by Christopher T. Garry
Dr. Carson Deming stood at the edge of the waterfall, looking down to the far side of the underground cavern. Ari, Deming’s symbiont, saw what he saw and felt a sudden and deep longing to jump. Not suicide. It was just one of those strange draws that dawned on her when looking at such a stark, overwhelming expanse that fell below her as well as stretching out above her. She wondered if he felt the same.
The physician had spent days walking the paths of the underground cavern, searching for signs of his daughter, Pelly, and failing. Supposedly she had found tunnels to other caverns. She was last seen skulking down the southern slopes, past the lake, and he had searched that region there hardest and longest, particularly near a site that showed alarming blood evidence.
Ari was patient with Deming these last few days in his despair, although he no longer spoke to anyone, not even her. His silence only confirmed that he had utterly withdrawn. Even more than the rest of the surviving crew who were hiding underground here since their freighter crashed two months ago. Above the Atrium, on the surface of Jesson VII, the violent weather, raging cold and perpetual dark offered little chance of rescue.
Ari was convinced in yesterday’s terrible argument with the captain that Tiron would kill Deming, on top of refusing to help him find the girl. Thus, Deming no longer thought of anything in the same way. To him, Pelly died in that moment. Since the argument with the captain, none of the crew spoke much.
Deming left the waterfall and moved along the path up past the crashing water, keeping the rising bank on his left as he walked, and Ari reflected on the state of the rest of the crew. Gif had been spending his free time running barefoot through the cavern, staying in shape, practicing with a balanced staff he had created from a fallen tree. He had to make two staves actually, as the tiny Cleaners, the masterful care-takers of the cavern, had carried the first away. Only after he pointedly demonstrated his workout for the palm-sized, sentient spiders, as they patiently waited for him to drop the stick, did they seem to realize that it was his tool. The only other remaining crew members, Grace and Maercus, had recounted similar experiences with the Cleaners. They were otherwise sullen since the fight as well. The semblance of normalcy instilled by their attempt at normal life after the crash—gardening for food, throwing a fourteenth birthday celebration for the doctor’s daughter, exploring the far side of the cavern—all of it slipped away with Pelly’s disappearance.
Deming came to the source of the river bubbling up from underground. Ari noticed a Cleaner in the distance, working by itself on a collection of stones. Deming sat nearby, removing his pack and fashioning a pillow. He had been up in these highlands of the underground cavern for several hours, and this shade from the artificial light was as good as any on his long daily loop. From here they could see the entire valley in the distance.
Ari missed real mountains. She would imagine great rocky lines obscured by the manufactured mist of the far wall. What she saw in the cavern nearly always had her complete attention. She was experiential. She was listening to the waterfall, listening to the insects that accompanied the fading light, absorbing the falling rain, feeling the clutch of soil and rocks under foot, sensing the gravity holding her to this place, settling her and Deming forever to the last place they would ever live, it seemed.
With this, she felt Deming slip into sleep’s ample hands, letting darkness befall them both.
Tiny and slender, Pelly slept hard. With her lids closed to the utter blackness around her, her eyes still moved back and forth. She twitched ever so slightly. She was warm, slightly tucked so that her elbows dug into her abdomen and her palms were upturned to her pretty face in delicate but defiant fists. She had not come around yet since her accident. As she snored softly, she could not know how long she had been in this position, this place or how she got here. In her mind’s eye she was in a hug. Her father held her mother, and her mother held her. She thought it odd not to be able to move her arms in the warm embrace, but then again that is the nature of a mother’s protective clutch. She tried to reach her mother’s cheek to feel closer but couldn’t. It did not occur to her in the dream that her mother had been dead for two months, killed in the crash landing.
“Dr. Deming, wake up,” Ari insisted, rather flatly.
“Not now,” Deming mumbled, as he covered his head. This would be pointless of course, since Ari was inside Deming’s head, a microscopic clustered system of nerves and blood vessels. His gesture was an artifact of the way Deming could hear her. It was the same way he heard anything in his environment, since Ari was integrated into his brain so she could stimulate his auditory nerves with a sufficient signal as if he were actually hearing a voice in the room. This worked disconcertingly so, since she both heard and spoke this same way. She was tapped into almost all his environmental senses just so. After all these years, if she woke him up like this, he still tried to cover his ears to mask the soft, pleasant, but often insistent voice. She would smile if she could. She was unsettled, however.
Ari said quietly, “Something is—”
“What is it, Ari? Pelly here?”
“—wrong,” she finished.
When Deming opened his eyes, she could see several Cleaners fussing at his feet and legs as he groggily sat up part way to inspect the activity of the innocuous little workers.
They all regarded his prone figure rather impatiently, scattering slightly as he rolled to one side to get into his pack. When he turned his hair stood up, despite himself. He was normally quite comfortable with the Cleaners, there was no doubting this. The challenge at the moment was that there were so many, with far too many spider legs among them. They were all staring at him, little articulated torsos panning about and returning to him as they endeavored to keep him in their fixed sights.
Ari assumed that they were all of a single mind on some mission, since there was not much gesturing or many salutations exchanged that she normally saw in the more typical passersby. There were hundreds of them carpeting the grass around him now.
Deming moved slowly, mounting his pack, but still sitting. Ari didn’t feel threatened, but she was unnerved. The creatures moved in waves, making just enough room for him to shift, first to his knees carefully, and then to a full stand. They dutifully made way, and she supposed they could not be slighted for their balance of consideration and persistence. After all, they had let him nap.
