Monday, September 14, 2015

Underground Tunnels and Gigantic Rats

A continuation of last night's post...

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Sam was almost doubled over, pointing at her with one hand, the other clamped over his mouth tightly in an attempt to restrain the laughter bubbling from within. She narrowed her eyes at him and shoved him roughly backwards. He allowed himself to fall, reaching out in a half-hearted attempt to grasp the side of a nearby ride car. Missing, he landed in a pile of twisted metal fencing and yelped briefly as one of the barbs caught his cheek.
A flood of guilt washed over Mara as she began helping him extract himself from the fencing. The barbs grabbed at his jacket and pants, a couple finding their way into his hands before he was finally back to standing upright. He scowled at Mara as she gingerly wiped blood from his cheek.
“You have no sense of humor,” he spat.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, pulling out a piece of gauze and handing it to him.
“That stuff is all rusted to hell!”  He complained, brushing dust from his pants. “Who knows what chemicals are in this?”
Mara wiped the cold sweat from her forehead, refusing to admit how nervous this mission was making her. Even this far south, the December wind was chilling. “Well I hope you’ve had all your vaccinations,” she continued, avoiding his accusatory stare.
“I can see why some of the rebels think you are a monster,” Sam muttered as they resumed their trek.
Mara spun around again, face flushed this time, “Who says that?”  She snapped.
Sam flinched, instinctively raising his hand in front of his face.
Her anger receded as quickly as it arose. It was true; she did have many reasons in her past to be called a monster. This should be no surprise to her. She placed her fingers gently on Sam’s arm and lowered it. “I’m sorry,” she said again.
“You’ve said that,” he replied dryly.
“But, really, I am,” she pressed, “Sometimes, I…I don’t know. Its instinct, I suppose.”
Sam shrugged at her, clearly hurt.
Mara huffed. They had to continue their mission. She let it go and the two completed their journey across the amusement park in silence.
When they arrived at the sewer grate, they found it half hidden by overgrowth and trash. The grate would lead them through the underground tunnels, directly into the Sea Wall where they would begin looking for the newest holobrick. This sewer had not been used in decades, probably longer. It would have been cleared of most of its waste by rainwater and the secret efforts of rebel prisoners. The bars of the grate were so rusted that they were hardly indistinguishable from one another. It was stuck fast to its latch and the hinges were barely discernible from the rest of the structure. These conditions didn’t deter Mara for long; for once she found a good handhold she ripped the fixture upward as hard as she could. The entire thing crumbled as if it were made out of sand. Red dust rained down into the dark hole it revealed.
Dripping water echoed in the tunnel and Mara could see the slight shimmer of water reflecting the bleak winter sky. Another shiver ran through her. She just stood and stared.
“Well,” Mara said, already tired, “Let’s get to it.”
Sam’s expression was grim as he stared into the blackness, his jaw clenched and face pale. Mara placed a hand on his shoulder and he relaxed almost imperceptibly, his previous grievance toward her set aside for this new task. She tried to give him a reassuring smile in the fading light, but he just nodded briefly.
Buckling her knees, she prepared herself mentally for the descent. There is water at the bottom…she thought. She balked, frozen in her space.
“What are you waiting for?”  Sam asked her, raising an eyebrow.
Mara shook her head.
“Wait…”  Sam continued, “Is this the water thing?”
She grudgingly acknowledged.
Sam snorted a short laugh then looked at her, with a mildly unsympathetic glare. “It’s okay,” he attempted reassurance, “It’s just water.”
Mara grunted.
“Look…” he started, “Whatever happens, I’ll keep an eye on you,” the boy smiled weakly, “I’m a pretty good swimmer. Back home…I swam in the quarry lake all the time.” 
She attempted a thankful nod, though thoroughly doubted that Sam could do much for her when she began to sink. Even though he was taller than her and already growing broad of shoulder, Mara had a difficult time seeing him as anything but a kid. Still, it was a nice gesture. She would try to remember it as she drowned. Mara gagged, cold sweat breaking out on her forehead again. The mission would fail if she couldn’t even make it into the sewer now. Taking a deep breath, she steeled her nerves.
Mara didn’t bother with the corroded ladder rungs, but instead just jumped the nine-or-so foot distance, landing with a thud and slight splash. The water was barely a trickle in this part of the sewer, though she could almost feel its minute tug as the tunnel sloped downward.
Sam followed, gingerly climbing down the rungs, slowly lowering each leg. Metal bits and sodium flakes floated downward, agitated by his passage. Halfway toward the bottom, one of the rungs under Sam’s new leg cracked sharply, startling the boy, who had only one hand on a higher rung. Mara’s hands shot out to catch Sam under the arms. She lowered him the rest of the way down, though he pulled away quickly. In the dull light from the opening above, she could barely make out his affronted expression. She just shrugged at him, trying to screw her face into a motherly mask of concern. Sam’s snort indicated to her that she had not succeeded. Nonetheless, a slight smile crept onto her lips and she winked at him before donning her night vision goggles.
