“Your father…builds a mean sauna, Gadget”, dripped Devin. His whiskers hung like dark spaghetti, all the exposed fur on his body clumping up in little sweat-spikes.
“Don’t you go--*gasp*-- blaming him for this—” Gadget started. “It’s not like he—had a choice—”
“Go, go, be quiet, no time, no air—” urged Turner from further up the tunnel. It was filling with steam from the top down, which meant Turner was getting the worst of it first.
The “miracle fabric” of their new clothes had only demonstrated one unfortunate reaction to the steam, turning as slick and clinging as oil. They had abandoned nearly all their supplies in their flight, Gadget only snagging her needle-pistol (she was considering chucking it away to stop it slapping against her back as they ran). Overhead, the string of clumsily-hung lights began to pop and sizzle out in the moisture.
Gadget, though the shortest of the three, still felt like she was trying to inhale a boiling sponge. Somewhere far below, off in the dark to their left, was the maddening sound of rushing water, like the cruel tease of cool relief.
It would have been some small comfort to the melting trio, had they known that the steam surrounding them was jetting out of the very same geyser system that Arthur had tapped at Thorn Valley. Of course, Arthur had nearly cooked himself, so maybe it wouldn’t have been too comforting…
“If we don’t get out—of this soon—we’re dead,” Turner frothed.
That didn’t help much either.
“All… the same,” choked Devin, “Glad Geegaw didn’t rig the floor to collapse—”
“Don’t give him any ideas!” snapped Gadget.
“From here?” Devin boggled.
They turned a bend in the tunnel and Turner held up a warning paw as they approached a nondescript pile of rock against one wall. “Oh, God, they’ve blocked it—”
“Whatzit—” Devin squeezed out.
“This is it! Get back!” Turner ordered, whipping his diamond-edged sword out of its scabbard. He rammed it behind one of the larger rocks and threw his weight against it. Heaving and wheezing, he dug his footpaws in and levered with the sword until the metal began to bend. Cracks zigzagged up the diamond coating of the blade, with a sound like snapping tree branches.
The stone shifted, lifted, and finally tumbled away from the base of the wall. It cleared the dropoff running along the path, and splashed down in the unseen river a few seconds later. Faint light, and a blessed trickle of cool air puffed through the opening as other rocks settled in the opening beyond. The swirling steam drew back ever so slightly, as if startled, but resumed its killing, creeping assault on the tunnel.
“In there? It’s tiny,” Devin observed. “We’re gonna have to squeeze Gadget like a grape.”
“Get in!” barked Turner, the sword clattering away from his spent paws. “Quick!”
Devin went down on his knees, felt his way in with his good paw, then squeezed his head and shoulders through the tight entrance. “Hurry, Gadge!”
Gadget took a half-step back and passed a hand over her face instead.
“N-no,” she clenched her fists, wobbling in place. “No, Monty, I’m not going in there again—” Turner was stalking toward her, but it was as if her old friend were standing there instead, yelling at her to get into the damn hole already…
“Monty?” Turner cocked his tattered, sweat-soaked head to one side in confusion. He made a lunge for Gadget, but only managed to fumble the needle-pistol out of her holster as she twisted away. Turner grimaced and tossed the pistol in the direction of the hole.
“Devin! Grab her and pull her in! She’s getting lightheaded!”
“I AM NOT! You idiot, you’re going to die out here!” She retreated toward the hole but scooped up the pistol, checking the safety and leaving it aimed at the floor.
“You’ll die too if you don’t go NOW,” Turner boomed. Breath gone, he wobbled in place, sucking in a lungful of the steam and clutching at his stomach. Gadget rushed to support him as best as she could, which wasn’t much.
“Gadget, please!” cried Devin. He began to wedge himself out of the hole, but it seemed tougher getting out than in.
“You can’t just die, we’ll help you dig the hole wider, build some kind of shelter—” Gadget rattled off, the plans flopping together in her head like soggy blueprints. It was hard to tell whether it was sweat or tears running down her face, but she was tilting toward tears.
“You’ll leave me,” Turner said, his voice calm with certainty. “And I’ll tell you why.” He bent down yet further, and whispered three words of poison in her ear.
The change in Gadget was instantaneous. She whipped her arm free of him, and nearly teleported away, wheeling back and bringing up the needle-pistol to eye-height. If the steam had taken the starch out of her, Turner had just put most of it back. It was not a pleasant change.
“Liar,” she snarled at Turner. “You filthy liar.” The words cut the steamy air, with all the focus of a long-festering hate that has found its target.
Devin freed himself from the hole, cautiously approaching. “Gadget—be careful with that thing—”
She’s going to kill me, Turner gulped, and I deserve it. “No lies, Gadget. Do what you have to.”
