He slipped on wet stone, and cursed as the light flew from his hand. It bounced once on its padded side, then fell front-first with a shattering crash on a patch of sharp rocks.
The darkness was immediate and complete.
Colorful spots filled his eyes. He blinked hard, several times. Dropping the light had been stupid, but there was no need to panic. Rule one of cave exploration was to always bring a backup light. He reached to his belt, pulled light number two from its loop, and flipped the switch.
He took a shallow breath. Another. The darkness was pressing in on him. He could feel it seeping down the back of his neck.
He flipped the switch a second time, a third time, a fourth time. Definitely dead.
Now was the time to panic.
No. He relaxed his grip on the dead light, held himself still. He was not going to move a muscle. He held a reasonably clear picture in his head of the cavern he stood in. If he could find the path to the exit tunnel mentally, he was halfway there.
Was it his imagination, or was the air becoming staler, harder to breathe?
He forced himself to breathe more slowly. He needed to think. Somewhere to his right stood the cavern wall, and in that cavern wall were two passages—no, there were three. Right? There were three passages, and one led to a smaller stalactite-filled cavern, and one narrowed to impassibility, and one led to the exit. Didn’t it?
Fog blurred his mental map. He couldn’t be sure which tunnel was which. He’d marked the wall by the correct passage with bright chalk—rule two of cave exploration was to mark the way you came so you wouldn’t get lost. Usually, that meant a good thick cord to play out behind you as you went, but he’d left his back home and had to make do. And the chalk markings he’d meticulously placed at every cross tunnel were now useless.
He pulled out the chalk and flung it across the cavern, where it smashed with a satisfying crunch.
Rule three of cave exploration was to always go with a partner or group. He’d never cared for that one; cave exploration was meant to be a solitary activity.
He flinched. Had that been a noise behind him? A rustling sound? His breath was coming faster. Maybe he was hallucinating. People did that, he’d heard, when they were trapped in pitch black and there was no light and no way to get out and it was getting darker and darker and the darkness was leaking through his ears and nostrils and mouth and—he shook himself, breathing hard. Panic was not an option. There had to be some way out of this.
Maybe there was.
The first light had ended up about five feet away, amidst sharp rocks. He could picture where it had landed. He still had the second light in his hand—thank God he had thrown the chalk instead. The first light’s bulb would be shattered, but the second light probably just had dead batteries. And if he remembered right, the two lights both took the same size battery.
He stowed the second light, fell to his knees, and began crawling in the direction he remembered the light going. The floor was damp, damp and dirty and rough.
He hit his knee on something sharp. Pain knifed through him; he paused until it receded. Blood trickled down his leg, but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was the light.
He crawled on, more slowly now, holding one arm out in front to search for the rocky patch.
He should have found it by now. Could he have started crawling in the wrong direction? Maybe every inch he crawled, every careful placement of hand knee toe, hand knee toe, took him further and further from his goal.
The dark pressed on his eyelids. When had he closed his eyes?
Something sharp pierced his hand. He hissed, sucked in a breath, paused.
It was a piece of glass.
He had never been happier to feel something so painful. He felt for the rocks, just to be sure, then stood. Slicing up his hands would be a bad idea. He’d need full use of them to get out of here. Better to find the light without using his hands.
He poked at the rocks around him with one booted foot, feeling for anything out of place. Just rocks.
He crouched, leaning on one leg and both arms, and sent his foot out in a slightly wider arc. Still nothing.
His breath came in shallow gasps.
He leaned back on both hands, collecting another piece of glass in his right hand, and shoved his leg out to full extension, making another circle, much larger this time. Rocks and more rocks and more rocks still.
He was dead.
He sat down heavily, only to leap up again. The light had been at his feet the entire time. He took a long, quivering breath.
He picked up the light, felt around for the end—collecting two more shards of glass, this time one in each hand—and unscrewed the battery cap. He’d have to do this carefully.
He unscrewed the cap from the second light, and placed its dead batteries on the ground. If this didn’t work, it wouldn’t matter what happened to them anyway.
Slowly, reverently, he removed the two batteries from the first light. There would be no dropping here. No dropping. Carefully, carefully, he placed the batteries one at a time into the second light, and screwed the cap back on. He flipped the switch.
He flipped it again and again and again.
He was trapped. Trapped until he was found, or until he starved. It would be days either way. Days days days full of nothing but pitch-black night.
He flipped the switch again. Nothing.
The dark was all over him. It covered his arms and legs and hands and feet, it filled his nostrils and forced its way down his throat, it pierced his eyes and ears. He couldn’t breathe.
One more chance. He leapt up. Hands shaking, he unscrewed the second light again, removed the batteries, reversed them, screwed it back together.
He flipped the switch.
Pure, blessed, honest light.
His knee was bleeding. His hands were bleeding. He was shaking all over. But he had light.
The darkness melted away.