Book: Man-Kzin Wars X : The Wunder War (Man-Kzin Wars)

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Chapter 9

Amid a multitude of projects no plan is devised.   

—Publius Syrus

Mechanical sounds. The hummings and clickings of an electronic habitat. I woke with the instant rush I have learned to hate. When I am at peace I wake slowly.

I remembered how much I had broken down the night before, remembered Dimity feeding me some sort of pills and liquid during the dark hours. I had not realised how vulnerable to strain I was. There was, of course, an autodoc in the module, and my first temptation was to make for it. But we might need to learn to exist without docs. I unwound Dimity's arm, got up and went to the desk. I dialed myself something to eat and drink. My beard was suddenly angering me and I cut most of it away.

I didn't want to look at the news just yet. I brought in the security camera instead.

I should have stayed with the news. The drift of guano showed big footprints. Not mine, not Dimity's, not human. But I had seen prints like them before.

I already had too much adrenaline in my system. I brought my pulse and breathing under control. Panic would do no good. We knew there were large animals in the deep caves, not only morlocks—I wished now that we had given them another name—which seemed to have rather more intelligence than dogs, but the modules, built of spacecraft hull-metal, were more than strong enough to keep them or any known Wunderland animal out.

Any known Wunderland animal, I thought, remembering the wrecked defenses of the marshmen's camps.

Would the aliens seek out a place like this? I didn't know how they thought. The behavior of terrestrial felines and Wunderland tigripards gave us two samples of felinoid behavior, investigating holes and caves, stalking before leaping, but these were allegedly felinoids with weapons .  .  . weapons that could burn through the hulls of spaceships or these walls around us.

I felt Dimity's hand on my shoulder. She too was looking at the footprints on the screen. One of the troubles with Dimity was that she could so often tell what I was thinking before I said it.

"Do we take the chance it's just a morlock?" I knew it wasn't.

"I don't think we can. And if it's not a morlock .  .  ."

"It could be back any time. We can't just wait for it."

Now that we were looking for them, it was possible to make out more of the footprints on the cave floor. They could be tracked into the deeper passages, but the drier blowing dust near the entrance showed nothing. We followed them to the limit of the camera's range. Then we tooled up with lights and weapons, and took a couple of fight-or-flight pills. Not generally legal, but I had permission to keep them for hazardous expeditions.

We didn't like locator implants as a rule—too much like the sorts of thing Flatlanders went in for—but I had insisted on them for all cave-exploring students and so of course had had to accept one myself. It was in my left arm and about half the size of a grain of rice—no trouble. There wasn't much point in it when there was no potential rescue party anyway, but I made sure the desk was keyed into it in case Dimity and I somehow separated and she got back without me. It showed where I was anywhere on Wunderland.

We left a beacon blinking and beeping on the module, and with electronic locators the danger of getting lost was at least minimal. I was not planning for us to be in the caves long, but I also took some concentrated ration packs, largely from force of habit.

Lower gravity than Earth's meant huge ballroom chambers could form with fewer roof collapses. There were taller, sharper stalagmites, broader stalactites, and shawls, heligtites and fields of flow-stone more luxuriant than any terrestrial cave could show, vast majestic frozen waterfalls frosted with crystal, glittering, mineral-colored wings and curtains and flowers of stone. Limestone-dissolving streams flowed more slowly than on Earth and in less straight lines, with more complex intertwining labyrinths resulting. Bigger caves also meant more and bigger cave animals.

Crystalline surfaces flashed in the light. Insectoids and other small creatures were swift shadows. We turned a bend, and the pulse of the beacon and the faint glow of the twilight zone disappeared. Oddly, I felt far less frightened than I had in the module the night before, and I was still scientist enough to notice the fact. Something to do with an ancient hunting reflex, I suppose.

We had artificial aids but we waited for our pupils to dilate naturally, then splashed through a cold stream, bubbling to a waterfall. We were still in the area of my previous expeditions. There was another ballroom, and several branching tunnels. We had erected a signpost there once, and a small depot with beacons and locators to help the lost. There was little left of it. Morlocks might have broken into the food stores, but electronics should not interest them. They could be all too cunning and intelligent for animals, but as far as we knew they had no real sapience in anything like the human sense.

We saw in our lights a human skull and bones on the cave floor at one point, not recent and all much gnawed and broken, possibly the property of some fool who had ignored the first rule of caving and gone in alone. I knew I had never lost a student, but .  .  .

There was a story to be written on humanity's relationship with great caves, I thought. On Earth in classical times and later they were thought to be the abodes of trolls and other monsters, yet tens of thousands of years before that our Cro-Magnon ancestors had penetrated them miles beyond the reach of daylight to create art galleries. Had something happened on Earth, deep below the light of day about 30,000 b.c. that had changed man's relationship with the underworld? Mankind could hardly have guessed then that one day it would find real trolls underground, in caves under another star.

Another star .  .  . and that reminded me why we were here, and that morlocks were very much not the only things we had to fear.