Deming took a slow exaggerated step, and they cleared space for him again. They had turned their focus where he had been a moment ago. The ground shimmered and then blackened. The Cleaners closest to the spot seemed to wrap themselves into it and drop down. The others followed, and within moments hundreds of the spiders had seemed to flush themselves, disappearing into the tiny hole. The area around him was entirely devoid of spiders. He was alone again. The spot stretched back into its original shape, namely a patch of grass. He reached down and patted it. Solid.
A Cleaner moved about in the dark, coming to Pelly’s body while she still slept, negotiating the roots and sinew that supported her placement. Another cleaner came across the first and they waved forelegs at each other, in an almost passing affection. The two moved to her face, each standing on opposite collarbones reaching up to touch her cheek. The one on the left rearranged itself in order to grip her shoulder better. It bit down on her flesh in a tiny mark, gently at first, so as not to break the skin, then harder until it drew a tiny drop of blood. It withdrew, rolled the droplet within its mandibles, then hummed with satisfaction.
Ari thought that Pelly had acted confidently as though she had been here before. After the crash, the death of her mother and so many of the other crew, Pelly adapted immediately, started experimenting and telling her father and the other crew stories of her successes. She was creative, intelligent and a contact sensitive. This last talent had not yet fully emerged, but it was strong already. Compared in empathy tests to the adults that Dr. Deming had documented, she already held her own. The talent was incredibly rare, about one in three million, and allowed her to be commissioned for commercial interplanetary work four years earlier than the age limit required. Ari believed that the other caverns existed, based on Pelly’s theories, but none of their crew could ever find the tunnels.
Perhaps selfishly or because he was grieving, Deming had deliberately omitted Pelly’s explanation for her guidestone method of finding and traveling through the tunnels. She had only told her dad right before she disappeared. Nevertheless, he had failed in finding a guidestone himself, the tiny pebbles that glowed when near a hidden tunnel. The Cleaners supposedly made the stones, but were far too tidy to leave one lying about. According to Pelly, the Cleaners each held one in their bodies naturally. Ari didn’t have the heart to ask Deming to snatch one and bash it. That didn’t seem civil, not after how much they had learned of the intelligent creatures and had empathized with their charter here.
Now here it was. A tunnel, the first they had ever found. And the way was shut. It occurred to Ari that she had made an assumption. Pelly had said that the guidestones were useful in locating the tunnels. She did not recall her saying that the stones were required for opening the tunnel entries. Pelly did make a bit of a point in gesturing the way she did about the motion that opened the doors.
Deming must have been thinking the same thing, as he turned back to the patch, took off his pack, smoothed his beard and perched over what might be the beginning of the tunnel passage. He was closing his eyes, so she dared a momentary impulse, displaying the visual memory of Pelly, letting him immerse in it. The vision startled him, but he relaxed in a moment. He opened his eyes and began awkwardly at first. Then with some grace, he imitated Pelly’s motion while his hands were near the would-be hole. He repeated this unsuccessfully for several minutes, until finally, he shifted his bearing, and the grass darkened. He pitched his weight forward and completed the stroke with his hands plunging into the darkness up to his elbows, spreading its edges. The blackness remained spread before him, as he steadied himself. This time the patch was much wider. He eyeballed his pack and then the sky. His eyes closed again.
“Show her to me again, please, Ari.” Pelly’s face suddenly filled his mind, most vividly, in fact. He seemed resolved. Opening his eyes, he snatched his back pack and dove head-first into the passageway.
Deming was disconcerted at first. He was into the hole up to his hips, upside down, dangling in utter darkness. His arms flailed violently, expecting to protect his head from a crash that never came. In the sudden dark, his arm struck what might have been an exposed root. He stifled a rough, gasping shriek and nearly dropped the pack. Ari could feel in him that he had managed to acquire a gash.
She started, “Perhaps—”
“Don’t,” he snapped. There was a distinct note of tense embarrassment in his tone. He froze suddenly, as his eyes adjusted. There was a pale blue light coming to him. It was all about, in sparse patches. Still suspended in the misshapen hole, he reached out with his free hand and grasped a mass of dirt, rocks… and at least one glowing, blue pebble. Ari was very excited, despite the amount of blood being lost through his new wound. She waited patiently as he struggled to back out of the tunnel, into the meadow bathed in low-angle artificial sunlight. He fell flat on the grass, panting.
Pain radiated from his left forearm, and he rolled, bending to inspect it. A torn flap of skin stuck out, nearly the length of his forearm, exposing a good deal of soft tissue, ragged muscle, tendons, arteries, veins and blood. He was bleeding profusely across the inside of the wrist from several ruptured vessels. He quickly replaced the skin tissue in a reasonable semblance of where it was supposed to go and wrestled his pack around to get bandages. He used several pieces to stop the bleeding, and even with that, it required constant pressure.
Deming was cursing and a bit dizzy. He actually laughed at his predicament, sounding slightly embarrassed. Ari wryly surmised that he had meaningful work to do, now that he had a surgery he could perform. Without a word, she initiated pain suppression and felt his system normalize after a few minutes. He went back to the pack and started to lay out surgical supplies, next to the azure stone. Ari noted with delight that there was a second one among the dirt, too.
After Deming worked alone for about fifteen minutes, a Cleaner passed by him, several paces away. The creature took no notice of him initially, but veered toward him upon seeing a dirty bandage tossed aside. The man kept an eye out as he worked, as the spider sped over to inspect the discarded bandage. The spider pulled the bandage away. Instead of leaving, it lined up to view the injured arm, danced a bit sideways, appearing to judge the distance. Not entirely unexpectedly, it pounced.
Ari recalled that Deming had called all the Cleaners, she. This pleased her somehow. It seemed this one was intent on inspecting the injury. Deming was patient with her. He was not in any particular hurry now that he had closed off the worst of the open bleeds among the vessels under the skin. He resigned to let the little spider have a look.
