Howlaa’s new form was kind of like the armored Humvee version of a Komodo dragon, big and covered in spiky plates, with a long flat snout full of fangs. It reared up on two legs and showed off four arms, like a freaky Hindu god, each one tipped with claws like hunting knives that dripped some clear fluid – acid, venom, who knows.
“The Rendigo,” Wisp said. “Her most fearsome battle form.”
The Rendigo rushed for the most crowded tunnel, screaming with a noise like a boiling teakettle being murdered. “Normally I would urge you to find a place of safety,” Wisp said, “But if the full strength of clan Kil’howlaa is here, we’ll need your help.” Wisp went zipping toward one of the tunnels faster than I’d ever seen him move before, and one of the crouching shapes began to move clumsily and turn around and, from the sound of it, start to attack its fellow Underdwellers.
Well, crap. Time to earn my passage, I guess. I wasn’t much of a fighter, not since some hair-pulling in fifth grade when I caught Sandy Tyler going through my bookbag when I came back from the bathroom, but I had the jump-engine all over my fists, and maybe they’d work their magic – excuse me, science magic – again.
One of the Underdwellers came out of an unattended tunnel and ran straight for me, low and loping. I reared back my arm to throw a hopefully-teleporting punch, but then I saw its face – her face. This wasn’t some monster. The Underdweller was just a girl, blonde and snub-nosed and about my age, and apart from the spiraling glowing tattoo design on her face and the raggy clothes, she could’ve been a girl in my class.
While I was being confronted with the essential humanity of my enemy and all that, she punched me in the face.
I’d never been punched before. Slapped, once, right after Dad died, when Mom was pretty much having a breakdown and I said something that set her off, but never punched. I saw black stars bloom in the blackness of the cavern, and my cheekbone felt like it nearly cracked, and my nose went off like a busted fire hydrant, blood going everywhere. I stumbled and half-lifted my arms to defend myself, but then Wisp came streaming in, up little miss Underdweller’s nose and into her gaping mouth, and she just stood there like a switched-off robot.
Howlaa came trotting up, human again and covered in specks of I-didn’t-want-to-think-about-what, the whole rest of the fight apparently finished in the time it took me to get a nosebleed. “Here.” Howlaa handed me a piece of torn cloth that looked relatively clean, and I pressed it to my nose, happy for the excuse to tilt my head back and look at the ceiling and not say much.
“Their numbers were greatly diminished,” Wisp said, his male voice coming out of the Underdweller’s open mouth, which was beyond weird. “Unless there are reserves hidden deeper. I wish I could read minds as well as hijack bodies.”
“I do too,” Howlaa said, “because I went far enough up that tunnel to see that it’s changed. They’ve done some earthworks down here since we departed, and I don’t know the way out anymore.” Howlaa tugged on her shirt and a piece of shadowcloth came away, without so much as a ripping sound. A little more tugging and she held a length of thin black rope. She bound up the Underdweller’s unresisting hands behind her back.
“Well, then.” Wisp spiraled out of the girl’s nose, and she shook her head, blinking blankly around, then snarling. She spat out a stream of words in –
“Is that German? Cal’s taking a German class, it sounds kinda like that.”
“It is,” Wisp said. “I’ll translate.” A single glowing mote detached from Wisp’s main swarm and floated to my ear, where it quietly spoke: “Dirty ugly bastards I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you all, when I get free –”
“I get the gist,” I said.
Wisp laughed. “I’ll only translate… pertinent information in the future.” Wisp spoke to the Underdweller, English in my ear along with the German that came out directly. “Show us the way to the surface, and we will spare your life.”
“Too generous,” Howlaa growled. “Should have offered a quick death. Oh well.”
“Don’t be a jerk,” I said. “Didn’t you say the Underdwellers are against the Regent too? Shouldn’t you be helping her instead of killing all her friends?”
“They wanted to kill us, Randy. I saved your life.”
“But why do they want to kill you? Because you killed a bunch of their other friends back when you were working for the Regent, right?”
Howlaa looked at Wisp for some kind of back-up, but Wisp was deep in a German argument with the Underdweller, no longer bothering to translate for me, probably because I was about to dig in deep for an argument of my own with Howlaa.
Howlaa spat, and her spit sizzled on the rock – some leftover side-effect from being the Rendigo, I figured. “Yes. Fine. True.”
“You’re plotting a revolution, so shouldn’t they be part of it? The enemy of my enemy is my friend and all that?”
“Maybe if they didn’t have a vendetta against me,” Howlaa said. “Besides, it’s not really a revolution. It’s a mini-revolution. Wisp and I only want to break into the palace and wreck the snatch-engines and get rid of the royal orphans so that once we escape the Nex, the Regent can’t bring us back. What happens to his government after that…” Howlaa shrugged. “Not our problem.”
I stared at her. I thought I’d fallen in with freedom fighters, trying to change the world, but they just wanted to save their own butts. I couldn’t see a reason not to say that: “You just want to save yourselves? I mean, if you wreck the engines, kill the royal orphans, and leave this place behind… won’t everyone who’s left behind starve? You said there are no natural resources here, not even real weather, so when the supplies run out, what happens to the people you liberated?”
