Copyright 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

"THE DARKNESS BENEATH" BY PAUL S. GIBBS

PROLOGUE


The tunnels were cold. And damp. And dark.

The surface beneath my feet was concrete, roughened and cracked by the passage of a hundred years, but coated with a thick layer of oozing slime. As we made our way, groping all but blindly, my feet slipped and slithered, threatening to dump me on my rear every third step. My toe-claws were helpless to prevent it. I was exhausted, at the end of my endurance, and the sliding was a drain on my energy I could ill afford. Beside me, Joel was having no better luck. His grip on my wrist was already too tight; every time his boots slipped his fingers clenched painfully, and he muttered an apology. He couldn't let go, though: his human eyes were of no use here. Even my legendary Sah'aaran vision could detect nothing more than dark, uncertain shapes. Where those few stray photons were coming from I couldn't say. Perhaps some of the fail-safe lights hadn't entirely exhausted their atomic batteries.

I had no idea how long we'd been down there: Joel's chrono had been broken, along with the wrist it was strapped to, when the ceiling came down. It felt like days, but in darkness time has a way of telescoping; probably our wanderings had occupied no more than a few hours. Somewhere far above our heads, Sah'salaan was preparing to greet a new day.

Abruptly Joel tugged my arm. His voice barely expressed his terrible pain as he said, "Ayla? I need to rest for a minute, darling."

"Me too," I confirmed. We'd been on the move constantly, afraid to linger in the vicinity of an obviously weakened ceiling; no doubt his legs were aching as badly as mine. We lowered ourselves carefully to the floor, leaning back against the slimy wall. The day-robe I wore--which was, in fact, my only clothing--had been intended for the brutal heat of First-Summer, and had been shredded to rags during the cave-in. Despite my fur, the damp concrete sucked the warmth from my body like a leech. My leg was pressed against Joel's, and through that contact he must have felt the shivers that wracked me. He draped his good arm around my shoulders and drew me close.

"Are you okay?" he asked in concern.

The place stank, too, I realized suddenly: a musty, moldy, stale smell that seemed to fill my head. The human sense of smell gets "tired" after a while, rendering even the most pervasive odor unnoticeable. For Sah'aarans it doesn't work that way--unfortunately. "Tired, cold, bruised, hungry and thirsty," I told him. "Other than that, just dandy. How's your arm?"

He shifted the damaged limb in its makeshift sling--torn from the hem of my day-robe--and gave a little grunt of pain. "Frankly, it hurts like hell," he said. He forced a chuckle. "But I'll survive. Always assuming, of course, that we manage to get out of here."

That was Joel Abrams: the worse the situation, the breezier he became. It was intended to comfort me, and I can't fault him for that; but his phony cheerfulness sent a knife through my heart. I found myself beginning to choke up, and I fought for control. Where I come from, tears are shameful, even when there is no one to see them; I had shed none since the day our kits were born. Angrily I wiped my eyes, and swallowed the sob that threatened to close my throat. "I'm sorry," I said.

"What for?" he asked in surprise.

"Everything," I said. "But mainly for getting us into this Goddess-cursed mess."

He pulled me a little closer, gently rubbing my shoulder. "Not your fault," he assured me.

That was Joel too: kind, loyal, supportive. His words were exactly what I'd expect from him, my husband of almost twenty years, my bond-mate by choice. But unfortunately, they were illogical--and untrue. I dragged the four of us to Sah'aar; I poked my whiskers in where they didn't belong. And this was the result. Joel and I were trapped, beyond reasonable hope of rescue; he had a fractured wrist that might never be treated; and we had no idea whether our beautiful, precious children were even still alive. Pondering the situation, I couldn't help but remember an old human saying: "Curiosity killed the cat." Certainly it was my fault--whose else's would it be?

Joel must have felt me shrink away, curling around myself as if to trap my anguish and smother it. "Hey," he said, suddenly serious, "they're fine. I know they are. Tom is quick--he stole five bases in one game last season, remember. He got himself and his sister out before the ceiling came down--I'm certain of it."

It's just as well he couldn't see the smile I forced. "I'm sure you're right," I said. Please the Goddess that he was: because if not, if they had been injured or worse…then my life was over, finished. There was no way I could have lived with that guilt.