This one was even bolder than the first Cleaner they encountered last month. Ari wondered if Deming’s yielding nature with the original one had become known to all the Cleaners. Ari could feel that her eight legs had the most delicate touch, as she carefully inspected all through the wound, moving some of the skin flap back, and then replacing it.
In the distance, another Cleaner appeared and also veered in their direction. When that one arrived, the two of them waved forearms at each other, briefly, presumably exchanging situation information. The second one crossed to Deming’s other arm and seemed to be staring intently at the porous, hairy skin, touching it, backing up, tasting, fidgeting and following the same path that the gash had taken across the first arm. Was she comparing? Was she using the natural bilateral symmetry to make an assessment of how things should look on the damaged side?
The second Cleaner bounced back to Deming’s injury and began doing something with its jaws. Deming furrowed his eyebrows. The first one stopped working, as if she had seen his expression, and reoriented herself to look him in the eye. She looked frozen, as if pondering something, and then she reached for his face, waving her two forelegs slowly. Ari felt Deming begin to shift a little, and he lifted the little creature to his face. The two spiders both clung to his injured arm. This one inspected his cheeks briefly with a feathery, momentary touch and then turned abruptly to begin her work. She had tried to comfort him.
She too began working her jaws and soon excreted fluid, working her forelegs to form a light, sinewy paste. She worked this into the wound, delicately spreading it, wispy thin. Both Cleaners did this, each from either end. Their speed and dexterity were incredible. In less than a minute, this substrate was laid in. They rearranged the muscle closing the gap and cementing the fibers with something he could not make out. Everything either of them touched was soothed, and Ari let up on the pain suppression.
The Cleaners worked at a blinding speed for several minutes, layering each bit in the correct order, restoring the structure, cooperating, fidgeting, cementing and binding. More Cleaners arrived and the work continued, in earnest, although there really was not room for more than six of them to work at once. They took turns anyway, since it seemed to require some time to regenerate their binding lacquer. Ari felt Deming relax as he watched the dimming light in the reddened sky. He put his supplies away and moved the pack into a pillow position, so they could finish without disruption.
Ari considered a startling, obvious possibility. Deming had found so much blood at the site where Pelly was last seen, but no Pelly. Had Cleaners come to care for Pelly the night she disappeared? Pelly had said that her healing, last time she fell, occurred while she slept, and that it was because of being in the cavern. What if Pelly wasn’t ‘healed,’ but instead repaired by Cleaners, who had found her unconscious? On the other hand, if Pelly were completely healed, why had they not found her? Did she leave through a tunnel after all, or was she taken?
Ari had enough of Deming’s silence. “I’m convinced that Pelly was taken care of like this,” she said finally. “I am considering whether the Cleaners moved her to someplace where she could rest. And by the way, it’s obvious we need to revise our nickname for the Cleaners, if they undertake medical repairs like this. I might theorize that they were genetically engineered to care for the Atrium and its inhabitants.”
Moments after he realized Ari’s point, Deming’s eyes snapped open, and he sat up. About half the spiders on him fell off in the sudden movement. He reached a deliberate hand to offer a palm for one of them. After a moment’s consideration, it climbed up. The rest approached again, as well. The work on his arm was nearly complete, as it was encased in a flexible, protective binding that reminded him of webbing. He touched it, but it was not sticky. It was breathable, and he could feel the warmth of his arm through it.
“We can find her, right? Now that we have a guidestone, and know how to open the tunnels?”
“Yes,” Ari said happily.
The Cleaners withdrew, one by one. However, Deming retained one, and drew her close to him. On impulse, he turned her in his hand letting his fingers intertwine with her legs, her belly on his palm. She scrambled a bit until she got a more secure grip on his hand. He brought her to his lips until the sleek fur intermingled with his beard. She tensed. He broadened his lips, curled them over to hide all his teeth, took a deep breath, and slowly, gently blew warm air over the creature’s back, ruffling the black and red hairs there.
She suddenly stopped fidgeting altogether and bristled her fur, letting her legs relax. There was no other reaction, except that she seemed completely content to sit and do nothing while cradled in his grip. Ari could only assume she enjoyed the complimentary gesture, as this was the most still she had ever seen any of the Cleaners. He set her down. She turned and regarded him briefly, turned and raced away.
Ari supposed that his act was completely frivolous, but perhaps it reflected an utter joy he took from the Cleaners. If so, she understood the sentiment, and it pleased her, as he would never have been capable of acting upon this joy before coming to Jesson VII. Deming was beginning to embrace more than just his daughter in this place.
The setting light was all but gone within a few minutes. Deming prepared to spend the night in this spot. Tomorrow he could search for his daughter in earnest.
Artificial dawn filtered down through the crevasse and sent root shadows across Pelly’s chest, stomach and legs. Her eyes were open. She could smell the cool earth around her in the small space. With the way the roots supported her she appeared almost to be seated in a reclined flight chair. Across her abdomen, lap and legs she felt the warmth of hundreds of Cleaners perched on her semi-sleeping form, huddling, but nearly still. The sunlight warmed them and they warmed her. As she stirred, the Cleaners shifted. She winced at her stiff weakness. She could almost feel broken bones that were set and knitting, and she could see that most of her body was…what…bandaged? Suddenly sleepy again, she blurred her attention, wondering about her dad, the fall and how she might have gotten here… where ever here was. So many Cleaners… live here.
From under her sleeping form, warm mist rose and intertwined with the roots. Steam traced its way through varied paths around the hanging vegetation, dangling rock formations and moss-covered crystals protruding and dripping with moisture. Far below, a hush of rushing water emerged from a hotspring, disappearing into the dark of the far wall.
