|APAGear II Archives||Volume 1, Number 9||September, 1999|
The dead man's hands clutched tightly the curious stone object. He gazed up at the overcast sky of Siwa Oasis, flecks of grime and dust already gathering in the whites of his unseeing eyes. His tattered old hat still sat atop his bald and liver-spotted head. The head lolled sickly to one side, the neck snapped like a twig. From the way garbage and refuse was strewn about the alley, it looked like he had been involved in a fearsome struggle just before his death. The expression in his eyes and on his mouth could have been terror, or it could have been the final reconciliation between a man and his God.
Inspector Emilia Grasse, Siwa Oasis Police Department, had the uneasy feeling that it was both. She shoved her hands into the pockets of her trenchcoat and glanced back down the alley, towards the street. A woman, her wife, and their two children stood in a small, huddled group, shivering in the cold, damp Summer air. An officer was taking their statements on a voice recorder. Grasse turned to the young lieutenant beside her. "They're the witnesses?"
Lieutenant Webb nodded, her wide eyes fixed on the object in the corpse's hands. The rest of her face, like most people who walked about in Siwa's open air, was covered by a once-white filter mask. "Yes, ma'am," she said. "They were walking home from dinner at the local WBT when one of the kids saw a scuffle of some kind going on down here. They called it in, but by the time Petit and I got here, this guy was dead and the perps gone." She crouched down beside the corpse. "What is that thing?"
Grasse knelt down beside the woman and inhaled deeply, hoping to catch the scent of her perfume. Webb seemed to wear something vaguely jungley, vaguely red-smelling, she recalled. Fortunately, the corpse was too fresh to start rotting. Unfortunately, the dirt in the air masked any otherwise pleasant scent from the lieutenant. Grasse sneezed and then started into a coughing fit. She pulled her mask back up. "Beats Loyang," she muttered. It was a common observance in Siwa Oasis; sometimes, it was all there really was. Loyang, in the fanatic North, made the pollution in Siwa Oasis look like freshly-washed white cotton sheets.
Webb took no notice of Grasse's coughing. "It looks..." She trailed off.
Grasse peered more closely at the object. It was some sort of figurine apparently made of a greenish- white stone. It was a squat, bulbous body, and it sat upon a square-based column. A cluster of arms or vines dangled from the central mass of the thing perched atop the column. Several were reaching toward the sky. The artist didn't seem to have been all that talented or all that sane, from the looks of things. "It looks evil."
"Yeah." Webb stood up, and Grasse had a good view of the most perfect hindquarters and legs in the world flexing beneath the bright blue uniform of one of Siwa's Finest.
Grasse started into another coughing fit, this time deliberate, covering her sigh of delight. Damn, keep your mind on the job, she thought. Grasse was well known back at HQ for her short temper when it came to lechery and harassment on the Force; she'd sent many a man - and as many women - to the infirmary after a careless glance or a not-so-careless swat on the rump. Better not end up like that pig Monroe, she added after another glance at Webb's rear. She stood up, blushing slightly beneath her filter mask.
"I'll get the drone," said Webb. She nodded at the small machine waiting beside the police cruiser. The drone wheeled up to the body, agilely dodging around the junk littering the dark alley. It deployed a tri- d camera to record the scene of the crime.
Inspector Grasse walked back up the alley toward the witnesses.
"...two men, I think, trying to get something from another," said one of the women. They noticed Grasse approaching and got The Look. - that certain look that witnesses tend to get whenever a police inspector shows up. The innocent ones get The Look; the ones who have something to hide generally try very hard not to get The Look.
Grasse smiled at the family. "Please continue, ma'am," she said. Sous-Lieutenant Petit nodded at the group.
"That's it," said the witness. She shrugged. "They were struggling. The one guy was shouting something I couldn't make out. The other two were trying to take something away from him. It's very dark. I didn't get a good look at him."
One of the little girls tugged at Grasse's coat. "I had Dinner on an Empty Stomach," she said, grinning from behind her filter mask.
Grasse frowned at the thought of anything the Weird But Tasty served, but she patted the child on the head. Deep down where no one could see, she desperately hoped the child hadn't seen much of the crime.
"Really wag-a-nagle fa-tagging," said the girl.
One of her mothers rushed over. "Honey, please don't pester the police officer," she chided, swatting the girl on the fanny. "I'm sorry, officer," she said to Inspector Grasse, bustling the child back to her other mother. "She's got a very active imagination."
Grasse knelt down and took the girl's arm before her mother could lead her away. She looked up at the mother. "An active imagination is the only thing that separates us from the animals, ma'am." To the child, she said, "It's okay, honey. What did you say?" Maybe the kid had seen something that the adults hadn't. Grasse's heart broke at the thought of another child waking up screaming tonight in Siwa Oasis.
"I said, 'Really wag-a-nagle fa-tagging.'" She dug her toe into the concrete sidewalk, like all kids do when they're not sure what of an adult wants of them.