I thought of Geoffrey Household again, and wished I did not remember so clearly his words about another man in another cave: "He liked to have space and plenty of light around him and was continually turning round in case the unknown was following him. It was."

Onward and downward. A long curving passage, through glades of glittering flowstone and rows of stone shawls, stone spears, trumpets, swords, flowers, and fans. There was an unmistakable stink. Our light showed a jumble of jagged holes with piles of bones and rubbish. A morlock "town." We began to back away as quietly as we could, but nothing seemed to be moving.

Dimity grabbed my arm and pointed. There were eyes in the torchlight, close to the ground, staring, unblinking, unmoving. I spread the beam to flood.

A dead morlock. Very recently dead. And largely eaten. Looking farther, I saw bits of others, all very dead and scattered. So something had destroyed a community of the biggest and most intelligent carnivores that we knew of in the cave-system. And the morlocks themselves, like their fictional namesakes, could be dangerous enough for two humans.

We already had our weapons on full cock. I've been really smart bringing Dimity here , I thought. Well done, Professor Rykermann! Straight into the dragon's lair!  

Get on or get out? Whatever was hunting here hunted by smell and sound. It would be silent, and if it was anywhere nearby it would be well aware of us.

The torchlight shone upon it could be a blinding weapon. A literally blinding weapon, I realized, for it had laser options.

"Back away," said Dimity. "Back away toward the entrance. We can watch each other's backs."

"Yes," I said. I had never realized how slow a process backing away would be. Through the stony glades, with their myriad darknesses. There was the stream, the noise of the fall. Then there was another smell, a peculiar, gingerlike smell.

Eyes. Not morlock eyes. Much higher off the ground, two pairs, and the eyes of each pair farther apart. There was a snarling scream that hurt my ears and pale bodies moving. Had I not been keyed up for fight-or-flight, that scream would have paralyzed me.

Our strakkakers whirred. One mass fell, another came at me, hit. I jumped back, rolling under it, still firing, and it went over the fall with an indescribable cry.

Not dead. I heard it shrieking. I headed toward the fall ready to fire again, but it fired first. A bolt of colored light smashed into the cave roof, sending a shower of stone and crystal crashing down after it with a lot going down the fall. The screaming stopped. The creature must have buried itself.

There seemed to have been only two. I bent to examine the fallen creature. The strakkaker had left plenty of it. It was much bigger than a morlock or a human.

Not a cave dweller. The eyes, or eye sockets, were large and could be those of a nocturnal hunter, but they were not a cave dweller's eyes. And I knew what it was.

A big catlike thing, tiger-sized and orange, though with a shorter body and longer limbs than a terrestrial tiger. The bare skull, stripped by the strakkaker's needles, showed a brain-case bigger than a human's. Pseudofelis sapiens ferox .

I had known the theory of what a strakkaker could do, but had not seen the fact demonstrated at close range on a large living creature before. But I was used to dissections. This looked like the surplus material after a ham-fisted undergraduate class had been hacking at something for a week, though even then I thought the bare bones were odd: the ribs, for example, went all the way down, and there were bones that formed struts and braces in a manner that would, I thought, be immensely strong and had no Earth or Wunderland analog. What turned me suddenly sick was an unexpected detail.

It was wearing clothes. A wide belt holding tools and weapons, and a vestlike garment with webbing. That had turned the strakkaker needles and was intact.

"Get the belt," said Dimity as she stood waving her light about the cave.

Maybe with steadier hands and more time I could have done more. As it was, the torso was sufficiently smashed for me to get free the belt, with weapons, a huge handgun and a knife, as well as some packages in the webbing. As I bent above it I saw spots of dark blood appear suddenly on the naked bone and realized it was dripping from my own chest. Four parallel cuts, not deep and only now starting to hurt, but made by claws that had sliced through modern explorer-gear fabric and which would have parted my ribs had they been deeper. Our belts contained basic first-aid packs. Dimity sprayed the cuts with a bandage, disinfectant, anesthetic, nu-skin combination.

"I should take some samples to study," I said. "Tissues, organs .  .  ."

"I wouldn't worry about that too much," she said. "I think we'll be seeing plenty more of them. If we get out."

"What do you mean?"

She pointed with her light. The rock-fall had not all gone down to bury the alien. Our entrance tunnel was blocked.

"It'll take us hours to clear that," I said. She cocked her head on one side, gazing at the great mass of shattered crystal. We soon saw it would be a huge job to clear it and probably not possible at all.

"It may not be too bad," she said, "There must be other entrances that the aliens use. Otherwise, we'd have seen their transport and they would probably have moved on the modules at once."

That was a less cheerful thought than it might have been, but it was something. She twitched her ears.

"The air's still moving. And you can still hear the stream. And we have the locators."

The locators might be some use. They would tell us where we were in relation to the entrance cave and the modules in the labyrinth, but that was little use if we were cut off from them by tons of rock and they did not tell us what lay between. I did have some memories from previous expeditions. They were unreliable—I had depended on maps and instruments—but all we had now.