For Deming, the passageways between the caverns were so narrow that it required belly crawling. Most of the tunnel travel was dull and backbreaking, and it left little breath for idle talk with Ari, as it took nearly half a day to get from one cavern to the next this way. Mercifully, the air was fresh, usually rushing past him in either direction. The first Cleaners to find him in the tunnels passed by in a fuss of consternation. However, after a few days, the spiders adjusted and simply hopped up to scramble over his back in the narrow passage.
Their arrival in the first cavern was uneventful. Ari suggested nicknaming each cavern as it went into her record. With Ari’s memory capacity she would never lose her way.
This first cavern was named Twilight. The dim light was the same all hours of the day. The vegetation was not nearly as rich and the place looked abandoned of small animals, birds and insects. There were very few Cleaners spotted and there appeared to be no rivers or lakes or hills. Where they might have expected a simulated sky, the artificial ceiling was plainly visible, and was without any variations in the weather. The cavern was only a fraction the size of their home cavern, what Ari called The Atrium.
While Deming worked his way through the myriad of caverns and tunnels, Ari occupied herself as best as she could with memories of vocational work, old data and theoretical compositions that she filed away to research later.
It took several days for Deming and Ari to develop a routine for travel. Since the tunnels were very difficult to maneuver, a tunnel day meant grueling hours of scrabbling, followed by a bare minimum of exploration of the new surroundings upon arrival. He needed to determine any danger in the cavern, clean up and rehydrate. Then of course eat and sleep deeply. Ari’s mind was still haunted by Pelly’s blood evidence, and they wished they knew more about what to expect, other than a surprise attack in a dark cavern some day.
To Ari, the tunnels seemed straight as a beam of light and never forked. So far, any given cavern had at least four tunnels leading away, but sometimes as many as a dozen. She had speculated that some tunnels would be compromised or cracked or even collapsed, but this was not the case so far. They accepted that the caverns, the connecting tunnels and the only known rising access way to the surface were all several thousand years old. Despite this, either the planet was more stable than was typical, leaving no tectonic shifts to cause damage or there were maintenance forces at work besides just the Cleaners.
Navigation was the first challenge. He had no specific destination. Initial direction was selected based on the tunnel that Deming had uncovered, since he was suspicious of the large number of spiders that had dropped into it. He was following them, since they would be key to Pelly’s survival. Ari kept a careful mapping of everywhere he went, documentation of the location of every unexplored tunnel and the distinctive characteristics and conditions in whatever cavern they found themselves. As arduous as the travel was, neither of them were keen on backtracking.
There were very few guidestones littered about here and the lack of their dim blue light made it extremely difficult to see. He was using the portable lantern as sparingly as possible, as it only held a few hundred hours’ worth of light. There was barely enough room to sit up, and the shape of the tunnel wall afforded no rest for his back.
He rummaged through his packs for a brief snack. Deming prepared the paste Grace taught him back in The Atrium. Overall the food supply seemed ample. Many of the roots, sap, water traps, etc. were usable as is. They’d learned that most of the bugs and small animals could be eaten. Raw, apparently. The material was something like fish in its light texture and it was easily digested. It had no particular smell, which, given the texture, was a gift.
About half the caverns he traversed were populated at least sparsely with some sort of food source, regardless of whether the weather was tropical or temperate. One of the caverns had appeared to have nothing useful in it at all, as every surface in it was almost entirely covered in large crystals. It made the tunnels harder to spot. He and Ari noted no life in the cavern whatsoever and no cleaners. The center of the room glowed far brighter than the rest of the crystals, to the point of being indistinguishable and they did not feel inclined to investigate that cavern much further. If the next cavern held no food or water sources then they needed time to backtrack and rethink their direction before supplies ran low.
Deming found an antechamber off a passageway above the eleventh chamber on the ninth day. The Cleaners’ trail down to it was clear. There she was in the center of the root structure cradled, covered in Cleaners that were not fussing at all. Just resting, near as Ari could tell. She doubted that either Pelly or the Cleaners could hear their arrival at that distance as Deming scanned the wall to determine a way over to her through the three-dimensional weave of roots, sinew and underground detritus. Ari posed the first question. “She looks comfortable. I wonder if she was ever hurt, or did she just wander down here?”
He made his way down the side the cavern wall on roots and rocks. She awoke before he reached her. Cleaners scattered everywhere, as if to make room. From the looks of it she was warm, dry and nourished.
“Daddy!” They embraced. Her jumper was covered in dried blood and looked to have been shredded to near uselessness. It was tied off loosely in several places. She seemed to have lost weight, thought Ari.
“How did you get here? Can you walk?”
“Yes, quite well, actually.” He started a physical assessment of her. Feet, legs, arms—but she shooed him away. “Stoppat! Don’t you think I checked already? I’ve been down here for a hundred years. I have been exploring. There is a hot spring down on the bottom. This is where they make more Cleaners! Well, one place at least. I’ve seen smaller ones and I can watch them feed from the moss beds.”
Ari could hardly believe that the child sounded more excited still to be learning than to be found. Deming took it all in and undid his pack, finding a little food. Pelly worked her fingers over an organic knit sack anchored to a root near her perch. It produced small seeds which she shared with Deming. She popped one in her mouth.
He eyed his seed with an eyebrow up. “You know with all the blood I found on the south slope I thought you were dead. What happened?”
“I’m sorry. I fell again. I was working with some sort of a nest I found in the canopy. It took nearly an hour to reach it. I had taken a position above and to the side to observe, but the branch I was on split. It felt like falling for a half hour. I bashed one branch after another on the way down. Knocked out before I hit the ground I guess…I don’t remember anything else. I didn’t mean to make you worry.”
