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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
Perseus Spur 30
But the cavalry had better come soon, because if the little monsters didn't get us, the big ones sure as hell would—more sooner than later.
Maybe 1 could figure some way for us to shelter in the cave while we waited: hang the navigator in a tree with its beacon triggered, leave a message, hope that the Allenby stun-gun would fend off carnivorous bat analogues and other cave-dwelling wildlife.
But the magnum flechettes wouldn't have any more effect on humpbacked lacertilians and their ilk than peashooter ammo. ..
I turned at Mart's whisper and came back to her. "Just seeing if Eve was all right. Actually, I think she's doing better than we are."
"Is it time to start again?" She didn't sound enthusiastic.
"Not if you don't want to. I couldn't sleep."
"As we say out West, 'My pore belly figgers my throat's cut.' And the patter of tiny feet didn't help." I explained the good news about the bugs.
She held the blanket open. We'd been sharing the remnants of the uniform coat for a pillow. "Maybe I could help you relax. Come and lie down."
I did. And her prediction came true, sure enough.
* * *
We had 1.2 kilometers left to go, and we all woke refreshed and ready to ramble. Eve was able to walk for short distances now. Her voice was steady and her mind seemed nearly as sharp as ever, but I still flinched internally at the sight of her altered features. The Haluk were going to pay for that, and so was Bronson Elgar, who'd been so amused by Eve's transmutation.
For the next hour or so we traveled through a reasonably spacious, very muddy corridor. Its curiously pitted walls, through which only meager trickles seeped, had a high-water mark about twenty centimeters above the floor, showing that a freshet had flowed through recently—perhaps the surface runoff of a large storm. We saw many more of the glassy in-sectiles legging among the ceiling formations, along with black and white furry growth on the walls that might have been plant life. Once, Eve caught the merest glimpse of an elongated pink little animal resembling a newt, fleeing before us into the dripping darkness.
We moved along without haste, alternately carrying Eve and letting her walk. We were using only a single lantern now, since we had no idea of their power capacity, and cheering each other up by describing the lavish meals we expected to consume after we were rescued. It wouldn't take long for Cravat Fleet Security to find us. Not with two beacons sending out homing signals...
But our good luck had nearly run out.
All three of us exclaimed out loud when we emerged from the tunnel and caught sight of the amazing spectacle. The lamp had been focused on the floor and turned low to conserve power, so the enormous subterranean room we entered was dark. Not entirely so, however, because all of the upper nooks and crannies were crowded with uncountable blue-white sparks. When I dimmed the light still further, it seemed as though we had come out into a night strewn with millions of close-set tiny stars. Black voids like galactic dust clouds occasionally interrupted the glowing drifts of luminescence. The sight was magical.
"Are they alive?" Matt whispered, overawed.
"Must be," I said. "Kind of a glowworm, maybe."
We put Eve down and moved forward, turning on both lanterns to get a better look at the Glowworm Chamber's interior. The living galaxy winked out as artificial illumination flooded the room. It was perhaps fifty meters across, not very high but enormously wide, its boundaries on either side lost in darkness. At some time in the past a great rockfall had come down from the ceiling to make an island at our left; some of the broken chunks were house-sized. The ceiling was composed of jagged, irregular formations, festooned with what looked like dense spider webbing. The luminous creatures, whatever they were, were too small to see. Our tunnel had ended at a rock ledge with water dripping minimally from its rim. Below was a slope of tumbled boulders with a slick mudslide down the middle, and at its foot, nine or ten meters below us, lay an open expanse of black water that filled the huge chamber from wall to wall. There wasn't much of a shore anywhere, except for a mud delta at the end of the chute.
No exit tunnel was visible across the lake. The wall was sheer to the water. I said, "Well, shit."
"I'd say we must have made a wrong turn," Matt murmured. "Except there weren't any to make."
We'd sat Eve down away from the lip of the ledge, so she was unable to see the extent of the problem. She began creeping toward Matt and me. "What's wrong?" "Dead end," said Matt.
