Stay in Touch
Jack was bored.
Daniel was deep in conversation with his walking pot of slime. Again. So Jack was playing Bowl & Pebbles. The material was easy enough to get. One bowl, carved out of a worm’s hide, amiably lent by their jelly-hosts. Pebbles of various shapes and sizes, maybe of various colours, found in the nearby lake. The rules were simple. Put the bowl somewhere in the room, not too far away. Throw the pebbles in its general direction, praying that one or two would land in it. Add a virtual blindfold for good measure, and there was your game of Bowl & Pebbles, trademark of the O’Neill and Jackson Company.
Jack was getting better at Bowl & Pebbles. He would beat Daniel silly if the kid ever found the time to play with him again.
Daniel was not bored anymore but he had been too, early on. They had tried to chat, joke and argue. It had seemed good enough, until they had realized that they always ended up talking about Carter and Teal’c. Trouble was, Carter and Teal’c were forbidden subjects. "They are fine," Jack had said, "and if they’re not there’s nothing we can do about it." Daniel had agreed. They had stopped talking.
Wrestling had been initiated by Jack. After all, they both needed a physical activity of some sort to stay in a shape that wouldn’t have Fraiser going ballistic on them. It also allowed Jack to check on Daniel’s health without being too obvious. The first time a bunch of surprised cave dwellers had hissed their worries at their two guests, thinking they were trying to kill each other. Daniel’s diplomatic skills had taken care of this little problem. The linguist was actually organizing a wrestling competition between the Jelly-men, an activity where Teal’c’s bigger brother would shine. Jell-o wrestling, he called it. The man was cracked.
Fishing barehanded had come later, a direct consequence of Daniel’s frequent dives. It was his idea, and a fine one at that, if awfully tricky. After many unsuccessful tries, they had managed to grab two fishes each, the best they had eaten in a long time. They had also ended butt in the water too often to count. Jack couldn’t go fishing alone. He tended to lose his bearings in open spaces.
The dark was slowly getting to him. Sure, he was able to walk around the room unaided. Most of the time, he knew exactly where Daniel was. For cryin’ out loud, he even knew where Hedlir was! But still, the permanent blackness felt oppressive.
So Jack was playing Bowl & Pebbles, and he was getting good at it.
"No." Daniel held the fish he had just cleaned out to Jack. When he wouldn't take it, Daniel shoved the food onto his friend's lap, his patience exhausted.
"Sushi time, Jack."
"Breakfast sushi, lunch time sushi or dinner sushi?"
"I can't remember." Daniel sat against the wall. "You know, I never thought I would say this, but I miss the MREs."
"So do I, Danny, so do I. Yummy. Can you picture that? Macaroni with chili…"
Daniel choked on a mouthful of fish, laughing. "Freeze-dried chicken and peanut butter…"
"… with marshmallows!" Daniel closed his eyes. He could almost smell the smoke from the camp fire, hear his marshmallow sizzle when he pushed it too close to the flames, watch as its colour changed from white to brown while he slowly turned the pointy stick.
Jack's laughter had died already, but his eyes were smiling. He was sitting at the opposite side of the fire, next to Teal'c. Daniel knew without looking that Sam was somewhere behind him, pouring herself a cup of coffee. "Sam, I'll have one as well, if you don't mind."
"Sure." She appeared at his side, holding two steaming mugs.
"Daniel?" Jack wasn't smiling anymore. If anything, he looked worried, for some reason Daniel couldn't fathom.
"It's fine, Jack. It's only my second cup tonight."
"Daniel, this is not funny."
Teal'c raised an eyebrow. He had grabbed a stick and was trying to roast three marshmallows at once. "Way to go, Teal'c," said Daniel, thumbs up.
"What now?" he snapped.
All of a sudden Jack was sitting in front of him, shaking him like there was no tomorrow. Where Sam and Teal'c had gone, he had no idea. Daniel was in awe. His friend's butt was in the middle of the flames. Surely it must be a bit painful? A marshmallow was melting down Jack's sleeve. Daniel giggled.
It was too darn hot here.
"Answer me, Daniel. Where are we?"
Too. Darn. Hot.
Someone had extinguished the fire. Probably Jack. It was stupid to sit in it in the first place. Their only source of light had died and it was his fault. How would they find their way to the Stargate if they couldn't see? As the leader of the team, he shouldn't forget those practical details, especially when they were stranded.
In a cave. "Skoukla?"
"Skoukla. That's it. You're back with me?"
"Oh god, Jack…" Daniel slid on his side, trembling. "I saw Sam and Teal'c. I saw them."
"No, you didn't."
"Maybe, maybe I didn't." Daniel was only sure of one thing. By kneading his arm, Jack was slowly grounding him to reality. "I'm back. I'm fine, Jack."