“Did they really carry you all this way?” He indicated the Cleaners that were scattered around them, above and below.
“I don’t know. I woke up here stripped and covered in webbing. My clothes were by the spring at the bottom. It was a few days before I was steady enough to go get them. How long have I been gone?”
“Ah, fifteen days.” He looked over the side of the perch and could see the bottom. Ari calculated it at least eighty meters down. “How far did you explore?” He wiped his hands on his ragged trousers.
She brightened and pointed at the entrance that Deming has used. “I went up to the next chamber up through that passageway. It’s snowing there!”
This gave Ari pause. She went over her mapping record and could see that overall they had made an arc, rather than a straight line away from the Atrium. It might be worth it to investigate the next chamber to see if there was a shorter path back and whether any new discoveries could be made.
Deming and Pelly agreed. He made a map for his daughter in case they got separated or he was struck unconscious. It would be no good having Ari with the only map if Pelly couldn’t get to Ari.
After a tour of the Cleaner’s chamber, they reached the twelfth cavern the next day. It was considerably colder and far too dark to see more than a few dozen paces. The sky seemed to be a blur, and wind snarled down from above them. Deming held the rags to his head in an attempt to keep warm and to keep the cloth from being whipped away. Ari indicated her assessment to him. He yelled over the wind, “Ari says we’re only a few hundred meters from the surface. This is probably a collapsed cavern. Maybe part of our wreckage caused it, now that I think of it. We need to be careful, since it might still be unstable. How far are we?”
Pelly looked at her map, as she folded herself around it to keep it from ripping off the tablet. She yelled back, “We’re about thirty kilometers from home, maybe only four or five kilometers beyond the crash site.” He had passed under it two days ago.
Deming nodded deeply. Already, he was getting very cold from his sweaty clothes being pierced by cruel ice and wind. “We should double back and rest up in the warmth of the tunnel. There is no telling where the next tunnel is and whether we even want to take it, or the one after.”
They retreated the way they came and within moments were safely in the security of the tunnel that descended back to the previous cavern and past the ante-chamber. They backed down the tunnel far enough to feel the warm air wafting up from the cavern behind them. That cavern’s warm fruit trees still could be detected in the air, and it made Ari think of the waterfall by the first tunnel found.
Deming tried to sit back against the tunnel wall. He frowned and then just stretched out flat anyway. He accidentally kicked Pelly’s pack. She had already stretched out as well, farther down the tunnel. She whispered something to him that neither Ari nor Deming caught.
“I said, good night,” she repeated, rather crossly.
Ari said to him, “You’re still cold. I would guess she is too.”
Deming seemed to consider this and grumbled as he turned over. He breathed, “You’re not subtle.”
“Correct,” she replied. He was still adjusting to the changing relationship with his daughter. They were both still missing Pelly’s mother, gone only two months. Comforting Pelly was complicated. She didn’t want to hold hands or talk or cry. To be expected, thought Ari. Part of that had to be the girl’s aversion to her own contact empathy.
Deming sighed and began backing down the tunnel until he was alongside his daughter. She seemed tense at first and there was a great untangling of cloth and pack straps and laces and zippers and clips that Deming had stirred up as he worked himself into a decent position. He was trying to avoid crushing Pelly into the curvature of the tunnel wall that rose behind her. In the end the space worked to roll the two into each other. Pelly settled for a spot to rest her head on her father’s chest. However, he offered to have her face away, so that their matching shapes would afford a more economical use of the space and allow more freedom to move, he explained.
“You want to spoon?” she said, a smile in her voice, as she flipped over.
He reached behind him to swat away stones poking him. “Oh, I’m just trying to be practical,” he grumbled.
They waited for two days for a break in the weather or some change in the lighting. An artificial dawn might have shown itself, if they were wrong about this being the collapsed cavern. On the morning of the second day in the tunnel, it was still as lightless as the surface of Jesson VII would be above them. That evening, the weather did clear long enough to allow a visual inspection of the ceiling. Ari was excited to see the silhouettes of crushed rock and ragged cliffs against the backdrop of a faint starlit sky. The expansive view was crisp and startling. It was as if they were viewing it all from one end of the bottom of a broad canyon. Deming’s sharp eyes took in all they could and Ari processed the image stream. This was a unique opportunity to analyze the makeup of the cavern superstructure now that the ceiling had been crushed to the cavern floor. There were no construction supports or any artificial structures in the torn cliff wall surfaces. In the fields below them there was some sign of the wreckage of their Catalyst PF-324’s cargo bay on top of expansive mounds of ceiling debris. If there were any signs of the cavern being manufactured or artificially supported, Ari could not tell from here at the exit from the first tunnel. With the clear air, the temperature had dropped dangerously and Deming and Pelly did not expose themselves for more than a few minutes. It was back to waiting for the warmer winds to blow under ceaseless clouds.
They slept a third night huddled around each other. They talked quietly about food, supplies and how to get across the frozen cavern waste. It would be a gamble to press on, since they were nearly out of food. Finding the next tunnel would be brutal in the unrelenting cold. They simply did not have enough clothing to last more than maybe thirty minutes in the typical storm condition that beat down from the exposed surface.
A plan emerged. Deming would take extra clothes from Pelly, leave her behind, deep in the tunnel for warmth, then explore the ice cavern as quickly as possible following the left wall. He estimated that the next tunnel would lead to a lower elevation and so surmised that, to find it, he would have to stay about fifty paces back from the highest incline of the ascending cavern wall. This plan would take him on a wider swath. It was more dangerous given the visibility issue, since he would lose his reference point completely in the dark. He would run for ten minutes to see what he could find and then run ten minutes back, regardless. The guidestone had a range of about five paces.
