‘The Pipe-world, Ah’kis, is five thousand miles long and just over ten miles in diameter. Kassi seeks her brother who has been kidnapped by ‘demons’ and now travel north to the end of the world. She is accompanied by Sebastian a sentient bot of dubious origins with whom she can communicate telepathically. That ability seems to set her apart from the rest of the world’s population. This is an earlier tale.’
The dwarves had appeared from behind them and Sebastian had two questions that preyed on his mind. Firstly why was it that some dwarfs attacked them whilst others actively invited them into their ‘dungeons’—even going as far as trading with them; and secondly where the hell did this group come from? He and Kassi had wisely checked each room and cupboard space on their descent anticipating just such an event. Even now Kassi’s displeasure registered in the silent way she dispatched two of the dwarfs, her face clouded with anger.
He couldn’t really blame her. He had insisted on taking things slowly ensuring that each nook and cranny was well searched and yet here they were still fighting. He wondered if either he—or more likely Kassi—had a large sign painted upon their backs saying ‘feel free to kick the shit out of us!’ with added large smiley face.
He ran at the wall his ‘feet’ clinging expertly as momentum pushed him up and above a particularly large dwarf—one almost fifty inches in height. They wore dark armour with faces mostly unprotected; a pale sallow oval clouded in shadow. Sebastian scaled the wall easily and swung his aft legs in an arc that connected with the dwarf’s solid looking chin. There was a satisfying crack and pale watery eyes drifted out of consciousness. As the dwarf fell Sebastian dropped onto him using the dwarfs own momentum to aim at a second fighter.
Sebastian was a mechanoid—a segmented flattened body of four parts—and eight legged. As he moved he rolled himself up as much as he could. Kassi called him the ‘hemisphere of death’—in tones that it must be said were less than flattering—but he had become accustomed to ignoring the human girl. Still hemisphere or not his weight caught a second dwarf midriff and they tumbled to the floor. He rolled up onto his back four legs standing just slightly taller than the dwarf who staggered to his own feet. One swift strike of an ‘arm’, its delicate web of ‘fingers’ meshed into a solid sphere, and the creature was down.
Sebastian looked around as Kassi finished off her own attackers much more viciously. His molecular sensors picked up iron in the air as pale silver arterial blood sprayed a far wall. He was about to admonish the girl when a shadow detached itself from the far corridor and a dwarf encased in powered armour ran at them. There was a hum of electronics and the soft whirr of gears as the dwarf moved, his head nearly reaching the ceiling. Sebastian jumped at the Mech ‘fingers’ digging into servos and wires as he slid across the armoured surface. As he fell he managed to slice a thick plastic tube and hydraulic fluid spilled out across the ancient tiled flooring, filling the confined space with the bitter scent of oil.
Despite the damage the dwarf/machine lumbered onwards and Kassi—as always—leapt towards the thing, sword in hand. She had struck it twice before enough armour had been peeled away to allow her to slip the blade into the dwarfs stomach. He staggered arms flailing and fell against a battered pair of lift doors. Even as Sebastian looked on the doors buckled beneath the weight of the Mech and both the dwarf and Kassi slipped into the stygian darkness.
He had time to call out her name before she vanished into the deeper darkness. There was the sound from the deep shaft of metal on metal. A cacophony of tones filling the darkness before fading into silence. Despite been able to navigate the dungeon in complete darkness Sebastian still maintained a wide beam of light. He rushed to the opening and peered downwards afraid of what awaited him. The light penetrated only a hundred metres or so but he could see the young woman dangling from a collection of cables once able to carry people back and forth from the interior surface to much deeper. She was almost at the edge of the light.
“Are you trying to blind me!?” she demanded huffily.
“I thought you already were, the way you leapt at that Mech,” he replied trying to keep the obvious relief from his voice.
“You had merely scratched it,” she retorted defiantly. Then she smiled. “Now will you pull up these damn cables my arms are getting tired.”
