The last of the saboteurs had barely hit the ground before the lander was shooting upwards and backwards at dizzying speed, missing the overhang at the lip of the canyon by centimetres, and in seconds it was gone.
“Let’s go!” Tristan called. He was already entering the inky blackness of the narrow cleft at the head of the defile. His team hastened to follow him into the bowels of the planet.
Once they were all inside, they snapped on their helmet lights.
“It’s wet, slippery, and fairly treacherous,” Tristan told them, “so take your time, and don’t take chances.”
To begin with, they advanced along a passage that sloped slightly downward, and whose walls leaned sharply to the left. Arianne was at Tristan’s shoulder.
“Do you really know these caves that well?” she asked.
“Well enough to outsmart the Nasty,” he replied with confidence. “I spent a good deal of my childhood exploring them.”
Arianne shuddered, her headlight flashing on dank rock that seemed to extend upwards for ever, seeming to threaten to crush them in an instant. “You know,” she said, “you’re even weirder than I thought.”
Tristan chuckled in the darkness.
After a few more minutes, the ceiling descended and narrowed above them. What had been a reasonable passageway reduced to a crack. They were soon crawling through a narrow space. Arianne had nothing to look at but the soles of Tristan’s boots.
“It’s funny,” Tristan gasped at one point, as he wormed his way through a particularly narrow section, but I don’t remember it being this much of a squeeze when I was a kid.”
“In case you hadn’t noticed,” Arianne panted, “you’ve grown a bit since then! Are you sure these passages are accessible to adults?”
“Good point!” Tristan gasped. He looked back at her, and she saw he was grinning. “Don’t worry,” he reassured her. “We’ll make it.”
They slithered, scraped, squeezed their way onward, clawing their way past obstacles, for what seemed to Arianne to be an eternity. She looked at her watch and saw that it had been an hour since they had entered the caves. She wondered how much more of this treatment she could take.
She looked up, but there was nothing to see but the rock ceiling just above her head, just the merest crack where it met the wall to her right, allowing a continuous trickle of water to seep through. She tried not to think about how far the rock extended above her. This was not the time or the place to start getting claustrophobic. She realised that the rest of the team behind her was grimly silent, and she suspected that they were all wrestling to control the same fears as she was.
They pressed on for some time. There was little to be heard beyond the scrape of boots, the sibilant swish of cloth on stone, and laboured breathing.
At last, Tristan’s feet disappeared from Arianne’s field of view. For a disconcerting moment, she found herself staring into featureless blackness. Where had Tristan gone? There had been no scream, no sound of a fall. “Tris?” she said, in a small, nervous voice.
His face appeared. He blinked in the light. “All right,” he said softly, “I think the worst is behind us. But we’re getting close to where the Nasty may have posted sensors, so we’re going to have to be really quiet. Now, there’s a slight drop here, but it’s a slope, so you can just slide down to the floor. It’s a piece of cake.”
He was gone again. Arianne edged forward and looked over the edge. Tristan’s “slight drop” was five or six metres, and the “slope” was almost vertical. “A piece of cake,” she muttered under her breath.
She stood up in the mouth of the cleft they were emerging from and turned around. Slowly she dropped to her knees and eased herself off the edge, scrabbling for footholds. She slipped, and slid, her gear scraping and rattling around her, down to the bottom.
Tristan was standing there, his finger to his lips. “Shhh!”
While the others made their descent, Arianne looked around. They seemed to be in quite a large tunnel. She took one or two steps.
Tristan grabbed her arm. “Don’t wander off,” he warned. “There’s a large sink hole just back there.”
“How do you know?” she asked.
“I told you. I’ve been here before.”
Arianne reflected that it was just as well his body had self-repair systems or he would never have survived his childhood.
When the saboteurs were all assembled at the bottom of the slope, Tristan led them on. It was just as he had said: round a slight bend in the tunnel, the ground suddenly vanished. Their headlights picked out what appeared to be a pool of ink blocking their path, about three metres across, with just a narrow ledge along one side.
