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Perseus Spur

Perseus Spur

Perseus Spur 27


  "Your sister's a small person. Matt and I will manage. Tell me what to expect inside the sump. Must we wade in water all the way?"

  "No." I described the conduit, the ledge walk, the lepido sanctum, the perilous Spike Farm section (which was going to be a bitch to get Eve through), the squeezeway, and the Bowl Chamber. If they got that far, they'd probably be safe.

  "I'm going to start back right now," I said, "but I might not be able to reach you before the blast goes off. You'll have to tell the others how to cope. This next bit is very important: the first ninety meters of the tunnel are virtually a straight shot, so the photon flare will be able to penetrate."

  "I understand."

  "You'll have to get beyond the linear section into the curved part—where you can't see the entrance any longer— in order to be out of range and have any real chance of survival. Even then things could be iffy. Besides the flare there'll be at least two other effects that might be life-threatening. The first is a hurricane. Because of the confined space in the cavern, the great heat of the camouflet will suck air out of the tunnel as the cavern contents flash and burn—as materials oxidize. Then there may be a backblow of hot gases in the opposite direction. Tell the people to monitor the countdown. At minus one minute you should all crouch, wherever you are, cover up with the space blankets, and brace yourselves. The big winds will be over in a few moments. I'm not sure about what'll happen next, but there might be steam."

  "From the heated river?"

  "Exactly. The water nearest the cavern will vaporize completely. Steam expansion may collapse the straight part of the tunnel, but the effect ought to diminish the deeper you go into the bedrock. The blankets will help to shield you from the scalding heat, and the hurricane may even suck most of the steam away. The important thing is to be prepared. Tell people it's vital to cover the entire body with the reflective blanket."

  "Very well."

  "There's one last thing. Do what you can to convince the Haluk to come with you immediately, but if they won't listen, then leave them. If they do agree to come, tell them I expect you and Eve and Matt to lead the way into the tunnel. Otherwise, I'll make sure that no Haluk gets to the surface alive."

  "I don't think it would be wise to give them such an ultimatum," Emily Konigsberg said softly. "I'll do the best I can. Call back in about ten minutes and I'll have a report."

  * * *

  As I hurried down the terraces, squelched across the mudflat, and cautiously attacked the rockfall, my mind was churning at light-speed. The Haluk doctor hadn't sounded too impressed by the footprints I'd found—much less by the empty liquor bottle in the Bowl Chamber. My careful explanation of directional bearings and propitious odometer distances seemed to go right over his head. God knew what he'd tell his administrator, or what decision the administrator would finally make.

  What if the Haluk leader opted for mass annihilation, rather than have his people captured by Commonwealth authorities and compelled to reveal details of the conspiracy?

  What if he forced the women to stay behind as well, to protect the secret?

  If there was trouble, would I have time to reach the cavern, perform a rescue at stun-gun point, and lead the three safely into the sump before the countdown reached zero?

  I could only stew over the matter until I reached the great chamber I'd called the Goblin's Cathedral. The alien wrist unit's readout said -22:52.1 tapped the com button.

  There was no reply.

  "Emily—Milik!—are you there? Answer me!"

  When nothing happened, I examined the communicator under the flashlight. It was encrusted with mud but seemed otherwise undamaged, and its yellow on telltale shone properly whenever I touched the activation switch. There were several other controls, covered by a transparent slide so they couldn't be pressed accidentally. I assumed they programmed the device to call other individuals and maybe set the timer; but I hadn't the faintest notion how they worked and didn't dare mess with them.

  I pressed the black button again ... and this time a rich, full-bodied sound came from the instrument's tiny speaker. It was unlike anything I'd ever heard before, three wavering notes sounding simultaneously in an eerie harmonic chord, rising and falling in volume like the regular washing of waves against a shore, or some great beast slowly breathing, with each inhalation a racking sob and each discharge of breath a sigh.

  It had to be the Haluk thanatopsis—their death meditation.

