ISLAND IN THE SAND
Star motioned behind her to keep the children back. The chamber they’d discovered was stunning, not so much for its huge size but even more than that because it had obviously been built by the men and women who’d preceded the impact of the giant asteroid. And it was also a fearful thing. If they could not, for some reason, go back through the narrow and seemingly inescapable tunnel through which they’d come so far, then they were at the end of their travels. She approached closer to the edge of the abyss. Wren was hanging only slightly back, and Jameson was right by her side.
What are we going to do?” Wren asked.
Star knelt down and began to examine the sharp top edge of the solid concrete that led over and down into the precipice. She moved from one side of the tunnel to the other. Tal and Sol stayed well behind her, with Wren in between, but they all moved back and forth with her. She made the trip slowly several times. At the right edge of the tunnel, she suddenly saw what she’d been missing. She knew there had to be a way to get down the wall to the energy source below. Quite likely, she thought, the main way to get down was by access through a different tunnel, but she also reasoned that it made sense to have emergency descent capability at the end of any tunnel like the one she was investigating.
Star reached over the edge and felt along the top of the wall with her hand, moving and then running her hand along as far down as she could stretch without falling over. Finally, she felt the top rung of a ladder. She stuck her whole head over the edge and stared down, her stomach almost heaving in fear as the far distant floor seemed to rush up at her. She pulled back and breathed in and out deeply.
“I’ve got it, Jameson,” she said, after a few seconds of recovery. “There’re metal rungs going all the way down to the bottom. Dangerous as all get out to climb down from one to the other, but at least it can be done.”
“Why don’t we go back and find another tunnel?” Wren asked, from nearby, making sure not to get too close to the edge of the abyss. “There are lots of them. There’s only that one big dome thing in the middle. What do we do if we go down there, anyway?”
Suddenly, the tunnel lights went out. They were instantly plunged into total blackness. The only light they’d had emanated from the vast cavity ceiling and walls, and it was gone. The tunnel lights came back on after a few seconds, as they all stood frozen in shock, and even a bit of terror. They were only on for a short bit before going dark again. After another brief period, the lights finally came on and stayed on.
“What was that?” Jameson asked, as surprised at the rest of them. He turned physically to stare back through the long tunnel they’d come from. “I’ve never seen any of the lights flicker or anything before.”
“Someone turned the lights off out of curiosity,” Star said. “Somebody was playing with the switch just like I did. I was entranced by the power of doing it while we were in the other room. They got in. They’re at the other end of the tunnel. We can’t go back unless we want to go into full deadly battle. We’ve got guns, but they have weapons too, and they’re bigger, faster and they’re more of them.”
Wren lay down next to Star’s left knee and looked down to examine the rungs as best she could without leaning too far out.
“The other kids are too small,” she said. We can’t risk them on those. And if we climb down they’re just going to climb down and get us when they reach the bottom too.”
Star got up and walked along the edge of the wall. She turned and glanced at the wall that was the lining of the tunnel they’d just come out of. Inset hasps could be seen in two rows along both walls, ten to a side. She walked back and fingered one, but could not turn or move the device holding the door closed. The doors were obviously serving as fronts for storage areas.
“Weren’t there some tools by that box?” Star asked the group. “We need pliers. See what you can find over there.”
Star returned to lie down on the floor and examine the top rung more closely. She ran her fingers over the base of each side of the “U” shaped rung. At the places where they were attached to the concrete on both sides were long nuts with six flat sides on the top of each. The tops of the nuts extended out almost the width of her thumb. Star realized suddenly that the nuts were attached to bolts set into the concrete and held the rungs to the wall.
Jameson appeared at her side with a long-handled wrench. “Couldn’t find pliers, but if we can screw the teeth of this thing down until they’re almost closed we can turn the latches.”
Star stared at the wrench for a few seconds before nodding. “Let’s do it. There’s got to be something we can use in one of these lockers, or we’re not going anywhere.”
Jameson worked with the wrench, putting his full strength into twisting each latch. He opened one locker after another. Star followed near his side. There were pulleys, metal hooks, large rolls of industrial tape and electric instruments of all kinds, indecipherable as to their purpose. They seemed to be shoved into the lockers without any organized thought. There was nothing usable in any of the first ten lockers. Jameson moved to the other side. They hit pay dirt in the fifth locker. It was filled with coiled ropes.
“Get them out and on the floor,” Star ordered. “We’ll need to tie ourselves together with about eight feet of space between us. The young ones all have to be at the bottom. We’re going to go down in a long chain. We’ll throw the rest of the ropes over the edge, so the other tribe can’t use them.”
Jameson and Wren went to work following her instructions.
“How much time do you think we have,” Star said to Jameson’s back, as he worked to tie the kids at the waist, one after another.
“We walked it in slowly in, for about four or five hours. They’ll likely be loping at a much faster pace. I’d say they could cover the distance in something more than an hour. We’ve got fifteen minutes, or so, to be on the safe side.”
Star went over to Tal who was tied with the thick rope. Tal would be the first one over. “Can you grab that first rung when we’re ready? We’ll have you with the rope so if you fall we’ll just pull you up and do it again. It just looks scary.”
“I can do it Star. All of us would do anything for you.”
Star hugged the child closely to her, wondering how the boys coming at them could possibly think of abandoning such a wonderful creature.
Once the others were tied together, Jameson came over to her.