"So," Joel said finally, hopefully, "can we get out of here?"

I took a deep breath. "I don't know," I said. "I wish I did. Remember, this place has been abandoned for more than a century. At one time there were entry ports scattered around all across the landscape. But they were a danger to kits and livestock, and over time they were sealed. The one Sah'larrah and his students used was located by accident. His notes imply that he knew of others--but he never revealed where. Some of his students might know, but they're not exactly accessible right now."

"So--?" he persisted.

I sighed. "So--our only hope is to stumble upon one that wasn't sealed. Or find Sah'larrah."

"What if we found our way to the main habitat section?"

I shook my head, though he couldn't see it. "Not a good idea," I said. "It's damn big, and according to Sah'larrah it's like a maze. A pitch-dark maze. We could wander around in there forever. Believe me, dear, we're better off in the service ducts."

"Then…our chances aren't too great, are they?"

"No," I admitted. "They're not."

He took a deep breath himself, shifted his injured arm, and gave another grunt of pain. "All right," he said. "Bottom line. The way I see it, we've got two choices. I think it's a virtual certainty Tom and Rae got clear. If so, they've already alerted the authorities. Assuming that, maybe we should stay put and let the searchers find us. Or we can keep moving and try to find a way out ourselves."

"You're right," I said. "Those are the choices. And ordinarily I'd vote for staying put--but there's another complication. Even if the search parties are coming, they might not find us in time."

"Why not?"

"The Interval," I said simply.

He was silent for a second; then he said, "Oh--you mean the monsoon rains?"

"Exactly. Remember those clouds on the horizon this afternoon? That was the first wave approaching. The downpour could begin at any time…and when it does, it won't let up for two weeks."

"Oh my God," Joel uttered. "These tunnels--?"

"--Were built partly as storm drains," I said. "There used to be pumps--but they've been inactive for a hundred years. Sah'larrah's notes were specific: when the Interval hits, these tunnels fill up quickly. That's why I vote for moving on."

He was silent again for a time: straining his ears, perhaps, for the sound of rushing water. "Nothing yet," I assured him. "Believe me, I'll let you know."

"Thanks," he said sardonically. He began to struggle to his feet, and I helped him. After that brief rest my legs were as stiff as wood, and almost refused to support my own weight, let alone his. He was worse off than me, though: pain had sapped more of his strength. "You've convinced me," he went on. "Let's get the hell out of here."

###

Half an hour later I found a possible way out--by the simple method of running headlong into it.

I cursed luridly in Sah'aaran as I rubbed my forehead. Another bruise added to my extensive collection; and they didn't heal as fast as they used to. Joel groped for my shoulder. "Are you all right, darling?"

"I will be," I growled. Carefully I reached out, wondering what had attacked me, and my questing hand closed upon something hard and flat. "Goddess!" I breathed.

"What is it?"

I found his hand and guided it. "A ladder," I said. "It must lead to a maintenance access."

The thing was metal, of course; most likely galvanized steel, given its antiquity. It was mounted near the left-handed wall of the tunnel, solidly bolted to the floor, as my toes informed me. It did not shift at all when I grasped it with both hands and shook as hard as I could. Somewhere far above, it must have been fastened to the ceiling. What it led to--a hatch, a tube, whatever--was impossible to say.

"Is it a way out?" Joel asked hopefully.

"I wouldn't get my hopes up," I advised him. "As I said, all the accesses were sealed decades ago. But it's worth a look. There's always a chance they missed one."

"All right," he said tiredly. "Who goes first?"

"Let me," I said. I paused, then went on, "In fact…tell you what: I've got two good arms. Let me take a look first. If it's worthwhile I'll come get you."

He sighed. "You're right," he said. "I don't have to like it, but you're right. One thing before you go, though."

"Which is?"

He found me with his arm, drew me close, and kissed me. "I love you," he said. "And be careful."

I licked his cheek. "Count on it," I promised. "I won't be long--one way or another."

The ladder was Sah'aaran--which is to say that its treads were wide and deep, and heavily textured, giving secure traction to habitually bare feet. This one was a century old, though, and I was somewhat reluctant to trust my weight to it, especially with flakes of rust scaling off under my hands. The first few rungs seemed perfectly solid, though, and with that knowledge I proceeded more confidently.