"You scared the hell out of me."
He could still smell the marshmallows.
Hedlir liked Nightbird.
Even as a little boy, the cave dweller had always been fascinated by the walls. From the day his grandfather had taught him how to read, he had known he wouldn’t become a worm hunter or a dam technician like most of the others.
So he had become an historian and a storyteller, translating the walls and the letters from the past to the flesh and feelings of the present. And when something really important happened -- like when the Queen had killed a worm single-handedly, an act of heroism that had cost her a leg -- he carved it on a wall, with the help of a sculptor who could also read a little. He wrote for his own pleasure, because he knew that his skill would soon become useless.
Less and less people knew the art of the letters since their skin had developed so much than they barely needed to communicate any other way. Hedlir had to admit that the present way was much more efficient. When he entered a room all the sensors in his skin attuned to the Others’, capturing thoughts, and moods, and stories.
But now two outsiders had come, and their skin was primitive and rough. They had refused contact to start with, and Hedlir had understood they were afraid. How wouldn’t they be?
He had observed them, his skin gathering information that travelled through the movement of air, through the heat and smell of their bodies. They touched each other, but not on the same level as his own people. They produced sounds, and that was probably their main way of exchanging information. Hedlir couldn’t make much out of it, though.
He was dozing when the childlike being had started looking at the wall. Swirling molecules of excitement had awaken Hedlir. He had known then that that was his chance.
He had waited until the sounds had grown stronger and faster, until the molecules of fear had become too weak to be relevant, until his own curiosity couldn’t hold him back any longer. And he had met Nightbird.
Convincing Jack to let him go after his little bout of hallucination had been tricky. Daniel didn't want to piss him off by staying away for too long. Skoukla was big. Hedlir was a talented guide, and he was fanatical about his city. Like many passionate people, he didn't know when to stop. Daniel, for once, was on the wrong side of this particular mirror. Hedlir kept urging him forward, leading him through flights of stairs, corridors and houses, when he really wanted to go back to his own small dark room.
They set foot on yet another plaza. The layout of the city was rather simple. A number of artificial islands were scattered on the lake. Perfectly circular, they were linked to each others by narrow bridges. The gigantic cavern in which the city was built had once been completely filled with water, and still would be if not for the action of powerful pumps that poured the overflow into dikes. Daniel had visited the main dam, a noisy, sturdy construction. The originality of the complex was that most dikes were located above the cave. The water could flow upwards.
"Sam would have a blast here," Daniel said to no one in particular, as he walked to another technological marvel. He had already met this particular contraption. They could be found on every island. The small, smooth domes were Skoukla's answer to central heating. Hedlir hadn't quite managed to explain to the visitor how they extracted water, warmed it, and released it into the air. As impressed as he was by the sheer complexity of the radiators, Daniel was disappointed. Their surface was not warm enough to cook a fish.
'When did your ancestors build all of this?' asked Daniel.
'After the exodus, of course. It took many generations to achieve this.'
'But the cave was flooded, right? Where did they live meanwhile?'
'In other caves. There was no comfort, and many died, but some choose to remain there. You are one of their descendants. One of the Lost.'
Daniel's mouth fell open. 'No, I'm not. I'm not from the caves.'
Hedlir hushed him by capturing his finger. 'Follow me. There is more to touch.'
Daniel rolled his eyes as he was led to a bulky tower. It was one of the many pillars of Skoukla. Without them, unsupported by water, the ceiling of the cavern would have collapsed long ago.
Daniel was coping well with the darkness, much better than Jack, who needed so much time to walk from the cot to the lake and back. Still, the long guided tour was stretching his tactile abilities to its limits. He missed the third step of the spiral stairs that encircled the building, only to be caught by the man he referred to as Teal'c's bigger brother.
"Thank you," he said. He stopped Hedlir, and asked: 'Who is Other behind me? I want to thank him for saving me.'
'He feels your gratitude. He is called Iskur.'
The Strong One. That was pretty accurate. 'He is often with us.'
'Yes. He is the one you hurt.' Hedlir paused, his finger still resting on the bridge of Daniel’s nose. 'He feels you are sorry, so don't feel bad about it. He is curious about you and Leader.'
Daniel gasped. He wasn't quite expecting that. He climbed a few steps before stopping Hedlir again. 'Iskur is a very forgiving person.'
'We attacked you first,' wrote Hedlir. 'We understand that you were only defending yourself. We had to get you into Skoukla, or you would have died. You didn't understand us, so we forced you here.'
'We would have died?'
'You would. You didn't exactly choose the best time to visit the higher dikes. Now come with me. Here is my home.'
