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Chapter 11: Lost

I pulled the heavy lid away. Ari slid off her chair, peered into the darkness and sniffed.

“Too shallow to jump, but I can see rungs, just like the other maintenance wells,” she said.

“Can you use them?”

“Humph!” she snorted. “I do have arms, you know.” She swung into the hole, grabbed a rung and started down, her tail curled behind her. I quickly followed. I wished we had some way of hiding our escape route, but there wasn’t so much as a rug to pull over the opening.

The water was very shallow here, no more than a couple of centimeters deep. Ari was already crawling away when I hit bottom. I scooped her up, slung her over my shoulder and started running. I had no watch and no idea how much of our half-hour was left. I was hoping we’d run into some intersections soon, the better to confuse pursuit. That pursuit would probably be armored marines. They would be as fast as or faster than me while carrying Ari. Deep water however would slow them down a lot.

As I ran, the bottom dropped away so suddenly that I plunged headfirst into the deep. After a moment’s scramble, I latched onto Ari’s shoulders while her tail churned the black water. I couldn’t help but slow her down.

Maybe you should leave me behind while you swim?

Sure! When you leave me behind while you run! Be still and catch your breath for the next shallow zone.

Touché! I’ll watch the wells in case they try to cut us off. We’re making a lot of noise too.

After perhaps two hundred meters, it got very shallow again. I crawled out of the water and reached for Ari.

“Just a moment,” she said. “Let’s do it this way.” She pulled herself onto my back and wrapped her tail around my waist. “I think you can run better this way.” And I can see where we’re going!

I splashed along in the shallows for a couple of minutes, until we came to a fork.

Right or left sweetie? She considered for a few seconds. In the sudden silence we could hear distant voices and splashing.

They’re after us! She thought. It’s not been long enough! They cheated!

There was another sound from the same direction; a kind of huffing, rasping sound. My blood froze. Coldhounds!

Her grip on me tightened. I think they’re no longer interested in taking us alive.

I think we should take the one on the right, Dri. The current is stronger, less likely to be a dead end.

I started running again. Confusing our pursuers by switching tunnels was no longer an option. Coldhounds are better than dogs at following a scent. Whether genetically engineered or discovered on some alien world, the origins of these monsters are lost to history. In either case, they are the perfect tracker/hunter if you don’t care what happens to the tracked/hunted in the end.

Coldhounds can swim, but not very well, whether they could catch-up to an encumbered Ari is anyone’s guess. However, there could be no doubt of them catching me, or any other bipedal human, encumbered or not. Unfortunately the water remained just deep enough to hinder my steps.

It gets deeper ahead, I can sense it!

Good, I’m starting to get winded.

I heard the sound of rushing ahead and we soon passed a series of pipes, each about a half-meter in diameter, from which water gushed. It was now half-way to my knees and flowing swiftly.

This is different. Not like the rest of the tunnels we’ve seen. Also, we must be far from the palace, but there are still light panels and no wells. I thought.

Ari looked around and then up. Dri! The ceiling is painted red! Jen said we must turn back if we’re in a red tunnel!

I didn’t slow down. Whatever’s ahead, it can’t be worse than being torn apart and eaten alive!

The water deepened. When it was above my knees, Ari let go and dropped into the water.

Oh my. If this current gets any faster, my tail will be useless.

And I won’t be able to keep on my feet. I thought I could hear a roaring sound from ahead as well as behind. “Do you hear that?” I shouted. “I don’t think it’s an echo.”

I stopped at a tunnel opening on our right. Like many others, it was blocked with bars. I saw that one was loose, grabbed it and pulled.

You’ll never get through that in time Dri.

I’m not trying to get through it. With a crack, the bar gave and pulled free. I’m looking for anything that can be used as a weapon. It was about two centimeters thick, about a meter and a half long and just heavy enough to be effective. “That should do it!”

We continued on a short ways. It was no deeper, but the current was becoming impossible to deal with. Ari clung to the brick wall and fought it with her tail. I leaned into it.

Finally, we saw the tunnel take a very steep downward plunge into darkness. We stopped; this is where we’d have to make our stand.

I considered our chances. Coldhounds are reptilian, bipedal and about two meters tall. Their hands and feet are equipped with razor-sharp claws, their heads full of equally sharp teeth. Their hearing and sense of smell are beyond phenomenal. The only natural advantage I had were eyes (they are born without them). I also had the metal bar. I can handle one or maybe two. Any more than that and we should take our chances down the hole.

I Agree. By then Ari was simply hanging on. Fighting the current with her tail was too tiring.

