Descent - Part 2
You could go anywhere on Covenant without ever seeing the sky, provided you knew the proper route through the confusion of tunnels beneath its surface. They were all relatively shallow -- not mines, and probably not aqueducts or transit tunnels. In the days of the angelnet, these passageways had been co-opted to convey fuels and feedstocks to every home and installation on the planet. But after the angelnets came down, the passageways fell once more into disuse. Not even the Keeper had use for them anymore -- or so everyone seemed to think. No one really knew for sure.

Their original purpose remained buried in Covenant's prehistory. The catacombs resonated their age, sang of it from every atom of their gray rock walls. The mildewed air moved along these passageways in a constant, restless breeze, whispering the loneliness of countless centuries as it went. How long these walls had stood -- how many generations ago these passageways had been carved from the rock of Covenant -- I could scarcely imagine. Even to the immortal's dilated sense of forever, the ghosts that haunted this place moaned out from a deeper past than even the oldest living memories could reach.

That these chambers had been manually carved from the surrounding granite was manifest. Gouges and cuts in the rock spoke clearly of the action of hands and tools, not water and earth. And yet, to the best of my knowledge, not even the Keeper knew whose hands had done the digging -- or even if they had been hands at all, in any human sense.

The storm drain dumped out into those ancient tunnels only a few hundred meters from our entrance. We walked in a shallow sluice of runoff. Cold as it was, it would destroy any scent trail. Its surface iridesced with treatment nano released from the pipe walls. Ara kept her feet in it, crouched low and padding quietly.

For hours, we followed a meandering path through the darkness, guided by what I interpreted to be Ara's vague sense of magnetic north. Some passageways opened up into cathedrals, while others were so narrow it took a protracted, thrashing effort to wriggle even Ara's tiny frame through them. Everywhere, the dark was absolute. Even su night vision was blind here, so we followed the echoes of our own footsteps. Something in Ara's limbic complained about claustrophobia, but I kept a tight lid on it. So far, she showed no signs that those complaints had reached her consciousness.

A few more miles and we would be out of Covenant territory. As yet, there had been no sign of pursuit.

Waiting was about all I could do now. It was up to Ara to tackle the physical obstacles before us; I was about as effective as a hallucination. I couldn't bring myself to jack out and pursue something more productive. Ara needed the distraction of my voice in her ear. Loneliness transcends substrate. So I stayed there, keeping an eye on the state of her physiology and talking ... just talking. Feeling useless.

She had yet to talk back, but I knew she was listening. Whenever I was silent for too long, her heart rate picked up, and I had to talk it back down. All the while, the black pressed down, filled with the sounds of rats and god-knows-what scurrying through invisible heaps of rubble. Every step met the slick sensation of running water and dripping slime, the occasional corpse of some small animal or a sharp, jagged edge that cut the soles of Ara's feet. She kept one hand on the cavern wall whenever she could, comforted by its presence -- a tenuous breadcrumb trail through the darkness of a cold, wet hell.

The cuts from the window pane had stopped bleeding. Most of them weren't deep, and all but the worst had already healed. Our biggest problem now was the cold. It made her slow; it accelerated her hunger. In a few more hours -- a day at most -- we were going to have to find something to eat, or things were going to get much worse.

When Kat finally joined us, I'd just about completely lost track of time. My estimation of the distance we'd traveled was based solely on the weary pain in Ara's legs, and I no longer had any sense of our direction. She stopped short when she heard that blast of static, rippling through her mind as Kat jacked in.

"Zavier, you make contact?"

Ara dropped into a crouch, straining her eyes to penetrate the darkness. The beat of her own pulse behind her retinas made the blackness roil. Color swam in its own absence. She jumped at every imagined movement.

"It's okay, babe. It's just Kat," I said. "You make a hell of an entrance, Kat. And you sure took your sweet time...."

"Can't talk long, Zavier. Listen -- I'm having a bitch of a time tying up the Covenant's network, and those weasels are hopping mad at what you did. They know we're in on this. They're talking about taking it to the Tribunal."

"Let them. What are they going to do?"

"Flay us alive, for starters. And it's not even them I'm worried about. It's this whole thing getting public. What happens when the Keeper finds out..."

"He knows. He probably knew before we started. If he'd wanted to stop us, he'd have done it already. He obviously has better things to do. He won't interfere. And neither will the Tribunal -- what do they care what we do with some meat-puppet?"