Tristan pointed to the ledge. “I’ll go across there,” he said. “Then we can secure the ladder.” He patted a thigh pocket which contained the ladder.
Arianne examined the ledge. “Tris,” she said softly, “you’re still thinking that you’re twelve years old. You’ve grown since you were down here last. I think it makes more sense if I go across, being smaller and lighter.”
Tristan surveyed the scene. The ledge did look much narrower than he remembered it. “Okay,” he said. “You’re probably right.” He took the rolled up ladder from his pocket and handed it to Arianne, and she slipped it into her own thigh pocket. He secured a rope around her waist. “But take care.” And he kissed her.
Cautiously, Arianne approached the ledge and slowly moved on to it. Aiming the light downward so she could see where to place her feet, she could not help noticing the gulf before her, its depths impossible to gauge. With great deliberation she edged slowly sideways, her body pressed against the wall of the tunnel.
It seemed to take forever to get across, but at last she was standing on the far side. She looked across into the faces of the others and saw the relief etched into their features.
She pulled out the coiled ladder. “You know what to do?” Tristan asked. She nodded. Laying the ladder on the ground close to the sinkhole, she found a small white box attached to one end. She pressed a contact. The box sent a signal through the carbon fibres of which the ladder was composed, reconfiguring their molecular structure to that of rigid buckytubes. The ladder began to unroll like a party favour, becoming stiff as it extended across the void. It reached a short distance onto the tunnel floor on the far side.
Arianne touched a second control, and the ladder became ionically bonded to the rock it was resting on. It was a solid bridge now. She undid the rope around her waist. “Here,” she said, “you’ll need this.” She tossed the bundled safety line across the hole.
Linked to one another by the rope, the saboteurs crept across the ladder on hands and knees until at last they were all gathered next to Arianne.
Tristan was the last to cross. As soon as he was on solid ground, he released the bonds holding the ladder and reconfigured it into a pliable form, then rolled it up and replaced it in his pocket.
They continued on for a while longer. The tunnel they were in was flat and level, and at times seemed to Arianne almost like a man-made corridor.
And then, suddenly, a grand chamber opened up before them. They played their lights over its features, and noted the artificial support columns interspersed among the stalactites and stalagmites. In one corner of the chamber was what appeared to be a stairway. In the quiet, they could hear the sounds of the battle raging above them. The ground beneath their feet trembled slightly each time the Palace of the Winds took another hit.
Tristan waved his hand, and they fanned out across the chamber, splashing noisily through pools as they made for the key support structures and began attaching explosive charges. They had no need of the virtual reality visors on their helmets: each of them had memorised in intricate detail Tristan’s map of the caves and where the charges needed to be attached in order to be certain of bringing the entire structure of Shajah Ha’an’s extravagant folly tumbling into the cavern.
Tristan thought that matters were proceeding well, and that they might just succeed in bringing the whole grisly war to an end there and then. As his fingers played over the controls for the remote controlled detonator he was affixing to a column, a warm glow of self-congratulation began to seep through him.
And then the lights came on.
“Stop! In the name of Hadd!” Figures appeared on the stairway in the cavern that was now flooded with light.
Tristan reached for his PPG and began firing at the Dynastic Guards now entering the chamber. The others were doing the same. He glanced across at the corner where he had indicated that they should meet in this eventuality, and saw to his satisfaction that from all directions his comrades were starting to make for it.
He looked around anxiously for Arianne, cursing that she had insisted on coming. He couldn’t see her, but there was furious fire coming from behind a limestone curtain on the far side of the cavern. Indeed, all the team appeared to be giving a good account of themselves, but they were outnumbered.
Benefiting from the illumination, Tristan took tremendous chances as he leaped and scrambled to join the others. As his perspective changed, he could see that it was indeed Arianne who was pinned down behind the rock curtain. He sought out the guard who was firing at her and took him out.
