I watched the embers of my torch smolder out. I tunneled in on the fading light, and it became my whole world. It seared itself into me, looming, and I let it. There was nothing else. I knew it was the last thing I'd ever see.
(more) Cave exploration comes with this risk. A team dives too deep, contingency plans fail. It happens. Steeling yourself for that eventuality is something we all try to do. No amount of training can prepare you for the weight of it, though-- the miles of invisible, hard, shapeless black that lie between you and everything you've ever known.
All the right precautions were taken. We laid lines of rope from the cave's mouth, miles of it, so that even in a blackout there was hope. Staged camps periodically throughout the chasm, ran supplies along the line, so that rescue was always possible. We had the resources. The prize was rumored to be great.
Somewhere along the way, the chain was broken. Call-outs yielded no response. The gear-drops prepared for us never came. A porter ran back for help, and didn't return.
Resources were running low when we finally turned back. But we had enough. We thought we would make it, right up until the line we traced through the flickering torchlight tapered off into a frayed, broken tip.
A lesson I'd learned from other explorers-- to go far enough for great things, we sometimes must make journeys that we can't come back from.
So I turned around.
The light hissed out and abandoned me. Still I followed the rope, hand over hand, back downward to its deepest lashing. When that ran out, I crawled blindly onward. Stumbling, falling, hands and knees slick with blood. I went deeper. Deeper into the darkness than anyone before me.