“Oh, NOW you want my help.” Sebastian steadied his four back legs firmly on the tiled flooring and placed his third pair holding the gap where the lifts doors had once opened and closed. He then leant as far forward as he dared and extended a lone ‘arm’ outwards curling it around as many of the cables as he could. They felt thin and papery beneath his sensors. Gently he pulled them up and grabbed more with his free arm. Slowly he lifted Kassi upwards.
“A little faster would be appreciated. I feel as though I’m carrying a rucksack full of gold coins.”
“It’s the centrifugal force. We’re closer to the outer circumference of Ah’kis here and so the spin is faster causing our weight to increase,” he replied in-between each handful of cable. One splintered under his grip and he paused.
“Are we okay?” she asked.
“Perhaps if you clung to the shaft itself, and I came down to you.”
“No. The walls here look like crap and besides the dwarf-in-a-mech-suit damaged so much on his long fall. I’m not sure they would take my weight let alone yours.”
“Are you saying I am fat?” he asked trying to keep her mind off the situation.
She smiled again. “You could do with losing a couple of kilos.”
He pulled her higher, methodically checking each strand of cable as he did so. She was over half way, and then three quarters. Then twenty feet to go. He felt optimistic. And that was when the cable five feet above Kassi unravelled painfully slowly. He called out. Tried to admonish the cable. Demanded that it stop at once but a second cable split and then a third. After what had seemed years but was in fact a handful of seconds all the cables split and the young woman plunged down into the shadows. He saw her flail at the wall to her left, catch it only for the rim of metal to crumble under her fingers. She bounced once off the wall and then was enveloped in darkness. To her credit she did not scream.
{KASSI!} he cried out telepathically but there was no reply. Long echoing sounds, some soft some metal upon metal, rumbled upwards. Sebastian could picture the shaft reaching down a mile or more towards the Arks outer surface. He could picture the girl speeding up as ‘gravity’ increased and she was flung harder and harder ‘downwards’.
{Kassi!} he called out again into the silence.
How long he sat there on the edge of the shaft Sebastian had no idea. His positron infused spongium brain contemplated various scenarios. The two were telepathically connected but as Kassi had never died before he could not tell if he would sense the girl’s death or not. Was she lying somewhere down there bled out and twisted or was she still alive? At the least he needed to confirm his worst fears. But it was more than a desire to know that would drive him downwards. The flood of emotions washing over him ensured that.
The sound of a dwarf rousing himself from unconsciousness stirred the mechanoid. Sebastian’s sensors could reach only a few hundred meters down due to the debris which clustered in the shaft and from them there was no sign of Kassi. Instead he sent out a high pitched call at the edge of human hearing and sensed the returning sounds as echolocation building a picture of the deep shaft. Still it did not show where the girl was. For some reason he thought to call it Murdock vision but couldn’t really say why. He switched the light off.
Picking his way carefully across the corridor he first struck the dwarf again rendering him unconscious and then went in search of Kassi. The walls of the shaft were decrepit and seemed unlikely to hold the mechanoid’s weight. This meant finding another way downwards. Three females turned a corner before him and for a second he had hoped to avoid them in the pitch darkness but somehow the three women sensed him and two drew short swords and ran at him silently. He dodged both whilst deducing that they too must use this Murdock Vision as a form of radar to sense the world around them.
He tripped one disarming her as she tumbled forward and used the sword to defend himself from the seconds attack. The third woman ran at him snarling; twin stilettos in her hands. He pivoted much like he had seen Kassi do swinging a coiled ‘arm’ across the woman’s forehead dropping her to the ground instantly. Two more jabs and the other women were also unconscious.
He found a door, stiff with age, that led to a series of steps both up and down. He followed the stairs downwards for seven flights before rubble forced him back into the corridors inhabited by the dwarfs. Here the corridor was wide and low with sets of double doors spaced evenly along each side. There was a warm scent of soil and vegetation which drew him towards the first set of doors.
