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Chapter 5: Cold Comfort

As quietly as I could, I pulled the cover aside. A humid draft rose from below.

Ari leaned forward. “Ah, sweet heaven! Clean water!” Her eyes were eager, almost desperate.

“Well! I can see there’ll be no fitting my chair through that.” She opened a small panel, pushed a button and pulled some wires loose. There was a spark and a small puff of smoke from burning circuitry. The hover-chair settled to the floor with a gentle thump. “No need to gift the latest repulsor-lift tech to Edgar’s engineers.” She slid off the chair, sat on the edge of the well and pulled off her dress. She then tied her sash with the pistol around her middle. “You’d best do the same, sweetie. The water smells deep. And get rid of those boots!”

Trying to ignore her bare breasts, I did as she said. Then I took the rifle, which was too heavy to swim with, removed and broke the firing pin.

Ari wiggled her tail and flexed her fin. “I’m gonna love this!” Then she slipped off the edge and plunged into the darkness. There was a splash followed by a giggle. “What are you waiting for, Dri? The water’s delicious!”

I sat down, slid off and dangled by my fingers for a few moments. I steeled myself for the cold and let go. The surface of the water was less than a meter below my toes. I splashed in. It must have been at least four meters deep and was every bit as cold as expected. It took my breath away. I surfaced and sucked in air. Ari was swimming on the top, her tail scattering droplets like small diamonds in the dim light. Then she dove, her fin flipping as it went under. A moment later she reemerged right next to me.

“This is wonderful! Isn’t it, Dri?”

“Oooff!” I said, and my teeth began to chatter.

“Oh dear, you’re cold aren’t you. We’ll have to get swimming then. It’ll warm you up. Come on.”

I’d always fancied myself a good swimmer and, by main-line human standards, I was. But I was way out of my league swimming with Ari. She was patient with me, however. Like a mother strolling with a toddler, she would go a little ways ahead and stop, then turn and circle me, all the while giving encouragement. Eventually, she gave up and had me hang on to her shoulders while she towed me.

There was very little light, but it should have been total darkness. High on the gray brick walls, however, and at regular intervals, were small rectangular, glowing panels. I pointed them out to Ari.

“That can’t be current Rii technology,” she said. “They must date to the founding of this colony.”

“It’s amazing that they’ve kept all this operational for so many centuries.”

“It’s because their very existence depends on it.”

It’s not unusual on dry worlds and dry regions on wet worlds to find cisterns, aqueducts and other means of collecting, storing or distributing precious water. Never had I seen anything as extensive or sophisticated as what was under the Rii capital. According to the map Jen showed us, no Rii household was more than a few dozen meters from a well opening. The tunnels were uniformly seven meters in width and five in height. The masonry was finely laid and proof against leakage. Also, though I couldn’t feel it, Ari assured me that there was a slight current, just enough to prevent stagnation.

After a while, we moved beyond where the palace walls would be. The brickwork gave way to rough stone and the light panels ceased, but just enough starlight came down from the open wells for Ari’s sensitive eyes. These open wells were placed at intervals of seventy-five to two hundred meters along either side of the tunnel. There were no ladders.

The water level remained the same, but silt and gravel had partly filled some stretches of tunnel. Eventually we came to an area too shallow for a mermaid to swim. We decided to take a rest. I stood up and tried to rub some life back into my limbs. Ari sat running her fingers through her hair and humming to herself.

“Drat!” she finally said. “I shouldn’t have left my comb in the chair. I could have stuck it in this sash! I must look like some evil sea-witch.”

I sat on a ledge near her. “You look wonderful!” My opinion was based on affection alone since I could barely see her outline.

She smiled and looked down modestly. “Thank you. You’ve got it bad, Dri, and I’ve not even sung to you yet!”

“Yes, I suppose I do,” I chuckled. “I can’t seem to help it.”

She was quiet and seemed thoughtful for a while after that. Finally, she said, “Careful what you awaken, Mister Morgan. My people fall in love quickly but very deeply.”

“My father proposed to my mother on their first meeting.”

“Oh? I presume she said yes.”

“Not ‘til months later, but she told me years afterward that from that very day, her fate was sealed.”

“Is my fate sealed then?” Ari laughed.

“I can’t say. But I know that mine is.”

She became serious again, and said nothing more.

We continued on. I carried her until the water got past knee-deep and she could swim. When it got past waist-deep, she towed me again. The water remained that depth and deeper until she stopped beneath one of the wells.

This is it. She thought, for fear of being overheard. Assuming that map was accurate and I’ve counted right.

I looked up at the circle of brighter dimness. It was about ten meters up and narrow, with no way to climb except roughly laid stones. I could do it easily. But…

It doesn’t look good for me does it? It was more a statement than a question. She sighed. If there were wide enough ledges, I could push up with my tail or rest my weight on them while pulling myself up…I just can’t do it.

You could hang on to my shoulders while I climb up.

She shook her head sadly. The way’s too narrow. Look, I’ll be safe down here, at least for the time-being. You go ahead.

I can’t just leave you here!

Of course you can! Don’t be silly. You have to get in contact with Windridge and Chang!

Maybe one of the other openings…

I looked at each of the ones we passed. They’re all like this. You’ll need a rope to haul me up!

She was right. Add to that the fact that the well would be in the middle of the street. Getting from there to Chang’s door could be very dangerous.

Alright. But, if one or the other of us has to move, how will we find each other again? There are hundreds of these openings!

Try whistling this! As she softly sang a four note tune into my ear, her mouth brushed my cheek. I turned slightly and our lips met. After a moment, she responded. We clung to each other as we kissed.

“I guess I can’t help it either. Perhaps my fate is indeed sealed,” she whispered. Now, no heroics, Dri! I don’t fancy growing old down here, especially without you!

Don’t worry. I just found another reason to want to live.

We parted. I wished I could see her face, but it was still too dark. I then began the long climb to the street above.

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