‘The Exile Gate’

Chapter 8: The Delta

by Duo Radon

Despondent and terrified, Wikus was helpless to take any action on their behalf and resigned himself to his Sugati's protection. The glowing crystal hanging from his neck cast a fleeting illumination upon the eel grass that zipped by beneath them. With the storm clouds blanketing the region, there could be no additional light from the moons and the rest of the man's field of view was black. A poleepkwa's acute night vision gave Yeen a fair idea of the lay of the land, but for Wikus, it was a completely surreal and disorientating jaunt. The explosion continued to ring in his ears and he couldn't seem to think of anything else but his beloved pill bug. The poor creature had skirted death as a baby only to find his end in the home of the very person who had saved him.

Yeen continued to flee at a full run until he found a suitable place to hide and catch his breath. He pounced into the cover of a small copse, pushing aside hanging vines and the tentacles of curious Nidu, and set his human on his feet beside the trunk of a large fungus colony. Before he spoke, the drone hastily doused the light of his Mahan band and dropped Wikus's flame inside his shirt, leaving their surroundings dark.

Wikus ignored the fact that he couldn't see a thing and addressed the spot where he knew his partner to be. "What the hell was that?"

"They know..." Yeen panted.

"Who?!"

"The Maj'....they know....we have the data..."

"I thought they were a 'peaceful race'?"

"Hush!" Yeen hissed, "There seems to be a lot we didn't know about them."

"So they tried to kill us?! What th- wait! What about everyone else?! The kids-"

"They're fine. We can't panic. They'll be okay, they were in Oolund....that place is crawling with soldiers. No one could get anywhere near them there...." Yeen placed his hands on the man's shoulders to reassure him. He had no way of knowing if he spoke the truth, but the worker did know that if he gave in to those fears, it would paralyze him and doom them both.

"We have to call them..." Wikus urged, feeling about for his comm link.

"No!" Yeen squawked, gripping the human's wrists. "You must not turn on your link, for any reason. Electrical transmissions can be tracked. Now....let me think....it won't take them long to figure out we weren't killed in the explosion..."

"I don't...get it..." Wikus muttered weakly. "With everything that's happened, how could Majhatughans even be allowed to enter poleepkwan space?"

"They wouldn't come, themselves. They'd send Horvoss."

"What are Horvoss?"

"Don't ask. Here's what we'll do....we're going to head for the Kaltu Delta..."

"You told me never to go there!"

"It's very dangerous, but that will make it difficult for them as well. We can't stay on the surface. I'll guide you...you must stay close to me, and don't speak unless you need to. Yes?"

Wikus nodded obediently. Yeen took his hand and wove through the tangle of Nidu with the man doing his best to trace his path. Eventually they stepped out into the open again and the drone set off at a pace he knew Wikus could match. The jog was made more difficult by the need to keep a hand clasped but the pair managed to fall into a rhythm.

Unaccustomed to this sort of prolonged physical activity, it wasn't long before a pain began to grow in the Earthling's side and his throat grew dry from gasping. Yet fear and adrenaline kept him running. Every so often, Yeen would veer to one side or another and dip into a forested spot to stop and rest. There was no sign of a pursuer, but perhaps as daunting, no sign of an ally, either. This far into the countryside, and headed towards a no-man's-land, air traffic was meager and ground traffic nonexistent. Yeen knew his partner couldn't keep it up indefinitely, but any path towards civilization would surely be watched. Leading them into danger might be the only way to safety.

After more than two hours of sprinting and pausing, Wikus staggered into another wooded outcropping and fell to his knees. "I can't....keep...going..." he gasped, wiping the sweat from his face.

"Just rest a bit," Yeen coaxed.

"No....man, I'm...I'm done. You'll hafta...go on without me..."

"No! Absolutely not."

"Look, I'll hide out....here....you make a run for it....bring back help..."

"You'll have to ride on my back," Yeen answered resolutely.

"No way! I'll just slow you down."

"If you stay, I'll stay with you. If I leave, you leave with me. I'll not leave you alone to die again."

"Ah...geez..." Wikus huffed, leaning against a Nidu. He couldn't see his friend but he could almost feel the drone's stern gaze. It was clear the issue wasn't open for debate.

For a few moments they sat quietly, catching their breath. Wikus could just hear the faint sound of rushing water over the chorus of nocturnal insects; they were close to the Kaltu. He didn't have the heart to ask Yeen how much further they'd have to go before they entered the delta, but a small part of him was deeply grateful that the worker was willing to carry him the rest of the way. His legs certainly weren't up to the task.

Eventually Yeen drew close, took Wikus's hand and helped him clamber onto his back in the dark. Then he stood without so much as a grunt and trotted out onto the rolling fields. Even clinging to his partner was somewhat of a strain for Wikus in his exhausted condition, but he gritted his teeth and attempted to keep his arms and legs from interfering with the drone's gait.

As they marched on, the sound of the river grew louder until it was roaring at their right side. Though the human couldn't see it, the sound effectively impressed the sheer size and power of the Kaltu. And another auditory clue told him their landscape was changing as well. Yeen's footfalls had taken on a gravelly crunch, his stride becoming slower and more deliberate. It was not just the force of the water that made this land treacherous.