  I think I howled out loud, a wordless cry that combined fury and fear. Then I began to run across the Goblin's Cathedral, waving the weak beam of the flashlight from side to side in a desperate effort to gain more light and reach the Needle's Eye exit as quickly as possible. The grotesque formations seemed to come alive in the shifting shadows. I tripped over rocks, stumbled through ankle-deep black pools, dodged heedlessly around the dripstone pillars and the looming monstrous shapes.

  The Needle's Eye! Where was it?

  It should have been easy to find, a slit in the wall almost directly opposite the river tunnel that led to the chasm. I located a crevice, pushed into it, and realized almost at once that the thing was a dead end. I backed out, shone the light to either side, and spotted another opening. Thank God!...

  But that passage turned out to be much too wide to be the right way out and ended in another cul-de-sac. Again I was forced to retreat into the cathedral. With dripping water making a crystal counterpoint to the alien chant that still sounded from my wristcom, I swept the flashlight's beam along the wall. No other likely crack was visible anywhere.

  I stood stock-still, paralyzed with dread, knowing I'd made the same mistake as Luckless Larry. I was lost.

  Dumb damn Cap'n Helly Beach Bum. Mindfucked by an alien funeral march.

  First thing: shut off the music. Second thing: take a long breath. Third thing: consult the navigator on my other wrist.

  When a few pads were tapped, its display showed a diagram of my stygian wanderings, ant-tracks against a simple meter-grid that scrolled to show my progress. There were no details of terrain, of course, but I didn't need them—just the distances and the bearings. I found the section representing the Goblin's Cathedral. Helly coming in, Helly crossing over, Helly returning, Helly trying to go out.

  Helly deviating by 18.2 meters from his previous course, because he'd taken a wrong turn among the stone pipe-organs and petrified elephants.

  I retraced my steps, resisting the temptation to run, reached the point of deviation, bore left instead of right around a certain formation, followed my bearing slowly and cautiously, checking the display every five or six steps, and ended with my nose pointed into the Needle's Eye.

  The countdown stood at —14:40.

  Now no longer in any danger of losing my way, I was able to concentrate entirely upon speed. Through the crevice. Across the Bowl Chamber, which I decided would make a perfect refuge for four if we could only reach it in time. Down on my belly to wriggle through the squeezeway like a demented python.

  When I reached the worst section of the route, the low Spike Farm passage with its perilous long stalactites and tilted, slick floor studded with sharp stalagmites, I nearly blew it. Proceeding at a rapid crouch, scuttling among the close-set stone icicles like a character in a video game, I was suddenly brought up short and hauled backward. The gun barrel had caught on a stalactite tip.

  An instant later the stone rapier broke off near the ceiling. I was doing a stagger-dance, so the thing sliced my right arm instead of stabbing a hole in it. When it hit the slanted ledge it broke into a dozen cylindrical pieces. I managed to step on one and went lurching toward the wall at my right. If I'd fallen, the spiky little stalagmites would have turned me into Swiss cheese. Somehow I remained upright, but I banged my head smartly against the wall and momentarily visited dreamland.

  I came to my senses almost at once, only to discover that one of them—vision—was still off-line.

  I'd dropped the flashlight, and it had rolled down the incline into the f
etid river.

  All I could see was the alien wristcom display, which Emily Konigsberg had programmed with human numerals. Against a background of unfathomable blackness, the red-glowing countdown stood at —06:23.

  Not quite disaster. I still had the navigator, and when I turned the display on, it showed that I was only a short distance from the end of the Spike Farm. What's more, the yellowish screen emitted enough light so that I was no longer completely blind. Shuffling my feet to detect the stalagmites, and holding my navigator high to help spot dangerous danglers, I made my way at last into the clear. Then it was a matter of feeling my way along the curving wall until the tunnel straightened.

  Someone was coming toward me. I saw two distant golden lights, side by side and very close together, bobbing near the sump entrance. They were lanterns, so brilliant that they drowned out the main cavern's illumination. It was impossible to tell what lay behind them, only that they were moving down the center of the culvert. Faintly, I heard the sound of the thanatopsis chant.

  "Matt?" I yelled, raising a hullabaloo of echoes. "Emily?"

