Renn takes as long to scout around the area as he can justify, trying to force Renci to get some rest. It works for a while, but since he has remained in comm range, she is able to start requesting status updates once her head clears a bit more. He returns to their landing site with a couple sprigs of a plant he found that has an invigorating smell reminiscent of peppermint. Renn’s assessment is that it contains a caffeine-like substance and could work as a stimulant if chewed. The raw form might have some mild side effects—it tastes much worse than it smells—but it could be useful in a pinch. Renci places her half in a vial and puts it in her backpack. She is still feeling run-down, but it is more important to give the Rebel scientists a sample to refine than for her to be full of energy right now.
Renn pockets his half, so that it is available to use or to administer to Renci if she overexerts herself. Sure enough, she is dragging herself to her feet and insisting that they get moving. She heads over to Volay, who slowly turns his head to regard her. “Take it easy, pal,” she reassures him. “None of that was real. You ready to fly again?”
Without the tack, riding the azurdactyl is a much different experience. They need to carry all their own gear and focus very much on staying mounted. Renn tries to guide Volay to Renci’s cave of interest, but before long, it is clear that the creature is just as worn out from the shimmer toxin as Renci is. Plus, Volay has been carrying two riders, something to which he is not accustomed. They set down at a smaller cave entrance farther down the mountain than their target. The overland route up to it is impassable without gear. As they dismount, Renn turns to Renci. “So, this is what we have ta work with,” he says, gesturing at the tunnel ahead.
Renci figures that the two caves are physically close enough that there is a reasonable hope that the two systems will join. “Well, maybe this connects to that. You up for a little spelunking?”
Volay slithers into the cave along with them and curls up just inside the entrance. It is not his roost, but he makes himself as comfortable as he can. Renn gives him a pat on the snout and gets his hand licked in response. “Get some rest while we’re gone. We’re still goin’ ta need yer help gettin’ back down ta the forest after all this is done.” Volay licks Renn’s hand a second time and then closes his eyes to sleep.
Renci stands there, staring into the cave. Renn figures she is trying to summon the energy to get started. “Did ya want me ta go first?” he asks, giving her an excuse for her hesitation.
“No.” She snaps herself to alertness and pulls the general purpose scanner out of her bag. “But maybe have your rifle out.”
Renn points out that the Czerka is rather loud and it might attract more problems than it solves in the cave system. After some discussion of the types of creatures they are likely to encounter, he slings the assembled rifle and over his shoulder so that it is available if needed, and he keeps the quieter tranq gun in hand. The sedative worked well enough against the garrix that attacked Volay. He nods his head at Mira, and she settles on his backpack.
They head in, Renci leading the way through the twisting tunnels, Renn carefully modulating his pace to match hers and give her space. She keeps her scanner out to search for ways upward, the dim glow of its screen providing their only light. Their eyes grow accustomed to the darkness of the tunnels, and they navigate the forest of stalagmites and stalactites without mishap.
After an hour or so of exploration, they pause at a junction. Renci is disappointed in the quality of readings she gets. “There must be something in these rocks causing interference,” she complains. The main body of their current tunnel is taking a downward turn, while a narrow crack splits off, steeply sloping up. It is about a meter wide at this point and a little over two and a half meters tall—but not if one takes into account the stalactites. Renci frowns at her scanner, wondering whether it is a direction worth exploring.
Renn offers to send Mira on reconnaissance. At the very least, she will be able to judge whether it dead-ends or leads to a wider section. Renci agrees, and the kiros bird flies off. A little bit later, Renn confirms that the crack does eventually open up into a large cavern and Mira will wait for them there. That’s strange, Renci thinks, I didn’t hear that bird at all. Renn must have been listening more closely than she was. He has told her exactly what she wanted to hear, and she leads the way, slowly navigating the cramped environment. The occasional clatter or muttered curse behind her makes her glad that neither is she as tall as Renn nor is her weapon as long as his. A cut-away of this crack has more area than the ductwork on their previous job, but the actual shape of the tunnel is much more inconsistent. There is definitely clearance enough for them to stand, but sometimes they need to duck around the ceiling decorations, and several bottlenecks require them to climb over or pass through sideways.