Gadget’s paw tensed on the trigger of the pistol. Turner hung his head and squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the end.
Gadget lowered the gun, but not all the way, and shot him in the foot. He howled with surprise and anguish, bending over instinctively to check the damage, which is when Gadget’s shoulder crashed into his side.
The next Turner knew, he was falling through the air, sans floor and sans Gadget. A second later, he slapped into the unseen stream. Swept along and scrabbling at the rocky edges, he broke the surface and took a breath of blessed cool air. The needle, still in his foot, scraped along rocks and worked a bigger hole in his paw. There were no pawholds, and he was swept away to places unknown.
The vengeful spirit that seemed to possess Gadget had slowly receded, leaving her feeling wrung out like a wet rag, but at least alive.
She and Devin sat in a heap, sprawled out against a wall in the cool, dry hollow beyond the rock fall that had partially blocked the escape route. They’d stripped down almost to the fur, but only to dry out.
“What did he say to you, Gadget?”
Gadget flinched. “He, who?”
“You know what I mean, Gadget.”
“Don’t want to talk about it.” She turned her face against his shoulder and shuddered. He folded his good arm around her, letting his paw rest on her ginormous belly. He gritted his teeth, feeling like an insensitive idiot.
Ask again later--MUCH later, Devin kicked himself mentally. They were quiet for a while.
Their cavern seemed to run out to the edge of a cliff or some other opening, because light was better here, and it looked like a little bit of a climb might show them where their twisting trek through the tunnels had led them.
“Be right back,” Devin patted Gadget’s arm, disentangling himself and fumbling his good arm into his lab coat.
“Not going anywhere,” mumbled Gadget. “Need a nap.”
“What you need,” Devin countered, “is a giant bag of ice cubes.”
“Jeepers, that sounds good,” Gadget stretched. “Ice is nice. Steam is mean. That doesn’t rhyme but I’m going to sleep.”
“You do that,” Devin soothed, and levered himself up toward the light. It was a short climb, and offered an impressive view indeed, after he’d quit squinting and blinking in the now-unfamiliar sunlight. Devin had never seen it from that particular angle, but he was looking out over a mesa to the banks of Thorn Lake itself. There seemed to be quite a to-do at the waterfront; he could barely pick out individual ships from that far, but he grinned with relief to see the place.
Struck with a thought, he began to feel around in his pockets, but finally remembered his gift from Gadget. Holding his paw *just so*, and flicking his wrist, the scalpel flicked out of its springloaded compartment. He held it up in the light, tilting it back and forth, praying that someone was watching.
Tina’s smile dropped a bit as she looked out across the lake to the distant cliffs above one of the rivers that ran into it. A light glinted twice, and did not show again.
Devin frowned and tucked the scalpel away as a cloud cut across the sun. Well, Thorn Valley was still a good half-hour’s hike away, and if Geegaw’s warning was right, they had to get moving again.
It ran against his better nature, but he shook Gadget awake (it took some doing). “Mmmph,” she protested, turning her head back against her rough stone pillow. “Whazzat?”
“Time’s wasting, Gadge. Time to take this show on the road.”
“Cliché junkie,” she shot back. “I was having a dream about Dad. I can still smell Three-In-One machine oil.”
“That’s not just you,” Devin shook his head. “It looks like you’ve been sleeping on an oil slick.”
“Eww,” Gadget wrinkled her nose, running a paw through her still-damp-and-now-greasy headfur. “You’re right! Dad and that Commander creep must have come this way!”
“And whatever they’re carrying, it’s leaking, or at least very well-oiled,” Devin grimaced. “That doesn’t sound good.”
Gadget held out a paw. “We should get moving. Before they plug it in, or turn it on—”
“—or set it off,” Devin nodded, dragging her to her feet. “Only one way out of here, since we can’t climb down.”
“Tunnels again,” Gadget groaned. “Tunnel, singular, at least.” She shimmied into her scrubs.
“We’re south of the lake. Remember the map back at the chapel?”
Gadget shivered. “Gave me the creeps, looked like giant red worms munching on Thorn Valley. We’d be on that map by now.” She cocked her head thoughtfully. “On the lower right corner. One main tunnel heading northwest, branches east and west looked unfinished. That’s roughly where we’re at.”
“Roughly?” coughed Devin. “What did you do, take a picture?”
“Sorta,” she shrugged. “It comes in handy. Let’s just hope one of these freaking paths leads to ground-level--”
“—or to your Dad and the Commander. What if we catch up to them?”
Gadget bit her lip. “It hurts to ask for it. But pray that one of us has a killer somewhere inside, if we need one.”
Button images by Keith Elder