NOTE: This is part two of a story that began with Black Depths. -ed.
"Kirin, stop floating and start helpin! If we don't get at least one 'Viper back up and running, Groipus only knows what plague-ridden crap'll float in through the tunnels with both Vipers gone to hell!" Sean growled, wincing as his arm passed through a patch of water superheated by his welding torch. Despite the anti-fog coating on his helmet, the inside of his faceplate was beginning to opaque again, and the shoddy help of some commoner fool with dreams of rebellion and witless xenophobia wasn't helping him finish up in the least.
"Kirin! Wake up back there, vatbeef!" He barked, turning and changing to a fresh fuelox cylinder even as he quickly scanned for his young charge, something in the back of his mind triggering his Protector training into wakefullness.
Clamping his eyes shut, he pushed the flush valve on his mask and winced as cold water wiped away the fog on the faceplate. Puffing the water out through his chin drain seals, he looked around.
Nothing. Smooth-brown MacAllen tunnel leading off into darkness, branching near the outermost limits of his helmet strobe, quiescent but for the slow drifting of small organisms in the gentle current.
"Damnit Kir, where the hell did you go off to..." He mumbled, setting down the torch. In a few powerful kicks he had reached the exit tunnel from the stopover lair, and could vaguely see a light down a side tunnel. Ever cautious, he unstrapped his harpoon pistol and made sure his diving knife was loose in its' sheath.
Two meters down the tunnel, he saw a flash of motion, and took only a second to bracket it with his helmet light and fire.
Amid a cloud of bubbles and an unearthly shriek, the Glass Moray convulsed and died, a brace of hydrodynamically engineered harpoonlets pinning it to the tunnel wall like a ghostly banner, half hidden even in the scouring actinic light of his mask light, the end of it's body disappearing to ethereal imagination in the darkness outside the cone of light.
"Kir! Hey! Kir?!" He shouted, worried. Holstering his weapon, he moved closer, examining the transluscent ribbon of fin and teeth speared against the tunnel wall. Morays didn't often come out in the mid tunnels unless they detected food. Not necessarily blood, but with the razor edged obsidian intrusions every few meters, it could easily have been Kirin.
Suddenly, he heard a noise from above, followed by a blinding beam of light and a surge of water on his skin, too sudden for him to ward off the sharp blow to his head.
Instinctively he grabbed for his diving knife, even as he felt his mask seal momentarily release, a small torrent of water splashing his face as he lunged backwards in aquatic slow motion, struggling to clear his mask and defend himself.
"Damnitall Sean, you killed it! A glass moray! Do you have any idea how rare those are?!" He heard, feeling another blow land, this one far gentler than the first.
"Holy shit! You fucking moron. I thought the damn thing ate you! What in the un-holy fuck did you think you were doing, off playing with a glass moray, not to mention leaving my ass to fix the Viper alone?!" He screamed, feeling the force of his voice loosen his mask and stir silt in the normally calm water, as it echoed and rebounded down the narrow passages.
"Sorry, but it was a Moray! I've only heard about them being spotted twice, let alone getting to see one!"
"Sorry don't cut it missy. And now you've seen one, and I've shot one. Now get your dumb ass back and help me with the goddamned Viper before I get pissed enough to ask Darek to give you topside duty. Now get your head screwed on straight and your ass in gear. We gotta fix that damn Gear before a god-damned plague-ridden Bajan minisub pops up in the Canal Zone."
Chastised, she followed after him, their faceplate lamps islands of light in unquantified darkness, returning the tunnels to things more suited to the darkness. And those things which found the darkness more suitable...
"Hey, Darek. Gotta go, wife's waiting." Marcus shouted down from the gantry, slamming the last minitorpedo into the shoulder-launcher on the Wasserjaeger and applying a strip of waterproofing tape over the seal on the ejection hatch.
Nodding at the technicians' concientiousness, Darek grinned back. "I'm going out for a patrol. Tell next shift I should be back by fourteen." He announced as he clambered aboard the Water Viper.