"Re-ascension has got to be on their minds."

"Re-ascension of what? Ara's dead to them." I packaged as much dismissal into that gestalt as I could. Ara made a sound like a snort to punctuate it. She'd relaxed a bit during our exchange, and now she sat cross-legged on a dry rise in the side of the pipe we were in, massaging the sensation back into her feet. "Look. Why don't you tell me what's really going on out there, and not just what you think. We're not going to get anywhere with speculation. We've done that to death already."

Silence -- long enough to make me wonder if the connection had somehow been severed. There were plenty of repeaters scattered through these caverns. Any signal Kat sent over the net should have reached us -- but maybe that first contact had just been a lucky break.

Then, abruptly, "I'm eyeballs deep in security ICE, making it do things to the network it was never intended to do. It's got the Covenant all screwed up. They don't have a clue what's going on ... 'cept for a few of them ramblings about how the world's coming to an end. Most of the rest are just scrambling to pull the plugs before they lose something vital. Considering it a lesson, maybe -- what kinds of things can happen when they go against the Keeper's mandates."

"Good thing they did, or you wouldn't have anything to play with. So what's the trouble? Why you here?"

"You looked lost. You've been doing a big circle, the last 20 minutes or so. I figured you could use a hand, since for some reason you're too damn lazy to jack out and check the map yourself."

"I've been busy."

"Right. Anyway, there's this big dynamo about a statute k to the northeast. No idea what it is -- it's not on any directories. Maybe some kind of power plant. Spitting distance from the border, just on the edge of the Wilds. Probably one of Keeper's experiments. No signs of surface occupation, but the thing is mostly buried. Whatever it is, it's putting out a hell of a lot of gauss. That's probably been throwing you off. Can you see down there?"

"Not a lick."

"Okay. I'm going to try something. Wait a minute..."

More static. Ara shook her head and tugged at one of her ears.

"Okay." Kat's voice trickled into Ara's auditory lobe small and tinny, as though it had been funneled down to her through some long, narrow conduit. "Can you still hear me? Try following my voice."

Kat had affected some imitation of spatial displacement, using my interface to prod Ara's brain. I couldn't quite peg it myself, but Ara seemed to get a sense of where e was coming from. She stood up and started walking with what seemed like a fair sense of certainty. She picked up her pace, falling into an uneven, rolling gait. One of her legs hurt worse than the other, and her toes were just about completely numb. We needed to find some more substantial clothing soon, but I didn't know of any distribution nodes in the sewer.

Kat led us to a T-junction in a narrow section of passageway, opening up into an egress pipe running east-to-west across our course. There was more water here. The confluence of half a dozen other small pipes ran processed waste water into this large one for disposal. It was a newer section of the system, probably put there by the Covenant after the Fall, but it was mostly disused now. The bulk of what was here was runoff from snow melt and leakage from the higher, more heavily exploited systems. Pale light filtered up the tunnel from either end, casting a silver pall over the rusty corrugated curve of the ceiling. Frost hung in the air, glittering submicroscopic crystals buoyed by the dank air flowing out of the deeper tunnels.

"Left or right?" I asked.

Kat's silence was eir equivalent of a shrug. "Doesn't make a lot of difference." e said. "You're sitting in the middle of a rock spur running parallel to the lake shore. Right would get you onto the high-ground, but it's rougher going. The river's going over your head in that direction, dropping over the spur into the lake. I think there's an old maintenance rig out there you could climb up, if it hasn't rotted away. The other way ... well. That dumps you out on the wrong side, snuggled up to a Covenant village. You'd have to travel carefully there, but you might be able to raid some supplies. The only safe route from there leads overland toward that power facility. Either way, could work, could suck."


"My pleasure. I can't stay -- I can't keep splitting my attention like this. Covenant guard dogs are knocking on my ack ports. Be back as soon as I rinse the pipe with them."

A blip of static, and again we were alone in the tunnel, me trying to visualize an area map I'd never seen; Ara brooding over her aching toes.

"Which way?" I asked, not really expecting a response.

This time, though, she gave me one, mumbling, chewing the words and slurring them together. "Voices in my head ... wish that I were dead."

"You can't stop. If they get a fix on you, they'll flush you out. I doubt Kat can hold them off forever."

She made another "hrumph!" and staggered upright. After a quick look down both directions, she began mincing her way down the right hand passageway -- toward the river. She made painfully slow progress. Very cold and very wet.