As they sloshed cautiously forward, the tunnel swallowed them in its coal shroud. The entryway and slate-grey sky disappeared from view, and any light it provided became quickly snuffed as well. The water became deeper here, lapping over her toes. She could already feel the stray droplets soaking through the seams.
After a few more moments creeping through the darkness, a sharp squeal startled them as Sam, several feet behind Mara, cried out in disgust. Mara stopped cold. A scrabbling noise combined with light sloshing followed.
“Ugh!”  Sam groaned, “I totally just stepped on something soft. I think it ran in front of my foot.”
“Or swam,” Mara helped, nonchalantly. The water was over her ankles now, she noted, choking down the hard lump of panic in her throat. She waited for Sam to catch up.
“What the hell was it?”  Sam continued. Mara could feel him shaking violently.
She grabbed his clammy hand and squeezed it firmly. There was a lightly amused edge to her voice even though she tried to stifle it. “Probably a rat,” she explained as she saw a larger than anticipated heat signature dart past her periphery. These suckers were big. “Didn’t you see it?”  She asked Sam, referring to his Skill.
Sam grunted. “No…must not have posed a threat…Go ahead and laugh,” the teen said, defeated. “I probably deserve it.”
Mara allowed herself a huff, before squeezing Sam’s forearm. “I kind of hate rats too,” she commiserated.
Sam’s quavering finally stilled, and he looked at Mara, his goggles meeting hers. “Thanks,” he breathed. “And sorry for earlier,” his mumble continued.
She slapped his back once in an expression of sympathy, before gently guiding him forward by his arm. His other hand, she noticed, rested lightly on the pommel of the anlace, currently in rapier form.
After almost an hour of walking straight ahead in the darkness, the water rising over the tops of Mara’s boots, they came upon a crossroads of sorts. The tunnel opened up into a circular room with a drain in the middle, where dim lights flickered weakly. The ground gradually sloped upward toward the center of the room, and Mara noted the futility of the drain’s placement.
The remnants of a band of squatters, probably junkies, lay scattered across the floor. Mara scanned the area quickly searching for two things that could pose an immediate threat: living beings or dead bodies. The former could cause an unpredictable altercation and the latter would foreshadow the existence of an even more dangerous enemy. Luckily, she detected neither.
She placed her fingertips lightly on Sam’s shoulder. “Anything?”  She whispered.
He shook his head, his hair (which had almost grown back to its original length) wavering in the crimson haze.
Letting out an entrapped breath, she explored the place carefully. “Don’t touch anything!”  She warned Sam, noticing a pile of discarded needles in one corner. She kicked the pile, scattering them across the concrete floor.
“What is this place?”  Sam asked, nudging an overturn tin pot with his boot toe.
“A junkie commune,” Mara explained, “Of all the legal drugs of the world that you can purchase, even for cheap, there are still those who would prefer the candy of bygone ages: heroin, stardust and opium which are supposedly very close in formula to those that had been sold at the turn of the millennium. They have very dangerous side effects.
“But, it’s the ‘illegality’ of these drugs that makes them so desirable. These addicts somehow feel ‘above’ society, outside of the corporate fist. However,” Mara chuckled slightly here, “the CORPs manufacture all these drugs too. They hire dealers to ‘illegally’ sell the schwag and then pose fake ‘raids’ on the communes, holding the dealers long enough for the public to forget about the event. Then they are back on the streets to repeat the process.”
Sam shook his head, “I don’t understand why anyone would want to do drugs on purpose.”  He flinched at his own memories, studying a melted glass pipe overtop of a small, cold stove.
Mara shrugged. “Why does anyone do anything, these days?”
Sam didn’t have an answer for that.
They crossed the alcove and came upon a door in the far wall. It looked to be made of simple metal, but was strangely bright and new-looking, uncorrupted with the rust and sodium deposits of its neighbors. It was padlocked with several lopsided and antiquated key locks, the keys to which had long been lost to time, but Mara’s hand scanner told her there was an AI lock hidden in the door as well. This would be the entrance to the Sea Wall. She waved the scanner over the joint until a faint robotic gurgle issued forth.
“You ready, kiddo?”  Mara asked, turning to Sam.
He shrugged, loosening the anlace in its scabbard. “Let’s just get this over with.” 
Mara braced herself against the stone wall and tore the door free of its ancient locks. A puff of dust and mold hit them full in the face, and they both coughed spastically, thankful for the protection of their eyes by the goggles.
Stepping through the entryway, Mara closed the door behind them using the scanner to release the AI lock. Then she dropped the scanner on the dusty floor, it only had enough charge for one use. They would have to find another way out as this one was now closed to them.

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