Pelly prepped him from inside the tunnel.
“You look overstuffed,” Pelly said, trying to close the buffered layer over his chest. “Do you have the guidestone where you can get at it?”
“Yah,” he huffed, out of breath from struggling in the tight space of the tunnel. “This is making me sweat already.”
“All right,” and she handed him the last of the water in his bottle. She had been distilling most of yesterday, using the ice delivered by the incessant storm and torn roots gathered at the exit.
He finished it, handed the bottle back and smacked his hands together, convincing himself he was ready.
“Remember: ten minutes out, ten minutes back. Make sure you look into the tunnel to verify it’s good to go. Don’t get turned around. Take your time. We can do this more than once, if you’re careful.” She rested her hand on his cheek and he paused for a moment to let her have a read of how he was doing.
Ari marveled at how motherly Pelly could be. Sensitive, intelligent and dedicated, she would be an excellent parent someday. She suspected Pelly was interested in a piloting roll in order to have her duties keep her at a distance from other people, as opposed to her physician father, who was often elbow deep into people. It seemed to suit her well enough. In that regard, maybe parenting would not be ideal. From what Ari knew of human children there was hardly an off-switch for them or retreating for quality time, although, admittedly, Pelly was nearly opposite. Maybe her children would be temperate and brilliant like her.
Pelly smiled and gave him a hug.
He held her with one arm briefly and then pushed off with the other so that he could make his way out the tunnel exit.
Outside he asked Ari to time them, got a bearing on the left cavern edge and took several steps forward. The wind nearly took him off his feet, as Ari could feel him shift suddenly. He turned to look down at where he might have left footprints. Ari felt his face furl in disappointment.
“Anything you want me to do?” she asked.
Yelling over the wind, he replied, “Help me keep bearing. Watch for movement, and listen for any changes in the wind quality. Is there anything you can detect off to the left?” He glanced that way without turning fully. She saw only blackness beyond his lantern light that illuminated at most five paces.
“I remember there were outcroppings. I’m comparing this to an overlay of what the view was without the ice storm and using the irregularities in the terrain to keep track of where we go. Given your current angle, you should be able to cross the open space here and stop about a hundred paces out,” she said.
He nodded briefly and set off.
After a few minutes, she advised, “Rubble about ten paces up.” She was right. Although they arrived about two paces right of where she expected. “Your stride is about a centimeter longer in your left leg. I’ve never noticed that before.”
He lowered both brows. “I’ve never been blind before.” He checked the guidestone again. He wasn’t getting too cold yet but it had been 6.14 minutes.
“Four more minutes,” she offered. He took off again, this time at a slow jog. The terrain was still fairly smooth, with only a few down steps. He came up to a boulder and stopped, resting his right hand on it and double-checked the guidestone again. This time he brought it up to his face and breathed hard over it.
“I don’t …” she started.
“This rock was not here yesterday.”
He held his bearing for a moment staring at the stone.
“Can we backtrack, please?” she asked, fighting the noise of the wind.
Without a reply, he turned directly around and walked back where he had come, stepping up a little here and there.
She said, “A little to your right, please. You were overcompensating.”
He inhaled storm particles suddenly and coughed.
“I can’t see the stone,” she noted. He swung it back into the beam from his lantern. “Too bright. Aha. Swing the stone to the right, please.” He did.
“Hold up, it’s glowing.”
The guidestone glowed faint blue. He stepped to the side of the path he was on and went toward what should have been the cavern wall somewhere in the distance. He stepped three paces and stopped. Before him was a shallow depression in the ground filled with ice and debris. He bent down to have a better look and to clear it out. He pocketed the stone. After a few minutes he had the tunnel open and a quick check revealed it to be quite steep and clear. The disappointment came in realizing that it was in a direction that would not help them doubling them back to The Atrium.
“We’re late,” she said, not actually sure whether her auditory stimulation signal fed to the nerves inside his ears was overriding the howling wind beating him down.
The wind changed pitch.
“Behind us!” she snapped in a yelp.
Deming reacted immediately, turning, with one defensive arm high across his field of vision and the other tucking the lantern low, pointed roughly in front of him as he toppled backward. He rolled and came out to a crouch somewhere behind the tunnel entrance.
The light fell upon another boulder similar to the one that they had turned back from.
Deming cursed. “Honestly, Ari,” he chuffed. “What were—” He stopped himself. It was occurring to Ari the same time as it was to Deming.
“That’s…the same rock.”
He sat motionless, with the rock in the light. It was changing shape, flattening a bit. Then it seemed to mount its height again, drawing in its girth. With that it moved forward almost imperceptibly. It wasn’t particular symmetrical, and it looked irregular enough, solid with variegated color. Aside from the fact that it was moving, it was largely unremarkable.
“All right,” he started, bewildered. “That could be threatening, were it…faster.”
“Let’s head back,” Ari said with unusual tension in her voice. “We’ve been out far too long and your core temperature is starting to drop. Wrap your head better, please.”
He leered at the rock as it moved, fixing his makeshift helm.
“It will follow us,” she surmised.
“Possibly. But I doubt it will fit into our tunnel.”
He was ready to go, after stepping away and adjusting his equipment belt. He looked back and indeed, the creature was following them, having crossed towards his new position, but at no great speed.
“Maybe we can range it,” she speculated.
“Yah,” he huffed. He turned the lantern towards Pelly’s position and set out in a slow jog.
