Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
Synthien underground complex
Not yet, he willed, we’re almost there. And then Helena fell.
Oh gods no, was all Solomon had time to think before he saw the flames bearing down on them. In two – maybe three – heartbeats they would be incinerated, and only a few short paces from escape.
The gods must be cruel to end us so, he thought.
Without hesitation he moved in a single seamless motion, pulling a cell charge from his pocket and reaching out for Helena’s hand. He bent back the coupling on the charge with his thumb, in the same way he had learned years before, and tossed it towards the oncoming blaze. As soon as their hands met, Solomon pulled with all his remaining strength, yanking Helena onto her feet. They lurched forward towards the light, took one step, and then were struck.
The blast punched them in the backs and flung them like babbie dolls. The bright silhouette of the doorway rushed into view until it overwhelmed their vision and then they were drenched in blinding light. Solomon squeezed his eyes shut against the glare, against the pain, before realizing he was falling.
If he had screamed as he felt the rush of gravity take over, he never would have known it. The chamber filled with the deafening roar of a furnace that blotted out all else. In a single heartbeat he could feel the heat of the chamber go from uncomfortable to sweltering. His skin sizzled and tightened on his bones, and the sweat staining his back disappeared to leave it chalky and dry.
This is how we die, he thought, thinking about how his tightly shut eyes would soon roast in their sockets, popping like a pair of eggs cooked over easy.
And then his head hit water.
In an instant the roar of the flames was replaced by deafening choked silence. He fell in the darkness, cool water cradling him, a welcome balm on his skin. As he did he spun lazily, unmoving, curled like the unborn in the womb. His vision turned and directed back at the surface, and there he saw the blaze, blinding in its brilliance, as hot and white as a star. It hurt to look at it, so he turned away, swirling in the water.
What he saw was a shaft illuminated by the light filtering down from above, so vast and deep he couldn’t see the bottom. It was a massive cylinder, pocked with the dark specs of access corridors, sealed doors, and the countless rungs of wall ladders, descending down forever.
He scanned the underwater expanse dreamily, awestruck. It was hard to believe this existed. What wonders it must hold, where must it go? If it was so vast and deep, anything could lie below. The thought was a macabre one, full of superstition, and dread. Nonesense.
Something caught his eye when he thought he saw a lightness down below. It was like a shadow on a shadow. But he dismissed it as a trick of the light in the gloom. Until he saw it move.
The thing shifted where it perched in the darkness, and seemed to turn with the express intention of regarding him. Solomon had the impression of a huge head, shifting from profile to portrait, and then he knew without a shadow of a doubt that they had to get out of the water. Now.
Panic seized his heart and Solomon flailed, spinning his body, directing his ascent to the surface. Already the glare from above was dimming. Whatever had been the purpose of the flames, it was fulfilled, and soon darkness would overtake them. When it came, so too would the thing below. It saw better in the dark. It had to.
Solomon kicked hard, pushing for the surface and scanning for Helena as he did. He whipped his head around and a fresh wave of panic washed over him. He couldn’t see her. Where had she gone? Had she been snatched up by another thing in the water? Had she been incinerated before they hit the water? Not likely, but then, where?
Though the blow was buffeted by the lazy pace of the water, it still hurt. When his head made contact Solomon knew without a shadow of a doubt what – or who – it had struck. He reached up and kicked again, cradling Helena’s unmoving form in his arms. He kicked hard again, and then his head breached the surface.
Never in his life had he been more grateful for a lungful of air. So grateful, that he didn’t even mind it’s thinness or the burnt oily smell that pervaded it. Now that he could breathe, he had gotten Helena’s head out of the water too, but it lolled in his arms, her face pale and lips blue. He had to hurry. She wasn’t breathing.
Solomon gripped her tighter and pushed for the nearest wall. In a few strokes he gained it, but already it was losing its definition in the fading light. He looked up and saw what remained of the inferno, now only a dim stream of fire. Its weak glow filtered down from what looked like great furnace pilots.
It struck him. They had been walking inside a giant furnace!
It all seemed to make sense. The tunnel, the darkness, the seeming lack of access or escape. The assembly must be the world’s largest flame stoker – but for what?