Inside he noted that the room was at least three floors high and ran the length of the corridor. Hundreds of square metres of agriculture. Slowly he climbed a wall and viewed the vast warehouse. Dim light from a bioluminescence moss filled the huge hanger sized space. Soil had been brought down—or up; soil was after all merely broken down rock and there was plenty of THAT around—and under a dim light wheat—or something similar—grew. From above Sebastian could see the thin diaphanous husks as they swayed under some imagined breeze.
The room was very warm and he wondered if the plants had been genetically altered to take energy from heat rather than sunlight. Each plant was almost translucent and Sebastian could even see the transpiration streams move water and nutrients upwards. In truth he had never considered what the dungeon dwelling dwarfs ate. Most likely in the initial aftermath of the impact upon the Ark—or The Quake as it was known Ah’kis-wide—many groups fearing a coming apocalypse felt that the safest place was ‘underground’; as it were. Setting up crops that could grow without the sunline made sense. It was probably not their intent to spend so many lifetimes below that the higher gravity forced their bodies into the compact albino forms seen today.
Sebastian recalled that each Ark was meant to travel 200 years at most and yet Ah’kis—Ark 6—was now almost seven thousand years into its journey. No wonder its population had forgotten earth. Even as he crossed the high vaulted ceiling he calculated that, at almost a third the speed of light, the Ark was around 2000 light years from home. Somehow that caused a tune to echo in his mind but for the life of him he could not work out why.
Two men, short and in loincloths of rough linen crossed the field, guns slung over their shoulders. Sebastian froze, waiting for them to pass beneath him. They stopped and before Sebastian could react had swung each weapon up towards him. He scuttled as best he could but the dwarves appeared to know exactly where he was and two bullets slammed into his skin. He dropped, turning mid-air and curling into the ‘Hemisphere of death’ landed on the first dwarf heavily, knocking him out. The second managed one more round which skidded across Sebastian’s back before he too lay unconscious.
Sebastian dropped his gait until he was barely skimming the soil and moved quickly. An intake of protein—often in the form of milk—would enable him to repair the scratches on his back and he needed to find the girl quickly. Shouts echoed behind him as he crossed the large hanger and entered a second with more translucent crops; this time barley. A third hanger held row upon row of stunted fruit trees, apples, pears and grape but no dwarfs. He found a side door welded shut by age and delicately pried it open. More stairs.
Shutting the door as best he could the mechanoid scrambled down the walls vertically, jumping when he thought it safe and skirting those sections that looked fragile. He risked using his lamp on its dimmest setting aware that to the dwarfs it would be a beacon flaring. Still his only thought was on the girl. He still could not sense her telepathically nor was he even aware in which direction she was. He told himself that this was because he was worried. That the masonry and metalwork that held much of the Ark together blocked their connection. This close to the outer surface the rock was undoubtedly threaded with thick coils of polysteel. He wondered if perhaps one of the nodes that facilitated telepathy was on the fritz scrambling all communication. At each thought a hundred or more reasons why it could or could not be swirled around his mind causing even more distraction.
Half a mile down, he stepped into yet another corridor. It could have been any of the million or so miles of them threaded through and around the five thousand mile length of the Ark. A faded plastic sign said Level C001 could have meant a hundred things. Most likely this was one of the outer corridors closer to the exterior of the Ark—or at least its large reservoir of water that protected the population from radiation. For a second Sebastian had a sense of nostalgia. Only another half a mile or so and he could be outside again where he—initially—belonged. Away from the heavy pull of the world as it spun around the sunline so far above.
Shaking the feeling off, he continued onwards. His pathway and the image he had formed of the shaft held in his mind’s eye, creating a detailed map that told him exactly where he was. Coming to a junction he turned left. A large mech, with a tiny dwarf, stood before him. Both looked surprised but Sebastian was the first to recover and even as the mech fired his 50ml rounds the mechanoid had disabled the mech’s main electronics and hydraulic liquid was spilling freely across the stone tiled floor. The mech crashed to the floor trapping the dwarf within.