Pelly waited at the tunnel exit, staring in the direction that should have brought her father back to her. She finished counting to twenty and then ducked back down the tunnel, crawling for nearly fifty paces before feeling air around her warm enough to sustain her. It had been nearly thirty-five minutes and she had checked for him twice already. She shivered deeply and wondered if she would ever warm enough to go back up to check again. She resolved that she would risk a small fire in the tunnel. At the very least she could continue to distill water. She checked her food and supplies one more time, hating the curved wall of the small passageway, frustrated with her dad for leaving her in the tunnel and hating Captain Tiron for not helping him. She even resented Ari for not grounding him better after mom’s death and three quarters of the crew he couldn’t save. If not her, who else could?
She waited, alone in the dark, humming softly and unevenly with dozens of guidestones around her all outshined by the overwhelming yellow of the burning roots in the small fire before her. The flames fidgeted, clutching at the air and leaning towards where her father would come. Where he should be.
“Here we are,” Ari announced, “38.3 minutes. Pelly will be worried.” Deming stopped to open the tunnel and to take a look behind him. No sign of the lithic interloper. Hopefully it had lost interest in them, she thought. Whatever that meant to a rock.
“Let’s go,” she insisted.
He struggled out of one layer of clothes before even entering the tunnel. This allowed him to belly crawl faster. Soon he was upon Pelly’s fire and she got busy starting to warm him. His feet and ears were the worst. She was silent the entire time she worked on him. She seemed to be muttering under her breath, but Ari could not make it out. Deming’s ears were ringing from sudden blood flow and Pelly’s insistent attention.
The smoke and stink of the roots made Deming sneeze once, and he immediately saw pressure spots in his eyes. Ari wondered absently whether there was something in the smoke of the burning root that was affecting his blood chemistry. Ari boosted his system and began to discuss possibilities regarding the creature they had encountered to distract him. He did not reply, but she could feel his blood pressure rise a little and his shuddering became less regular. As circulation improved the pain began, so she countered with pain suppression. His ability to talk was still shot for now and would be until he stopped shaking.
“I found…the tun-n-nel…add made…a f-fend..” he managed finally.
“A friend?” Pelly sat back to look at his face, incredulous.
“Rock mosster,” he stammered. “Should be here… soon.” She started to say something, but his eyes were closing. Within a few minutes he was asleep, clamped onto her midriff, sucking up all the heat he could from her and the small fire. She closed her arms around him.
Ari noticed it first, and she quickly woke Deming, giving him a quick warning to move.
“What…?” he moaned.
Ari shocked him along one arm, playing back the signal of an electric pulse he received from a faulty conduit many years ago. He jumped awake, flailing, and he cursed her loudly. She ignored this, since she would allow no time to have him wake as he usually did. Pelly stirred and looked at him. His face was suddenly tense, listening to Ari.
Deming looked at Pelly and said, “The air in the passageway has stopped flowing past us out to the ice cavern.”
Pelly sat up. “What does that mean?”
Deming started gathering their gear and stomping out the fire. “Ari is assuming our rock creature has blocked the exit from the tunnel up ahead. Given its evident squash-and-stretch locomotion, it’s possible for the creature to squeeze itself in here and push itself along towards us.”
“Squash…? What?” she looked confused.
Deming began to cough from the stagnating acrid smoke.
“Do you think it means to harm us?” she asked. “How can anything that slow be a threat?”
He stopped to look at her in the dim blue light. “Regardless of the creature’s intent, it has managed to plug the tunnel exit. It’s cut off any means for fresh air supply to reach us, since the oxygen would need to be able to flow past it, in order to flow past us.”
Fear spread over Pelly’s face. “Do you think we can get by it? Or do we crawl back down, with that thing following us the whole way?” She coughed.
Deming switched on the lantern and the smoke from the dead fire swirled around them, hot air filling their lungs. Both Deming’s and Pelly’s eyes started watering profusely.
“That is exactly what we have to decide right now.”
“Ok, well… We should go back.”
Deming thought for a moment. “It’s possible that it is only as slow as it was up top because of the cold.”
She replied, “Meaning, it would go faster once it warmed up. We might not outpace it.”
Deming eye’s flicked down as Ari offered, “We’ve observed that all these tunnels are maintained, repaired and relatively clean for their presumed age. Maybe this is the creature that does it, by absorbing detritus and smoothing the tunnel walls. If so, that kind of specialization implies that it is an engineered creature like the spiders. There would need to be a way for the creature to co-exist with the Cleaners, so they could pass each other safely in the tunnels.”
Deming said, “Ari’s betting it is safe to pass it, as the spiders would have to be able to. Let’s go up.” He saw her expression and grabbed her shoulders. With deliberation, he said “Keep about five paces back from me. Watch to see what happens. After that, you can decide to go back down if it doesn’t work.”
Pelly cursed. “I don’t like that plan.”
“It will have to do. We’re running out of air already.”
They started up the incline. Within just one minute, Deming could make out the stone. It matched the shape of the tunnel perfectly. It was undulating strangely, much faster than it had when it was battling the ice storm, and it was approaching him quickly.
“Looks like it will be on me in about thirty seconds,” he said. He craned to look back. Pelly was ready and far enough back to turn if she needed to.
“I probably won’t be able to hear you on the other side. Don’t forget to take a few deep breaths, and cover your face. Keep as much of your body flat as you can against the tunnel surface so that it has nothing to pick up.”
He turned back up to see the thing nearly on him. It showed no signs of slowing.
“Face down, hands over your eyes! Leave some airspace!” he yelled back to her.
“Daddy!” she wailed.
