We pulled up at the main gate of the museum and I said goodbye to the driver, who nodded and drove away, swishing into the light flow of traffic. After announcing myself to the security guard, who looked me up and down and checked my weapons and licences, he called the curator, Harsh Briel. I groaned inwardly and knew I would have to get used to them staring at me. I was the real alien here in this world of giants. The smile he offered me as he shook my hand was no more genuine than Teesho Pretik’s had been, but he was a better actor. After thanking the security guard, he showed me to the staff accommodation block. I was delighted to find the room refitted to suit someone of my reduced stature, all except the bathroom, but at least I was able to pee standing up without having to stand on a box.
He handed me the key. “Would you like some time to relax before getting to work?”
I shook my head. I wanted to get this job done and get away to somewhere else, anywhere where I would not feel like the weirdo in the neighbourhood. I dumped my backpack on the bed and shook my head. “No thanks. I’d prefer to get straight on with it if that’s okay. The more time I waste, the less likelihood there is of me finding him. He’s already got thirteen days start on me.”
“Of course. Right, then let me show you to his department and introduce you to his staff.”
The museum building was huge and although I am not into history, some of the artefacts I saw on display were impressive and I could not help but ask him about them. He gave me a brief description, happy at my genuine interest in his culture. We climbed more sets of far too high stairs and my legs ached when we reached the fourth floor and home to the Research Department. As we climbed, he talked about Zaavi Dhilam and I asked him to tell me more about him. I hoped I was going to get the lowdown on the man at last, but he gave me the same sterile crap I already knew.
“He was extremely knowledgeable about our history, especially the ancient languages of Nahda. We were lucky to have him work with us here, he researched many of the artefacts, and much of what we know about the ancient Nahdans, came from his diligence and profound understanding. He spent hours studying texts and deciphering the inscriptions and scratches on the various items brought here. He really brought the ancient Nahdans to life for us.”
“So why do you think he would suddenly steal the sword and run off? You knew him well, what made him do it?”
“Surely that is what you are here to find out?” He gave me a sideways glance that I knew meant our conversation would go no further. “Ahh, here we are. This is Cristik Noya, Zaavi’s assistant.” I looked at the young man and saw his mouth flicker into a genuine smile. “This is Sam Sinclair from the Law Enforcement Agency. He is here to investigate Zaavi’s disappearance and bring us back the sword. I was just explaining how lucky we are to have someone as knowledgeable and passionate about our history as Zaavi is, and how surprised we all are that he would steal it and disappear like that.”
Cristik nodded, and I noticed a nervousness about his manner that told me he did not like Briel being around. “Yes Sir. Very lucky indeed.”
Briel turned to me and looked down his nose and into my eyes. “Well I will leave you in the capable hands of Cristik here. Let me know if I can be of any further help.” I watched him leave and noticed the expression on Cristik’s face as he too, watched Briel leave the department. The silent deep breath and subsequent sigh of relief, the quick glance up to the ceiling, all told me he was relieved when Briel left. This small gesture on the part of Cristik made my day. I smiled at the man in front of me and knew he was someone I might be able to rely on to tell me the truth. It was not until the door shut with a click that he relaxed and turned to me.
“I’m glad to meet you Mr Sinclair.” He held out his hand, which I shook. As I said, I am good at reading people and despite these Nahdans being very alien in appearance; I knew this person was an ally, so I opened up to him.
“Call me Sam, please. So tell me Cristik, just what is it that everyone is refusing to tell me?”
“Let’s go left.” I headed towards the open doorway. Zaavi came up behind me and I had just enough time to register that my foot had not found solid ground, before I felt myself falling. I yelled in surprise as empty air embraced me and I fell into the darkness below. My heart leapt in my chest as terror coursed through me, but my progress came to an abrupt halt as I found myself dangling from my right wrist, the handcuff cutting painfully into my skin. Zaavi grimaced as the sudden weight almost brought him down after me. Crying out with the effort, he leaned back into the wall, grabbed my wrist with his free hand and hauled me up. I shrank back into the wall, my chest heaving as terror washed over me.
I gasped in terror until I could talk. “Oh shit. Fuck.”
“Yeah, I agree.” Zaavi massaged his wrist.
“Thank you. I owe ya one for that.”
“I hope for my own sake I don’t make you repay the debt in the same manner.”
“Hell no, for fuck’s sake don’t fall off anything or we’re both screwed.”