“I thought of something, he said. “When they get here they may simply take all the stuff and heave it down on us as we’re trying to climb down. We can’t let them do that. We’ve got to toss everything big over the side before we go. We’ll be climbing for an hour, at the least. It’s a long way down there.
“They’ll just climb after us,” Star replied, “but we do have the two guns.”
“I don’t think so,” Jameson replied. “The rungs are held to the wall by the big nuts. I’ll tie the wrench to me and then take off some of the rungs as I come down until it’s too far for them to reach down from one to another. Without ropes, they won’t be coming down at all. But you’re right about the stuff. We’ve got to throw it all down there.”
They worked for minutes, as fast as they could, throwing everything they could find over the side. The cabinets inset into the walls were emptied and all the tools were dumped over, as well. Star grabbed a steel hook the size of her hand and a roll of the tape.
“What are those for?” Jameson asked.
“The hooks are to make sure we don’t all get peeled off the rungs if more than one person falls. The tape is for one of those light metal doors. Let’s see if we can rip one off with the wrench.”
It took about two minutes to break the panel’s three hinges. Star took out her knife and cut five pieces of rope the length of her forearm. She quickly wrapped them with the tape. She stamped on each end, flattening the entwined material, and then taped one flattened end to the side panel before doing the other.
“What’s that for? Jameson asked.
“They’ll still have small junk and their supply of bows and arrows. The metal will ward those off, since I’ll be the last one down. Once we get a good distance down the wall, the only person exposed will be me, and I’ll have this shield. She held up the metal panel to demonstrate.
“Not you. Me,” Jameson said.
“Arm strength,” Jameson said, flexing a big bicep. “Size. And we have no idea how tightly those rungs are held to the wall. There won’t be much leverage to turn the wrench with, and my weight may make a pivotal difference in getting the nuts off. Besides, you’re the leader and we can’t afford to lose the leader. We can lose me.”
“No, I don’t think so,” Star replied, her tone flat and serious. “Yes, you’re right about the strength issue. Here’s the shield, but I don’t think we can afford to lose you.” Star handed the homemade device over.
Jameson accepted the amateur shield and examined it closely before holding it up over his head to try it. “This is why you’re the leader,” he said, quietly.
Tal waited by the edge of the wall, looking like a cat ready to pounce on a mouse. Star got everyone in line and then nodded at the small boy. Tal grabbed down for the first rung, and then disappeared over the edge. Star shivered when it was her turn. It was so far down that there’d been no sound when the stuff they’d thrown over had hit the bottom below. The only good thing was that the distance was so great that it took some experience to gauge it. There was still a darkly cold and natural fear knotting inside her belly when she went over.
Once they were all spaced out on the rungs, Star yelled down. “One step at a time. I’ll yell, and we’ll move together. Don’t move until I say so. Okay? Here we go. One step.” They all climbed down one rung on her command. Star looked up to see how difficult it would be for Jameson to disassemble the nuts holding the first rung to the concrete wall, or if it was going to be possible at all.
“Got it,” Jameson grunted out. “Tight, but it’ll work. I’m unscrewing the first one with my fingers now.” A minute passed. “What do I do with the rung and nuts I’m removing?”
“Toss them outward and let them fall to the bottom,” Star replied. “We can always gather them up and put them back into the wall if we need to climb up again.”
Star guessed that it took them ten minutes to move down the first ten rungs, with Jameson taking about a full minute to loosen and remove each rung.
Finally, Jameson determined that they’d removed enough.
“Without a rope, it’d be suicide to try to reach the first rung now. It’s at least ten feet down, maybe more. If they brought a rope we may have wasted our time, though.”
“I’m gambling that there’s no rope,” Star said, from just below him. “If they had ropes they used them to drop from the top of the station roof dome. I can’t see them taking those down and dragging them a couple of miles through a tunnel they couldn’t know ended in a giant cliff. They can run back and get the ropes if they have them, but by then we’ll have a lead time of many hours no matter how fast they move.”
Star continued to repeat “one step,” so many times she lost count. The first indication of trouble came as a small metallic clang.
“They’re up top,” Jameson said, yelling downward, with the shield extended over his head and pressed firmly into the concrete. A few smaller clangs were heard, and small objects bounced by the strung-out climbers. “They’ve found some small junk, and are dropping it off the edge.”
“Get ready,” Star warned, making sure to stay as exactly under Jameson as she could to avoid being hit. “They’ll have their arrows out soon enough. Coming straight down the impact could be pretty substantial if one hits you.”
As if on command, a great metallic thunk was heard, and then an arrow slowly spun off into space, before falling below them.
“You okay?” Star asked of Jameson.
The boys up top, at the wall’s lip, began to jeer and scream down in triumph at the success of their first bowman’s aim.
“Barely felt it,” Jameson whispered down to Star. “This metal’s some tough stuff.”
“They’re doing all that yelling in hopes that you’ll move the shield to reply or look up,” Star warned. “Their waiting for an opening. One step,” she yelled out loudly. The eleven of them moved as one. Four more arrows hit the shield, with several more missing entirely. The hiss of their passing was scary, but also a relief. They were far enough down the wall so the angle at the top was insufficient to let the boys shoot at them from the sides.
“We’re getting farther and farther down. They also can’t have an unlimited supply of arrows,” Jameson observed.
“One step,” Star yelled out, before whispering up to Jameson. “Let’s just hope that the kids’ hands and legs hold out. We're a long way from reaching the bottom.”