"This is the way. I'm sure of it!" I hauled out the chart and made the correlations with my navigator. We were on course. The chart showed the section of Pothole Passage we'd just traversed, and it showed the Glowworm Chamber, and it also showed an exit tunnel on the chamber's other side. Squinting in the dazzling lamplight, I turned the chart this way and that to enhance its hologram aspect. The vertical scale was, as always, tough to interpret.
Finally, to my dismay, I thought I had it pegged. Eve and Matt were sitting side by side on a low rock, silently shining a beam of lamplight along the opposite side of the lake.
"Guess what?" I said.
"The way out is underwater," said my sister calmly. "The level of this lake must have risen after a recent rainstorm." "You got it. The exit is over there, about two meters under." "How long is the pipe?" Matt asked. "At least seventy meters. If I'm reading the chart correctly, there should be air pockets."
"There'd better be," she said. "I'm a good swimmer, but not that good. And what about Eve?"
"We can shut the visor of the suit," my sister said, "turn off the ventilator and close the snorkel. Residual air should keep me alive while Asa tows me through."
I showed them the chart. "See, the exit is a kind of slot. It's over four meters wide at the beginning, then pinches to less than half that, then widens out again when you're thirty-two meters in. That's where the first air space should be. The second one is here, another eighteen meters along. Then another twenty or so to the third pocket. Beyond that just a little way there should be headroom and air—until you reach here, a corridor that's definitely above the water level. The cave's outer exit is another fifty meters farther on."
Matt studied the printout. "No stream flows out of the cave?"
I shook my head. "This body of water is an underground reservoir, filled periodically from runoff through some source inside Pothole Passage. It probably empties very slowly through cracks in the rock strata too small to show on the map. Larry must have passed through the pipe on foot during a low-water period."
"So there'll be no current to contend with?" Eve asked me.
"Minimal, I'd think."
"Good. With air in my suit, it's going to be hard enough to keep me from scraping along the top of the pipe. I think we'd better weight me with rocks."
"You two can make a weight belt while I reconnoiter the pipe," I said.
They stared at me, fully cognizant of the danger. Finally, Matt nodded. "Yes, that would be sensible. And since you're a sport diver, I presume you can hold your breath for a long time."
"It's not part of my average day's activities," I said wryly, thinking of the superlative scuba outfit I used when shepherding turistas on the Brillig Reef, "but I've been known to skinny dip for clamoids."
Free-diving to a depth of fifteen meters or less. But it wouldn't do to mention that. I took off the sneakers and socks, the jeans, the sweater, and the scrub shirt. My trusty Swiss Army knife served to cut off the scrub pants into swim shorts. I wore my utility belt and hung one of the lamps around my neck with a cord. It was going to dangle like a sonuvabitch, but it was too large to tie to my head.
I gave the ladies a spunky grin. "Well, I'm outta here."
Eve said, "Asa... give us a hug for luck, li'l bro."
I embraced her suited body. "It'll be okay, Evie."
"of course." But there were human tears in her partially transmuted eyes.
Matt said, "Next."
This time, the squeeze was
anything but brotherly, and neither was the kiss that went along with it.
I put my sneakers back on for prudence's sake and clambered down the slimy boulder slope. On the tiny mud delta I ditched the shoes again and waded in.
The bottom dropped off steeply and the water felt like glacier runoff. My family jewels retreated screaming to the shelter of my pelvis. I conjured up thoughts of a giant steaming bowl of chili, my favorite snickerdoodle cookies hot from the oven, and a huge scalding pot of Mimo's contraband New Guinea peaberry coffee. Soon, Lord.
Then I called out, "Hasta la vista! "And dived with a cannon-ball tuck.
* * *
There were critters in the water.
I suppose I should have expected them, but the sight of teeming multitudes of exotic waterlife in the beam of my lantern startled the hell out of me. I'd never done any cave-diving myself, but I'd taken out other sport divers who had, and they'd regaled me with yarns about blind albino animals encountered during subterranean scuba excursions.
