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7. He Should Have Gone Left

May 2008

He was a few meters up the corridor when he remembered just how very, very sore he was. His muscles all cramped up at once, and he whimpered and subsided into a pile at the base of the wall of the corridor. He worked his arms until he could feel them again, then rubbed his face with his hands for a few moments, wincing and whimpering as he brushed the beautifully elliptical welt that ran right around the outside of his face.

After a few moments he braved struggling to his feet and, leaning heavily against the wall, proceeded to push himself down the corridor, towards who knew what.

He lurched down the corridor a small distance until he saw a junction ahead; the section of corridor he was on ended, and he could see another section running across the end, forming a t-intersection. He could see what looked like a guard's station or something on one of the corners; a large section of the wall across the corner was plate glass, and he could see the reflections of computer monitors refracting off the window. He crossed the corridor, to lean against the wall the guard station sat on. He dropped down to hands and knees and began to crawl underneath the window.

He was halfway across underneath the window when he heard his name. “Jay, I know you can see this, Jay.”

CRAP. Jay froze solid.

“… and you had better be looking after my daughter, Jay!”

What? The voice appeared to be coming from the guard station directly above him, but it also sounded suspiciously like his potentially-future mother-in-law. He waited a moment, and when nothing else happened he decided to risk a peek. He cautiously lifted his eyes past the sill of the window, to see two guards watching TV. On said TV was Melissa's mother, holding forth, it seemed, to some poor beleaguered reporter.

“… they were supposed to be here for dinner,” the woman was telling the reporter, who was struggling to maintain a brave face, “and they'd never be late. That's why I'm so sure that something's gone terribly. I always knew that boyfriend of hers would get her into trouble.”

“Well, thank you…” the reporter muttered.

“AND LET ME TELL YOU,” Melissa's mother cut him off sharply, “if he's got her pregnant there will be HELL to pay. I tell you, young people have no morals at all nowadays.”

“ThankyouthiswasAllenKeeneforChannelTengoodbye.” The reporter just managed to shut her out, and the report ended.

Jay didn't bother watching any more. There was no escape from the woman. On the up side, of course, at least he wasn't suffering through dinner with her. There were benefits to being shot down and captured and beaten up after all.

Anyway. He was in dire need of some information. He ducked back down and took stock of the situation. If it was a decent guard station at all, that'd be reinforced glass. No smashing through there. Doors? Nothing on this side.

He leaned around the corner, glancing both ways down the corridor. Solid double-doors sealed the corridor down past the guard station; the other way receded into dimly-lit infinity, as far as he could see. Both directions were empty of people. He scanned the ceilings – there, above the double doors, was a camera. He should probably not hang around in front of that.

He peered along the wall the guard station sat on. The door was about a meter up the corridor – he was going to have to brave the camera. More tough luck; it was shut. He eyed up the card scanner beside it; felt about in his pockets. Success! They’d left him the card. Assuming it worked at all, of course. It didn’t seem entirely likely, but it wasn’t as if he had any better options.

He leaned around the corner and swiped his card, then pulled back quickly. He heard a beep. He dashed around the corner and slammed the door open as hard as he could.

“What the hell?” The guards jumped to their feet, the one closest to Jay knocking his chair over backwards with a clatter. The other spun around and hit a red button on the wall. Sirens blared. Jay scanned the control console he was beside. He slapped at the most prominent button on the console, then shoved the guard closest to him, who was attempting to grab his arms. The guard stepped back, tripped on his chair, and fell flat on his back, knocking the other guard down with him.

Jay heard, to his infinite relief, the sound of doors opening down the hall. He darted out into the corridor, then down and through the gap in the big double doors. The doors closed with a clang behind him, but the guards hadn’t been fast enough. He was through. He stopped to look at what, exactly, he’d got himself into.

Oops, he thought. That hadn’t been exactly what he had planned. What was it he was after? That was right, information. Fail! Okay then, he thought, next step. Make the best of a steadily worsening situation.

The corridor he was in was sloping downwards, and gradually widening, and he could see something weird about the walls and ceiling ahead; and it wasn’t only that they were rounding into each other, making the corridor almost completely a tube by the halfway point of what he could see.

