Death’s Bright Day – Snippet 20

“Daniel, I’m through,” Miranda called. “It opens up when you get through.”

“I’m coming,” said Daniel. He was already sorry for feeling so angry a moment before. He hadn’t said the things he’d been thinking, but Miranda knew him well enough to have heard them in his tone.

She knows me well enough that it won’t have surprised her either. Well, if she’d wanted a saint, she’d been looking in the wrong direction. He was still embarrassed.

The triangular passage narrowed side to side, and the peak lowered also. Daniel thrust at the rock with his toes, squirming forward almost as though he were swimming.

It was definitely getting tighter. He pulled his left arm back along his body and twisted slightly to make his body as slim as he could. He didn’t think about it, just kept thrusting ahead. There was a way out, maybe not for him, but he’d keep going forward until he got there or died. Going forward…

Fingers touched his outstretched wrist. Daniel squirmed a little further and he could get his left arm free also. He opened his eyes — he didn’t remember closing them — and the lantern made the wide chamber a yellow ambiance. DaSaenz and Miranda were waiting, she with a concerned expression. With another wriggling push Daniel was out.

He got to his feet. Miranda hugged him, probably from affection. It was a good thing regardless, because otherwise Daniel would have toppled backward.

“I’m all right,” he wheezed, and in a moment he was.

“How did you find this place, Master daSaenz?” Miranda said, holding Daniel firmly. The ceiling was flat and much lower than that of the conical antechamber, but the floor had at least three large lobes. Its total area was considerable.

“I’ve been studying the caves all my life,” their guide said. “I’ve had robotic mappers for the past fifteen years. I’ve explored every passage I’ve found and mapped them to the end, then built up a three-dimensional image.”

DaSaenz made a broad gesture. “There are forty caves opening off this chamber,” he said, “and I know them all. I’ve seen things that no one has seen for hundreds of years, and I know the caves as no one else ever has.”

“That’s very impressive,” Daniel said. He was breathing normally again.

“It’s my life!” said daSaenz. “These caves are the daSaenz heritage. No one but a daSaenz really has a right to be here! Ah, though you, you’re my mother’s guests. That’s why I’m about to show you the greatest wonder of all.”

“What would that be, Master daSaenz?” Miranda asked quietly. Her fingers were massaging the point of Daniel’s right shoulder.

“I found a room which is alive with glowworms,” daSaenz said. “When I was last there a year ago, more of the rock was covered by them than was clear. You noticed that the tunnel we came through to get here didn’t have any glowworms in it?”

Miranda nodded; Daniel grunted. He probably wouldn’t have noticed anything even if he’d kept his eyes open. He hadn’t been panicked, but squeezing through the passage had been an extremely unpleasant experience.

“Because that stratum had no pyrites in it,” daSaenz said, nodding enthusiastically. “And there are very few in the present chamber, see?”

He turned off the lantern. Daniel felt Miranda’s body shift as she turned to scan the whole chamber. He saw a pink blur on the floor in the middle distance. There seemed to be prickles and sparkles of light all around them, though they were too faint for him to be sure that he wasn’t seeing ghost images within his retinas.

“But if you have the courage to come with me,” daSaenz said, “I’ll show you a hollow which must have been a huge pyrites crystal before the glowworms began to devour it. Huge.”

“We’ll follow,” Daniel said. “Go on, then.”

Miranda squeezed his hand again and stepped slightly away. DaSaenz turned on the lantern and led the way into a left branching…though when they were well within it, Daniel saw that what he’d thought was a solid wall to the right seemed rather to be a massive pillar standing in a single large bay rather than a divider between two. He couldn’t be sure in the side-scatter from the lantern.

Their guide led them into a series of passages, some wider than others, but none really narrow. The ceiling remained high enough to clear their heads, though from caution Daniel put his left hand on his forehead. A scraped knuckle could be ignored, but a whack on the scalp was apt to be bloody and distracting.

There were multiple branchings, but daSaenz never hesitated. He really did know the caves.

“We’re coming to the wonder,” daSaenz called back over his shoulder. He got down on all fours and led into a branching to the left which was only about three feet high. Miranda hesitated; Daniel sent her in ahead of him, but he followed on her heels.

“Here,” said daSaenz. He stopped and shifted in the passage. It gleamed when brushed by lantern-light: the rock was metal plated.

DaSaenz shifted again and slipped waist deep into the rock: there was a hole in the floor of the passage. The remainder of his body and finally his head disappeared also. The lantern from below lit not only the opening but also the rope ladder hanging down into it.

“Come, if you will,” daSaenz called. “I’ll turn out the lantern when you’re here.”

“Wait,” said Daniel. He turned onto his left side to edge by Miranda as she shrank herself against the opposite wall.

The ladder hung from a wooden bar. Daniel felt the ends and found they were held securely by U-bolts hammered into the rock. The fasteners and the rock were both glass-smooth with iron deposited by the glowworms, but the bar hadn’t been touched: wood must contain some sulfur, though not enough to tempt the creatures when pyrites was available.

There were glowworms — a violet one and a red one, both more vivid and filled with bright sparks than those Daniel had seen farther back in the caves. He ignored them as he tested with his bare hands both the bolts and their grip on the crossbar. He had to be sure that the structure was solid before he trusted Miranda’s life and his own to it.

Daniel couldn’t feel the creatures, though the vivid glow beneath his thumbs proved he was touching them. He shifted his grip onto the bar and let himself down into the opening. He kicked his feet until one boot found a rung; he settled his weight onto it, then walked himself down the rest of the way on the ladder. The rungs were wooden battens; the rope stringers seemed to be woven from some slick synthetic fiber.

DaSaenz kept the lantern aimed at Daniel’s shoulders on the way down. The floor of the lower chamber was about ten feet below that of the passage from which they had dropped.

Daniel gripped the ladder to hold it steady. “I’m clear!” he called up to Miranda. She descended with the supple quickness he had noticed in all her movements.

DaSaenz swept his light around the chamber. It was an irregular polygon almost thirty feet across at its widest point. There were patches of bare rock in the floor, but the walls had a metallic luster deeper than the shimmer of deposited iron nearer the anteroom of the cave.

“I suggest you keep very quiet after I turn the light off,” daSaenz said. “I’m going to move against the wall behind me, but you’ll get the best view if you move to the other end of the chamber.”

Daniel nodded and walked away from their guide. Miranda was half a step ahead of him.

“Are you ready?” said daSaenz.

“Yes/yes.” Daniel’s voice was curt, Miranda’s musical.

The lantern went off.

The darkness was alive. The glowworms were not only brighter than those Daniel had seen before, they were larger — some of these were two hands across — and the concentration of bright points in the glow was greater. All the colors of the rainbow mingled, and the violet ones hinted that their light extended deeper into the spectrum than human eyes could follow.

“Oh, Daniel,” Miranda said. “Oh, Daniel. Oh, this is so wonderful.”

As daSaenz had said, glowworms covered more than half the surface of the chamber. They did not quite touch one another except in a humped mass along the edge near where Daniel and Miranda stood. There the glowworms had concentrated like an oil slick on the surface of a harbor.