“I’ll try not to. Unless of course you fancy uncuffing me now.”
“What? But then next time I fall, I might break my neck. Hell no, the cuffs just saved my ass. They’re staying.”
“Well at least let me suggest that while we’re down here in the dark, you let me go first.”
I nodded. “Deal. I’ve no problem with that at all.”
Zaavi described what he saw, and it did not make me happy. We were in a large oblong chamber, the only other door being several hundred feet away across a chasm that descended below the reach of even his sensitive eyes. A narrow ledge ran all the way around the walls, upon which both of us balanced, and joined with the door opposite.
My heart fell as I realised how we were to make the journey around the room. “So we shimmy our way around. Nice. Real nice.”
Zaavi peered into the gloom. “There is a problem with that.”
I almost laughed. “Why am I not surprised.”
“Halfway around the room, the ledge is partially blocked by a huge block of stone that sticks out from the wall. It’s the same whichever way around we go. I could make it, my legs are long enough to reach around, but I doubt that yours are.”
“This place was built for Nahdans Sam,”
I was about to nod in reply when a thought occurred to me. “But wait. The hologram is not a lot taller than me. We both commented on that when we first saw him. We agreed that your height must be a recent evolution. Remember?”
“Yeah, I remember. I can’t explain that, but since we can’t make it around the edge, we’ll have to cross the bridge.”
I gaped at him. “There’s a bridge? You got me all worried about shimmying around this ledge and all the time there’s a fucking bridge?”
“There’s a bridge.”
“And just when were you planning on mentioning that?”
He snapped back at me, his own anger raised by my own. “I just did.” I noticed an edge to his voice that I had not heard before. “But you won’t like it any more than you like this ledge.”
“Because it’s four inches wide.”
I stared at him, my mouth falling open in disbelief. I was lost for words and my mouth flapped, any effort at communicating my feelings was useless for many moments. Many thoughts raced around inside my head and for a while, everything was a blur as I waited for them to slow. I have been in tight spots many times and I recognise panic when it happens. I’ve learned over the years to stop, close my eyes, breathe, and wait for my mind to slow, so that I can think straight again.
When I felt the stillness within my head, I opened my eyes. “Okay, let’s think this through. We have a ledge that I can’t get round because it’s blocked, and we have a bridge that’s four inches wide but isn’t blocked.”
“Well I have no choice but to take the bridge.”
“I’d rather take the ledge. My size will not be my friend when I’m trying to balance on that tiny bridge.”
“I’m not going to walk across it. I’m going to sit astride it and scoot across like a girl. Undignified perhaps but I have a greater chance of staying alive.”
He sighed and nodded. “Okay. Let’s do that then. Anything rather than stand here till we fall asleep and fall to our deaths. Unless of course you want to go back into the labyrinth and take the other corridor.”
I considered it for a few moments before shaking my head. “No. This is the first, and maybe the only opportunity to get out of there and I don’t want to be walking those corridors forever. Let’s at least try to get across here before we give up huh? If it gets too dangerous, then we’ll consider going back into the labyrinth.”
We made our way back to the door and over to the bridge. I sat down and scooted my ass onto it. The cuffs binding our hands forced me to hold my right hand behind my back. This made me lean back slightly, which unbalanced me and I swore. “Shit. Okay look.” I reached for the key in my pocket. “You take the ledge if you want, but I can’t balance with my arm behind my back.”
“I won’t run away and leave you Sam, I give you my word.”
“I have little choice but to trust you.” I glared into his eyes, a nagging doubt filling my mind. There was no other choice but to uncuff him and hope he waited for me. It was so dark in there that I could not see to shoot him if he ran away, so I had to take the chance. His footsteps echoed in the chamber as he made his way back to the ledge for the difficult shuffle around to the door opposite. With a huge effort of sheer will, I forced my mind to forget him and concentrate on the task at hand. With great care, I shuffled my way onto the bridge on my ass. I did not care if I looked ridiculous; I was effectively blind and knew I would be doing the whole thing by feel. I heard Zaavi’s footsteps far off to my right as he shuffled along the ledge, and by the sound of it, he was making better progress than I was. Worry about being left alone encouraged me to try to hurry up but I almost lost my balance and panicked, my shouts echoing around the chamber as I slowed down.
“How are you doing Sam?” The acoustics of the room making his voice echo all around me.
“I’m okay now thanks. How far across am I?”