Back up the tunnel, I saw first one coldhound, then a second, their scales shining black in the light from the panels. They were making their way gingerly downstream. I could see then that I had perhaps one more possible advantage; the volume of sound appeared to disorient them. They moved with a lack of certainty, casting their heads about and sniffing the air. Then one faced me and gave out a low, rattling hiss. The other one lowered its head and did the same. They moved forward, more certain of themselves now. The closest one made a skipping leap toward Ari. It would be upon her before I could do anything. Sensing my distraction, the other one sprang at me.

Intentionally or not, Ari let go and in an instant, she was gone. The coldhound tried to stop. It raked its claws against the wall as it too disappeared.

I tried to bring the bar down in an overhand swing, but missed and almost fell. The coldhound lashed out, coming within millimeters of my face. Its breath smelled of carrion as it gave a hateful moan. It then paced back and forth, craning its neck and sniffing for any weaknesses. I regained my footing and braced against the wall near the black hole where Ari and the other coldhound had vanished. The beast charged again. I struck, this time hitting a forelimb with a loud crack. A shriek momentarily drowned the roar of the water. Enraged, it backed away and tried to circle around, gibbering and biting at its limp arm. I nearly lost my footing again, trying to keep it in front of me. Then it leapt forward, springing nearly out of the water. I swung from the side this time, connecting between shoulder and skull with a sickening crunch. Propelled by momentum, the dead body slammed into me, sending us both down the shaft.

I would have gone after Ari anyway, but I would have preferred jumping to tumbling. I bounced from wall to wall and against the beastly corpse and lost my grip on the weapon. The tunnel was full of water, but there wasn’t time to worry about breathing. I was thrown out over a pool and landed on my back. The water was only waist deep so I was soon able to scramble back onto my feet. Except for the body of the dead coldhound floating nearby, I seemed to be alone. “Ari! Where are you?” Then, the water stirred, but it wasn’t Ari. The remaining coldhound slowly emerged, blew water from its nostrils, howled and waded towards me. I backed away.

The pool was only fifteen meters in diameter and was actually the bottom of a shaft, at least a hundred meters deep. There was nowhere to go and it was gaining. I ducked under; looking for something with which to make a defense, but it was too murky to see. I surfaced and tried yelling, but it only paused for a moment, sniffed the air uncertainly and came on.

Suddenly, there was a tremendous surge and splash to my left. Ari propelled herself most of the way out of the water, the iron bar held in her right hand like a spear. She brought it down in an overhand thrust that pierced the monster’s chest and exited through its spine. She screamed, it shrieked and died.

“That…That’s the way we hunt whale-snakes…on the surface…with spears.” Ari said proudly while catching her breath.

“You never cease to amaze me. You were like an avenging mer-angel bringing the Lord’s judgment.”

“You say the nicest things, Dri.” She shook her head toward the spreading patch of dark blood. “That damned thing chased me round and round; I had nothing to fight it with until the bar fell. I was fetching it when you dropped by.”

“I’m glad one of us found it. I was afraid the beast had gotten you.”

“Not likely, not before I was completely exhausted anyway.”

I looked up at the circle of daylight. “Now where the hell are we and how do we leave?”

Around the shaft and at various heights were other openings like the one we’d just fallen from. None of the rest had water coming from them. The closest one was about five meters up.

“Can you climb that?” I asked.

She frowned. “I don’t know if I can pull myself that high with hands and arms alone. A stone wall is not like a ladder, and there’s nothing wide enough to push up with my tail.”

“I’ll climb behind you. You can rest your tail on my shoulder.”

“Can you do that?”

“Stick with me and I just might amaze you someday!”

Ari swam up and wrapped her arms around me. “I think you already have!”

It took some time and effort, but I managed to push Ari up to where she could pull herself into the tunnel. I then jumped down, tossed her the metal bar and climbed up myself. The tunnel had been dry for a long time. There were even a few plants growing in silt near the mouth, where the sunlight could reach. It was also only about a meter in diameter. We both had to crawl. Ari went first. “I can see better in bad light,” She said. I followed with our weapon. We had gone in far enough that the roar of falling water faded before we decided to halt. We were exhausted and quickly fell asleep.

I had no idea how long I’d slept, but there was still daylight filtering in from the tunnel’s mouth. It could have been the next morning for all I knew. Ari lay with her head on my shoulder. I could feel her light breath on my cheek. A wisp of her hair moved ever so slightly each time she exhaled. She looked so peaceful and childlike; I couldn’t bear to wake her. It was one of those moments in life that I wished would last forever. But I soon began to worry about the future. What sort of life can we expect to have together? Where would we live? What of our careers? I mentally shrugged and reminded myself that right now nothing mattered but getting each other off this world alive.