"Keep talking." I told her. "You'll get better at it if you do it more" For once, I was pleased at the prospect of a two-sided conversation.

Ara was less enthusiastic. "Kubble fump, nubbing dump" she said, or something like that, and accidentally bit her lower lip.

We picked our way down the slope of the egress pipe, using its corrugations like a stepladder. The sound of rushing water ahead rose slowly over the babble of the runoff around our feet. Gradually, it overwhelmed the steady thud of Ara's pulse in her ears. Sounds of life lost themselves in a dull roar -- the sound of the river, plowing over the edge of the spur, down a hundred-meter drop into a frozen lake. Ara approached the end of the pipe, stopping a ways back from the opening. From there, she edged out one toe at a time. There were remnants of a catcher grate attached to the end cap, but the grate itself had long since rusted away. The passageway now gaped open, angled down just enough to shield Ara from the waterfall's spray as she came to its edge.

The sun had risen. It hung in a pallid sky, veiled in the morning mist that sublimated off the hard surface of the lake. Cold and white and flat. The horizon cut like slash of steel gray across a silver canvass, the sun like a frozen drop of fire at its pivot. Everything was perfectly still, save for the rush of falling water. A cold-desiccated desert of ice and sky.

The egress pipe jutted out behind the waterfall. A curling wall of ice swept up the rock face from underneath to form a solid shelf above. All across its underbelly, tiny icicles hung down like the teeth of some mythical beast, petrified mid-flight out of a foaming abyss. Various species of algae and bacteria embedded within it blazed with vibrant color -- broad striations of green and red twisting under its glassy surface. Pocks and chips scattered sunlight like encrusted gems. Spearing impossibly through its roof -- like a hero's sword through the head of a serpent -- hung a steel ladder, swaddled in frost and virtually invisible from anywhere but where we stood. It was impossible to tell how thick the ice shelf was. It was possible this could just be flash-frozen spray encrusted to the ladder. Or it could have been the tip of a glacier, slowly sweeping the thing over the cliff. Either way, it looked like a dead end to me.

Ara seemed less pessimistic. She reached up to touch the underbelly of the overhang, leaning out over the gap with one hand clutching the ragged edge of the pipe. The frost crumbled under her fingertips, brittle and dry, like old snow. She dug into it, plunging her arm through it up to the elbow. She rose up onto her toes, straining for the ladder and burrowing her arm deeper. All frost. Mostly air. It fell away in glittering puffs of pixie dust, each swipe of Ara's fingers cutting deeper gouges, revealing more and more of the ladder underneath.

In a moment of courage or madness, she lunged out and caught the last rung of the ladder. Her feet left the pipe, and she dangled there for a few seconds, opalescent powder swirling around her. She began to climb, hauling herself up into the ice, stopping on each rung to bat another layer of crust out of her way. A scant thirty centimeters later she broke into a vault of silver sky. Smiling. Ecstatic. She seemed to float up the ladder onto the wooden overhang it joined to, jutting off the edge of the spur over the river. Rusted steel eyelets poked from its sides with shreds of rope frozen to their inner surfaces -- the remnants of a work sling for the robots that used to clear the pipes of debris. She used these as handholds to pull herself onto the platform.

When she stood up and looked around, it was as though her view cast out to the rim of the world. Kilometers stretched out clean and flat to the subtly curving horizon, hazed by mist and sunlight nearer the surface, but blindingly clear above that. She bounced on her toes, arms stretched to either side. Goose bumps rippled up her sides as the wind lashed the tatters of her nightgown. She stood there, caked in blood and muck, wet where shards of frost had stuck and melted in her body heat, slowly freezing herself. Shivering ... but not from the cold. She'd forgotten her discomfort, reveling in a newfound freedom, soaking up the majesty of the world. A vaguely warm feeling had started rising through her extremities -- the paradoxical warning signs of hypothermia.

Her core temperature had dropped three degrees, and her metabolism was kicking over into crisis mode. Another day in these conditions and her body would shut itself down, conserving what little it had left in the hopes that the future held better. We had to keep moving. I managed to coax her into a turn, looking back toward the night and toward the Covenant. The dawn had yet to reach over the crest of the spur. Beyond it, uncomfortably close, the dark shapes of squat, square buildings crouched in the twilight, hooded by storm clouds and limned in the last retreating shadows of the night. Lights glittered, green and orange, moving restlessly along the crisscross lanes of highway looped around the buildings' feet. Some edged in our direction, their apparent pace diminished by distance, but their character as clear as day. Covenant patrols, sweeping out from the city to block off routes of escape from the catacombs. Backup squads, more than likely, to relieve the teams that had already been stationed hours ago. There were so many of them -- far more than Kat or I could ever hope to handle as long as we were playing the game by their rules. As long as Ara was stuck here in flesh and bone.