He started walking, listening to his footsteps echo against the slightly hollow-sounding floor. What was this?

The odd nature of the walls suddenly became clear to him as he came even with one of the strange patches, and found himself staring up from the bottom of the lake. He’d passed out of the corkscrew building – the side or the bottom, he couldn’t tell – and was passing through or underneath the lake. How far down was he? he wondered.

There were no lights in this part of the corridor – tunnel, tube, whatever it was. The only light was the dim luminescence of the lake above, filtering all the life out of whatever light came through the water, and casting weird blue ripples on everything. He looked out one of the windows on the other side, and realised that some of those ripples were plants – weeds, waving in the currents of the lake. He must be right at the bottom.

The corridor grew steadily steeper, until it was more of a hill than a slope. He held the rail on one side of the tunnel as he descended. Ahead of him he could see another set of double-doors, set into rock, with a single bulb shining a weak yellow light onto the floor in front of the doors. He stayed to one side, in the dimness, looking for the cameras. He had spotted one before he realised that there wasn’t much point; they had to know he’d be down here already. He looked for the door switch.

It was right near him, beside the doors, another card scanner. He swiped his card across it, then jumped back as lights started flashing. A mechanical voice announced “STAND CLEAR. MAIN DOORS OPENING,” and the doors began to grind open – much slower than the ones above him.

As soon as there was room he ducked through, finding himself in similar shadow on the other side too – another single bulb made a lonely pool of light in the middle of the now quite wide tunnel. It was tall too; it would have fitted two trucks side-by-side, if anyone could have got them down here. Or assembled them down here – it was worth considering.

Then he noticed shapes moving in the shadows further down the cavern. Uh-oh, he thought, here’s trouble.

Jay had a thought. I wonder if this was the right I wasn’t supposed to take? His stomach lurched. So much for doing the sensible thing.

He watched the shadows closely. He was struggling to make out the vague shapes moving, but they appeared to be human judging by their size. What were they doing with no lights? And why the doors? Well, actually, that one could have been a safety measure if that underwater tunnel ever failed, but still. This was a little distressing.

Jay looked around him, looking for anything that might help him. He spotted a length of pipe leaning against a wall, grabbed it. That made him feel a little better, but it wasn’t as if he was going to be able to fight off a horde with it, not in his present shape, and he was concerned that no-one had shouted out to him. Or turned the lights on. You know, human things.

He leant against the wall, then straightened up as he felt a lump sticking into his kidney. He looked closer – it was a door handle. He twisted it experimentally. It turned. He carefully, slowly this time, pushed the door open. A dark space – he couldn’t make out much more. He slipped inside, carefully pushing the door shut behind him.

… heard heavy breathing. He froze. He would have wet himself, but he prided himself on bladder control under pressure. He tried to avoid breathing himself, realised that was stupid, and focussed his attention on breathing as quietly as he could.

“Mrr?” Something… growled?

“Mrrr muhm?” Again. Definitely a growling, but it sounded like there were almost words.

“MRR? Maa mmhm.” The growls were a little more insistent now.

“Who’s there?” Jay asked querulously.

“Ma, mrrr mm.” The growls sounded decidedly alert now.

Jay didn’t really like this. He reached for the door handle. His heart lurched as he put his hand over something leathery and hairy.

“Mm mm mm.” That was almost a chuckle.

The thing – a paw, maybe – disengaged itself from his hand, and then he felt it run across his face. He shuddered, and cried out – his cry was cut off when the paw was placed over his mouth, and another paw patted him on the shoulder.

Jay put his hand on the paw on his shoulder, then followed it up a large, even hairier limb to a monstrously large shoulder; it felt roughly the size of Jay’s entire torso, but sat only slightly higher than Jay’s own shoulder. Ah well, Jay thought, in for a sterling…

He moved his hand across the shoulder, followed it to where it met a thick, sinewy, neck. He followed the neck upwards – not a long neck – and put his hand on the creature’s face.

Protruding snout, he thought. Uh-oh. He started moving his hand upwards, but was swatted away by the hand suddenly removed from his shoulder.

“Mnnnnnn.” A low throaty growl, a warning noise. Jay wished he’d had a dog; he might have been better at communicating with this thing.