Hedlir nudged Daniel into a room cut in the tower. Daniel could sense the presence of two other persons. Their breathing indicated that one was standing somewhere on his left, while the other one was sitting on the ground to his right. He walked to the first person. Upon touching her face he realized she was female. Her pendant, a triangle whose edges had been softened, felt pretty.
'Who is she?'
'My wife,' explained Hedlir.
A few careful steps led him to the second person. He sat cross-legged in front of the stranger. Hedlir caught his hand and placed it on two chains, before guiding it to the pendants. Daniel recognized them as copies of Hedlir's and his wife's.
'Your child?' Daniel asked for confirmation.
The little girl couldn't be more than three, assuming these children grew at the same rate as human ones. Her skin didn't feel as squishy as her parents'. If the aliens' layer of jelly was indeed their main medium of communication, then she was lost in this world as much as he was.
Daniel turned towards Hedlir. 'Her skin is different.'
'She is still very young.'
The child was touching his face. She giggled when she brushed Daniel's raspy cheek.The crystal laughter was a refreshing sound.
She was small and helpless. That Hedlir let him, a clumsy creature, go anywhere near her was the most beautiful mark of trust Daniel could have imagined.
Teal'c leaned over the aquarium and dropped a little pinch of food into the clear water. The fish eagerly converged to the top, their fins jiggling. Their colours, from the purest gold to scintillating blue, were amazing, as was the variety of their shapes. Some were sturdy, other frail, all were fascinating. But all Teal'c could see was the turmoil that followed their wake.
The Jaffa, former Prime of Apophis, who had been a warrior for almost as long as a human lifespan, backed off, scared by a dozen tropical fish.
"Teal'c? Is something wrong with the fish?"
"The fish are well, Major Carter. I, however, am feeling unwell."
The memory was too recent. The image of tumultuous water was something he could do without. Hands holding his stomach, he shambled to Daniel Jackson's sofa.
Major Carter sat at his side and took his hand. "Do you want me to call Janet?"
"That will not be necessary. I am not sick. I am unwell."
"They are too close," whispered Jack. "Can you tell jelly-boy that I find them just a tad too familiar?"
'Touch no Leader', wrote Daniel on Hedlir.
No, not sick. Sickness. Or, even better: "creating sickness". Too bad he couldn’t remember how to spell these words. It was too late anyway. Hedlir had passed on the information to the others through his skin. Daniel could almost feel the tremor as the cave dwellers moved once more. And slowly other hands came, squeezing his left arm. More hands on his shoulders, on his back, on his neck. Hands that loomed towards Jack, a moment before.
Hedlir was tracing new words on the archaeologist's forehead. 'I am sorry for Leader. You're not sick?'
"Damn. There’s a slight misunderstanding here."
The linguist closed his eyes. He couldn't mistake this tone. Jack was worried. "I can handle this."
Hedlir reiterated his question. 'You're not sick, are you?'
'No, I'm fine.'
"Daniel, are they still on you?"
Okay. Make that worried and pissed. Daniel winced. "Yes."
"Push them away."
"No! I need to communicate with them. They’ll show us the way out."
"They make you sick."
"Have a break, at least. And that’s an order."
Daniel often managed to slide out of Jack’s protective clutch while he slept. He never went far, and didn’t need to. Hedlir was always waiting. Hedlir, and Others behind, who kept touching every bit of their conversation.
Those times when Jack slept, he and Hedlir talked about anything they could think of. Tales of kings and queens, of hunts and feasts, of simple men who shared a bond with plants. They laughed a lot, too.
Those times when Jack slept, Hedlir was always the one to put an end to their conversation. Then Daniel knew that Jack would wake up soon. Silently, he entered the water and washed before sneaking back to his companion. He put Jack’s hand back on his knee, on his wrist or on his neck, back wherever it was before. And he waited, peering into the blackness in the hope of catching a glimpse of his new friend, a glimpse that would not be an hallucination.
Daniel suspected that Jack knew.
"Crap. This kind of teamwork is crap."
"One of us has to chat with those guys," Jack started .
"… And one of us has to keep sane."
O’Neill heard his friend walk out of the water. Funny how it had become easy to know where Daniel was. He could pick Daniel’s breathing out from among the hundreds of other creatures… people… without a problem. "You’re clean?"
"Yup, I think so."
"Come closer, then." Jack waited for his friend to sit down beside him. "What did you learn this time?"
"You really want to know?"
"Let me guess. History?"
"I don’t care about history if it doesn’t help us out of here!"
"I’m trying, you know. But every time I say we want out, the others just grab me by the shoulders and throw me in the water!"
Jack frowned. "Are we prisoners?"
"I don’t know. Do you think so? Hedlir told me they just wanted to help us. I’ve never really asked."
"Well, ask, then!"