Sebastian hurried along driven to the lift shaft down which Kassi had fallen. Finally he sensed her, the soft touch of her mind a hundred metres to his left. He hurried, the sense of relief almost overwhelming him. In truth he was still concerned. Neither of them fully understood how their telepathy worked. A Sigh—a scientist—had rewritten part of his code four years previous[1]—and Kassi appeared to be a natural telepath as were a number of the original crew of the vessel. But as to how they communicated or even sensed each other’s direction or moods was a complete mystery. It was not outside the realm of possibilities that his friend lay dead and all he sensed were the dying embers of her mind. But THAT thought he tried to bury deep.
He came to the lift shaft but it was blocked by rubble. He sensed that Kassi was two floors up and there was a convenient stairwell next to the lifts. He hurried up the two flights of steps and stopped. The wall between the stairwell and the lift shaft was shattered and fresh rubble lay around. With trepidation Sebastian eased his body over the collapsed inner wall and peered down at the body of his friend.
If he had need to breathe then a long nervous breath would have escaped from deep within. He sensed the girl’s thoughts, a jumble of pain and fear, and felt such elation that he almost danced for joy!
“You’d only ... move like a Troll ... with half... its servos clogged up,” a frail, dry voice said faintly.
“You’re alive!” Sebastian said without thinking.
“Of course. Death would be less painful.” She tried to sit up but cried out in pain.
“Let me examine you,” he said gingerly crawling down the rubble to her side. He considered what he could do. X-ray vision would be useful around now or a fully stocked emergency room. Instead he had a scanner built on ultrasonics and useful for testing the exterior bits of the Ark. But...
Sebastian reset his inbuilt scanner and tried it on Kassi. A slight change to a section of algorithm and he could ‘see’ her bones, and the nasty fracture of her right femur; as well as a numerous cracks along the one side of her ribs.
“All this way down and all you have is a broken leg?” he said incredulously.
Kassi shifted uncomfortably and replied. “I can always die here and now for you if you like.”
“No. I meant...”
She placed a grubby hand over one of his limbs. “I caught the odd cable and brick work but the bloody things just crumbled in my hands. All I received for my action was a slam against the side. After that it’s pretty cloudy. I think I landed on something but still kept moving.” She shook her head—the only part of her that didn’t cause her any pain. “How that’s possible I haven’t got a clue.”
Sebastian looked at the rubble around her and underneath them. “From the looks of things you landed on one of the lifts cars and that slid down the rest of the shaft. Looks like its inertia brakes still worked after seven thousand years.”
“Well YOU work after all that time,” Kassi replied winching at each word.
He gently touched her cheek with his front ‘arm’. “I’ll need to splint your leg or else moving will be painful for you.” He gathered steel rods that looked sturdy enough and some plastic clothe which he tore into strips.
She gasped and tried to smile through the winch. “It can’t be any more painful than breathing.”
Her breath misted in the air and Sebastian realised how cold it suddenly had become. In a micro second he had calculated their position in respects to the Ark and he ‘saw’ that the large gash along the south end of the vessel was close by. Although no interior damage had occurred millennia ago—other than the fact that its two hundred year mission had become unending—heat was obviously escaping which did explain the recent ice fields developing at the southend.
“You have your sciencey face on,” Kassi said between wheezes gently stroking the collection of wires and tubes that made up Sebastian’s neck.
“Sciencey is not a word.”
She pulled a face of her own, tinged with pain.
“I’m sorry,” he said, emotionless.
“For what?”
He pulled her broken leg, straightening it. Kassi screamed once and fainted with the pain.
“For that.” Sebastian muttered as he bound her leg in steel and tied it to her right leg.
There was a sound from above. Without turning he could sense two dwarfs peer over the edge of the lift shaft above them. Four of his limbs independently sought out rubble and almost casually threw it at the men. Each struck home rendering both of them unconscious.