Eventually, she opened her eyes and smiled. We kissed, and then she stretched and flexed her arms and fins. “My goodness, how I slept! Is it morning or still afternoon?”

“Don’t know, but I would bet morning.”

“That must be the best sleep I’ve ever had on land. How about you?”

“I slept almost as long and just as well.”

“Good!” she snuggled against me.

“Now that we’re rested,” I continued. “And, at least for the time being, safe. I would like for you to sing to me.”

“Oh, you would!” she raised her head and grinned. “Are you sure? That’s a very big thing for us Syrenka.”

“Why? Does that mean we’re betrothed or something?”


“Well I do believe I’m ready for that. Are you?”

She grew serious. “Yes,” she said softly.

“Now, will your song do something to my head?”

“She laughed out loud. “Of course it will! But don’t be concerned, it can only strengthen what’s already there. Everyone always overestimates the power of our singing. We can’t make people do or think anything but what they already want to do or think. And, in this case, it’ll affect me just as much as you.”

It was my turn to be serious. “I was just curious. I’m ready to be unconditionally yours anyway.”

Ari sat up, looked deep into my eyes and began to sing:

The road now leads onward

As far as can be

Winding lanes

And hedgerows in threes

By purple mountains

Round every bend

All roads lead to you

There is no journey’s end

Here is my heart - I give it to you

Take me with you across this land

These are my dreams, so simple and few

Dreams we hold in the palm of our hands

Deep in the winter

‘Midst falling snow

High in the air

Where the bells they all toll

And now all ‘round me

I feel you still here

Such is the journey

No mystery to fear

Here is my heart - I give it to you

Take me with you across this land

These are my dreams, so simple and few

Dreams we hold in the palm of our hands

The road now leads onward

I know not where

I feel in my heart

That you will be there

Whenever a storm comes

Whatever our fears

The journey goes on

As your love ever nears

Here is my heart - I give it to you

Take me with you across this land

These are my dreams, so simple and few

Dreams we hold in the palm of our hands

We lost ourselves in each other and thought not about worlds or wars for some time after that.

We had fallen asleep again. This time, Ari was the first to stir. She kissed me awake and whispered in my ear. “Wake up my love. Time to leave our cave. There are others to think about.”

I smiled at her. “You’re right, let’s go.”

This time, I managed to persuade her to let me go first. As we climbed, the pipe began to gradually slope upwards and twist to the right. It got darker for a while. I let Ari peer around me, and when it got too dim for her eyes, I probed ahead with the metal bar. Then it began to grow light again. But it wasn’t sunlight. It was artificial, like a brighter version of the subterranean light-panels.

“Stop for a moment, Dri.” Said Ari.

“What is it?”

She rose up and placed her palms flat against the sides of the pipe. “Can you feel it?”

I did the same and felt a vibration. “An earth tremor? No…there’s a pattern to it.”

“It’s machinery. A pumping station I’m guessing.”

“I thought this water system was all gravity powered.”

“So did I.” She started crawling again. “I’m very curious to see what’s ahead now.”

The pipe continued to climb and twist to the right until it must have been at ninety degrees from where we first entered it. The vibration strengthened until it became a noise. Then the passage leveled off and became a trench, the top covered by a metal grate. I stood and pressed against it. A section of the grate lifted off and slid aside. I climbed out of the trench and reached down to help Ari up.

We were now in a much larger tunnel, a hallway really. Walls, ceiling and floor were gray and smooth, not the brick or rough-hewn stone we had grown accustomed to. The grated trench continued down the middle of the floor. Light panels were placed at regular and frequent intervals on the ceiling. I picked Ari up and started walking. The passage seemed endless. Eventually, we came to a hatchway on the left-hand side.

“This is like something you’d see on a starship.” I said.

Ari nodded.

I sat her down. “I’m going to take a look. You stay here, just in case.”

She held onto my hand for a moment. “Be careful and don’t go far without me.”

I grasped the hatch-lever, it turned easily. This must be over two thousand years old, but it’s as though it were placed here yesterday! I pushed the hatch, peeked out, then opened it wide and stepped through.

“Ari! Come look!”

I heard her crawl through the hatchway and suck in her breath. “Oh my God, Dri!” She pulled herself to the railing and stood on her tail.

We were standing on a balcony or observation point a hundred meters above a floor filled with pipes, cables, gang-ways, cat-walks and electronic and hydraulic gear. Some of the machines towered over us. The cavern had to cover at least ten square kilometers.

“It’s like the engine-room of a star-ship!” she said.

“Only one far bigger than that for the largest dreadnought in the fleet!”

“But how? No power plant could…not for two millennia! Unless…” She looked at me, eyes wide with wonder.

“Unless we’re looking at the last operating anti-matter reactor in human space.”

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