The aquatic denizens of Pothole Passage were mostly plankton-sized, abundant dots of protoplasm that fled the golden light in frantic schools, disappearing into ultramarine shadows. Perhaps they were a larval phase of the glowworms. Slightly larger creatures that resembled mosquitoes or midges seemed to scull along with winged appendages. I wondered if they could fly as well as swim.
Now and then, as I swam strongly through the twists and turns of the pipe, I encountered pale piscoids and newtlike creatures that must have fed on the small fry. They were mostly finger-length, lacking both eyes and pigment. One larger fish, at least thirty centimeters long, was exceptionally beautiful, pink and silver with long diaphanous fins like trailing scarves. It crouched sullenly in a side grotto as I swam by and bared its needle teeth at me, knowing that an intrader was abroad, despite its blindness, but sensing by my wake that I was too big to mess with.
A thirty-two-meter underwater swim in relatively shallow water is, for technical reasons, more difficult than free-diving to the same depth; but I made the trip without too much difficulty and came up in an air pocket that provided headroom but little else. The ceiling was fractured limestone, and hundreds of rice-sized objects resembling cocoons were cemented to it. I detected a very faint scent of the jungle. Fresh air was definitely coming in from the outside.
The next section of the pipe was clogged with broken rock. In some places there was just enough freeway for a human body to eel through, and I decided I was going to have to put a leash on Eve to get her past it. Fortunately, the next air pocket, eighteen meters farther along, turned out to be a room-sized chamber that even had ledges where a weary swimmer could haul out and rest. I did so, noticing that the Green Hell aroma was much stronger. There was also a ranker stench that made the hairs on the back of my neck prickle.
I shone the light about and froze.
Back in a corner was a heap of dead leaves and other com-posty forest trash, and mixed with it were bones. Some of them still had bits of rotting meat on them, and quite a few were at least as large as human armbones. As I crouched motionless, daring to breathe again only when I was certain that the little cave was without a living occupant, I felt a gentle, steady movement of air across my chilled wet skin.
The place had an exit to the outside.
I checked the chart, and sure enough, in that direction was a nearly vertical chimney leading to the hillside above the ravine where Larry had emerged. It was at least twenty-seven meters deep, and only a creature with wings or monkeylike .climbing skills (or both) could have used it. I recalled the terrier-sized bat analogue that had tried to squirm into my yaga-chick. Its conformation fitted the bill; but the size of the bone leftovers hinted that whatever had carried its meals into this cave was considerably larger than my would-be hitchhiker. I decided to move on with no further ado.
Twenty meters farther along, after swimming through waters increasingly crowded with tiny aquatic animals, I reached another air pocket, slightly smaller than the lair but also having a small area of dry rock that I gratefully perched on. The cavity was uninhabited except for numbers of pinhead-sized webspinners with a single white spot on their backs, busily consuming tiny prey caught in their meshes. I switched off my lamp. The place became a fairyland of living stars, and one small mystery was solved.
Onward! If I'd read the chart correctly, there was only a short section of flooded pipe left, and then—gracias a Dios— open air. I swam along for a few meters until lamplight reflecting from the water's surface showed that air again lay overhead. Bracing myself against the rocks, I switched off the lantern, allowed myself to rise without making a splash into a low-ceilinged tunnel, and filled my lungs with air that was both highly perfumed and stinking.
It was dark, even though the passage at this point was relatively straight, the ceiling becoming higher and higher as it led to a sizable cavern in the vicinity of the mouth. I knew from my navigator's chronograph that it was night on Cravat, so I waited until my eyes accommodated. Slowly, I became aware of a lopsided gray square in the distance: the cavern's mouth. I quietly smacked the sides of my head to dislodge water from my ears and heard faraway howls and chitters and roars similar to those I remembered from my initial foray into the Green Hell. Paddling noiselessly, I headed toward the dry part of the tunnel.
My feet had just touched bottom when a bulky silhouette partially eclipsed the gray square. Something growled softly.