He could hear more dwarfs scurrying down towards them so hurried as he wove a frame of steel with more plastic cloth and placed the young women gently onto it. He then secured her and the frame to his back and began to climb up the lift shaft. The cold had begun to break the concrete and steel. It crumbled under his touch but with care—and much too slowly for his liking—he found secure patches of wall and ascended. Voices sounded far below them but he thought that the dwarfs would not use their rifles in the pitch darkness of the shaft despite their excellent night vision. They did though and a number of bullets pinged around the narrow shaft. A section of wall groaned and slowly rumbled out of its place and fell onto the dwarfs below.
‘Never shoot fish in a rock solid barrel where the bullets can ricochet,’ Sebastian thought.
Sebastian stopped and braced himself against the frame of a door and used four of his limbs to open them. It was warmer now the chill of space was far below. Two dwarfs stood facing him long—for them—swords in hand. He lay Kassi down gently and curved up and around the walls of the corridor in a second before the two could react. He dropped on them spinning around two limbs stiffly out and knocked both unconscious. More shouts could be heard echoing all around them.
“Get me my back pack.” Kassi’s voice was weak and frail. She added stiffly. “I can protect your back.” Handing her the bag Sebastian picked up the litter and carried onwards. He heard her mutter a few choice words as she armed her crossbow. Behind him he sensed a dwarf step out but before he could act the bow sounded and the figure dropped to the floor. Kassi wound the string back.
A dwarf in full mech gear stepped before them, his helmeted head scrapping the ceiling of the corridor. Without pausing Sebastian dropped Kassi’s litter and with one swift movement he ran up and over the mech dismantling parts as he did so. The dwarf tried to fire his rifle but Sebastian caught the barrel and aimed it upwards. There was an explosion of sound and light and then a flutter of shredded ceiling tiles. Sebastian hit the dwarf hard on the nose and the mech dropped to its knees before keeling over.
He picked up the litter and moved forward searching for a set of lifts to the surface. He heard Kassi’s crossbow twice more before a likely set of doors came into view. Four dwarfs stood in his way, two with ancient rifles.
{Things may get rough.} he sent.
{This has been smooth!?}
Sebastian brought up half his body to protect the girl and ran forward the still carrying the girl behind. The gun wielding dwarfs fired once each, leaving deep indentations on what could possibly be called his chest. A third shot went wild as Sebastian reached the dwarfs and ploughed through them. Setting Kassi down, he spun, catching one gun-dwarf on the side of his head. A sweep of limbs pulled a second dwarfs feet from under him. Two short jabs and both were no longer a problem.
The two remaining dwarfs stepped back hesitantly. Sebastian leapt upwards, caught hold of the ceiling and swung behind them. Before either could react he was down and slamming both their heads together. A bolt slipped past his head finding a fifth dwarf trying to sneak up on the mechanoid.
“I did see him luv,” he said huffily.
“Never doubted it, Sebastian.” Kassi began to gasp.
“Let us hope that the Founders hospital is close by with a full complement of Watch Mothers,” he said.
“It’s just ... harder ... to breathe with all ... this extra gravity,” Kassi replied slowly. “Still; you’ve kept on at me ... for ages to put some weight on.” She smiled wanly.
Sebastian tore the lift doors open and pulled Kassi and the litter onto his back.
“Hardee-bloody-har,” he replied with a hint of sarcasm.
He pulled on the cables which appeared in better condition than their brethren below and hurried upwards. Below muffled shouts echoed and he heard the scramble of dwarfs running towards them but he was up and climbing the cables deftly Kassi in tow before any reached them. Seven hundred metres he climbed never tiring. At the top he forced more doors open and was rewarded with sunlight. Had they only been gone eight hours? Even by Sebastian’s super quick memory the day had passed quicker than usual. He lay for a second alongside Kassi, who took the opportunity now to puke, and drank in the warmth of the sunline. Perhaps he could persuade the girl NEVER to venture underground again; but somehow he doubted it.



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