the scar on my psyche that voice branded upon me. I can only imagine the universe being born in response to such a voice, and even more likely will it end with the last reverberation of its utterance.
The sudden silence after it faded was broken only by a uniform thud as the six men behind me fell to their knees as one. A similar compulsion gripped me as survival instincts lying dormant since the mankind’s first sentient thought devoured my consciousness, but I stubbornly refused them to maintain my line of sight on Ramose.
The ghost miner turned back and flashed his light in my direction, illuminating the gun still leveled at his face. I hope the distance did not betray how violently my hands shook, but perhaps my authority was already robbed from the cowed men behind me.
“What was that?” I asked. “What is down here?”
“Come and see for yourself,” Ramose replied.
At my signal I heard my men return to their feet, although I didn’t glance back at them lest I reveal the terror blazoned across my face. I flared my own light on the approach, crouching and pressing myself to the wall in a vain attempt to regain some control over the situation.
The terminal end of the tunnel Ramose had stopped beside had vanished, replaced only by a black wall of empty darkness which my meager light could not hope to puncture. I turned the beam on Ramose instead, bringing to life the fleeting vision which had passed before.
The light shone straight through his skin. My eyes traced the outlines of bones, the suspension of his organs, and even the viscous fluid running sluggishly through his body. Back to his face, the cartilage of his nose and ears blocked the light more thoroughly, making them appear to hover distinctly apart from his leering skull. I ignored the horrified gasps from behind and did not allow my men to see me falter.
“We have arrived at Azgangi,” Ramose said as we drew level with him. “But I do have something to confess. If you believe you were being brought to a refinery, then I’m afraid you have been misled.”
I wanted nothing more than to plant a bullet straight through that sardonic grin, but years of violence and bloodshed as a mercenary soldier have taught me that the will to restraint is a more important lesson than knowing how to kill.
I lowered my gun to the floor. If he had been afraid of death, he would have shown it by now. Instead I moved beside him to shine the light into the opening, revealing a descending stairway cut deeply into the solid bedrock. I don’t know what bothered me more: that here at the bottom of the deepest mine on Earth there was a secret passage that continued downward past all sight and reason…
… or that each step was worn smooth in two places as though eons of footsteps have passed up and down this way before.
“Azgangi, is the temple which lies well below us still.” Ramose continued, each word shedding some of the accent and hesitation he previously decorated the English language with. “The pretense was an unfortunate necessity for bringing you here, but the essence of your mission remains unchanged. I desire your assistance in eliminating a subterranean evil, just as you had already set out to do. I offer compensation for your service, just as you were prepared to receive. Both will be greater than you anticipated. Will you continue this way with me?”
There it was again. The whisper of the unknowable darkness. The temptation of the void which fixates my senses until sight and sound and touch all combine into a single insistent pressure to leap. The demands of my curiosity gripped my heart with iron claws which dragged me toward the topmost stair. From the idle dreaming days in my youth to each operation in my professional career, I hungered for the insatiable thrill of adventure. And now, faced with the greatest mystery of my life, my whole spirit was kindling to his fire.
That is why it was so difficult to turn around. To bark the commands to follow my lead on the long trek back toward the mundane world above. For all the wonder promised by this discovery, so too was I filled with looming dread. For all the selfish longing of my desires, I could not purchase them with the lives of the men who trusted me. I do not wish to portray myself as a hero in this instance, because I swear to you I’m not. I have once knocked on the door where one of my men once lived and eased his weeping mother to the ground in my arms. It was nothing but cowardice which made me unwilling to do so again.
“Ender Maston!” I could hear Ramose break his composure behind me. “I need your help!”
It’s good that I didn’t turn around. If I had, then I might not have noticed the wooden support beams that were painted with a metallic gloss. I shouted a warning to my men, and as though thrown by the momentum of my words an explosion ruptured from the ceiling. Splintering timbers like breaking bones heralded the shifting weight of untold millions of tons of rock and soil above.
Perhaps we could have struggled through the hail before the avalanche of cascading rock blocked off the retreat. Again it was my cowardice though which lent strength to my desperate effort to pull my men back. Within seconds, all opportunity for a decision had passed.
“I’m sorry,” Ramose moaned, a real tremor running through his woeful voice. “I hadn’t wanted to do that, but you’ve left me no other choice. I hope your surprise won’t spoil the good fortune which has brought us together.”
Restraint saved his life for a second time today. Somehow I didn’t expect it to be strong enough to endure a third test. Despite his apology, his skull was still grinning beneath his thin mask of skin. He must have known what I was thinking, because I wore the same expression as every man in my troop.