Daniel shifted, and Jack knew he was hugging his knees. "I'm sure if I could talk with Hedlir alone, he would understand. But the others never leave us."
"But how do they understand you? I thought only Hedlir could read."
"Through their skin, and the air. They are linked to each other, it's virtually telepathy. I'm sure Sam could explain this."
As Daniel was speaking, something unexpected happened. Daniel slapped Jack. Once. Hard.
"I'm not a punching bag, you know."
"I’m sorry, I said. I didn’t do it on purpose!" He hit Jack a second time, on the shoulder. "Sorry. I can’t control it. Well, I can, but not all the time. I mean, it’s exhausting. But it’s nothing important."
"Swell." Jack grabbed Daniel's wrist. He felt for his pulse and was only mildly surprised to note that it was racing.
"As long as I’m okay while Hedlir is around…"
"Oh, so you don’t mind if I end up with a black eye and bruises everywhere, as long as the slug is fine?"
"If you didn’t insist on sticking to me like glue, that wouldn’t happen!"
Jack counted to three. The anger made it hard to keep in mind that Daniel was not really himself. His mind was affected by the aliens' poisonous skin as much as his body was. Daniel grew weaker by the hour. Jack admired his stubborn persistence. He kept going, no matter what.
Time and again he would find Hedlir. Get poisoned, then throw up. Rinse, and repeat the process as soon as possible.
Daniel still believed his method would get them somewhere. Somewhere on the other side of the Stargate, preferably. Jack was not so sure, but Daniel had proved him wrong more than once. He unclenched his fists and placed his hands on Daniel's shoulders. "It's getting worse."
"I know. I'll be fine."
"That's enough." He shook his finger in front of Daniel's nose. "And before you complain, I just want you to take a break. When you start feeling better, we'll see what we do. We may try to find a way out on our own."
"I've visited the place, Jack. I've searched the whole lake for a tunnel. I didn't feel an exit."
"Ta ta ta! Newsflash, Daniel. We've already had this conversation." Plan B had a couple of weaknesses, Jack was well aware of it. It still was a possibility, and he wouldn't allow Daniel to scratch it out so easily. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, I just want you to have a break."
"Until I feel a bit better, right? OK. I'll have to tell Hedlir, though."
Jack tapped Daniel on the arm. "Say goodbye on my behalf, Nightbird."
SG2 stepped on the ramp, pushing the worn-out MALP down.
"Major," stated Hammond.
"The mission went smoothly, Sir," Coburn replied.
Hammond nodded and dismissed the team. Smoothly. He could tell from the men's exhausted look that this wasn't the most accurate term to describe their short trip on P8J-453. The MALP had been buried in the mud for nearly three weeks. It couldn't have been fun to cart it back to the gate in dismal weather.
The General climbed heavily back to his office. He sat at his desk, and pushed away the pile of paperwork he should have gone through the day before. He picked up the black phone. He dialled a number without having to check his address book.
"Ms. O'Neill? General Hammond."
"*General?*" He closed his eyes. Her panicked tone told him that she had already guessed what this call was about.
"I am sorry, Ma’am. Jonathan O'Neill… Jack is missing, Ma’am."
Hedlir settled down in front of Nightbird, his muscles tense with anticipation and fear. He had observed the two outsiders for hours, forgetting to sleep and eat. He had grown used to their breathing, to their smell, to the sounds they made. He never touched Leader, but he kept a feel on him. He kept a feel when Leader locked Nightbird into his grip, when he helped him out of the water, when he wrestled with him on the floor.
Hedlir straightened, blocking his emotions inside his body. He was a wall. He had to be. Already the other cave-dwellers were gathering around him, eager to learn more about the aliens. They were always here, taking part, touching him or sitting close by. It was enough to gather all sorts of information. They couldn’t read Nightbird, but they certainly could feel him. He was no wall to raw emotions.
Hedlir had to be the wall for both.
'Is fine Leader.'
A soft sound came from Nightbird. 'Is fine Leader,' he confirmed.
Of course he was. Hedlir held his breath, forcing his thoughts inside, beneath the layer of skin that would give them away. Questioning fingers poked at his side. They didn’t understand his silence, and they wanted to know. But Hedlir couldn’t tell them, not yet. He tensed, struggling to stay a wall for a bit longer. 'Is fault mine. Sorry.'
'Is fine not you. Sorry.' He had lapsed back into what he thought as baby talk. There was too much going on at the same time for him to handle grammar properly.
With great care, Hedlir’s hand was grabbed and put away from the other man’s forehead. Nightbird’s movements were slow, and Hedlir knew that he was fighting to keep control of his body. That much was obvious even to the Others. They thought that the aliens' clumsiness was a normal occurrence because they felt so primitive. But they didn't know that Leader’s hands were not shaky. Leader was not sick.