“Just over halfway.”
I was surprised and pleased. “Oh, that’s further than I thought. How are you doing?”
“I’m reaching the block now.”
“I can just about step round it. It’s huge, you’d never make it.” I heard a grunt, some scrapes and a sigh, so I guessed he had made it. Several times, I had to stop and rest, my whole body shaking with terror knowing a soul-chilling drop ached all around me. The narrow four-inch wide strip I was shuffling across was digging into my ass, but I did not dare try moving into a more comfortable position. Every so often, I had to open my thighs a little, as the fabric of my pants kept bunching up and pinching my balls as I shuffled. During this inelegant manoeuvre, I felt more vulnerable than I could remember in years, and several times wished I had tried the ledge instead. I even wished we had gone back into the labyrinth at one point, but knowing Zaavi would make it across without too much of a problem meant that I would be going back alone. There was no way I was going back into those endless corridors alone. I forced my mind back onto the task.
It felt as if I was shuffling across that bridge for hours before my knees knocked into the rock wall of the far side, and I was able to get up. I found myself on a ten-foot wide ledge, with the door facing me, and Zaavi absent.
I called out but got no reply. “Zaavi? Hey Zaavi.” Silence greeted my calls and I cursed aloud. My hunch had been right; the asshole had run off and left me alone.
I yelled into the dark, all the bottled up fear from my terror-filled journey across the room, spewing out at once. “You fucking asshole.” Fate had given me no choice but to let him out of the cuffs, I had known there was a good chance he would run off and leave me, and he did. Now here was I, all alone and trapped underneath a fusion reactor on a planet that was too poisonous to survive. Fuck you universe.
I was longing to stop and rest my legs, but the desire to get to safety, away from the snake and the flying things, was greater than my physical discomfort. I plodded on, and as we walked, I noticed Zaavi getting a bit ahead of me. If he ran off and left me alone now, I would not hesitate to shoot him for being asshole enough to do such a thing. At the same time, I felt annoyed with myself for being afraid of the snake, and for being so vulnerable down there in the dark.
“Hey,” I called as loud as I dare. My voice echoed around the chamber and he turned. “Wait for me would ya?”
“You could try and hurry it up a bit.”
I ran to catch him up. “Hey c’mon. Your strides are twice the length of mine, and you can see in the dark. Don’t be an asshole.”
“I’m not. It’s just that we really need to get out of here as soon as we can, and you’re slowing us down.”
“Well I’m sorry I’m being such a damned burden to you. I’m sorry I saved your sorry ass by completing those puzzles for you, but I’m more sorry that you were too stupid to do them yourself. Where would you be if I wasn’t here huh? Back in the labyrinth with a broken ankle and sobbing for the superpowers you wouldn’t be getting.” Zaavi put his hands on his hips and closed his eyes, trying to calm his rising anger. At once, I was back in the cavern with the tribe of primitive people and remembered what happened the last time we fought.
“Look, Zaavi, I’m sorry okay? That was rude and I apologise. I’m well aware of the dangers down here, and of my vulnerability. I guess I’m a burden to you but I do have value, I’ve proved it so far. Maybe that makes up for my shortcomings huh?”
“You have helped me out Sam, and I’m grateful. I guess I owe you for it, but don’t call me stupid, please.”
“I won’t. Let’s get going shall we? What the fuck is that noise?” The moment I asked the question, we both knew what it was. The slithering was getting louder and I knew without a doubt that the snake was getting closer. The acoustics of the chamber made it almost impossible to tell from which direction the sound came, and it was too late that I realised the snake was right behind me. I whirled around on one heel and we locked eyes. As we gazed at each other, I went cold to the bone. Time stood still as the cavern doubled in size around me and I shrank to a couple of inches high. The snake was no more than six feet away, its front rearing up into the air. I met its mesmerising gaze, saw the similarity with Zaavi’s eyes and presumed they shared a common ancestor. As my senses came back, I heard thudding footsteps that quickly faded into the distance. The asshole had run away and left me to fend for myself against a giant snake. Without me having to think about it, my mind switched from all-encompassing fear to naked survival instinct, and my shaking hand fumbled for my laser pistol. Panicking, I fought with the holster as the snake drew back its head, readying itself to strike. It was as I saw it thrust forward that I yelped in fear, dropped my pistol in sheer terror and fell to the ground, covering my head with my arms and hoping the end would be quick.