Grasse laughed. "What's really wag-a-nagle whatever? Your dinner?"
The girl shrugged. "No. Dinner was weird dingle dingle dingle but tasty! I dunno what's really wag-a- nagle fa-tagging. I just heard it."
"From whom?" Grasse was perplexed. The kid wanted to tell her something, she was sure.
The girl pointed down the alley, toward where Webb was finishing up with the drone. "One of those men said it, when they were fighting."
Inspector Grasse looked up at Sous-Lieutenant Petit. "Hey, Petit, did you get that?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said. "Weird."
The other little girl piped in, "Dingle dingle dingle but tasty!" Beside her, one of her mothers scolded, "Hush, Krystine!"
Suddenly, a gunshot went off from behind Inspector Grasse, from the other end of the alley. She heard Lieutenant Webb shout, "Freeze! Siwa Police!"
Petit moved fast. He knocked both women to the sidewalk with one gentle shove, drew his pistol, and stepped in front of the two girls. Grasse grabbed them and dragged them out of the alley, drawing her pistol as well.
Webb fired another shot at the unseen assailant in the shadows. "Inspector!" she cried, her throat raw with anger. "They got the statue!"
Petit began pulling the two women to safety while Grasse ran towards Webb. Behind her, she heard Petit shouting into his mike, "We need backup at 135th and Springer! Shots have been fired! Repeat, backup at 135th and Springer!"
She reached Lieutenant Webb, who was holstering her sidearm. "Damn it, Inspector!" Webb kicked the side of the drone. "I was securing this guy's recorder. One of them - there were two - knocked me aside from behind, and the other grabbed the stone statue from the body." She pointed at the end of the alley, where it turned right, deeper into the backways of the city. "They went that way." She kicked the drone again, which backed up from the assault. "Damn!"
"Were they armed?"
"I don't think so. I fired into the ground to get their attention. Didn't work."
Grasse thought about holstering her pistol, too, but decided against it. "Come on," she said, and started further down the alley. She reached for her belt and switched on the locator beacon. Pulling her mike from her coat, she said, "Petit. Webb and I are going after the perps. You stay here. My beacon's on; send the others after us once they get here."
"I copy, Inspector," he replied from her headset.
After a half hour of running through filthier and filthier alleys and backways, passing debris, litter, and rubbish like geological strata rushing backwards through time into the origins of the city, Inspector Grasse and Lieutenant Webb came to a halt beside a sewer grating. The grating stood open on its hinges, propped up against the wall of a decaying building. The building looked like it had been deserted since before humans walked on Terra Nova.
Grasse could barely catch her breath, but the lithe, athletic Webb hardly looked spent. Grasse stifled another morally gray thought. After a few moments, she asked, "In here, you think, Webb?" She was still panting and her pulse was racing, but at least the sky had stopped spinning.
Webb drew her pistol and nodded. "Yes, Inspector." She looked around to make sure there were no villains hiding in the growing shadows.
Finally having caught her breath, Inspector Grasse stood to her full height and drew her weapon and a flashlight. "Well, in we go, then." To her mike, she added, "Grasse here, with Webb. We're heading into the sewer system. Looks like the perps went this way." She touched a stud on her locator beacon. "Waypoint One marks the entry."
In deference to countless police movies on the tri-d, the voice that spoke in her ear did not crackle with static, it had no background hiss, and it lacked any hint of the tinny quality the public seemed to want to hear from police radios. "Roger, Inspector. OST registers your signal. Be advised that back-up is approximately ten minutes behind you."
"Thanks for the heads-up, HQ. We're going in now."
To Webb, Grasse nodded. "Let's go." She holstered the pistol, clamped the flashlight to her hat, and began the long climb down the ladder rungs set in the concrete wall of the access shaft. She glanced up once or twice to make sure Webb was following her, and, perhaps, to catch another glimpse of that stunning backside.
"Are you okay, Inspector?" asked Webb, and suddenly Grasse realized she'd come to a halt in her climb.
Embarrassed, she grunted and continued down the last few rungs to the floor of the sewer. "Webb, I'm on the ground now," she said. "Another few steps and you're here." She glanced around the sewer, drawing her pistol and removing the light from her hat. Webb's hand on her shoulder made her pulse jump for a whole host of reasons, but she just as quickly relaxed.
They were in a large concrete sewer junction, where foul sludge moved silently in the murky depths a few meters below the catwalk on which the pair stood. The stench was over-powering, and Grasse had to shake her head clear several times. The chamber was faintly lit by lamps that had registered the pair's arrival and were just warming up. Water dripped ominously, echoing up and down the shafts and tunnels that added unthinkable semi-fluids to the slow flow of waste outward from the city.
"Which way do we go, Inspector?" whispered Webb. Her voice was soft and quiet. A few air circulators whirred faintly, pumping relatively fresh air in from the streets twenty meters above.
From off in the distance, Inspector Grasse heard some loud splashes. She gestured in that direction. "This way, I believe?" She patched her PDA into the maintenance console on the wall and recorded the direction for the backup team to follow.