  I heard a frantic voice answer. "Helly, they're close behind! Haluk—trying to stop us!"

  "I'm coming!" I shouted, and skittered along the ledge like a mountain goat.

  I must have covered eighty meters in under a minute. The three women were just emerging from the culvert into the wider natural tunnel when I reached them. Matt and Emily had linked their hands to form a seat. Eve, between them and with her arms draped around their necks, had two lamps tied to her chest. Her suited body was limp and her head hung down.

  "Keep left," I cried, pulling the Allenby around and flipping off the safety. "Against the wall, out of range. And turn off the damned lights!"

  Two armed aliens appeared at the sump entrance just as the lanterns were extinguished. I dropped to my knees, with water coming to my armpits, and took aim. A fusillade of stun-flechettes zinged over my head. I heard a grunt and a splash behind me as I squeezed off two careful shots. Both darts hit home and the Haluk troopers convulsed and fell to the cave floor, their weapons clattering.

  "Help us," Matt gasped. "Emily's hit."

  No more troopers appeared. I surged to my feet, thrust my arm back into the Allenby's sling, and splashed toward the women. "How many were following you?"

  "Only the two," Matt said. "Others. .. praying."

  Yeah. I could hear the deathsong distinctly now.

  Enough light emanated from the cavern for me to see Matt and Eve backed up against the wall. The water came nearly to their waists. Matt had a tight grip on my sister, but Emily's body was floating away facedown, carried into darkness by the slow current.

  Cursing, I waded after her, caught the belt of her white coverall, and drew her slight form up into my arms. Her head lolled and her blue-skinned face was wooden. There was a magnum flechette embedded at the base of her alien skull. I said, "Oh, Jesus."

  The drug had gone directly into her brainstem, paralyzing her heart and lungs. She would never awaken.

  The countdown on my wrist read -01:55. I let Emily's body fall back into the water and dashed over to Matt and Eve.

  "You can't leave her!" Matt cried in horror.

  "She's dead. And so will we be in another two minutes." There was a small Swiss Army knife in my belt pouch. I popped open a blade and sliced the cords holding one of the lamps to Eve's chest. It dropped into the water and floated.

  I said, "Grab that! I've got Eve. Shine the light along the left wall. There's a ledge. Get up there and get going. Our only chance is to reach the groggery."

  "The what"?" But Matt was moving as well as talking. The lantern flashed on, dazzling me.

  "Little side cave. Ninety meters in. Go, dammit, go!"

  She did, and I followed. The only way I could carry Eve along the narrowest part of the ledge was by gripping both her wrists under my chin as her body hung limply down my back. The second lamp pressed painfully into my lumbar region, but it was too late now to cut it away. I shuffled along crabwise in Matt's wake, knowing that if 1 fell into the stinking water, Eve and I were both doomed.

  "I think I see the side cave!" Matt called.

  She was far ahead of me by then. Sensibly, she shone her lantern against the opposite wall so that reflected light helped me make my way. The ledge widened. I transferred Eve to a fireman's carry and loped along. With the wristcom out of sight, I had no idea how much time remained; but I was certain the delays had cost us our safety margin. We weren't going to be able to make it into the curved section of the tunnel where we would be safe from the photon flare. There was only one other place where we'd stand even the ghost of a chance.

  Matt stood waiting when I finally reached the entrance to the groggery. "Do we go on?"

  "Can't risk it." I ducked my head and plunged inside. Matt followed. I dropped Eve like a sack of potatoes. "Table slab! Help me cover the door."

  Together we wrestled the thing off its base. It was thin but it still must have weighed more than a hundred kilos. The countdown had reached —00:31.

  "Space blankets?" I grunted, as the slab finally slid into position.

  Matt was on the floor, scrambling toward Eve. The lit lantern was on its side at the far end of the chamber where she'd tossed it. "All four ... zipped in ... brought yours." Struggling because of the remaining lamp tied to my sister's chest, she opened the front of the envirosuit and pulled out the compressed silvery squares. A shake expanded them into quilted blankets.