The tunnel is cool and moist, the stone slick underfoot, but the incline levels off before long. Cold mineral-laden water drips on and around them, and the distant babbling of an underground stream slowly grows louder. Renci glances down at her scanner, and when she looks back up, something out of a nightmare is right in front of her. Unlike the garrix that attacked Volay, the gaping mouth of this wormlike creature lacks any fangs. This is more than made up for by the long tentacles around it that end in clusters of chitinous spikes. As the dimlurker surges towards her, she whips out her blaster and fires off a shot, then gets slammed by a lashing tentacle. It tries to wrap around her, but she shakes it off.
“There’s something back here, too!” Renn shouts as the solid wall of rock to his right dissolves into another horror. These mountains seem to contain an infinite number of variations on the theme of monstrous worm. The one now oozing into the tunnel at Renn is larger even than Volay, its entire front one open maw completely lined with serrated teeth dripping with viscous acid. Renn rushes forward away from it, spinning to shoot a tranq at the tunnel worm. He is crowding Renci now, right at her back, but he does not want to be near that thing, nor does he want it between them, potentially snapping at Renci from behind. The tunnel worm thrashes its head back and forth, trying to detect prey, and snags his arm with its teeth. “Kriff!”
“You all right back there?” Renci asks, as she shoves the scanner in her backpack. The tunnel drops into total darkness for a moment.
“Just clear the way in front of ya!” Renn urges her.
“I’m working on it!” Renci pulls a flare out of her utility belt and snaps it to activate it, then drops it at their feet. The creatures look no more comforting in the bright light than they did before. They do not even seem to have eyes of their own. She draws her vibrosword, warding off the spiky tentacles coming at her while she takes another shot at the creature, scorching its shiny, segmented hide a bit more. “This thing has a real tough exoskeleton!”
If they can just take one of these creatures down, they might be able to get it between them and the other. That shape moving beyond Renci did not seem as large as the huge worm coming out of this wall. “How bad off is yers?” Renn calls over his shoulder.
“I’m wearing it down….”
Renn snaps the air rifle into reverse carry arms and spins to the left in the cramped space, then raises the gun and drops the barrel down over Renci’s right shoulder to take a shot down the dimlurker’s throat. The tranquilizer does its job, and the creature collapses. Renn does not want the tunnel worm at his back, however. As he yanks the air rifle down and whips around to face the creature, though, he clips the side of his head on a stalactite. The enormous worm smacks its lips, and the slime it secretes sprays out onto Renn’s sleeve. Whatever that stuff is, it was eating through solid rock. He frantically rubs his right arm against the wall to scrape it off.
“Gimme what space you can here!” Renci calls, as she holsters her gun and switches to a two-handed grip on her vibrosword.
Renn does not know what she has planned, but he does as she asks. He looses another dart at the enormous worm and then drops into a crouch among the stalagmites, trying to get out of Renci’s way for whatever she is attempting.
Renci skewers the dimlurker and gives a great heave as she presses herself back against the tunnel wall. She levers the body past herself, over Renn, and headfirst into the maw of the tunnel worm. The saw-like teeth of the enormous creature clamp down on the front of the provided meal. Renci suspected that she and Renn just happened to get between the tunnel worm and its dinner, and now she sees she was right. She clambers over the dimlurker corpse and heads up the tunnel, calling to Renn, “Get out of there as fast as you can and run ahead to find a safe way for us to go!” She knows he can move more swiftly than her, so she plans to cover their retreat.
Crouched low, the dimlurker body pressing down on him from above, Renn feels the narrow tunnel closing in around him. Ichor drips down on him, combining with the sounds of trickling water in the cave system. It is bad enough that they are changing the dimensions of the cell again, making him question whether he can even count paces accurately anymore, but if they flood the room now, when it is this small, there will not be space to tread water, and then he will be almost drowned again, and which is worse: the feeling of it actually happening, or the anticipation that it is about to happen along with the knowledge that there is nothing he can do to stop it?
Renci turns back. Renn should have been right behind her or even past her by now. She sees the tunnel worm is still contentedly gnawing its way through the dimlurker, and then she hears Renn’s muffled voice. “It’s closin’ in around me. I canna move. There’s no space. The water, it’s comin’.” His words are terrified, despairing, but more to himself than to her.