After several kilometers of pursuit through the sewer system, all the while trying not to breathe too deeply of the stench, trying not to think that they may have taken a wrong turn, Inspector Grasse and Lieutenant Webb suddenly realized that they'd lost the trail of splashing they'd been following. "Damn!" hissed Grasse.
Webb mopped her brow with her now-dingy uniform. "We've lost them!" she cried.
They were in another junction, with dozens of corridors leading out in every which way. They had no hope of being able to find out which direction the perps had gone - assuming they'd even been following the perps during their trek. Inspector Grasse cursed again and savagely patched her mike into another wall console. "HQ? Grasse here." She watched as the lovely figure of Lieutenant Webb paced around on the catwalk.
"This is HQ, Inspector. Go ahead."
"Well, we've lost the trail." She touched the stud on her locator. "Waypoint Two marks our location now." After a short pause, she added, "Looks like we won't need that backup after all. Webb and I are returning to the surface now."
"I copy, Inspector. Want us to send a forensics unit down there to try to re-acquire the trail?"
"Do you have a grudge against them?" she asked.
"Nevermind, HQ. A joke. No, don't bother sending a team down here." Webb was leaning over the catwalk's railing, studying something, or possibly throwing up. Grasse was too tired to even admire the view of the police officer's posterior.
"Roger, Inspector. I'm recalling the backup team now."
"Roger, HQ. We're heading up." She yanked the mike from the wall and walked over to Webb. "You okay, Lieutenant?"
Webb stood upright and pointed over the edge of the catwalk. "Do you see what I see, ma'am?"
Grasse peered over the edge. A meter and a half below them was a small, makeshift ledge, set in the wall of the main sewer channel. Beside the ledge lead, a small hatch stood partially open. Judging by the corroded scum built up around the hinges, it had been closed until recently. "You think they went through that?" asked Grasse.
Webb's thin eyebrow rose slightly and she shrugged. "It's worth a look."
Grasse nodded. "Yes. Yes it is. Let's go." She hopped over the railing and dropped to the ledge, which seemed sturdy enough. She pulled the hatch open and shined her light in, checking it to see if it was occupied. She waved to Lieutenant Webb. "It's clear." As she started to climb in, her hand brushed up against a rough patch on the wall just above the opening. Curious, Grasse pointed her flashlight at the patch. "Webb... Come have a look at this."
Webb joined her on the ledge and peered closely at where the flashlight was pointing. A strange set of symbols was scratched in the metal rim of the tunnel they'd found. The symbols were composed of various curlicues and swirls, dotted here and there with fine points and shorter strokes, vaguely reminiscent of an old Arabic written language. Grasse had seen an example in a library once.
Most disturbing, however, was the symbol scratched below the writing. It was a circular shape, with a dozen or so wavy lines radiating away from the center. Two curiously malevolent eyes were engraved in the center of the symbol, one atop the other. Beneath the two eyes was a set of narrow, jagged lines. The lines reminded Grasse of the two down, one up arrangement of incisors on nearly every form of animal life on Terra Nova.
"What the fuck is that?" asked Webb, her voice a bare whisper in the silence that had grown steadily since they'd opened the hatch. "Ma'am," she added after a brief and entirely excusable pause.
"Beats me, Lieutenant." Grasse shook her head. The graven image was surprisingly unsettling for something so small. It was disturbingly familiar to her. "Beats me." She drew her pistol and checked that a round was chambered and that the ammo clip was full. Webb did the same. "Let's go."
After a few dozens of meters of crawling though the narrow tunnel, all the while descending deeper and deeper beneath the city of Siwa Oasis, Inspector Grasse and Lieutenant Webb reached another circular hatch. It was set in the floor at the end of the tunnel. Grasping their pistols nervously, the pair pushed open the door. Grasse peered through.
"We seem to be clear, Webb," she said after a few moments of glancing around. She dropped through the hatch, followed shortly by the lieutenant.
The pair stood on a raised platform in a small room. Through a plate window set in a heavy, metal door along one wall, they could see that they appeared to be in an alcove that was set in the wall of what looked like a very large tunnel. Grasse could just barely hear a low rumbling sound. They climbed off the platform, opened the door, and walked out of the alcove.
It was indeed a large tunnel. Two sets of enormous rails ran the length of the tunnel, which was some twenty meters wide and five meters tall. Low-level light rods provided dim, marginally useful illumination every ten or so meters down the length of the tunnel, vanishing in the distance in both directions.
"The Siwa-Timbuktu Underground," whispered Lieutenant Webb. The industrial city of Tumbuktu squatted several hundred kilometers northwest of Siwa Oasis, in the Great Southern Plain just north of the Southern Alps. Siwa Oasis supplied numerous raw materials and early-stage production components to her economic sibling in the north, and the Siwa-Timbuktu Underground was the artery that connected the two. The STU was run by Republican Allied Rail, based in Timbuktu. The entire railroad was operated by robots and expert systems.