The constitution of this region changed as it stretched out to the sea. The earth became sponge-like, peppered with loose rock. This made it very unstable and as the river coursed into it, the land was easily washed away. As a result, the Kaltu plummeted underground at the Delta Falls, then split numerous times and snaked its way through a labyrinth of tubes. Miles away it slid out into the ocean, bringing with it tons of coal-colored silt and creating the aptly named Black Bay.

Aside from the falls themselves, the surface of the delta was deceptively even. The eel grass and other Nidu created a living net, their root systems reaching two to three feet down and holding the top layer of the land together. It was impossible to tell from a visual inspection where the tunnels might be, and the net could easily give way at any point. A pedestrian might find his foot sunk into a shallow pothole, or he could simply plummet through the roof of a massive tunnel.

With a vast and sheltered environment fed by nutrient rich waters, the tunnels themselves housed their own unique ecosystem. Most of the creatures that inhabited this subterranean system were small and innocuous, but there were sizable predators in the river, a danger most of Patakatifu's natives were wise enough to avoid.

Yeen made every effort not to think of them as he carefully picked his way among the rocks at the river's edge, steadily descending into one of the delta's largest tunnels. Wikus didn't need to be told to tighten his grip. He could hear nothing but the tumult of the rapids growing hollow as they cascaded into the cavern. Cold mist dampened his skin and clothes, as if the Kaltu was reaching out to threaten him....you can't see me, but I can still kill you.

After a very tense climb, Yeen made it to a more level plane, and he began to move down the length of the enormous tunnel by clinging to the side. At last he reached what he'd hoped to find, a recess in the wall where a massive boulder had come loose and fallen away. It was just large enough to conceal them both and the fatigued worker scurried inside.

Just as grateful for the hideout, Wikus released his Sugati and huddled at the back of the nook, massaging his sore limbs. It was immediately apparent that they did not have the space to themselves; Wikus could feel the walls crawling with little arthropods. They tickled his skin with their feelers and began to crawl all over him, investigating their unusual visitor. Grumpily he brushed them off, but they were as persistent as mosquitoes in a swamp. After several minutes he could feel them in his hair, down his shirt, even poking into his ears and nostrils.

"What are we going to do?" Wikus moaned miserably.

"I...don't know..." Yeen confessed. "We could wait for Tarzier to find us by way of your tracking chip. But....first they'll need to figure out what happened to our house, then.....that we were home and not in Oolund with the others....then that we weren't killed in the explosion. No, I....I don't think I want to wait here and hope the right people find us first."

"So, what then?"

"Well, there is a military outpost at Black Bay. It's quite a trek, though...."

"If that's the only way, that's all there is to it," Wikus sighed.

"It is. Let's rest for a little while longer," the drone spoke quietly. He reached over to brush the annoying creatures from his human's face before pulling the man into his lap. Yeen wrapped his sturdy arms around Wikus, as much to comfort himself as his partner.

They sat in silence for half an hour, straining to hear any extrinsic noises over the river below. Wikus would normally have been sleeping soundly by this hour, a fact his weary body persisted in pointing out. The thought that they still had a long journey ahead only made him all the more pessimistic.

At last, Yeen released his cohort and removed the Ulu Mahan from inside his shirt. Wikus grimaced at the myriad of crawlies covering the walls and their bodies.

Warily, Yeen uncovered his crystals as well. "We'll have to be able to see," he explained. "I'll lead, and you must follow my steps very closely. Test each foothold before you put weight on it. It is imperative that we not fall into the water. You do remember what I taught you about the delta?"

Wikus nodded solemnly. "Good. Quietly, now," Yeen whispered, and he climbed out of the recess. Wikus followed, copying the drone's movements. Slowly the couple made their way along the cave wall like mountain climbers, sidestepping and keeping a keen eye on the raging river below. Every so often, the shape of the tunnel would turn to their advantage, providing a wider pathway and allowing them to properly walk forward. There were places that were not so kind, too, some of which Wikus simply couldn't negotiate without claws and powerful limbs. So periodically he would have to maneuver onto Yeen's back again and pray it didn't cause either of them to slip.

After several miles, the branch of the river began to flow more smoothly and the atmosphere quieted. The terrain diversified as well, with the Kaltu splitting off here and there. The river had been carving this maze for centuries and there were a few older tunnels that had emptied after the tributaries found more amiable paths. Yeen's sensitive antennae perceived something of interest and he led Wikus up into one of these dry tunnels.

The channel was just large enough for the human to stand upright, but it wasn't long. Several yards back it had suffered a cave-in at some point and the way was completely blocked. "We must be close to the surface," Yeen said quietly, "do you hear the rain?"

"I think so....but why did we come this way?"

"Look here," Yeen pointed at the wall as Wikus drew close. A trickle of rain water was seeping in from the storm somewhere over their heads. "It's clean enough. Drink."