The Underdweller tried to run – Howlaa hadn’t tied her legs – and Howlaa had to tackle her. She whispered in the Underdweller’s ear, and the girl stiffened, then nodded and struggled to her feet. She plodded slowly toward one of the body-choked tunnels.
“What did you say to her?” I asked.
“Something motivating, in the language of the Underdwellers, and less diplomatic than Wisp’s words.” Howlaa went after the girl. I hung back a bit, knowing I should follow, but wanting space between me and the skinshifter.
Wisp floated up to me. “Come, Miranda. We never claimed to be perfect. We only want our freedom. But… you have a point. There are other innocents here, who do not deserve to be abandoned. Once the snatch-engines are disabled, we can use the power of the jump-engine to send everyone back to their homes.”
I thought about that. There were probably families who’d been on Nexington-on-Axis for generations, whose grandparents or great-grandparents had been snatched originally – this place was their home. Where were they supposed to go? To planets they’d never seen before, to live with people who looked like them but had totally different cultures? “Even the Underdwellers? You’d help them?”
“The Underdwellers… are not good choices for allies. They might not accept our help. But if they alone were left behind on the Nex, the food stores would last them for decades. As it is, they eat each other here in the dark – they have become monstrous in their rebellion ”
“Please, like you’re squeamish about people who eat people. Or people who are monstrous.” It was hard to sound snotty with a handkerchief shoved against my nostrils, but I did my best. I went into the tunnel after Howlaa, trying not to look at the bodies I stepped around. Most of them weren’t human, at least – maybe it’s speciesist of me, but it was way harder for me to see a dead human than a dead something else, even knowing the other creatures are people too. “If I hadn’t accidentally turned on the jump-engine, you two would have just taken the necklace and left me in the woods.”
“Yes. I suppose you’re right. And I’m sorry. But Miranda… our lives have not allowed us much in the way of conscience. Howlaa is actually quite well-adjusted for a creature evolved over countless generations to become an infiltrating treacherous killer. She… drinks, you know. One reason she wanted a human form originally is because alcohol is plentiful here, at least in the city proper, and she prefers drunken oblivion to the sober contemplation of her lot in life. This is the longest I’ve seen her sober in a long time. Sober, and focused, and trying. Please don’t judge us too harshly. We’re doing our best.” You’ll have to do better than that if you want my help
You’ll have to do better than that if you want my help, I thought, but didn’t say it. Not yet.
We followed the Underdweller for a while. “How do we know she’s not leading us to a room full of her pals? Or a lava pit?”
“We don’t,” Howlaa said. “But where’s your love and trust and fellow-feeling now?”
I bit back a nasty answer – “Something about being with you has made me a lot less trusting” – then looked at the cloth Howlaa had given me. I hoped there wasn’t anything down here that could smell blood. I pressed it back against my nostrils. At least the bleed was slowing down.
The tunnel was close and narrow and weirdly twisty, and it was kind of like being inside an ant farm – this didn’t feel like the inside of a mine or something people had made, but it wasn’t like natural caves, either, because the walls and ceiling were all smooth and rounded. Gradually the tunnel got brighter, light coming from smears of luminous fungus dotting the walls at irregular intervals. The passage opened up and out from narrow hallway to four-lane freeway width, and we passed crumbling statues of the weirdest things – a pickup truck, a park bench, a refrigerator, an old-fashioned jukebox. Those were just the sculptures of things I recognized. There were lots of others that didn’t look like anything I knew at all, big jumbles of tubes and valves, weird things with spikes and loops and holes, all made out of this brownish crumbly-looking rock. The sculpture garden stretched as far into the gloom in all directions as I could see, some of the statues painted here and there with glowing fungus in weird patterns.
I touched one of the statues – it looked like a sci-fi movie robot crossed with a knight’s suit of armor – and the arm fell off with a thump. The Underdweller girl whipped around and snarled at me, then launched herself. Howlaa swatted her down, but she bounced back up again and came for me. My nose started hurting preemptively. Howlaa grabbed her, shook her, and put her back on the path, and she kept on leading us, but not without a lot of sullen pissy looks over her shoulder at me.
“What’d I do? Did she carve that one or something?” My voice was all nasally from the crusted-up blood in my nostrils.
“The coproliths are sacred to the Underdwellers,” Wisp said. “The touch of someone from above is considered profane.”
Oh, crap. A taboo, like I’d read about on our trip to Hawaii, which hadn’t stopped Cal from bringing a few chunks of sacred lava rock home in his suitcase. “Can you tell her I’m sorry? That I didn’t mean to?”
“I can, but it wouldn’t help,” Wisp said.
Something sparked in my head, some vocabulary word I’d seen when studying for the PSAT. “Wait, did you say copro-something? Like, dinosaur crap?”
“I call them coproliths, which just means fossilized dung, but in this case, in your language, it’s also a pun on ‘monolith,’ rather a clever one I think –”
“Wisp thinks he’s so clever,” Howlaa said. “I’m sure there’s a word in your language for people like him, too.”