“C’mon, Ari, let’s go!” As he laid down withering fire, he glimpsed her slipping away towards the rendezvous point. As he endeavoured to reach it himself, he felt his heart sinking. The palace would remain standing, their mission would fail. And in all probability the entire rebellion would falter.
And then he heard it. Above the echoing cacophony of exchanged gunfire, he heard that sound that had so terrified him all those years before. It was the hissing of some tremendous thing moving underground, somewhere behind the walls of the cavern. And it was getting louder.
The Dynastic Guards had heard it too, and momentarily stopped firing. They stared about in bewilderment, for the sound appeared to be coming from all around them.
“Get out!” Tristan yelled to his comrades. “Get out!” Frantically he gestured to the small, unobtrusive passageway which he knew would lead them to the open air.
It was like an earthquake. The ground trembled. Antagonists on both sides of the battle struggled to maintain their footing. Tristan urged the others up through a cleft towards safety. Shards of rock began to fall from the ceiling, stalactites dropped like spears.
Tristan began the climb himself, bringing up the rear of his party. Splinters of rock glanced off his helmet. Suddenly, there was a tremendous crash, and a section of the cavern wall fell away. Tristan looked round, and through the clouds of dust he could see a hole that had appeared. Through the hole he could see something moving, something worm-like, but of tremendous size, and moving at great speed.
“Get out!” he yelled again. He could see cracks forming in the support columns, and suddenly realised that what his saboteurs had failed to do, the creature - whatever it was - was about to achieve.
The lights went out. Amid the hissing that marked the creature’s progress and the booming as the cavern walls crumbled, the rebels scrambled upwards frantically in the dark. Everything seemed to be shaking.
And then, at last, mercifully, a streak of blue sky appeared above them, like a rent in the black velvet that held them enswathed. Tristan could see the silhouettes of the others as they raced towards it.
And then they were out in the open, running, with the zomo bushes snagging their clothes, while the ground under them shuddered as if some unnameable apocalypse were taking place within it.
They climbed a low bare ridge and looked back. The sight they saw was incredible. The entire vast complex of the Palace of the Winds, laid out before them, shuddered, and slowly began to sink into the ground, subsiding from the centre outwards, towers toppling, great wings and individual mansions crumbling as the entire edifice was swallowed in an enormous crater. There was a great rumbling, as if a storm were breaking, and clouds of dust rose, veiling the whole area of Shajah Ha’an’s magnificent creation.
Tristan appeared below them, shouting that it was not a safe place to stay, that Dynastic Guards would be close behind them. He waved his arms, yelling at them to move on, and they clambered down into another small gorge in the rocks.
As they did so, Dynasty soldiers seemed to appear out of nowhere, surrounding the rebels and overpowering them. Arianne was grabbed from behind and lifted off her feet. She screamed.
Tristan appeared around the bluff, running to her aid. From the corner of her eye she saw a weapon raised from behind her and trained on Tristan. “No!” she screamed, but her arms were pinned. She was helpless.
The gun fired. It struck Tristan in the middle of his forehead, seeming to evaporate the top of his skull in a deadly red mist. He was thrown onto his back and lay still. The blood ran in a river over the bare earth.
“Tristan!” Arianne wrestled with her captor.
He laughed. “It’s all right, girlie. He’s not dead.”
For an instant she recalled Tristan’s friends back on Thelema. If she ever got out of this, if she ever found him again, he would not even know her name, and all recollection of everything they had had together would be wiped away. “Of course he’s not dead, you moron!” she snarled. “But when he recovers, he’ll be a vegetable!”
“Exactly,” said the sinister voice, so close to her ear. “Why do you think we’re leaving him? He’s no use to us. No use to anyone!” And it dissolved into raucous laughter.
Half blinded by tears, Arianne caught a last glimpse of Tristan’s lifeless body as she was dragged, biting, kicking and screaming, to a nearby Dynastic shuttlecraft.
End of Part Two.