At one time, ladders and I got along fairly well: once I was obliged to climb up and down a crude rope model a dozen times a day for more than two months. But I'd been twenty-two years younger then. Too soon, I felt my arms and legs beginning to cramp. My heart hammered with exertion, and my breath grew short and fiery in my chest. I forced myself to slow down, to moderate my impatient rung-rung-rung-rung cadence to something more like rung-rest-rung-rest. Even so, I couldn't keep it up indefinitely; pretty soon I'd be down to rung-rest-rest-rest-rest-rung. If I'd been one of the long-dead workers who installed the ladder, doubtless I'd have had a safety belt with a spring-ring attached; I could have paused in perfect safety at any time. The remains of a thin day-robe gave me no such security.

As I climbed, I calculated. The treads were about a third of a meter apart, and I knew the tunnel to be some ten meters tall. When I had ascended thirty-five rungs I paused and reached up cautiously over my head. What I felt was empty air. Another few rungs, and I repeated the experiment, with the same result. The quality of the air around me seemed somehow different, though; closer, more stuffy. I twisted around to feel behind me--and my hand encountered resistance.

Immediately, I knew what had happened: I had ascended past the ceiling into a tubular shaft, a little wider than my shoulders. For a few seconds I rested, hooking my elbows under the rungs so I could flex my cramped fingers. Goddess! I thought tiredly. We must be almost two kilometers underground! Surely this ladder can't go all the way to the surface!

In fact it didn't. I had climbed another fifteen meters when the ladder abruptly ended. At its top I found a platform, a little shelf about two meters wide and deep, just tall enough for me to stand upright. And against its rear wall…a hatch. It was in the nature of an emergency bulkhead, which made sense if these tunnels were known to fill with water. My searching fingers found a narrow, heavily-armored steel door, the massive pin latches operated by a spoked wheel at the center. I braced my feet, grasped the wheel with both hands, and heaved with all my strength. I nearly dislocated my shoulders; other than that, nothing happened.

Whether the hatch was locked from the other side, or had been welded shut, or was merely jammed by a century of rust, I couldn't say, and it didn't matter. With the equipment I currently possessed (my muscles and claws, and not much else), this was not the way out.

In frustration I gave the hatch a swift kick, but succeeded only in bruising my toes. My climb had been a fool's errand; worse, a waste of time and energy, two commodities neither Joel nor I had to spare. Grimly I turned, steeling myself for the long descent. I wasn't sure if my legs were up to it; despite my dear husband's oft-stated opinions, I was far too old for this nonsense. And where we went from here, I had not a clue. I didn't look forward to breaking the news.

As it happened, I never got the chance. I had set my feet on the top rung when I heard the sound: a sharp metallic clank, which in the dense silence sounded like a fusion mine. An instant later a lance of pure white light spilled over me.

Half-blinded, I stepped back onto the shelf, shielding my eyes. The hatch had opened; that much was obvious. The space beyond was filled with brilliant light, and I could make out no details at all. But the brightness was eclipsed by a figure--one which stepped slowly toward me. Too astounded to speak, I stood gaping.

At first I saw nothing but an inky black silhouette; but gradually the details began to resolve. The figure--the person--was Sah'aaran, an adult male. His garment was strange; not a day-robe, but something like the habit of a Benedictine monk: coarse, grey and heavy, with dangling sleeves. His hands were clasped together, out of sight, within the folds. Beneath the hood, his features were difficult to make out; they seemed nondescript, neither handsome nor ugly--but somehow strange. Exactly how, I couldn't decide. His expression was one of saintly calm, but his eyes shone red.

For a few seconds we regarded each other, this apparition and I; then he spoke. His words were in our native language, his tone measured and even. "Are you Commodore Ehm'ayla?"

When I finally forced my tongue to work, what it uttered was not an answer. "Who the hell are you?" I demanded. "What are you doing down here?"

"That is not important," he stated. He paused, then repeated, "Are you Commodore Ehm'ayla?"

"Yes," I told him. "Yes, I am."

"Welcome to the Undercity, Commodore," he said. And then, before I could move a muscle, he pulled a stinger from his dangling sleeves and shot me.


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