It seemed to me they were skipping over the important point. “So you’re saying those sculptures are made of poo?”
Howlaa cackled. “Better wash your hands before you eat your next apple, Randy.”
“They are essentially rock, at this point,” Wisp said. “The statues were created – perhaps ‘produced’ is a better word – by the gargantuan god-worms who first made these tunnels. The worms did not survive long after their transportation to Nexington-on-Axis. Something in the atmosphere disagreed with them. I never saw them myself, but by all accounts they were a fearsome and erudite race.”
“For big worms anyway,” Howlaa said. “Wish I could’ve eaten one. Ah, well. Before my time.”
“I guess I’m missing the part where the worms poop out full-size models of washing machines?” We were passing exactly that just then, sculpted with the lid half-open.
“It’s admittedly odd, even for the Nex,” Wisp said. “But then, the universe is infinite, and any conceivable combination of particles is bound to show up in an infinite universe somewhere – even those unlikely collections of particles which constitute a race of giant worms who excrete sculptures. The worms were blind – more, as far as we know they had no senses at all like your own or even mine – but they still somehow created these models, perfect in every detail, altering their own internal physiology to allow them to excrete images of things they’d never seen. Indeed, they created things they couldn’t have seen, even if they’d had eyes, items that didn’t exist on their native world or on the Nex during their lifetimes. Things like that washing machine, that hadn’t even been invented when the worms lived. They were obviously clairvoyant, and apparently capable of precognition as well. The Underdwellers worship the works the god-worms left behind. It’s an article of faith among them that there is one great worm left, living deep underground in hibernation…”
I sort of shivered. Bugs and worms don’t especially creep me out, but worms the size of the tunnel we’d passed through? Definitely creepy.
“Bah,” Howlaa said. “They’re all dead. We looked everywhere, in every hole, last time we were here, and no sign of life. I looked hard. I had incentive. I really wanted to eat one. Imagine if I’d slithered here in the shape of a god-worm? These Underdwellers would have named me king instead of public enemy number only.”
“King in a garden of excrement. How pleasant. And that wouldn’t have solved our fundamental problem.”
“Shushit, Wisp,” Howlaa said. “I’m fantasizing.”
The big cavern narrowed again, and this new tunnel sloped upward hard. My calves were screaming. I’d played soccer a little before Dad died, but since the explosion, my exercise had pretty much been limited to running from Cal when I pissed him off or running from a store after stealing something. Shoplifting anything, even just a lipstick, zoomed me up with adrenaline I had to burn off by running. But my adrenaline was pretty well tapped-out in the aftermath of getting punched in the face, so I just trudged along.
The light up ahead wasn’t really bluish or greenish, but more like good old sunlight, and a breeze came in, carrying the smell of… oil and exhaust, which at least made a change from the air full of unlikely particles of god-worm poo.
The Underdweller girl stopped and babbled at us for a while, and the Wisp-mote in my ear translated, sort of: “Euphemistic curse, biologically impossible demand, formal vow of blood revenge, all very standard.”
“Guess I’d better kill her,” Howlaa said.
I moved so fast I surprised even myself, getting between Howlaa and the girl, though that meant turning my back on little miss nosepunch. “No you better not. She’s no threat to us.”
“Not just at this moment,” Howlaa said. “But this is the place where refugees and fugitives go, the broken and the mad, the ones who can’t handle life on the Ax, and she’ll have a new tribe in no time. She’ll be the last high priest of the shit-worms, and everyone who comes will listen to her because she knows where the food is stored, where the escape routes are, where the good dry bedroom caverns can be found. She’ll re-form Clan Kil’howlaa, and they will be a threat to us, and by us, I mean me.”
“Touch her and I’ll punch you off this planet.”
“Well,” Wisp corrected. “We’re not certain the Nex is a planet. It could be an asteroid or construct or –”
“Whatever. I’ll send you away, Howlaa, and then the Regent can slurp you up with a snatch-engine and put you back to work. You can’t go around killing people just because they get in your way. Not while you’re hanging out with me.”
Howlaa stared me down for a while, then sniffed. “Fair enough. You’re showing some backbone at least – you’ll need that when we get to the city center. Wisp always tells me I’m too casual with the killing, that being pretty much immortal makes me cold-hearted, like he has any room to talk. The Bodiless will be around until the heat death of the universe at least. But fine. She can go back to her hole. Only don’t come crying to me when she grows up and murders us all.”
Howlaa untied the ropes binding the girl’s wrists, and Wisp spoke to her, and the girl ducked her head and raced back down the tunnel.
“We’d better get on our way,” Howlaa said. “Before she comes back with a knife. If I have to kill her now Randy will never let me hear the end of it.”
“Thanks, Howlaa,” I said, because I don’t need to be a bitch about everything, and I had gotten my way. Be gracious in victory, right?
“Shushit,” she said. “Even Wisp doesn’t say thank you when he makes me do something I don’t want to do.”
“Where to now?” I said.
“Up, and out, and into the Machine Waste,” Wisp said.
“If we can’t find transportation there, we deserve to go on foot,” Howlaa said.