We set off, carrying the alien tools and weapons as well as our own. I also carved a few steaks from the carcasses to eke out our rations.

Morlocks tended to travel the caves in packs, and I knew they had a nasty habit of clinging to high stalactites and dropping down on prey from above. However, there seemed to be none around. Unfortunately they were among the least of our worries, and I could guess why they had disappeared.

It is notoriously hard to keep track of time in caves, but when our watches showed several hours had passed, we rested, taking turns to sleep. We dined on pills, soup to nuts in a mouthful. The stream was still flowing somewhere in the background. We should have kept watch, but I knew so little in those days, and we slept.

For years I had thought that to hold Dimity sleeping in my arms, on the edge of sleep myself, would be perfect contentment, which showed how wrong it was possible to be. The idea of sex then would have been a joke—I associated it with calm, relaxation, and good spirits. Sick with fear for both of us, and for what might be happening on the surface, several times I heard sounds far off that were not like the noise of water on stone. I fiddled with the alien weapon, trying various settings without pulling the trigger, and tried not to think about what I might need to use it for.

We pushed on. There was a sort of moss slide which took us, easily enough in that gravity, down a long passage to a ledge above another ballroom cavity filled with tunnels and rock-holes. I flashed a light briefly around it, then doused it quickly and we forced our way back up the slope. The place was another natural morlock "town," and it stank of them. They were alive this time. Behind us as we climbed I heard morlock barking and scrabbling sounds.

I turned and saw the dim shapes closing upon us. I discovered the alien weapon's trigger needed two pressures, but the first blast from it cut down the first of the morlocks.

The second time I fired at a set of formations in the roof. It dispersed the rest of the Morlocks and more importantly brought down some of the roof behind us in a shower of glittering spears, but anyway we had no inclination to linger. When we paused at the top of the slope, bruised and scraped by sharp and sliding stone, I found I had lost the ration packs.

Two mornings later, by our timepieces, we were hungry enough to try the meat, cooking it with our light. It tasted foul, rank and gamy, but if one did not think about its origins it was possible to choke it down. I remembered C. S. Lewis's Prince Caspian , where children had had to eat cold, and as I remembered, raw, bear-meat, and pretending I was one of them helped. Dimity, I think, could use her mind to override her nerves.

But whether it was the meat of the morlock or the alien or both, we were sick and weak the next day.

I tried to count our mercies, and could think of four: there were plenty of pools and streams of clear drinkable water, our lights, unlike those available to cavers of previous days, would last virtually forever (a less cheerful thought: they would still be burning long after we were skeletons), with Dimity's memory and sense of direction we stood little chance of getting any more lost than necessary, and none of the creatures we feared came near us, though several times we found cave insectoids and vermiforms on our bodies. They have much the same position in the caves' ecology as vultures on Earth, and their increasing friendliness was an omen I did not like.

Two days later a swarm of mynocks flew past us. I had a hard time holding the alien weapon steady in my hands by then, but by waving it about I brought a few down in flames. We ate them ready cooked, but they also tasted vile. Time went on. We played Dimity's little music box, and I think that helped keep me sane.

Once, I was sure, I saw in my light a dim, strange creature of some size disappearing rapidly into a dark hole. I glimpsed it only momentarily, but its odd gait reminded me of the story of tripedal footprints. Once it would have excited me. Now I was only concerned that it was neither morlock nor alien and did not seem to either threaten us or provide food. I followed it cautiously but the passage ended in a blank wall of rock, so smooth it could have been artificial. A hallucination, perhaps.

A few days after that we found ourselves back at our starting place. The dead morlock and the dead alien were still there, the cave insectoids and vermiforms swarming over them. They had just about finished the job of baring the Alien's bones lying in a bed of orange hair. I was thinking a lot about food by that time, and crushed up a paste of them. We were past objecting to the taste.

Dimity tried hypnotizing me to see if I could remember any passages more accurately. No good.

"The air's fresher than it might be," she said at last. "Is it daylight outside?"

"I think so. Unless our clocks have gone wrong somewhere." She scrambled up the rockfall. I tried to follow but my chest and arms were very stiff now.

"I think I can see light!" she called. "There's a way through!"

There had been none before. We had searched thoroughly the first day. I got to the top of the rockfall with her somehow. Indeed there were now a few distant chinks and shards of dim light. Perhaps it had settled over time, or perhaps something had interfered with it.

"We can't move any more now."

"What about the gun? That brought it down originally."

I didn't know how much charge was left, but there seemed no harm in doing my best with it. I think I would have got us clear eventually but before I had got very far a jarring impact shook the cave. I thought at first of earthquake, and saw myself and Dimity buried under a rockfall. But it was something else. I got clear, dragging Dimity with me, as the glittering crystal boulders spilled and settled further. More rocks fell around us, but there was little we could do about that except press against the wall. Dust hung in the air a long time, but when it settled we saw a gap above the rockfall.

"That was an explosion," said Dimity.

"Someone after us."

"No. A long way away."

"It must have been a big one."

"Let's go!"

 

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