Grasse walked out into the open air of the tunnel and pulled down her mask. "Damn. This is the best tasting air I've breathed in a long, long time!" A heady, earthy scent permeated the tunnel. Grasse could smell the faintly sweet aroma of Siwa cave lichen mixed in with the earthy smell.
Webb lowered her pistol and stepped out into the open, alongside her inspector. She too removed her mask, breathed deeply, and sighed. "I agree, Inspector. What a change from that sewer!"
The rumbling that Inspector Grasse had heard when they first reached the tunnel was growing louder. Suddenly, row upon row of blue lights began flashing in the ceiling of the tunnel. A low hooting sound filled the corridor. The pair stared at each other, not knowing what to make of the lights and sound. Suddenly, Grasse realized what the alert was for. She grabbed Webb's arms and made a mad dash for the alcove, dragging Webb with her.
As soon as they reached the alcove, a terrible shrieking sound filled the tunnel, and the air pressure started to increase rapidly. They leaped into the alcove, and Grasse tugged the heavy door shut behind them with a resounding thud. The room was silent, though the low rumbling permeated the air and was growing louder every second. She peered through the plate glass window.
Outside, meter after meter of cargo train rushed past the sealed alcove faster than the eye could follow. It was one long blur of lights. Dust and sand were dragged along with the train as it roared on towards Timbuktu.
"That was close," said Webb, catching her breath from her perch up against the platform.
"Yeah," agreed Grasse, panting heavily. "Well, at least it happened when we were right next to this alcove, and not while we were halfway to the next."
Webb laughed hysterically for a few seconds, and then found her strength again. "I suppose that means we're going to go on to the next?"
Grasse grinned at the lieutenant. "Correct." She pointed at a notice posted next to the door. "The trains run every hour. It's two kilometers to the next alcove. We can make it with ease."
"Yeah, I guess we can," replied Webb, somewhat reluctantly.
After several more minutes, the rumbling died down and the blue lights stopped flashing outside the door. Inspector Grasse tugged it open and stepped out. The air had a sharp ozone tang to it, residue from the electronic and electrical systems of the freight train. The air was mostly still, although a faint breeze tugged at her hair from the direction the train had gone - away from the city. Grasse turned around to face the alcove, where Lieutenant Webb stood, hesitantly, on the threshold. "My guess is the perps went away from the city, toward Timbuktu."
Webb stepped out of the alcove. "Wouldn't the perps have been caught by the train?"
Grasse thought about that for a moment. "Maybe not. They were a good twenty minutes ahead of us, I think. Running, they should have been able to reach the next alcove with several minutes to spare." She started walking away from Siwa Oasis. "Let's go, Lieutenant!"
About a half hour later, Inspector Grasse and Lieutenant Webb reached the next alcove. The hatch was shut, as they'd expected. "Well," asked Grasse, "do you suppose they went through this one?" She stood with her hands on her hips, looking carefully at the door to see if it showed any signs of having been disturbed recently by humans.
Webb, her confidence much higher once they had reached the second alcove, was also inspecting the door. She pointed to a marking above the frame, scratched on a metal placard that announced that they were standing before alcove STU-1147. "Maybe they got here, maybe they didn't, ma'am. But I'll bet this is where they were going.
Scratched into the surface of the placard was that same insidious shape - the twelve-limbed thing with two malevolent eyes.
Grasse nodded and drew her weapon. "Lieutenant, if you'd be so kind as to cover me, I'll open the door. On three." She grabbed the handle, made sure Webb was covering her. "One. Two. Three!"
She heaved the door open and rolled to the side, her gun pointed into the alcove. Beside her, still standing but mostly hidden by the frame, Webb had her gun trained on the darkened interior. Lighting systems were just flickering on, activated by the opening of the door.
Inside was a perfectly ordinary service alcove. Unlike the one they'd just vacated, this one had no tunnel leading out of it. It was just an ordinary service alcove, with lockers and wall-mounted computer systems. Grasse suddenly realized that she hadn't informed HQ that they had in fact moved onward rather than returned to surface. She walked in and quickly patched her PDA into the wall system.
The system was dead. Grasse pulled open a service panel to reveal no internal components at all to the wall system. "Sabotaged," she said to Webb, who was still covering her. "We're too deep to radio back to HQ, too. Looks like we're on our own."
Webb nodded and entered the room, shutting the door behind her.
"Well," said Grasse, "they don't seem to be here, do they?"
"No, ma'am. Maybe they went on to the next one after the train passed?"
"Maybe." Grasse scratched her head, trying to sneak a sidelong glance at the lieutenant in the process. She decided to give it up until they were back on the surface. "Let's check the lockers."
She and Webb opened each of the lockers, searching for anything that might tell them where the perps had gone next, but the lockers were bare. "Stripped clean," noted Webb.
Grasse grunted. An idea was forming... "Hey, Webb. Rap on the interior walls of the lockers."