The image of the thing shifting to regard him below flashed in Solomon’s mind and his pulse quickened. Speculation could come later. Soon all the light would be gone from the cavernous chamber, and lived below would be upon them.
Solomon saw the faint outline of a rung ladder and swam for it. Once he made contact, and planted his hands and feet, he shifted Helena onto his shoulder, beginning the long slow struggle of pulling both of them up. Solomon gritted his teeth, in soaked clothes Helena was heavy, and now that they were both out of the water, almost unbearably so. He struggled to keep his soggy grip on the smooth metal rung and felt his strength waver.
Gods he was tired. Why wouldn’t she wake up?
Anger flushed his face and he grunted as he lunged a hand upwards. It made contact with the rung above, and then slipped as he tried to grab its slick surface. He grabbed again, but he had already begun to spin away from the wall, his boots shrieking as they struggled to maintain their hold on the thin metal below them.
The water below them rumbled as huge bubbles breached the surface.
“Aaaahhhhhh!!!” Solomon yelled and threw every ounce of willpower he had left into his exhausted body and his flailing arm. The motion was enough to spin them back to the ladder with enough force that when his chest struck home, it forced what little air was left from his lungs. He didn’t care. It wouldn’t matter in a few moments anyway. All the air in the world would be denied him as he was dragged down into the deep to be devoured by some monstrous thing in the dark.
He gritted his teeth again and pushed himself upwards, Helena still hung limply over his shoulder, her arse bumping against his ear. He threw his strength into another lunge and they ascended another rung in a jolt of motion. Helena flopped on his shoulder and he heard a gurgling noise come from behind them. The light was almost gone, but he didn’t need to be able to see. Each rung was the same distance from each another, and now that he had climbed the first few, he could feel himself hitting a rhythm.
Then a sound like vomiting came from Helena. Solomon felt a fresh wave of wetness stain his back and knew she had finally expelled the water from her lungs. It must have been the bouncing.
“solo.. mon…” Her voice was weak and distant, “wh- wh- what is that?!!”
Helena jerked where she hung, squirming and flailing.
“Gods an’ demons woman! Stop that floppin’!” Solomon yelled, bearing down on the rungs, doing his best to keep his grip.
“Higher! Go higher! Hurry!” Helena was screaming now in a full fit and frenzy.
Solomon didn’t waste another moment; he pushed his muscles until they were as hard as iron, lunging up rung after rung with the fading light. It was so dim now that all he could see was the rung directly above and the hands that reached for it. He didn’t know how far they had come from the water below and if it would be enough, but there was nothing to it. They could only go up and they needed to as fast as he could go.
He heard Helena whimper just before the thing breached. It was massive from the sound of it, its huge body parting the water in sloshing waves and a burst of spray. What felt like rain showered down on their heads and Solomon cringed against the ladder’s rungs in his best attempt to keep from falling.
Then it roared.
Solomon had never heard such a noise, wet and throaty, colossal and alien. It echoed from the confines of the chamber, and though he couldn’t see it, he guessed they had passed a good twenty meters above it.
“Up! Up! Up!!!” Helena yelled, and he was in no mood to argue. He could only see the faint outline of his hands now, and for her to see the thing below, Solomon didn’t dare to think how that was possible.
He felt her rummaging in his pockets as he climbed and when he heard the familiar whine of a freshly primed cell shooter, Solomon knew what she had been looking for.
Helena took a shot and Solomon felt her weight buck on his shoulder, the crackle of energy lit the space around them and Solomon could see a landing not far above. The thing below roared again, and this time there was an unmistakable tone of pain and rage. There wasn’t any time to ask Helena if she thought her marksmanship was helping or hurting their escape, all he could do was climb.
She fired off two more shots before they made the landing.
“Git… off…” Was all he could manage, and Helena didn’t waste a second. She squirmed around until her hand found a rung, and then unabashedly lurched up and away from his body. The maneuver almost knocked him clean from his mooring on the rungs.
“Gods damned woman!” He yelled, and felt he might actually fall until a firm grip seized his collar and helped to haul him up. “Thanks,” he wheezed.