A few weeks ago, she might not have understood what was going on, but she has since seen Imperial disorientation cells, and she knows some of what Renn experienced in one. This is not a convenient time for flashbacks, she thinks with some aggravation. But then, neither was a few hours ago, when she found herself in bootcamp again from that shimmer venom. She considers using the jumpboots but then imagines herself crashing into a stalactite, which is the last thing they need right now. Instead, she runs back the way she came, calling, “Stay with me, soldier. We’ve got to work together.”
With her vibrosword, she cleaves through the dimlurker and takes a jab at the tunnel worm to ensure it will not follow them. Then she grabs Renn’s shoulder strap and yanks him up. She tries asking him mundane questions, like what his name is, to distract him from whatever is playing in his own head, but he is hyperventilating now and does not even seem aware of her words. She throws his arm over her shoulder and tugs him down the tunnel, relieved as his breathing slows down. She hears him ask, “Chando? Kash?” so he is clearly not fully present. But at least now he is calmer and stumbling along compliantly. Even if he is unaware of his surroundings, he is not resisting where she is dragging him.
They reach the large open chamber where Mira is waiting for them. The kiros bird spirals down to them, and Renci feels the change in Renn’s posture as he snaps back to the present. There is just enough light for her to see an underground stream. She lets go of Renn, dropping down on her knees alongside the frigid water, and dunks her head. Reinvigorated, she turns to Renn. It is too dim for her to judge his facial expression, but his body language is at least calm, and he is smoothing Mira’s feathers.
“Are you all right?” she asks, not really sure of what she will say next if the answer is no.
“It bit me just once, but ya should probably take a look at it. What about you? Did they get ya at all?” He brushes over whatever trauma he was reliving and provides an answer just about his physical condition. She can work with that for now.
She admits to having gotten whacked a few times by the dimlurker as she pulls out the medical kit. Renn takes it from her, methodically going through it and then checking her over. She is tired and feels that her bruises are too minor to worry about right now. But she suppresses her irritation and lets him proceed because it is giving him something to focus on, and he seems to need that right now. Then she tells him to shuck off his jacket so she can examine the bite. It looks like his sleeve prevented any of the secretions from reaching his skin, so she just administers a stim shot to deal with the injury. But then in the dim light, she notices that the side of his t-shirt is speckled with blood. “What is that from?” she asks.
He twists around, pulling up the edge of his shirt, revealing abrasions embedded with tiny pieces of rock and dirt. “That must be from the landin’. Volay dragged me fer a bit.”
Renci daubs ineffectually at it as he grits his teeth and then shakes her head. They are just not equipped to deal with that here. Frustrated, she closes up the medkit and shoves it aside. There is a bright flash, and then the cavern around them grows more distinct. Renci yanks the medkit back and sees that it collided with some sort of fungus. In the increased light, she quickly locates another and whacks it. Disturbed, it responds with a blinding burst and then settles down into a dull glow. She snaps it off the ground and is delighted by how little it weighs; it is more like a sponge than a branch. She and Renn gather some, each attaching one to their backpack strap like a boutonniere. As long as they disturb the luminescent fungi periodically, they will emit some light.
As Renci sits beside the stream, putting additional samples of the fungi into her backpack, Renn asks her, “D’ya want ta rest at all?” He thinks she looks run-down, but he is hesitant to say it. Only Kash has seen him fall apart that way before. Losing control like that in front of Renci would be embarrassing enough under normal conditions, but this happened in combat, when he was supposed to have Renci’s back. He feels himself a liability, and he is reluctant to draw further attention to that.
Renci shakes her head. “We’ve got to make up more time. We didn’t start at the cave entrance we wanted to. This cave is large enough for personnel, but we’ve got to reach that hangar room. If we can get as far as that, and maybe find another room or two like this, then I can say this is a decent place, with a few renovations.”
She is thinking about the caves as rooms it seems, so Renn feels she has already made up her mind, even if she does not realize it. “Rock walls that can block scanners, that’s good fer hidin’,” he points out.
“Don’t know what we’re going to do with those creatures, though,” she says.
Renn recommends using them as perimeter protection, once they are better understood. “And ya should fill some of yer vials with the ichor they left on us,” he suggests.
Renci perks up at that and fills a few more sample tubes. As she slowly begins loading them into her bag, she insists that they need to get going.