Had to keep moving. I took a break from pushing Ara's endorphins to thrum her parasympathetic. The memory of a road cut along the lip of the cliff, running northeast away from Covenant territory, out into the Wilds. "That way," I said. She obeyed like a waldo, her mind made putty by a dizzy afterglow.

Not a second after her weight shifted, the supports of the platform failed. They made a sound like a gunshot that rang clear even over the roar of the waterfall. The wood frame of the overhang gave way. Ara's haze shattered. She scrambled for an edge, but the collapse had already dragged her under the rock face. All she caught hold of was the ladder, and as soon as her fingers closed around it, it too was falling. The sick sensation of freefall knotted her stomach. We felt a hard jolt as the ladder caught against the side of the drainage pipe, one leg ground into the ice wall. Ara dangled from its midpoint by her fingers, stunned. She shifted her weight toward the pipe, and the ladder slipped and caught again with a violent lurch. Half a dozen centimeters more of give would send us tumbling down an unquestionably lethal drop into the frothing cauldron below.

"The pipe! Ara, grab the pipe!" She already knew, but the lines of force I plotted in her mind were nothing to the patterns of force acting on her body. She curled her legs up, shifting her center of mass to counterbalance the raising of her other arm....

Another grinding slip and a sound like metal on glass, and she was hanging again by her fingertips, shaken out like a crumpled rag on a drying line. She tried again, found a moment's purchase with her other hand and swung her arm around to reach for the lip of the pipe.

The air filled with the crack of breaking ice and the ladder gave way. Her weight dragged it down in a long spiral, but by the time it let go completely, she was already in mid swing. I'd have closed my eyes, but hers were jammed wide open. I saw the world spinning. Something tore in her shoulder as her left hand caught the pipe rim. White hot pain shot up the length of her arm, and the grinding of metal-on-metal rang over the howling falls as her fingers dug deep into the steel. I felt a popping in her head as she pulled against the pain, like chewing carrots. Grinding teeth. She climbed the pipe, using the pain to brace the sudden weakness in her shoulder. As soon as she had her other hand on the pipe rim, she began swinging and clawing with her feet, struggling to find a grip on its underside. On the third try her razored toes cut in, clung fast, and she crawled upside-down like an ant on an inverted twig, over the rim and back into the pipe where she collapsed, gasping, shaking....

Her heart rate hit 320 easy. I pounded on her parasympathetic now, but the nerves seem like they were locked. "Ara, baby! Work with me! Regulate your breathing! You have to calm down!" I harbored no illusions about the absurdity of my commands -- it's easy to tell someone to be calm when you're living their life through a remote interface. But I felt her heart as if it were in my chest. I felt the surging pressure in her head, blood pounding on her skull, lungs burning, every cell starving for oxygen. Her muscles were giving out, one at a time, as the rush of epinephrine flagged.

I think she blacked out. By the time I gave up second-guessing the hard-wired impulses of her biology, I was too spent myself to make note of her conscious state. Just when I started to wonder, she started to come around. She lifted her head off the floor of the pipe, shook a mat of mud-encrusted hair out of her eyes and looked back at the opening, into the foaming base of the falls, where there was no sign of the collapsed overhang.

"Well ... hell?" she mumbled. I couldn't tell if the lilt of a question at the end was an accident.

"Not yet, babe. But damned if you aren't trying. Can you get up?"

"No go." She put her head back down, turning her cheek to the icy runoff and squeezing her eyes shut. "Ol' wood thing got tired. Main'ance nee's to be fired."

On her hands and knees, she made it back to the peak of the pipe and found a dry shelf near the passage we'd come in through. She lay down there and slept, despite my best efforts to keep her awake. You can only force a human body to do so much before it ignores you and does its own thing, and I took some comfort in the observation that there was really nothing terminally wrong with her system.

Over the next couple of hours, I started to doubt that. She slept on, and I began nursing the worry that she might not wake up again.

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