Chapter Forty-Eight

Angela, formerly roving photojournalist of the Thorn Valley Sentinel, lay in her hospital bed, still hooked up to multiple I.V. bags, and with a massive bandage around her middle.  She fumbled her oxygen mask to the side and shook her head feebly.

“That’s impossible,” she wheezed.

Cynthia Brisby, Captain of the Guard, sat by her bedside, as did Arthur.  Arthur’s chair had wheels, and a cheeky lightning-shaped “Thorn Valley Racing Pit Boss” sticker across the back.

Just for emphasis, Cynthia drew her sword and laid it casually across her knees.  “I’ve seen it myself, Angela,” she drummed her pawpads on the flat of the sword.  “There’s nothing there.”

Arthur chimed in.  “Oh, the rest of your description fits quite well, anyone familiar with the Grand Cavern could tell us a good story.”

“Not making it up,” Angela insisted.  She shifted and grimaced.

“Angela,” Cynthia muttered, “Your supposed access tunnel is full of superheated water.  There’s nothing bigger than a microbe in there.”

Angela’s eyes widened in surprise and confusion.  “Can’t be.”

“Known about it for years,” coughed Arthur.  “Part of the geothermal network.  Always a little bit distressing to have that much blistering-hot water pumping away so close to the Cavern, but there’s tons of solid rock separating the two.”

“If you know something—really know something,” Cynthia tested the edge of her sword, again for effect more than anything else—she always kept it razor-sharp—“If there’s anything you aren’t telling us, and anyone does get hurt thanks to your lies, I will personally disassociate the various parts of your body.”

Angela gulped.  It hurt to gulp.  Hell, it hurt to do anything.  A large steel spike through the gut tended to do that, and Angela had no desire to repeat the experience.  “Only telling you what I know.  I wouldn’t lie for them anymore.  Not now.”

“We’ll see,” growled Cynthia, sheathing her sword, leaping to her feet, and wheeling Arthur out of the room.  She would have preferred to stalk out menacingly, but that was more of a solo act.

 

Cynthia flexed her paws, which were beginning to ache.  Arthur wasn’t so easy to push all around the Valley, but he knew almost all of its hidden geological oddities.  If there were approaches by air, sea, or ground that needed defending, Arthur knew about them and could show you a pack of blueprints for improvements.

The underground option was a relatively new concern, since it was assumed that most of the known tunnels trailed off to blind ends, or cavern systems so huge that finding one’s way without a compass would have been impossible—the local magnetite deposits made compasses useless in any case.

Now, it had become clear that they were facing an enemy that knew the hidden byways of Thorn Valley as well as (if not better than) its own inhabitants.  The order of the day was to make the spaghetti of tunnels even more confusing if possible, sealing major ones and rerouting paths to lead in huge loops to nowhere.

“Sort of like the L.A. freeway system, eh?” chuckled Arthur, scratching a little at the stitches on his chest.

“Never driven it,” Cynthia growled.  “And stop that.”  She squinted upward at the ceiling of the Grand Cavern, nearly lost in darkness at such a height.  Ahead of her, clusters of long, low desks with reading lamps swept out in arcs toward a central stage with a podium.  A dozen carpenters and electricians were dashing around through the aisles making last-minute repairs and stringing wires for the translation stations.

Packing them all in here, this soon, is a mistake. Cynthia drummed her pawpads on her sword hilt.  I know it--it’ll only remind them--

“If you’ve got a spare minute or two, I can have my techs slap a motor on this contraption,” Arthur wiggled one of the wheels of his chair.  “Admittedly, a rocket engine would be a bit much…”

“Mom and Justin would never forgive me if you launched yourself off a cliff,” Cynthia shook her head.

“Early start on our space program?” Arthur’s ears perked up a bit further.

“Not a chance.  How does it look if a secret community like ours starts sending up rockets?  We’re trying to stay off the radar.”  Cynthia eyed a couple of lost-looking Rescue Aid delegates hanging around the entry doors, still lugging suitcases.  Like so many of the newcomers, these were mice.  “We aren’t just risking ourselves anymore, either—if Thorn Valley gets uncovered, it could be the end of Rescue Aid.  Hey, you two--”

Cynthia left Arthur alone for a moment and approached the early arrivals.  “Orientation isn’t for another hour yet.  Why don’t you boys go get a bite to eat, or find a place for your luggage?”

“They already fed us, ma’am, but they turned us away at the barracks,” shrugged one of them.  “Nice sword, by the way. Ceremonial?”

