The trek began with Darquin and Morgan up front, but soon a rotation started, each taking time at the front cutting and pulling away branches and the creepers that tried to trip them up. But for the drip of moisture, the jungle was silent, filled with the noise of their trailblazing.
Darquin looks ahead with binoculars, then joking said, “Well, the natives are definitely giving us a wide berth. You’d think they never saw a slash ‘n’ burn before.”
On the word “burn”, thunder crashed, and the clouds opened up. Hale’s head jerked up at the sound, then sighed, drawing up her hood. Both the complaints and rearrangement of clothes traveled through the rest of the group. It would only be a short while before the rain broke through the canopy.
“And me without my shower cap,” Darquin mumbled.
Hale moved to the head of the group again, urging a quicker path. The cutting sped up, and so did everyone’s breathing. With the elevation and the humidity robbing the air of oxygen, lungs labored to get enough to maintain them all.
Getting well and truly drenched didn’t take long either. The water all but poured off the leaves above.
“Might as well slow,” Hale grumbled. “We’re wet and it’s better not to lop off one of our own hands.”
Darquin’s sense of humor wouldn’t be washed out just yet. “Well, as long as these things don’t rust….” he commented on the laser. Hale muttered something under her breath, and Kim coughed, covering a laugh as she couldn’t help but “hear” the comment.
Morgan was the first to see any change in the landscape, while looking ahead desperately from some kind of cover. Her mood was like that of a soggy cat, and only pride kept it from showing. She brought up her binoculars. Darquin noticed her reaction and stopped to look through his own pair.
“What is it?” Kim asked.
“Check this out…. It looks like an opening in the rocks ahead.”
Kim accepted the binoculars and focused them where Darquin was pointing. It was a hole, up on the next rise of the mountain, and not even a slope of boulders to lead up and in. “And someone stole the cargo ramp,” she quipped. Darquin’s temperament was growing infectious. “That thing’s about a meter or so up the wall, you think?”
“A couple of ’em, yeah. Anyone for rock climbing?”
“We could always hand-vault you in,” Kim said as she handed back the binoculars.
Darquin did a double-take, then smiled. “Is this the same Kim I walked in with?” Then he waved off the joke. “Okay, seriously, now what? That seems to be the only way in from here.”
Hale looked back from her quiet conference with Morgan. “I don’t think she’s far from the truth, actually. We’ll have to hand someone up.”
Some would say inevitably, Darquin turned to T’rar. “If you wouldn’t mind, how about a boost?” he asked the Narn, nodding toward the opening.
The last of the undergrowth was cut away, and in a loose half-circle they assembled below the hole. It was even stranger close up, with only a few irregularities and very little growth curling in, on an otherwise overwhelmed wall of ivy and other clinging plants.
Darquin stepped up into T’rar’s hands, then reached up for the vent opening in the rock. A moment later he let out a startled yelp as T’rar threw him into the opening.
“Darquin?” Kim called, not sure if she should be worried or laugh.
“If I knew the words, I’d be saying something in Narn right now,” Darquin called back. There was a scuffle and then a flashlight beam was glimpsed for a moment.
“What do you see?” Hale asked.
“Looks clear. This tunnel goes on for almost a hundred meters. It’s pretty tight for a few meters, then widens after that. Bottleneck,” Darquin replied after a quick inspection. He added, “Convenient place to defend.”
“All right.” Hale considered. To T’rar, “Help me up, please? But gently.”
Darquin went back to opening and reached out for Hale’s hand. “All set.”
Lifted, Hale grasped Darquin’s wrist, putting her own in his grip. Then with a more planed push, she was soon scuffing feet on dry stone. “Thank you — Hm… now this definitely doesn’t look natural.” Her fingers dragged over the tunnel wall; almost smooth, like a hole bored into the rock.
“I was wondering about that,” Darquin said. “I’m not a geologist, but still….”
“Yes. I’ve seen a lot of natural caves, and these aren’t them.” Hale wiped dust turned to mud on her hands off on her thigh. “Well, let’s have a look.”
One by one, the others were helped in. More flashlights added to the first, filling the tunnel with a play of beams. Water dribbled on the stone as it was squeezed almost ineffectually out of clothes.
“How’s it goin’ back there?” Darquin asked.
“Dry, at least,” came from DeVries, mopping his face.
Darquin chuckled. “Amen to that.”
Just as Hale was about to make a cautious advance, Helle, who’d been hanging about the back of the group, came forward. It wasn’t a scanner she produced, but a handful of rocks from her pocket, collected as they loitered outside. Hale looked at her questioningly, then smiled as she understood.
Darquin peered into the end of the tunnel, hand near his PPG. “Another cavern, plenty of room– I think I see something in there.”
Like a superstitious warding, Hale’s hand moved out, sending a stone clattering down the tunnel. There was a pause as they waited, then Hale shrugged and began an advance. The beam of her flashlight tried to bring what Darquin saw into better illumination. “Any idea what?”
“Looks like just a pile of some kind. Maybe someone was here and left it,” was all Darquin could elaborate.
Hale stepped up to the “bottleneck” and peered out at the large cavern. The flashlights couldn’t quite reach all the recesses, but she did see what Darquin was looking at. In a baggy lump on the floor, it looked very out of place among the hard edges of the cave. “Sort of looks like some kind of heavy fabric. A sack, maybe.” She sent more rocks skittering into the darkness, met again with nothing. Warily they began trickling into the cavern.
“Looks a bit like leather to me,” DeVries said and shrugged.
“Yeah… or thick plastic, like a polymer.”
Frowning, Helle moved, toward it, a suspicion stirring.
“Careful,” Hale warned. Darquin pulled his PPG. Wary from the moment they stepped in, Morgan already had hers out.
In a blaze of light beams, the doctor crouched down beside the heap, and poked it with the butt of her laser cutter. Then lifted a fold, and wrinkled her nose at the smell. “Neither,” she declared, in reply to the guess. “This had been alive.”
There was a stunned silence at first. Darquin was the first to ask, “Was it… intelligent?”
Helle pulled out a hand scanner, working for a moment, then sighs. “I can’t tell. It’s very strange — like a jellyfish in form, but we’re nowhere near water. By the smell…. Gases. You know, this might be some kind of airborne creature….” Helle’s thoughts roved over the curious possibilities.
Whereas Hale pushed them away. “So it could be just a creature that wandered in.”
“Or what we’ve been up against,” Morgan countered, an idea building. “I think we’re all near convinced now this isn’t about common raiders.”
“I’d better scout ahead and see what else is here,” Darquin said while they held quick conference. He moved deeper into the cavern, toward the one other tunnel. At the entrance he stopped, thinking he’d heard something gurgle, and played his flashlight over the adjoining space. The curious frown became a stunned stare.
“Uh, Cap? This… looks like someone’s been here….”
Copyright (c) Leslie McBride, Joe Medina, Alida Saxon and Smith Self. All rights reserved.