The lieutenant was quick. "A secret passage, ma'am?"
"Yeah. Sounds silly, I know, but this whole situation is silly." She started knocking on the metal walls of the lockers. "We don't even know if we've been following anyone at all, much less the actual perps. Maybe we've been chasing rats."
"Hah. That'd look great on my next review--" Webb stopped as her knocking suddenly turned hollow. "Ma'am, even if we're not following the perps of that murder, I think we're on to something interesting. Found it."
Like in some ancient murder mystery tri-d, the entire wall section was mounted on a pivot, and swung quite easily outward. Beyond was an unlit, rough-hewn opening in the rock. Inspector Grasse shined her flashlight in, illuminating the very old lichen and fungus colonies that lined the walls of the tunnel. A damp, cool breeze blew outward, carrying the scent of decay with it. From deep within the tunnel came the sound of running water - a brook or a stream. "Lieutenant Webb, I do believe we're about to enter a MacAllen Tunnel," said Grasse with some satisfaction.
"At least it's not another sewer, ma'am."
"Agreed. Let's go."
They cautiously entered the tunnel, which sloped gently downward. After a hundred meters or so, it opened into the MacAllen Tunnel proper. The Tunnel was about ten meters wide and fifteen tall. A shallow stream ran along the length of the Tunnel, a few meters wide and less than one meter deep. Blind bivertabrate eels swam within the stream, feeding on an occasional insectoid. Stalactites and stalagmites covered the ceiling and floor of the Tunnel.
"Which way, ma'am?" Webb looked a lot happier the further they got from the Siwa-Timbuktu Underground.
"Let's see where the stream takes us."
After about an hour of trudging through the literal obstacle course of the MacAllen Tunnel, Inspector Grasse realized she was starting to feel mildly dehydrated. When she and Webb had started chasing the perps, or ghosts, as Grasse was more and more suspecting, they hadn't intended to spend hours and hours chasing them through tunnel after tunnel. Grasse called a halt to sit down and rest for a few minutes.
The pair sat gratefully down on the rocky floor of the tunnel, Grasse's flashlight providing the only source of illumination - the only source of fading illumination, she noted. "Webb, we may have a problem here in a few minutes. My flashlight's fading fast, I see."
"No problem, ma'am," said the lieutenant as she pulled a heavy-duty light from her longcoat. "I grabbed this when we were back at the first alcove." She switched it on, and the tunnel was flooded with bright, cool light. "Do you suppose the water's safe to drink?"
Grasse shrugged. "Probably safer than the stuff we drink back home. Plus, it's the only water we have."
Webb thought about it a little and nodded. "Well, might as well drink up, then." She knelt down beside the stream and scooped some of the crystal clear water into her mouth.
Grasse watched her intently, looking the lieutenant up and down like a predator sizing up the herd. She asked, "Are you married, Lieutenant?"
Webb sat up and pulled her cap off, letting down her long hair. "No, ma'am." She wiped her forehead with some of the water, cleaning away the grime.
Webb laughed. "No, not really. I don't really like boys, Inspector, if you don't mind me saying so. Too many penises, I've noticed."
Grasse laughed as well. "Ah, so I'm not the only one who's noticed that rather annoying fact about men." She walked over to the stream, too, to get some water.
Webb snickered, then she put her cap back on. "I think those witnesses Petit was questioning back in Siwa had figured it out a long time ago, too. Poor Petit."
"He's never had much experience with same-sex partnerships. He was a little flustered. The fact that they had children together really threw him. He was raised on a homestead in the Badlands. Somewhere near Westphalia. He's sort of been sheltered all his life. Until he came to Siwa, of course."
"What the hell made him leave the Badlands for Siwa? Does he hate himself?" As soon as she said it, Grasse wished she hadn't. Some people got touchy about Siwa Oasis.
Webb didn't seem to be one. She snorted. "Nah, I don't think so. He won't go into it much. Stays clear of the subject." She reached for more water.
"Why'd you join the force, Webb?"
She paused, her hand just above the water's surface. "My stepfather...encouraged me to do something good for our community. If you look at it the right way, I guess it's the nicest thing he ever did for me, really." She paused. "First thing I did was stake him out, nail his ass to the wall, and send him to prison for the rest of his life. Last I heard, he was up harvesting grain by hand beneath the scorching sun in Aquatine. Mom's never been happier, I think. Not since before Dad was killed in the War." She finished the motion, cupping another sip of water.
Inspector Grasse felt pretty lame. She blushed hard at the thought of having eyed up the survivor that sat beside her, like she was a piece of meat. "Oh," she said softly.
"It's okay now, ma'am. He's gone. Can't touch me. Can't touch Mom. Can't touch my sister." She shook her head. "I can't tell you how much I've been tempted to fake evidence that he betrayed his unit in the War, though. I want him dead, and I want it to be an endless, unpleasant affair for him. I hear there are some drop-dead beautiful, hard-core male hating convicts up there, though. With any luck, he's tried to feel one of them up out in the field." Webb's eyes were two points of hard, cold steel.
