Breath hot against the inside of his facemask, Telin tested the give on the static line; grunting in satisfaction.
"I still say we should have sent a drone." Kelpo's voice growled up from the darkness further below.
The ice shaft was strewn with the remains of an old Corpus freighter, which had ploughed a tunnel deep into the planet's surface a century before. Girders and twisted gantries jutted out of the smooth ice like scary fingers, offering a precarious handhold here, a momentary respite there. Not that one could afford to be complacent: one careless misstep meant certain death.
The only light was from the rigs affixed to their environment suits.
Chest heaving, Telin caught his breath. A momentary lapse in judgement made him look down. A mistake. He squeezed his eyes shut, fighting a lurching feeling in his stomach.
"Exercise, Kelp." Telin managed, as he steadied himself "It breeds character."
"I've plenty of character." Kelpo panted between strikes of his ice pick. "It's the falling that concerns me. Salvage contracts don't mend broken spines."
"But they do pay creds." Telin slammed an ice pick into the sheer surface. "Creds we badly need."
It was true. They were subcontractors; an independent salvage team on the lowest rung of Anyo Corp's payroll. The megacorps controlled most of the big surface digs on Venus. Out here was the Badlands of the frozen rock; at the very fringes of Corpus territory. There was no law here, and any expeditions brave or foolish enough to operate this deep were often machine led, driven by automated proxies.
Or madmen, Telin grinned.
Budget dictated their approach. They had a two person skimmer some three klicks south of their current position, and had hauled their scaling gear here by hand: crude projectile grapples and climbing webbing. His shoulders ached from the climb.
The risk of exhaustion, hypothermia and falling down bottomless pits aside, Telin was thoroughly enjoying himself. Old enough to know better, young enough not to care; this was exactly the type of adventure he had signed up for. Frontier salvage work, far removed from the shipping lanes and polite conversation of the Market Cities. Not for him, no Sir.
His tastes were a little more… visceral. Hurricane winds and stomach lurching pitfalls. Honest work, tactile; raw and untamed. Fortunes and opportunity awaited those adventurous enough to brave Venus' surface. All you had to do was get your hands dirty. Or frozen.
Such was Telin's view of the world. This was unfortunate, as fate - it transpired - had an entirely different plan in mind.
It was then that Kelpo's scanner emitted a strange pinging sound. Telin twisted about in his harness.
"What was that?"
"What was what?" Kelpo huffed, hauling his bulk onto the same outcrop, feet dangling precariously. The two men sat panting on a sturdy section of metal plating that might have once been a deck plating, or a ceiling. It didn't matter. It just meant they could have a badly needed rest.
His oldest friend, Kelpo was a stocky fellow; all arms and no neck. Familia glyphs of home and corpus stencilled his skin, underlit by the lighting rig around his environment suit.
Like Telin's, it was a ramshackle job; the most reliable he could afford to build, and heavily customised. Their mouths were obscured by breathing masks; their faces ghostly pale in the transparent visors that cast them in an eerie greenish glow.
Telin pointed at Kelpo, breathlessly.
"Your scanner just pinged."
"It did?" Kelpo frowned, rummaging in his pack. He produced a battered sensor wand, and gave it a perfunctory slap. For a moment nothing happened. He cursed, and slapped it again.
The sensor wand lit up at the same moment Kelpo's eyes did. The scavenger grinned toothily, scrambling to his feet. The signal was unsual; an echoing return, indicating heavy interference.
"What's the read, Kelp?" Telin asked, his visor almost touching Kelp's.
"Secondary tunnel, due north. We're right on top of it." Kelp pointed at an impassive wall of ice. "There."
Telin shrugged his own pack to the floor, unfurling a long object triple wrapped in thick cloth.
The cutting beam was a boxy wedge of metal. Like all of their gear, it was all but bashed together with spare parts and a can-do attitude. It felt heavy and clumsy in his gloved hands.
Telin settled into a crouch, the plasma cutter braced.
The beam kicked once as it lanced into burning life a licking purring sound emanating from the ice as it hissed venting steam. The power pack bleated in alarm, over-heating. Telin depressed the trigger.
A smooth crawl space had been speared through the icy rock. Telin slung his pack back over his shoulder and scrambled through the still-bubbling ice water. Kelpo followed behind, splashing noisily.
Telin clambered to his feet and almost fell over in shock. Kelpo clamped a hand on his shoulder, steadying him.
"Well I'll be damned." Kelpo breathed.
Kelpo's initial read had been wrong. It was not a tunnel at all.
The chamber was a natural formation; a vast vaulted ceiling of icicles and frozen rock.
Less natural was the crashed ship at its center; a twisted ruin of curling metal and burst organic matter. Frozen coolant had warped the ice around it an oily black. The rock itself had been scorched and frozen over. Whatever impact trajectory the ship had taken, it could not be described as a gentle landing.
There was no impact hole from the surface. This had sat here for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Kelpo's scanner wand cheeped manically. He twisted it off, leaving the two men alone in stunned silence.
After a moment, Kelpo was the first to speak.
"So… what do you think it is?" he asked.
Telin's eyes never left the shattered ship.