“No time, we’ve gotta git outta here,” she said, but he couldn’t hardly see her. Only a ghost of her frantic form showed, oultined in the darkness.
It struck Solomon that her outline was a ghostly bluish-green.
Odd, he thought, where’s that light comin’ from?
It was coming from below.
The glow hardened and then he could see what Helena had. A monster that resembled a huge snake reared up before them, it’s greasy skin glistening with scales and wetness. Delicate filaments trailed out in a mane of glowing tentacles from around its head, lighting the chamber around them.
“Back monster!” Helena yelled, and fired off another blinding shot at the thing’s head. It ducked with frightening speed, and the lance of energy grazed it, shearing off a few of the tentacle things. Thick gobbets of greasy blood welled and oozed from the wound. It had obviously had enough of being shot at, and it lunged directly towards them in a shower of water and fangs the size of a man’s forearm.
Solomon grabbed Helena and threw her to the ground as it snapped overhead. As they hit the ground he saw that there was tunnel behind them and he knew it was their best hope.
“C’mon!” He said hauling her to her feet. They darted heedless into the darkness, hoping for the best and praying for firm footing underneath. Behind them they could hear the monster-snake-thing bellow again, this time in what sounded like frustration. They had gotten away, thank the gods.
Their night goggles were gone, long ago abandoned to save weight as they outran the flames, and most of their supplies and ammunition too. For hours they had walked in the darkness, not saying a word, each with a hand on the smooth metal corridor. It occurred to Solomon that this might be the same type of corridor that they had come down hours before, but honestly, he didn’t care. As long as they weren’t in water as black as the soul that made this place, and being swallowed by a glow-in-the-dark monstrosity, Solomon didn’t mind it one bit. He had already made up his mind, if the flames came this time, he would patiently wait for them.
He guessed that Helena had come to the same conclusion as well. He knew because of the comfortable silence between them, calm, devoid of fear. They both knew what escaping the flames meant, and they had gotten lucky before, there was nothing to be said about it.
Solomon was tracing his fingers lazily against the wall when they were suddenly jerked, and caught on something unseen.
“Wait!” He hissed.
“What is it?” Helena asked cautiously.
“I think a door.”
It was the best news all day – or night – time had long since been abandoned to the eternal gloom of the tunnel.
A hissing crack sounded and red light flooded the tunnel. Solomon squinted against the glare before turning back to the wall. In the light of Helena’s flare, he could see a door that looked much like the one they had used to enter the tunnel from the wastes.
“It’s the same,” she said.
“Aye. Do ya yet have tha’ arm?”
Incredible. Of all the things she chose to keep, the machine’s severed arm was one of them. Solomon was caught between gratefulness and amazement.
“Hand it over then.”
Out came the shining metal thing, so much like his own. Before he had used a battery jumper to activate the machine appendage and thus the keyhole outside, but that battery was long dead, and so too was the metal appendage.
“Here’s to a’ long-shot,” he said and pressed the outstretched metal finger into the only visible port.
He couldn’t be believe it, he had half-expected the damned thing to work. Was it too much to ask for one thing to go right in this gods forsaken mishap of an adventure?
Solomon bared down on the arm until his muscles felt fit to burst. He shoved the thing with all his might into the port, trying to force it through. But still nothing.
“Gods dammit!” He yelled.
He turned to see Helena still holding the flare and now with her shooter drawn.
He did, and the arm stayed hanging limply where it was pushed deep into the socket. He watched her take aim at its severed end, and then pull the trigger on her shooter.
A lance of purple energy shot out at the speed of light, striking the exposed wound in the arm. It glowed and sparked in an explosion of light. Something groaned, activating quickly and then shutting down just as fast. The two of them lowered their arms to see the molten mess protruding from the port-hole. It was ruined and now they had no chance at getting in- but then Solomon noticed that the door was ajar.
It was only the breadth of a hand’s width, but it was enough. They each grabbed a side along the crack and pulled until their muscles gave out. The portal groaned and protested, but eventually gave way, sliding back and out of the way on either side, and revealing a room beyond.
“Let’s go,” he said and Helena nodded. And they left the tunnels behind for good.