“Quite practical, I’m afraid,” Cynthia shook her head.  “Why’d they turn you away?”

“No more room, but they’re working on it,” sighed the other, sizing up Cynthia.  “You’re, ahem, the most petite rat we’ve seen so far…”

“Cute,” grimaced Cynthia.  “Mouse.  MOUSE.  Cynthia Brisby.”  She shook hands roughly with the pair in turn.  “I suppose I’ve been hanging around rats for so long I even smell like one.  Who are you guys, anyway?”

“Just a pair of dubious diplomats,” shrugged one.  “I’m Flotsam, the attaché to Antigua.”

“Jetsam, undersecretary for Belize.  Way, way under… but I could tell you about it over dinner.  I understand you have a good Chinese restaurant here, and I’m buying.”

Wha—yes, my brother runs it—” Cynthia’s brain whirled.

“But he’s not Chinese--” Jetsam pointed out.

“--he pretends well,” Cynthia cut him off.  “Did you just ask me out?  No, don’t answer that.  I’m busy and I have to go.  Try to stay out from underfoot.”  She turned on her heel and went to retrieve Arthur.

“Later, then?” called Flotsam.

“Um, sure, all right,” Cynthia shot back over her shoulder, wheeling Arthur away a bit more quickly than necessary.

“What was all that about, Cyn?” Arthur cast a bemused glance back at the delegates, who appeared to be gently and patiently arguing about something.

“I think one or both of them just asked me for a date,” muttered Cynthia.  “And I think I said yes, but I’m not sure to what.”

“Diplomats,” nodded Arthur.  “They’ll talk you in circles.  Malachi’s going to be jealous, I think—”

“I think I’d like him a little jealous; it might light a fire under him,” smirked Cynthia.  “But enough of this malarkey.  Have you had your fill of the Cavern?”

Mmm-hmm,” grunted Arthur, folding a set of blueprints on his lap.  “Well, I know those two jackanapes over there didn’t get the suitcases in without being searched—”

“I’d chew out my entire security detail if they let that slip—”

“I’m sure.  But it would take something much bigger than that, to hold enough explosives to put a dent in the Cavern.  No one will be able to look crosseyed at the place without us knowing about it.”

“There’s always a way,” fretted Cynthia.  “Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”

 

Devin was once more vindicated in his love for all things with pockets.

Though he and Gadget had abandoned their backpacks back at the Commander’s lair, his lab coat had turned to be almost as good as a department store.  From its multizippered, over-fastenered depths, they had salvaged a surprising amount of flotsam and jetsam of their own.

To wit:
One set of lockpicks (“How did those get in here?” said Devin, all innocence).
One half bar of chocolate,melted (and quickly licked into nonexistence).
One miniature screwdriver, immediately surrendered to Gadget. Better than a security blanket.
One penlight, lens slightly fogged from steam, but with a nice strong battery.

The last of these was shining on an odd symbol marked on the wall in red paint.  “Hey, Gadge, come here and take a look at this!”

“Hmm,” squinted Gadget.  “That’s a strange variation…”

“On what?”

“Cave mapping symbol.  You see them more on maps, not on cave walls themselves.  Someone’s been through here searching the tunnels.”  She traced the symbol in the air with one paw.  Opens to the outside…should be climbable without tools…

“That’s got to be the Guard, right?” Devin grinned hopefully. “That’s a good thing, then.  Group B wouldn’t leave marks all over the place if they were trying to be sneaky—”

“Well, this is our exit, if we’re getting out.  We’ll probably come out somewhere close to the lake watchtowers, if I remember correctly.”

Devin shone the penlight around the tunnel.  A patch of floor glimmered in the light.  “More oil.  It looks like the Commander and your father went that way.”

Gimme that for a second,” Gadget narrowed her eyes distrustfully at the oil slick, and Devin handed the penlight to her.  She paced across the tunnel and shone the light all around the entrance to that branch.  “They couldn’t have.”

“Why?”

“There’s another marking here, it says this tunnel is …not blocked exactly—full.  Full of running water.”  She took a few steps down the tunnel.

“I can hear it from here—they probably doubled back—” cautioned Devin.  “C’mon, let’s get out while the getting’s good…”

“No, no--we would have run into them—they went ahead.”

“But—“

Gadget wheeled around and put a pawpad to her lips.  Shh!  If this tunnel is blocked, we might be right on top of them!”