I turned my lamp's beam full on it and saw one of the low-slung bearlike quadrupeds we'd seen attacking Bascombe's hopper on the shore of Pickle Pothole. Its eyes were like saucers and reflected a furious ruby red. The beast's sharpedged buzzard beak was wide open as it came gallumphing straight at me, the growl escalating into a raspy bellow.
Dive dive dive!
I turned tail and swam for my life into the submerged section of the tunnel. After a few moments I realized that the buzz-bear wasn't following. I rested in the Star Chamber until my adrenaline level subsided, then cautiously swam back toward the cave entrance and poked my head above the surface. Paws with impressive talons were slashing the shoaling waters to a lather, but the animal showed no inclination to come after me.
Okay, I thought as I retreated once again. Be like that. Next time we meet, I'll have a stun-gun.
Then I went to fetch Matt and Eve.
* * *
I found them waiting on the mud delta. They'd made both a weight belt and a short tow-rope, slicing my scrub suit into narrow strips and braiding them. Eve had also decided that Matt and I would need unsoaked clothing at the end of our swim. Her solution was to tuck our damp but not sodden duds into her envirosuit. There was room because she had lost weight during dystasis, but she was left looking like a rag doll with wadded stuffing.
(Matt, on the other hand, had stripped to a wispy bra and bikini briefs and looked like another kind of doll altogether as she prepared herself by swimming a lap across the lake.)
I closed Eve's visor, deployed the snorkel at the rear of her hood, and helped her into the water. It took a while to adjust the improvised weight belt (stones knotted in exotic fabric), neutralizing the suit's buoyancy without causing her to sink too rapidly. Finally the job was done and we were ready.
I had described the underwater journey in detail, including my encounter with the cave-bear analogue. The first leg would be trickiest because Matt wasn't at all confident that she could hold her breath while swimming thirty-two meters. I decided I'd have to accompany her to be sure she didn't come to grief, then return to fetch Eve.
I tied one end of the cloth rope to Matt's left wrist, wound the remainder around her arm, and fastened the end with a half hitch. That way, the rope would stay out of her way while she swam, but if she faltered I'd be able to unfurl it quickly and tow her.
"Shall I hyperventilate?" she asked me. Both of us had lamps around our necks.
"Safer not to. Just swim as steadily as you can. I'll let you know when we reach the air pocket."
p; "Right." She tucked under neatly and was gone without another word.
I called out to Eve. "Back for you in a few minutes," and followed.
Matt started strongly and for the first twenty meters or so had me hard pressed to keep up with her. But then she slowed, clearly running out of puff, as the elapsed time approached two minutes.
I shot forward, pointing in wordless query to her roped arm. She nodded and I whipped the braid free. It was less than three meters long, with a knot at the free end. I took that in my teeth, positioned myself below her, and struck out with all my strength, pulling her along. She continued to flutter kick with short strokes but kept her free arm close to her body. A few bubbles trailed from her nostrils. Her kicks weakened and mine became more frantic.
Lamplight reflected from the ruffled surface ahead. I surged up beneath her, taking hold of her body, lifting her head into the air. She gave a great gasping inhalation, then coughed while I held her, treading water as she pulled herself together.
"Okay," she whispered. "Close, though."
"Damn," I murmured. "I was really looking forward to giving you the kiss of life."
Lightly, she let me have one of the other kind. Her lips were bloodless, the dark hair was plastered sleekly to her skull, and her cinnamon skin was pallid. "Thanks for playing tugboat."
"You're sure you're all right?"
She'd found a rocky projection to cling to. "Yes. Now go get Eve. It must be horrible for her, waiting all alone."
"I'll have to rest a bit myself at the other end. Don't worry if I'm gone awhile."
I left her and swam back to my sister, who reassured me when I asked about her state of mind.
"I could see the reflected glow of your lanterns for over a minute," she told me, smiling. "The farther away you got, the bluer the underwater light became. With the lightning-bug constellations overhead, the effect was quite striking. Perhaps Cravat should make this place a tourist attraction." She paused, and the smile faded. "Poor Bob. He would have loved to see this."