“Good boy…” he ventured, muffled through the hairy paw.

“Snkkk.” Almost a snort.

“Um…” The paw gently but firmly pressed down over his mouth, and he took the hint.

He became aware of another noise, a scratching and sniffing, coming through the door from outside. The creature in the room with him carefully pulled him away from the door and guided him across the space, gently steering him around boxes and what felt like reels of cable.

Then there was a bang, and the door behind them burst open. Jay saw a large, dark shape outlined in the doorway, a hint of bared fangs, and the thing snarled and leapt at him.

Jay saw not much more than a blur of confusion – it looked like his companion swatted the predator out of the air, then grabbed Jay. The attacker yelped. Jay’s new friend threw him over its shoulder, swatted again at the attacker, and galloped into the darkness.

Jay could see nothing more than the occasional shadow of dark walls and rocky outcroppings sweeping past, looking backwards and upside-down, slung down the hairy beast’s back. After a time the beast paused and turned around. Jay gasped; they were standing on the cusp of a cliff, and Jay was looking straight down into the dull red glowing of fires far, far below. He could feel the rising hot air on his cheeks, and could smell a faint burning.

Is he going to drop me? Jay wondered for a long, sick moment.

His companion bent, stepped backwards, and began to pick its way down the cliff.

Nope, Jay thought. No dropping. I just get to stare straight down for the whole jumpin’ climb. No problems.

Jay shut his eyes and relaxed, feeling the muscles below him tensing, releasing, pulling, relaxing. Things could be far worse.

After a while, the movement ceased. Jay shook his head, a little groggy from too long upside-down, and found himself pulled back up, then placed carefully on his feet.

He swayed a little, but his companion placed a paw on his shoulder to steady him.

His companion. Jay looked up, into the face of a large gorilla. The gorilla was grinning.

“Mrrr? Mnnn snn?”

Jay smiled back. “Yeah, I’m okay thanks. I have no idea what is going on or what just – hey!”

The gorilla had turned and started walking along the base of the cliff. Jay trotted to catch up.

“Where are we? What’s going on?”

“Mnnn…” The gorilla rolled its eyes and kept knuckling its way along the rocky ground.

Jay looked around him as they walked. Black volcanic rock was everywhere – the cliff, outcroppings in the ground, loose rocks lying around. The dusty soil looked dark and coarse enough that it was probably the same thing.

The strange red light everywhere was also the reason for the stifling heat – red rocks glowed in crevices in the cliffs, and in occasional splits in the ground.

They were in a valley thirty meters or so across. Cliffs rose up sharply to either side, and a thin stream of some sort trickled down the middle of the valley. It steamed quietly as it flowed, and occasional mud pools bubbled and boiled beside the main flow, or sputtered as hot mud and water met hot rocks.

The gorilla suddenly pointed at a particular crevice in the far cliff. It hopped across the stream and walked into the gap. Jay followed.

He followed the gorilla through a twisting, claustrophobic passage, then they suddenly emerged into the open. Jay realised too, to his amazement, that the light here, though still dim, was almost natural. He looked around him.

They stood on the edge of a great circle of cliffs, formed from the same black-and-glowing-red volcanic rock as before, but what lay inside the cliffs was astounding. Jay judged the circle to be at least a couple of kilometers across, and it was filled with grasslands and, at the center, a large green lake. The ceiling was covered in thousand of small, twinkling lights, as if the giant cavern had its own private galaxy above.

The grass, on closer inspection, wasn’t quite normal grass. It was coarser and paler than normal grass, and grew slightly clumped – something in-between grass and tussock, standing up to about Jay’s knees. Jay scanned the plain; he saw, standing off to one side of the lake, a collection of huts, apparently made from the same grass. A thin plume of smoke ran from the middle of the huts.

“Mhhhh, mn?” the gorilla said, looking at him. Nice huh?

“Yeah, very nice,” said Jay. “Quite frankly, I’m amazed that you get any – hey!” The gorilla had started knuckling its way through the grass towards the huts.

“Hasn’t let me finish a single sentence,” Jay muttered to himself. “Rude creature.” He hurried to catch up.