Wikus acquiesced eagerly, collecting the rain water in his cupped hands and slurping it down. It tasted a bit muddy, but their excursion had left him both hungry and thirsty; it just felt good to take in something.

He'd only swallowed a few mouthfuls when an abrupt twitch of the drone's head diverted Wikus's attention. At the mouth of their tunnel, something large had poked its head into view. It was still for the moment, observing them, but Yeen's stiff body language told Wikus their hunter had finally caught up with them.

In a blink the beast scuttled into the tunnel and overwhelmed Yeen, flipping him onto his back. It was barely larger than the poleepkwa, but it was evident that its strength greatly exceeded Yeen's. The Horvoss's body had no texture, no reflection; it was so utterly black that it almost seemed to absorb the light. It had four identical limbs, lean and ropey, each ending in a widely splayed hand with exceptionally long, skeletal, talon-tipped fingers. Its head was puppet-like with no notable features except two white dots that Wikus took to be eyes and a set of elongated jaws full of little thorn teeth.

Yet it didn't seem interested in using those teeth. Its claws scraped against the carapace of its victim as Yeen struggled to fend it off. While a stunned Wikus watched, the monster began to emit a disgusting guttural noise, then its abdomen split open, large chunks of flesh pulling apart to expose a bright crimson interior. Bundles of wet innards descended from the Horvoss 's body like macabre party streamers. The instant they touched the drone's inert form, he screeched in pain.

The sickening cry was enough to snap Wikus out of his terrified trance and he scrambled to his feet. Feverishly searching the walls, he managed to locate a sizable rock and clawed at it until it came loose from the earth. Hefting the 40 pound stone, Wikus heaved it at the beast, striking it squarely in the side and tumbling it off of his partner.

Yeen struggled upright, but before he could gather his senses, Wikus had sprinted past him. The Horvoss was quick to recover, having already collected its digestive system, and turned to pursue its attacker. To Yeen's horror the human was overtaken, not by one Horvoss, but by two before he pitched himself and his assassins into the river.

Wikus managed to keep a lungful of air, though he was certain it was a futile effort. The monsters' claws and teeth easily cut him open, his innocent glowing crystal revealing his spilled blood in the murky water. He did his best to fight, but there were no more resources left to call upon, even if it had been a fair match. Wikus had no sooner resigned himself to death when the Mahan's light caught another unwelcome sight. Beside him, a huge set of jaws flashed in the hazy glow, lined with dagger-sized teeth. They snapped down on the Horvoss and ripped it away with a burbling shriek. Just as quickly the second assassin was also caught by an unseen predator, its powerful hands slicing through Wikus's flesh as it went. The Earthling lost his held breath in a pained howl before he, too, was captured.

Luckily, Wikus's captor was not interested in eating him. Yeen swiftly hauled the bleeding man out of the river and back into the empty cave. Once out of reach of the river's carnivores, the panicked drone laid his Sugati on his back. "Why did you do that?!" Yeen clicked despondently.

Wikus mumbled something unintelligible before he closed his eyes and fell unresponsive. Yeen looked him over carefully, shining the light from his wristband over the human's body. He was a bloody mess, but by no small miracle, none of the wounds seemed to have opened a main artery. The blood flow was smooth and even; nothing was coursing out in time with the beating of his heart. That certainly didn't mean Wikus would live, the worker was fast to realize. The shear number of lacerations were quickly draining the man of blood, and a particularly nasty gash in his lower abdomen was allowing a bit of intestine to poke through.

Hastily, Yeen tore apart the human's shirt and pants, forming bandages to hold the worst of the wounds closed. Then, with part of a pant leg, he tied the limp human to his back and scrambled to the cave-in. Yeen knew they would be sitting ducks in the open, but his only chance now was a flat out sprint towards the bay.

The drone began to frantically tear at the roof of the cave, clawing away rock, soil and roots. Eventually he could feel more rainwater pouring in, and then, daylight. When he'd widened the opening enough to fit them both, Yeen poked his head out into the ashen light of early morning. The rain was pummeling the field in sheets, making it impossible to get a feel of the land with antennae. All directions looked the same as Yeen staggered out of the hole; they were yet too far away from the shore to see the ocean.

What did catch his eye decided a route for him. Far to his right, Yeen could just see something inky slinking through the grass towards him, and he set off as fast as he could manage in the opposite direction. Weakened and carrying a passenger, he knew it was inevitable that they would be caught. Even through the storm, Yeen could feel the monster closing in until a white flash and a loud crack threw him forward onto the ground.

Heart pounding, Yeen struggled onto his elbow to look behind him. The gruesome jaws of the dead Horvoss gaped at him from a few feet away, its body burnt nearly to cinders. Yeen's first thought was that it had been struck by lightning in some incredible gift of chance until a two-person military cruiser skidded to a stop before him. An unfamiliar soldier hopped out of the passenger compartment, still wielding his weapon, and hurried toward the object of his search.

Spent, Yeen collapsed into the eel grass, ignoring the warrior's discourse. He didn't have the stomach to ask whether the human strapped to his back was still alive.

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