He did exactly as he had advised her and tried to keep a grip on his loose clothes and gear. The sounds engulfing him were that of stone on stone. He felt the back of his head being touched and it tingled. The shape poured over him slowly as he breathed quickly at first. Then he couldn’t help but inhale and hold it. Near as Ari could tell, it felt as though the creature was beginning to flow around Deming. She could feel his clothes and gear and exposed skin being tugged uniformly. Wherever the creature began to touch him, there was a tingle and heavy pressure, a grating feeling as though every surface of him was being sanded. He flinched when the creature reached his middle back and, to Ari’s surprise, she could feel the pressure lighten.
“Try trembling,” she said.
He decided to breathe and then gave a minute tremor throughout his back and legs. The pressure and tingling sensation lessoned considerably as the creature seemed to be making a bigger effort to make room for him. With that he could also feel a blast of smoky air blowing up from below, making its way through the tiny gaps in the space between his own shape and the tunnel wall.
Ari exclaimed excitedly, “The air! It means the entire creature’s shape has made room for you and broken the vacuum seal it has on the tunnel wall.” It was apparent that it meant to pass and not stop for Deming.
“It’s going to be all right, Pelly!”
The creature began to pass over the lowest portion of his body and it reformed a vacuum seal on the tunnel wall again. The air flow stopped. His head was clear of the creature and he ventured a look down to his legs with the lantern and found only the amorphous rock undulating quickly as it propelled itself forward. Ari thought she could see roots, dirt and pebbles through the surface of its… skin briefly, but the light shifted and the effect was gone.
As he waited for Pelly to reappear, he checked the surface of the tunnel wall across from him. The rough metallic surface returned his light brightly, and there were no blemishes. In fact there were no cracks, no roots, no guidestones, no dust, dirt, pebbles, grit or anything across from him or ahead of him in his field of vision.
He shone his light back down the tunnel to check on Pelly’s progress. The creature was about six or seven paces down from him, moving quickly. He could not yet make out the top of her head. In fact, he could see nothing in the tunnel with him. The air quality was still not that good, as fresh air was still blocked behind the new seal, although icy air seemed to be filtering in from behind him, following the wake of the Tunneler.
He set aside some of his gear and followed the creature. Shortly its skin shifted in color slightly and seemed to slow for a moment, allowing him to catch up to it. He felt a blast of heated air from below as he swung the lantern back into a better position. He could see a boot, then a calf.
“She must have panicked and bolted down the tunnel,” Ari concluded. He reached out to touch the leg and it was warm. Pelly’s unhappy voice came squealing through the tight opening left by the creature, but Deming could not make out any words.
As soon as she was cleared, she sat up, and then fell over curling around in a tight ball, breathlessly sobbing. He tried to move closer to comfort her, as the rock passed down into the distant dark of the tunnel. He had her shoulders and she suddenly thrashed, swinging her arm to punch him directly in the chest, repeatedly. She was cursing him.
“This is your fault! Why would you let that thing come after us?!” she screamed at him, almost hysterical. “I hate this planet! I hate Tiron, and everyone and I hate you!”
Deming tried to soothe her. “It’s gone, Pelly. The tunnel on the far side. It leads home.”
“Oh, Dad…You don’t understand,” she sobbed, as she dropped her fists. Her breathing was becoming more regular and she turned away, deflated and crushed, her hands covering her face. “When it touched me, I could feel what it felt. I couldn’t block it out.” Tears streaked her face under her hands. “I can’t do this,” she breathed. “Let’s just go back the way you came.”
Deming pursed his lips and sat back a little. He patted her calf, as this was all he could reach of her. Her talent for contact empathy had been overwhelmed by the Tunneler. Ari could only imagine what that meant for Pelly when it was an uninvited alien mind.
Ari said, “Let’s give her a minute. We’re fine for the moment. There is enough air being drawn, now that the creature is far enough down.”
“We’ll go back,” he said.
Seven days later they arrived back in The Atrium. They found it much like they had left it, except that Tiron was in complete seclusion, holed up in one of the ante-chambers. Pelly was the only one he would speak to, and even then it was monotone and stares. He seemed relieved, but not by much.
The remaining crew worked in Pelly’s garden turning over a new section. Gif stepped back and, with a pronounced hop, he bounced onto the tool that almost looked like a shovel, shoving it deep into the ground. He did not look much like a geologist at all. Gif had found the tool in the supply archive and suggested to Pelly that she garden. Pelly was offended at first. Gif explained that he didn’t want her to feed him—he just thought she might like the activity. She blew out her cheeks at him and stomped off, with the tools.
Ari considered the crew’s mood. Everyone really was in better condition than the morning after Tiron and Deming had faced off. Maercus was still brooding though, perhaps not realizing the significance of Pelly’s and Deming’s return or their findings.
Maercus regarded Gif with a scowl. “What are you doing?”
“What?” he replied without looking up.
“Why are you hopping?”
“It’s more fun this way.”
“No, it’s not,” Maercus said.
“You’re jealous because you’re too old to hop.” He stretched out the ‘old.’ Pelly giggled. Maercus smiled faintly but didn’t say anything.
“Don’t bother him, Gif,” Pelly sighed. “Give me that.” She extended her hand toward the geologist.
“Don’t take it away…” he protested.
“I need it for this root,” she emphasized, and widened her eyes at him.
He swung the end of the tool directly over to the root and instantly leaped on it from his vantage point, cleanly breaking it for her.
Ari thought he looked like a Cleaner when he jumped. She was happy to see some semblance of contentment in the team enjoying some company together. They worked and chatted until sudden, furious rain chased them upslope to the cover of a stand of trees. All that remained of the original crew of seventeen looked back on the new garden. To Ari, the darkened patch reminded her of a grave, like the one used for Pelly’s mother, but she said nothing.
Gif’s hair dripped but he looked content anyway. “Now I don’t have to water.”