Hedlir knew better.
So that was it. That was the end of their dialogs. If Hedlir kept on reading Nightbird it would probably kill him. He couldn’t accept that, even if the Others were too curious to care.
Suddenly Nightbird hugged him.
"No, don’t! The wall. You’re breaking the wall."
Ah. Stupid. He wouldn’t be able to understand that, would he? They could only communicate with the language of the forehead. His skin was so archaic. Hedlir winced, trying to escape Nightbird’s strong grip. The wall was so thin now. But no! Wait! Nightbird… What was he trying to tell? No, not so primitive finally. By Hemera, how was it possible? Oh, he had to make this wall stronger, he didn’t want the Others to know. Hedlir passed his arms behind the man’s back, completing the embrace. The wall. They were a wall.
"I’m fine. I’ll be fine."
"Why are you so sick?"
"It’s your skin. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not your fault."
"How can it not matter? How can it not be my fault?"
"It's nobody's fault. Don't worry. Leader won’t let me down. "
"I don't want this to be true! I'm hurting you. We can’t go on reading each other."
"Yes we can. Lots of questions. Things to share. I'll rest and I'll come back."
"I’m killing you."
"No you’re not. I’m very hard to kill. Leader says so."
There was another meaning here, a fondness Hedlir could feel. The wall cracked in a smile.
Nightbird broke the embrace to crawl in the water.
Jack hugged the wall to the lake. He sat, feet in the water. "You're okay there?"
"I'm not feeling too well."
Aiming in the general direction of his friend's voice, Jack held out his hand. Daniel immediately seized it to haul himself up. "Not too well in what way?" Jack asked as a grunting Daniel huddled against him.
"My legs feel weak."
"The ankle? There's nothing wrong with it. Jack, I feel dizzy."
Daniel's breathing was shallow. Jack put his hand on his friend's neck, only to find that his head was weirdly twisted backwards. Daniel was quivering. He grunted again when Jack settled himself behind him to support him. "I'm here. Don't worry."
He was startled by the sudden spasm that seized Daniel's body. Jack laid him on his side and locked his head between his hands, all the while trying to avoid being hit by his jerking limbs. The smell of urine informed him that Daniel had lost the control of his bladder.
It didn't last long. Daniel stopped twitching as abruptly as he had started. Jack cleaned the unconscious man before carrying him back to the cot. Then he cradled him in his arms, waiting.
Daniel was awakened by a slimy hand skimming his arm. Hedlir. What was he doing here? His friend was too respectful to disturb him without a good reason.
'What is it?' Daniel asked as quickly as he could.
'Hurry. Alone. Others are celebrating a birth.'
Daniel’s heart started pounding like mad. That was his chance. 'Hedlir, we need out.'
'Why? Skoukla!' Skoukla. Home. The sacred asylum. No wonder Hedlir was surprised.
'We need sun.'
'Sun kills.' Hedlir's skin was exuding concern. Daniel didn't need any telepathic skill to understand that Hedlir cared.
'You unlike us,' replied Daniel, remembering what the alien had told him the first time.
He saw, clearly saw, Hedlir's smile. It didn't matter if it was nothing more than an hallucination. Hedlir's chuckle matched his grin, and that was all the proof Daniel needed. He looked at him, at the eyeless features, at the translucent pinkish skin, at the dark veins smearing his arms. He saw a friend.
"What? Daniel, what’s this noise?"
"Nothing, Jack. Just a private joke."
'I will ask Queen,' Hedlir assured him, still smiling from ear to ear, before disappearing in the dark.
"I thought you were asleep,” Jack grunted.
"Home," Daniel replied.
He barely felt the water poured on his head, nor the calloused hand that rubbed out the jelly. He was already asleep, dreaming of his very own Skoukla.
The one-legged woman hopped along, supported by Iskur. Hedlir carried her crutches. As much as she hated these instruments, she would need them later, for she might have to come back on her own. She felt a pang at letting the Primitives go. Everybody had hoped that they were the children of the Lost. Nightbird, speaking through Hedlir, had told her otherwise.
It was her responsibility to believe him, if only to make up for the mistake her people had made, centuries ago, back when Hemera was Queen. They hadn't listened to their Nightbird because he was different. He was the first cave dweller. When they had followed him, and accepted to be changed by him, it had almost been too late.
The little group reached the end of the dam. Nightbird had to stop Leader, who hadn't noticed they had arrived. Queen smiled bitterly as Leader noised his frustration by pounding on the wall. She understood. She felt the same way. Crippled.
"How is Leader going to survive outside?" she asked Hedlir. "He can't even find his way in here."
"I think he will be fine."