“Okay, okay,” Devin said in a slightly more hushed voice.  “We go and take a look.  If they are there and there’s more than a few of them, we go for help.  Deal?”

“Deal.  But you be sure, Dev—you could go for help yourself… Geegaw’s my father, you don’t have to do this--”

Devin stepped away from the all-too-tempting exit, and took her paw in his. “I’d never forgive myself if I left you and something happened.  Let’s go.”

Gadget bit her lip and nodded.  They crept around the bend toward the sound of bubbling water, all their fur on end.

That was our chance, Devin gulped.

 

The tunnel opened up into a little rounded cavern, and Devin could feel the temperature rise as soon as they stepped in.  The smell of sulfur hung in the air. Gurgling, superhot water flowed in from a fissure in the wall, formed a sizeable pool (all crusty around the edges) and drained through a hole deep below.  No one else was there.

“Well, that’s that, then—” Devin sighed in relief.

“No,” Gadget frowned.  “Shine the light on the water again.”

Devin turned the penlight back, and its beam danced across the surface of the pool.  A rainbow shimmer floated across it.  He groaned in recognition. “That’s more oil—”

“Don’t think it’s natural,” Gadget kicked at the edge of the pool.  “Whatever that contraption is, it’s still leaking and leaving us a trail.”  She dipped a toe quickly in the water and pulled it back, sucking in her breath and hopping on one foot.  “Golly gee, that was stupid.”

“Careful, Gadge!  What, they just dropped it in?”

“Maybe,” mused Gadget.  “But they can’t have just made themselves disappear.  I think they drained it somehow and went through.”  She backed away from the pool and started kicking at rocks, grasping at stalactites, tapping on walls.  “Help me look for anything loose or movable, Dev.”

Devin started picking around the cavern himself, praying he wouldn’t find anything, and not sure he’d tell her if he did.  After a few minutes of fruitless searching, they sat against a wall to think.  Gadget pounded on it three times in frustration.

With the luck that some adventurers have, that would have triggered a pressure plate in the wall, but perhaps that would have been asking for a little too much.

*CLICK*

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” Gadget whirled around to look at a still-receding section of wall.  Rocks grated against each other with a sandpapery rasp, and the edges of the fissure in the wall closed together.  The steaming, sulfur-tinged water sucked out the hole at the bottom of the pool, leaving a clear, smooth path to the drainhole.

“I’m going in,” Gadget announced grimly, and began cautiously working her way down the still-steaming rock.

“Don’t suppose there’s any talking you out of it,” Devin grumbled, but followed.

 

Their short stumble through a low tunnel was rewarded when it opened up into respectable standing room again, and Gadget pointed out some rough stairs chipped into one wall of the tunnel.  Whatever happened, it was good to be above the water line.

Very good, as it turned out—Gadget and Devin reached a higher landing just as the flow of water rose again below.  “Gods, that smells,” sniffed Devin.

“Don’t think they’ll be bottling it anytime soon.  Lucky thing we made it through there in time.”  She put a questioning paw on a cart full of rocks, making the wheels creak—a short length of track led up the nearby tunnel.  Yet another unnatural feature, and not a comforting one.

“That’s not sunlight,” whispered Devin.

“That’s not a natural tunnel, either.  Someone’s been excavating…”  Gadget hefted her needle-pistol and headed up the slope.

Quiet as ghosts, they followed the tracks.  Every now and then they had to duck to avoid a still-glowing lantern. I wish we had a pack of Guard rats ahead of us with swords and really nifty uniforms, gulped Devin.

“Who’s there?” called an unfamiliar voice.  Unfamiliar to Devin, at least.  “Quick, dammit!” came the voice again

“Dad?” quivered Gadget.  “DAD!”

“Be careful, Gadge, we don’t know—” Devin winced, as she hurtled headlong down the tunnel and kneeled by an indistinct lump.  He rushed to catch up with her.

“Gadget?  Get out of here!” hissed the voice.

Geegaw Hackwrench lay hogtied against one side of the tunnel. Gadget was feverishly tearing at his bonds.  “Devin!” she shrieked.  “Get your scalpel!”

A flick of the wrist and the scalpel was in his good paw, as he bent to saw at the cords.  They came apart like butter.

“You fools!  They’ve circled back behind us!  They left me here as bait—”

A scuffling noise beside Devin made him turn around involuntarily.  A large chunk of wood followed, rendering him unconscious in the blink of an eye.


Button images by Keith Elder