Grasse sat still for a long while. Finally, she said, "I was good at crossword puzzles and memory games."
"That's why I got into this business. I could solve most crossword puzzles in record time and beat everyone I played at memory games. All I could think to do with my life was become a detective."
Webb smiled. "Word is, you're a damned good one, too." A few seconds later, Webb added, "Ma'am."
Grasse snorted. "Thanks. Maybe we can get each other promoted after this affair is over."
Webb held out her hand. "It's a deal, ma'am."
Grasse took her hand and shook. Just then, she became aware of something terrible slowly building around her, a sound somewhere. "Webb. Do you hear it?"
Webb sat up straight. "Barely," she whispered.
Now that she was aware of it, Grasse could easily pick out the sound over the gentle laughter of the stream. It was a low, rhythmic, pulsing, sonorous tone. At a steady, slower rate, another sound periodically joined the first - it reminded Grasse of a drum beat, but a slow, ominous one. She and Webb both reached for their pistols. "I think our break is over, Lieutenant."
They stood up and looked around the tunnel. "It's coming from downstream," said Grasse. "Let's go. Carefully."
They walked on for another hundred meters or so, the low sound getting gradually louder and louder. It started to remind Inspector Grasse of chanting. Without warning, a terrible shriek erupted from up ahead. The two women glanced at each other. "Go!" shouted Grasse. She and Webb ran as fast as they could through the MacAllen Tunnel.
The shrieking stopped just as the tunnel emptied them out into a gigantic cavern. Torches jutted out from the wall near the tunnel exit and from the floor of the cavern. They formed a path that lead to a large group of humans, dressed in heavy, black robes, standing in a large semi-circle around a massive lake, chanting profanity to some blind, idiot god. The far side of the lake was shrouded in velvet black shadows.
Behind the figures, a tall, semi-circular arrangement of wooden platforms, ramps, ladders, and scaffolding rose from the floor of the cavern. Dangling from the scaffolding were the freshly-flayed corpses of dozens of people of all ages, sexes, and sizes. Standing atop the platform furthest from the lake shore was a large man, dressed in black robes like those below him, though his robe was decorated with gold patterns and symbols. His arms were raised upward to the darkness of the cavern roof above. His was the loudest of the chanting, and in his rough voice, Inspector Grasse heard echoes of what the child had said back in the alley in Siwa Oasis. "...R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!" he shouted, as best as she could tell.
Inside the semi-circle of black-robed figures, a few dozen nude humans danced and cavorted around a semi-circular ring of fire. The humans were all misshapen and deformed, and appeared to have been the victims of cruel initiation rituals, willing or unwilling. They shouted as they danced around. A few tripped an fell into the flames; their companions formed new dance patterns based on the death-throes of the victims.
But what dominated the scene, what caused both Inspector Grasse and Lieutenant Webb to fire their weapons wildly into the crowd, was the awful, mind-numbing terror that was slowly creeping back into the lake. A huge tentacle slithered and convulsed back from the shore, back to its master whose singular eyes stared back at the crowd with a cold, uncaring malevolence. The murky waters surrounding the thing roiled and pitched, as though the water were boiling away.
And clutched in the hideous thing's tentacle was the broken form of a young, nude boy - a sacrifice to the terrible thing that had dwelt beneath the lake since before humans had walked on the surface of Terra Nova above. With continued horror, Grasse realized that a second tentacle was sinking beneath the waves, clutching a young girl who was still alive.
With mind-shattering realization, Grasse realized that the thing in the lake was the same thing illustrated crudely in the engravings back in the sewer and the STU tunnel. With a final snap of the shutters to the mind, Grasse knew that the same thing that was dragging two young humans to their doom had been the inspiration for the terrible stone figurine the dead man had clutched so tightly to his chest back in Siwa.
The blasphemy sank beneath the waves, and Grasse found that she could think and reason once again. Her pistol was empty. Webb's pistol was empty. The cultists were swarming up the path from the lake, heading for the duo, shouting curses that had not been uttered since before the human race had first left the cradle of its origin.
Inspector Grasse and Lieutenant Webb ran.
Cycles, seasons, days, hours, or possibly only minutes later, they stumbled out of the MacAllen Tunnel and into the Siwa-Timbuktu Underground tunnel. They ran as fast as they could, and after a while, they realized their pursuers had abandoned the chase.
Grasse slowed down to catch her breath, to reload her pistol. Webb continued on for a few moments, then realized that the inspector had fallen behind. She ran back to Grasse. Neither could say anything coherent - their minds had only recently emerged from their shells, and only with great caution. Grasse dropped to her knees, Webb beside her. The two women supported each other, leaned into each other for a few long minutes.
Grasse had finally managed to catch her breath when blue lights in the ceiling started to flash. Panic filled her mind. She stood back up and ran towards the first alcove, still a kilometer distant.