She took the crutches he was handing to her. "I'll go with you. I'll guide them out of Skoukla."
Iskur brushed her shoulder. "You can't come with us. We will take the ancient vertical tunnel. All the upper dikes are flooded and they cannot breathe well in the water."
Of course. Every time the worms bred, they had to empty the lower dikes and send water upward to keep their offspring from sneaking in Skoukla. Last time the dam technicians had been late. One creature had come in unnoticed. It had grown quietly, hiding in the recesses of the lake. Finding and killing this worm had changed her whole life.
"I don't like that. Be careful. The worms have finished mating, but all of them haven't gone to sleep yet. Don't follow my example."
"Will it or not, you are exemplar. Your courage is praised by all, Queen," the strong hunter objected.
"Courage on one leg doesn't achieve much, my friend." She kissed him and Hedlir. They were good men, and if she was to lose them…
Skoukla would have to find another Queen.
Daniel had lost the count after the first hundredth riser. From what he could hear below, Jack was panting just as much as he did. Iskur, who was leading the way, and Hedlir, who was trailing the march, seemed to do just fine.
"How… long?" asked Jack.
"Hedlir is… behind you. I can't… I can't ask…"
Iskur stopped. Something was up there, and as Daniel was telling Jack not to move, he could feel it as well. It was silent and sneaky, and he wouldn't have noticed if Iskur hadn't backed up a couple of rungs to allow Daniel to touch him.
He clasped his hand on the alien's ankle to observe the animal sliding on the vertical walls of the narrow tunnel. The size of a wolverine, it was much smaller than the gigantic worm he had seen outside. It was one of the offspring. As such, it was a dangerous beast.
The hungry wyrmling was creeping up on the four men. Its stench made Daniel dizzy. Nobody moved, nobody breathed. They were waiting.
Iskur's attack was swift. He propelled his right arm upwards and impaled the beast with a sharp weapon Daniel had been unaware of until now. The worm fell down and bounced past the men. It shrieked all the way down the hole, landing with a barely audible thud.
"What happened exactly?" asked Jack.
"Iskur killed a worm."
"Well, I'm sure glad you didn't off the guy."
Iskur shook his ankle free and quickly climbed the remaining risers. He pushed a trapdoor open. Daniel followed him into a wide, almost horizontal gallery.
"Hey, the ladder is gone!"
"Give me your hand." Daniel helped Jack up. They both dropped to the ground, exhausted. Hedlir closed the trapdoor. Daniel noticed how fresh the place was now that the heated air column couldn't reach it anymore. "We are out of Skoukla," he said.
He had mixed feelings about this. They were still underground. The smell was different, though. Musty and stale, it reminded him of digs in South America, in temples colonized by trees. That didn't worry him. But there was another scent, rampant and meaty. Daniel recognized it. This tunnel belonged to a worm.
Daniel lifted his head, inviting Hedlir to converse with him.
The cave dweller got the hint. 'We need to part ways.'
He'd been afraid of that. He could sense that they were not far from the surface. None of them could be certain where the tunnels ended. For all they knew, the worms' pounding might have caused it to collapse halfway through, allowing deadly sunlight in.
'Thank you for coming this far.' He managed not to tremble while writing, but he didn't think he could hide his fear from Hedlir.
'You will make it. You will find your Skoukla.' Hedlir paused. 'Will you stay in touch with us?'
'I would like to. I've bet a fish that Iskur would win the wrestling tournament, I want to feel that!' They laughed, and so did Iskur. 'But…'
'But. I know.'
Daniel winced when Hedlir broke contact with him. A few seconds later, the cave dweller passed a cold chain around his neck. The sun-shaped pendant, still covered with warm jelly, contacted with his chest. Daniel wrapped his left hand around it.
'This I give you to be your chain so that we can stay in touch.'
'Thank you.' Daniel removed his dog tags and passed them to Hedlir. 'Take care, my friend.'
They shook hands, yet another thing Daniel had taught him. He was about to do the same for Iskur when the hunter grabbed his wrist in his usual rough manner. Daniel's right hand was forced open to receive another object. Not a bullet, like the first time. Daniel closed his fingers around a notched handgrip. It fitted nicely in his palm. A short stick protruded between his index and middle finger. A blade was attached to the stick. Daniel traced its contour with his other hand, registering its triangular shape and the sharpness of its edges. It was thin without being fragile, and Daniel was sure it could penetrate most organic surfaces without damage. "Nice."
Iskur slapped Daniel on the back, and before he had time to recover his breath, the trapdoor opened and closed again. They were gone.
"I take it it's time to go?" asked Jack, his voice softened by the lack of echo.
"Up. Always up."
"I hate to break it to you, Danny-boy, but this tunnel is flat."