  I rolled Eve into one like a tamale and folded the open ends beneath her inert body. Fearful of a malfunction that might cause her to smother, I had not switched on the suit ventilator or the ion screen.

  "Get as far away from the door as you can," I said to Matt.

  As we wrapped ourselves I heard a peculiar high-pitched warble. By no means did the rock tabletop make a tight seal against the cave wall, so the Haluk alarm klaxon was quite audible inside our sanctuary.

  "Get ready," I said. "Here it comes."

  Before I ducked under cover I saw the tiny open spaces around the rock slab admit slowly brightening beams of white light. Then the rocks around us shuddered, causing bits of debris to patter down on us from the ceiling. I clutched the space blanket around me. A hissing sound began and turned almost at once into a deafening roar. I was briefly aware of intense heat, and then the oxygen in our little shelter was sucked out to fuel the inferno in the main cavern.

  Oddly enough, I had no sense of suffocation and .felt no pain. There was only a sudden, surprising ending.

  * * *

  Late afternoon in the Arizona desert in July. The temperature stands near forty-five degrees Celsius, and every cactus and creosote bush and ocotillo seems to cower under the merciless flood of baking sunlight.

  The only things moving in the arid landscape of sand, wind-carved rock, and waterless arroyos are me and my tough old buckskin gelding, Paco. All of the desert critters— coyotes, kit foxes, kangaroo rats, jackrabbits, even the birds and the rattlesnakes—are in hiding, waiting for nightfall.

  Sensible.

  But Paco and I keep on going, because the miniature electronic display on my saddle pommel shows just what I had suspected, what the Sky Ranch foreman's aerial search hadn't been able to confirm because of the rugged lay of the land: that there are thirteen head of strayed cattle in a skinny box canyon less than a kilometer farther on. The transponders under their hides had commenced to make blips on my saddle display just half an hour ago. Now they appear and disappear as the steers change position, maybe drinking at the canyon's spring. The signals bouncing from them toward the detector satellite are frequently cut off by the steep walls.

  My father had laughed at me that morning when I insisted that I knew where the lost cattle probably were, in a remote spot where Eve and I had gone prospecting last year. Simon said he might get around to doing a land search in the Desert Rover next week, when he has some spare time.

  Next week my ass!

  I
'd filled the biggest canteen, saddled up Paco when nobody was looking, and rode out.

  I was eleven, and knew it all.

  Now my water was gone. I'd shared the last of it with the horse a couple of hours ago, letting him drink out of my hat. Old Paco moved slower and slower. Maybe he felt dizzy and sick like I did, breathing furnace-hot air that made your head throb and didn't seem to have any goodness in it. Maybe his tongue was swollen like mine, and his skin sizzling and starting to feel too small for his body. Maybe he saw crazy little spots swimming before his eyes and felt his pulse banging like an Apache drum.

  Maybe he was afraid he wouldn't make it.

  Come on, old boy. We're coming around Mesa Empinada. Not far to go now.

  The box canyon is an axe-cut in the steep tableland, heavily shadowed now that the terrible sun is finally sinking. I take the oculars out of their hot case, turn them on and look through them. .Mesquite trees growing in there, and a few cottonwoods watered by the life-giving spring.

  And steers.

  Yes!

  I was right, Pop. Not you.

  A delicious cool breeze wafts out of the canyon depths and my lungs expand. Paco smells the water and his ears prick and he breaks into a clumsy trot. The cattle see us and bawl a welcome.

  Grinning, I take the telephone out of the cantle and call the Sky Ranch, ready to crow over my triumph and tell them to send a hopper to pick us all up...

  * * *

  I woke, still smiling and breathing cool damp air with a peculiar alcoholic tang to it, and untangled myself from my space blanket.

  Miraculously, the alien lantern still glowed. Even more miraculously, the table slab had missed us when it was blown back into the groggery by the hurricane and shattered into a dozen pieces. I crawled to the two silvery bundles lying side by side against the back wall. They were coated with dust— or maybe it was a dried layer of thin mud. All around them were tumbled liquor flasks, their stoppers popped out by the decompression, spilled contents entirely evaporated.