Without any sense of cause and effect, Inspector Grasse suddenly found herself face down on the dirt floor of the tunnel, a heavy weight on her back. She struggled furiously.
Grasse snapped out of her panic. Lieutenant Webb had her pinned to the floor.
"Inspector, we cannot outrun it!" she shouted. The roar of the approaching train was deafening. "But we can ride it out!"
For a moment, Grasse thought Webb meant they should try to hop aboard as it passed them at unthinkable speeds. Then she realized Webb had dragged her near one of the rails. Webb quickly unfastened her belt and tied it to the rail. Understanding the lieutenant's intent, Grasse quickly undid her own belt and wrapped it around the rail. A horrible thought occurred to her.
Webb must have seen it in her face. "No. The train's coming up the other track, not this one."
"Air!" The air pressure was increasing rapidly. It would get hard to breathe in a few minutes, and once the train had passed, assuming they weren't dragged along like ragdolls, the pressure would drop below their ability to breathe. They'd suffocate.
Webb was prepared. She withdrew two small cylinders from her coat. "Air. From the supply locker inside the first service alcove!" The cylinders came equipped with breathing masks that the pair strapped over their faces.
"Lie down, Inspector!"
Grasse dropped back to the floor, and Webb dropped down on top of her. "Hold on!" shouted the lieutenant, and she and Webb grabbed the belts they had fastened to the rail. They switched on the air cylinders.
Then the train reached them.
Inspector Emilia Grasse, Siwa Oasis Police Department, climbed shakily to her feet. Her arms were incredibly sore. The ruins of a breathing mask fell from her face. Her exposed skin everywhere stung, like a swarm of red jackets had attacked her. She felt something trickling from her nose and her ears, and realized it was blood. She couldn't hear anything. Her trenchcoat was a tattered mess.
She sat down on the rail of the train track, wondering what she was doing there.
She looked up and down the length of the track, which vanished into the darkness of the tunnel. Ahead of her, a crumpled form lay against the tunnel wall.
Slow recognition dawned on her, and she jumped to her feet, fell over, and crawled over to the body of Lieutenant Webb. She still didn't know the lieutenant's first name. Tears streaming down her face, she held the lieutenant to her chest and wailed. She couldn't hear herself, couldn't hear anything. She wailed and wailed.
Webb's form stirred in her arms, and Grasse stopped crying. Webb's eyes fluttered open, and her mouth moved, forming words that neither woman could hear. Finally, weakly, Webb smiled up at Grasse.
After a few moments, Grasse stood up and tried to get Webb to stand as well. They had to get going before the next train came along. Webb wouldn't stand up, and Grasse realized that the other woman's legs were broken. Webb didn't seem to feel any pain, which bothered Grasse even more. Finally, she picked the other woman up and half staggered, half stumbled back to the alcove.
They got there just in time to miss narrowly the passage of the next train.
Grasse jacked her PDA into the system, hoped it was still functional, and passed out.
Four days later, Inspector Emilia Grasse stood on the shore of the underground lake named Lake Hali by the explorers who had first surveyed the area around Siwa Oasis. Arranged around her stood three cadres from the Second Siwa Guards. The detachment of Greycoats consisted of eleven Asp Heavy Gears, two Basilisks, and two Wasserjägers.
The cultists were long gone. They had left the scaffolding standing, however. Judging from the tracks left in the sand on the beach, the thing that lived beneath Lake Hali had dragged the flayed bodies into the black waters at some point over the past few days. Otherwise, there were no signs of the cult activity. A forensics team had identified a bullet lodged in the scaffolding as one fired from Grasse's pistol, so she knew that wasn't crazy. Judging by the cadres of Heavy Gears that the Second had sent down here at her insistence, no one else thought she was particularly crazy, either.
Grasse could finally hear again - her eardrums had been ruptured by the passing of the train, but the department's insurance had covered cybernetic implants, which had finally started feeling "normal" to her. Lieutenant Keli Webb was recovering from a lot of surgery, including the replacement of her spine with a cybernetic prosthetic. The nerve reconstruction was tedious, but seemed to be progressing at a good rate. The doctors were pleased, anyway. Grasse wished the recovery would go faster; she and Keli had a lot to learn about each other.
In the meantime, she had unfinished business with a monster.
The Asps, piloted by the over-eager weekend warriors that made up most of the Second, stood arranged in a semi-circle around the shore. They had their machine cannons trained on the waters with a certain amount of mechanical lust. The two Basilisks were providing fire support with their missile pods. The two Wasserjägers stood at the edge of the murky lake.
Grasse raised her fist and lowered it. The Wasserjägers marched slowly into the water, their water- proofed autocannon attached to hard points on their backpacks, out of the way. The Asps shifted nervously as the Jägers sank beneath the glassy surface.
Adjudant Carlos Osuna of the Second Siwa Guards marched up to Inspector Grasse. "Inspector? The lieutenant suggests that you might want to observe the activity from the C-cubed." He gestured towards the tent that had been erected a hundred yards from the lake. A gangly tree of spotlights was providing illumination to the entire cavern. It wasn't so huge, once it was lit up like a Saturnalia Log. Grasse nodded and walked towards the tent with the adjudant.