Daniel wiped his left hand in the mud. He poked at Jack's side and walked past him, following the slight slope he only could feel.
It was still as dark as before. The tunnel had narrowed to the point that they had to crawl and shoulder their way through. Jack found the task strenuous. Mud fell on him, filled his mouth, weighed on his back, threatening to bury him alive. He could barely hear Daniel anymore. Within the heavy soil the sounds were muffled and eerie.
"Come on, Jack. There's a bit more room over there."
He kept going, pushing aside the stones Daniel had disturbed. The cramped passage kept closing in on him, and he found himself fighting for air, unable to move, his chest compressed by the walls. Daniel was a fool if he believed they would survive. This would be their tomb.
Without warning, Daniel grabbed one of his hands and pulled. Somehow, he had managed to turn around, a feat no grown man could possibly accomplish in such a small space. "Daniel, is that you?"
The contortionist pulled harder, and Jack tumbled forward. He landed flat on his stomach, right on top of Daniel, forcing a grunt of pain out of him. Jack sat back on his knees, noting in amazement that there was enough space for that. "You OK?"
Daniel spat and coughed.
"Daniel? Did I hurt you?"
"No," Daniel spat once more. "You just crushed half a dozen of my ribs, that's all. Why the hell did you stop? You in love with the place, or what?"
Jack closed his eyes. He liked to think that he had been holding his own extremely well thus far. First in the tunnel where they had been stuck with the big worm. He had managed to free Daniel from the monster's jaws, despite the stench, the darkness, and the quakes. Then they had fallen, and they had been brought into Skoukla. With no light whatsoever.
He had cared for Daniel when he was sick or out of his mind, keeping his own nightmares and fears at bay. He had waited patiently while the blackness devoured him. Jack had been so close to giving up at times. Like when his watch had died, and when Daniel had voiced his hallucination, or when he had convulsed. Unwanted memories rose, dragging him back to a cramped cell in a foreign country.
At least Skoukla was big, and his unwilling jailors had proven to be nice men, if a bit clueless. Now, with this tunnel closing on him, the fears came back with a vengeance. He had failed. He was stalling on the finish line.
Daniel was stirring stale air under Jack's nose. The younger man was skittish. Recent events had taught Jack that this was a sign of trouble to come. He had to put an end to his mournful cogitation now if he still wanted a chance to reach him. "What's up, Daniel? You won't deny an old man a well-earned break, will you?"
"I'm sorry, I didn't think you were tired."
"Because you're not?"
"Yeah. Yes, I suppose I am, too. I, I think we should…"
Jack knew Daniel couldn't go on. Oh, he sure would, given half the chance. But soon his odd behaviour would be completed by a nasty physical reaction. Nausea if they were lucky, seizure if they were not. Jack preferred for it to happen where he had some room to assist his friend, rather than in a narrow passage. He had to stall for time. "Where are we?"
"Why, in a worm tunnel! Isn't it obvious? Can't you smell it?"
"Yeah. They could use some breath mints. Are there any around?"
Jack snorted. "Worms, silly!"
"I don't know, I'm not a frickin' seer!"
It was quickly getting worse. Jack tensed when he felt something sharp scrape his chest. Fighting to keep his voice calm, he asked: "You've got a weapon?"
"Yeah. Iskur gave me his knife."
"Be careful with that, kiddo. You don't want to put one of my eyes out, do you?"
"Sorry, sorry, sorry," said Daniel. He stopped flailing his arms around. Instead, he started snapping his fingers. It was just as unnerving.
Jack's options were limited. Massages were what worked best to ground Daniel. Unfortunately, Jack didn't dare to touch him, since he was armed. He would have to talk him out of it this time. "Hallucinations?"
"Oh, yes. You remember, the Limvris killed by Machello's bugs? They are right here, all nine of them. It's a bit crowded. MacKenzie would like that."
"I bet he would. But I'm not going to spill the beans." Jack wasn't lying. He would make sure that Daniel wasn't sent to the shrink this time. Not until he was cured of the poison that fogged his mind. If he was still nuts by then… No. He would be fine.
"You don't want to tell him?"
"He'll have to kill me first."
Daniel chuckled. "You won't talk if you're dead!"
"See? There's nothing to worry about."
"They scare me, Jack. I think they are not real, but…"
"You know they are not real," he corrected, insisting on the word 'know'.
"We should go," said Daniel, abruptly switching the subject of conversation. "I'm ready."
Jack listened to the regular brisk sound Daniel was making with his fingers. Carefully, he held out a hand and, after a bit of searching, touched his friend's neck. His pulse was so strong and fast Jack didn't need to find a vein to feel it. The heat of his skin was striking in this chilly tunnel.