"Gotcha boss. Fourteen. Stay safe."
With a groan the Preceptor settled back into the padded pilots couch inside the Gear, sealing his wetsuit and faceplate with motions that belied them to be unconscious and fluid habit, then starting up his avatar with the professional care of a warrior.
Setting the Gear into motion, he walked the black-and-gray machine into the inky darkness without hesitation, cutting the snorkel as the black water closed over his omnicamera and surrounded his mount entirely with the cold and swifly flowing current.
Like a Triton surveying its' demense, he strode across the cavern bottom, careful but assured in every motion as he ventured into the arterial tunnels.
Pausing for a moment at the entrance to the main arterial cavern, he deactivated his running lights and camera. From the curving breastplate of the Gear a low pitched thrumming began, the sonar emitters pulsing pure sound through the quiescent darkness, echoes guiding the behemoth as it calmly drifted along, carried by the gentle current.
Inside the cockpit, Darek grinned. The computer-construct of the tunnel matched the recording almost to perfection, with blurred readings evident only in patches along the soft, silty bottom.
Switching on his motive systems, he turned onto a side passage, confident in every motion. The left propulsion pod was working perfectly, the sonar prototype similarly, and he was not just a godlike lord and master of the tunnels. He was Hehli.
"Thank you Kirin. See how much faster it goes when we work together?" Sean muttered, grabbing at the proferred spanner and began tightening the last bolt on the elbow actuator. Finishing and clamping the plate back onto its' gaskets, he momentarily unclipped his air hose and affixed it to the appropriate port on the panel. With a surging roar and a cloud of overpressure bubbles, he vented the water from the compartment and sealed it, then reattached the tube to his facemask.
Turning grandly, he bowed low before his partner, having to kick his fins mid-dip to remain oriented without tumbling. "Now, get aboard and tell me how she runs."
Kirin remained mute, floating in place, looking past him and the Water Viper at something, a look of horror transfiguring her face in the dim glow of the worklights.
Wheeling and drawing his flechette pistol, he triggered his worklights, blanketing the cavern walls and floor with intense light, spotlighting drifting bits of cavern life and pallid subterranian fish, but nothing more.
"What the hell..." He growled, turning cautiously back to face Kiri, carefully searching the remaining hundred and eighty degrees of the cavern before lowering his guard in the slightest. Seeing Kiri motionless as before, he jammed his pistol back itno its' sheath and demanded "What was it?"
Even as he did so, he knew his mistake. Kiri's gill-mask remained motionless, rather than pulsing with her breath. Her chest and eyes were similarly frozen, the spanner finally dropping from her nerveless fingers.
"Shit!" He growled, spinning fruitlessly around again, flechette gun drawn as his fins threshed the water, shoving him toward the hatch of the Viper, pushing Kirins' corpse aside in his haste.
As soon as he touched the body, it dissolved. Flesh parted at invisible seams, clouding the crystal water with crimson clouds as her corpse fell apart, her blood polluting the water and choking his filters as he desperately pulled open the hatch and dove for the pilot seat and relative safety inside the metal and plas golem.
But as he bent to enter, clawing his fins off one-handed as he struggled to cover the unseen threat with his pistol, he felt something press against the middle of his shoulders.
A terrific impact rocked him, and he sensed but did not feel his limbs snap back from the impact, even as a tremendous numbness spread over his body, and his lungs felt cold and heavy, but numb as well, like he was drowning, but with his mask seal still firmly fitted over his face. With a fuzzy sort of suprise, he noticed he'd landed on the floor of the cavern, despite his vest being tuned to neutral buoyancy...
With another, less intense suprise, he realized he was drooling on the inside of his faceplate. No, wait... not... ...water?
Something seemed to move, outside his vision, but his senses seemed to be narrower... If only he could turn his head... couldn't turn...?
To be continued...
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