The interior of the tent was even better lit than the cavern. Lieutenant Nyssa Etienne stood poised over a bank of technicians who were monitoring the expedition into the lake. A few were wearing VR gear, seeing what the pilots of the two Wasserjägers were seeing. Etienne noticed Grasse's entrance. "Ah, Inspector. Would you care to watch the progress?" She held up a spare VR helmet.
Grasse shook her head. "No, ma'am. I've seen more than enough of that thing." She shuddered.
Etienne nodded, understanding. "Want to hear what's going on?"
"Osuna, patch in audio. Both Gears."
Osuna toggled a few switches. "Ma'am."
Over the speakers, as clear as if they were standing beside Grasse, the two Gear pilots relayed their status. As Grasse had expected, it was fairly boring.
Until they found it.
"Holy shit!" shouted one of the pilots. "Command, we have contact with the creature. It's huge!" One of the technicians in the VR helmets recoiled from where she was sitting and tore off her helmet, howling with madness.
The other pilot added his commentary. "What a monster! What the hell is it?!?"
"Fuck if I know," replied the other. "Command, requesting permission to torp the thing all the way back to hell."
Etienne spoke into a microphone. "Greycoats, this is Command. Proceed."
"I copy, Command. One big fucking sushi plate coming--"
"Holy shit! Blake! Command, Monster has Blake!"
"Oh, my god! My cockpit's failing! Get me--" The transmission ended. Grasse found herself wringing her palms in anxiety.
"Bastard got Blake! Eat this, you piece of sludge!" A low whooshing sound dominated the audio signal for a moment, and then a loud whump announced the torpedo's detonation. "And this!" Another torpedo.
From outside the tent, Grasse heard the sharp staccato of the Asps' machine cannons firing. She rushed outside to see the Asps firing at the titanic bulk of the thing in the lake as it slowly rose to the surface, flailing its tentacles in fury or in pain. One of the tentacles knocked the head clean off an Asp. The pilot inside seemed unhurt; he backed away from the lake as fast as he could. Another tentacle threw the wreckage of Blake's Wasserjäger to the shore. The cockpit chest of the Heavy Gear was a crumpled tin can.
The other Jäger surfaced behind the creature, vibroblade in hand. It hacked and hacked at the thing's bulbous head and body section while the remaining Asps riddled the creature with bullets. It slowly stopped thrashing around, gave up, and died. The Asps and the remaining Jäger let up a few moments later.
Lieutenant Etienne dashed across the cavern floor to the fallen Wasserjäger, accompanied by an emergency crew. But the pilot was no longer inside. The thing had managed to extract her from her Gear like the meat of a nut from its shell.
"So it wasn't a god?" asked Keli, still recovering from her many surgeries, still shaken.
Emilia, warming beside the fireplace, shook her head. "Not a god. Not a monster. Not an alien. Not a demon. Just an animal." She sipped her cawfee. Keli made incredible cawfee, even while confined to a wheelchair.
"Just an animal," echoed Keli.
I originally wrote this story way back in May of 1997. It's more than two years old. I wrote it to be included in issue six of the original APAGear, but the APA disbanded before it could be published. I published it on my Heavy Gear website, The GearHaus, but decided to include it here in APAGear II anyway to cover my contribution for September. It's been a damned busy month, let me tell you. Classes are starting up here at The University of Arizona, and while I'm not a student, I am support staff, which means I've busted my ass setting up a computer lab.
Below follows the original Post Script to "The Thing in the Lake."
"R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn" is part of a much longer line of gibberish that H. P. Lovecraft first used in his tale "Call of Cthulhu." "CoC" was a tale in three parts, describing the discovery by modern, post- industrial humans of a terrible secret that had dwelt beneath the waves for far longer than humans had walked the Earth. The middle part of the story was centered around Inspector LeGrasse of the New Orleans Police Department, who is perhaps a distant ancestor of Inspector Grasse of the Siwa Oasis Police Department. "CoC" has some of Lovecraft's best prose, including the wonderful lines, "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents."
On a related issue, "Lake Hali" isn't my invention either. I'm not sure where the term was first penned, and I'm not sure who first used it, but it dates back from the same period as "Call of Cthulhu." Lake Hali is a dead lake on a dead planet orbiting Aldebaran. Lake Hali contains a powerful force of malevolence much like R'lyeh contains dead Cthulhu. In this case, the being within Lake Hali is none other than Hastur. (There's a good chance, then, that Lake Hali is August Derleth's invention, since Hastur is basically his baby. Not that I'm any kind of authority on the subject. As is typical, as I write these lines, my volumes of Lovecraft Circle fiction are some ten miles distant. Sigh.)
So then: When will the stars be right on Terra Nova?
|APAGear II Archives||Volume 1, Number 9||September, 1999|
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