"You're not ready. I need a break, too," said Jack. He leant back against the wall and closed his eyes. "Better here than in the tunnel."
"It looks like a crossroads. I've searched the place while you were stuck. There are four other tunnels going from here."
"Sweet. How do we know which one to take?"
"Trust me on this. I know. One smells different."
Jack pondered on this new information. Daniel's freaky abilities came in handy, but he still didn’t like them. They came with too many side effects. At least he seemed quieter. He probably wouldn't convulse this time. Jack heard him shift to lay on his side, like always when he was coming down. He would be back on all fours in a minute, when the stomach cramps became too painful.
"Eency weency spider…"
Daniel had nothing left to heave. The acid taste of bile filled his mouth. His body felt hollow, and still the spasms wouldn't stop. Daniel was grateful for Jack's hand rubbing his back. He was aware he hadn't been his usual sunny self recently, but Jack had remained at his side despite his snarly remarks.
A subtle change in the draughts raised goose bumps on Daniel's skin. Unable to move or talk, he felt the newcomer glide into the chamber from the third tunnel. Daniel tightened his grip on the blade, glad he hadn't dropped it when the hallucination had overcome him. The slithering creature crept closer. Daniel was certain it had noticed them. He had to warn Jack.
He gasped for air. His attempt to talk ended up in a gurgle, followed by more retching.
"Calm down, Daniel. I'm here."
'You don't understand. God, Jack, look behind you! It's coming.' Tears of frustration and pain welled in his eyes. Crying was not going to help. He had to pull himself together now.
The young worm bunched like a coiled spring. Helpless, Daniel witnessed it leaping on its prey. He called his friend's name, too late. Jack screamed as the needle-sharp teeth sank into his flesh.
Daniel's blood froze. He whirled and threw himself at Jack, sending both of them to the ground. The creature hissed. Daniel could feel it underneath him, wriggling where it had bitten into Jack's right thigh. That was all the information he needed. He pushed himself back into a sitting position and thrust his hand downwards. Blood spurted on his face, and for one excruciating second, he wasn't sure of who or what he had stabbed.
The worm shrieked in agony.
It was dead. He had killed it. Jack was growling and swearing, but he was alive. Dizzy with relief, Daniel crawled to a clean place and dropped to the ground. He had killed it. Alone. With a blade. A worm. He was a worm hunter. Hedlir wouldn't believe him if he told him.
"Don't call me like that. God that hurts!"
"You know what they say? The night bird catches the worm." He cackled. "The night bird, you hear me?" He was vaguely aware that he sounded like a nervous wreck. The hysterical bouts of laughter building up in his body erased this uncomfortable perception. "Nightbird!"
"Now calm down, all right? Listen to me."
Daniel wiped his face clean. "Where's Hedlir?"
His thoughts were fuzzy for the most part. Somehow, Leader was afraid because of him, and he didn't know why.
He had done something wrong, just when Leader needed him most. Nightbird grunted, digging in the soil with Iskur's blade. He wouldn't fail his friend anymore. He would get them out of here. Leader's Skoukla was at the end of this tunnel. He just had to make it a bit wider before they could crawl to safety. That, at least, was clear in his mind.
Nightbird shivered. The temperature was distinctly cold. The thin trail of fresh air he used as a guide smelled like mushrooms and leaves. He knew he used to like this particular odour, and that's why he trusted he was on the right track. Behind him Leader smelled like blood and fear.
Jack had to crawl on his back. The dead worm was attached to his thigh, its jaws locked in death. Mud thrown from above splashed on his head.
"Daniel!" Jack kept calling at him, kept talking to him, even though he wasn't answered back. Daniel was hiding somewhere in his shell of flesh and soil. He didn't know when, but Jack would get him out of his prison.
"How's it going, Cave Monkey? See the light already?"
Daniel didn't acknowledge his new nickname. He frantically kept throwing more mud Jack's way. Jack was in turn getting rid of it as fast as he could. Daniel stopped only to kick him in the shoulder. This was the signal. Jack tried to slide upwards.
The texture of the ground had changed. The mud had lost density and gained pieces of woods, small bugs and humidity. The tunnel, fortunately, was still holding its own. Its structure was compact. The walls were as cold and hard as if they were made of metal under a fine layer of loose dirt.
"It's not a wormhole, is it? What do you think it is? A secret jelly-guy-duct?"
Jack focused his attention on the various sounds originating from Daniel. None of them was a voice. There were an assortment of grunts, hisses and spits. The snapping of roots being torn off. Crunching from the earth being stabbed at. Rustlings from a body moving in the soil.
At last Daniel's fist slammed against the ceiling. Stones and debris clattered down the hole, followed by a gust of fresh air.
Jack cheered in victory as light poured in the tunnel.
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