Oliver’s injuries are of course a problem. He cannot climb the ladder and how to get him down the tight spiral staircase is another concern. After a few ‘to’s and fro’s,’ they decide to use a sleeping bag to let him down, but the stairs he has to tackle himself, as good as he can. They, sticking close to him, front and back and, the walls both sides, may prevent him from falling and further calamities.
Manoeuvring him down the ladder turns out to be the easier part than climbing down the stairs. They have not only to put up with the prevailing warmth and sticky air, they also carry bags and need to watch out for Oliver all the time, for he could cause them to fall too, as he stumbles downwards. His moans are a constant reminder of his pain, but it is useful to them after all, as it keeps them on guard, not to become careless or too hasty, while trying to make their way down as quickly as possible. Big sigh of relief, when they finally can leave the shaft and reach the workshop.
The luggage is dropped immediately. Their grim facial expressions disappear and so does Oliver’s moaning. He sinks down, right where he is, on the last steps into the room, but he has big difficulties to speak. Femina worries that the swellings are still on the rise, or it may well be due to a dry throat, for they all are dehydrated and have a dry mouth, so dry in fact, that they feel as if their tongues were glued to their gums.
Not that it is advisable to stay here for too long, they need the break all the same to address the open questions regarding their escape and, though nobody says it, they sure are glad to have at least some time for their recovery. They eagerly empty all the water bottles they find in the fridge and more from the crates next to it. Nobody reaches for beer or other alcohol, except Femina. She grabs two bottles of the strongest high grade spirits under the surprised eyes of her onlooking companions. “Medical reasons!” she states briefly, which prompts Oliver to point to a small metal cupboard, a “family medicine chest” as it turns out. It is well stocked with bandages, slings and dressings, including everything one needs for open wound injuries, like disinfectants and antibiotics. Though it would not cater for big accidents, the supply of pain medication does. She could even perform emergency surgery!
Femina immediately seeks out the most suitable tablets for Oliver, so she can attend to his needs and provide the best first aid possible under the given circumstances, hoping, to bring him relief and that it may stabilise him too. She certainly does not want to stupefy him, not in view of what they still may have to do. Nothing will be easy for him, that’s a given, but he should be able to walk independently, for some, if not most of the time, at least, for what may be required. She therefore packs all the pain medication and everything else she considers useful and necessary, into her bag, including the two bottles of spirits. The guys, watching her, have a telling grin on their faces, which disappears quickly when she states that it is part of her medical travel kit, not for their pleasure. It brings them straight back to the urgent matters at hand too.
The first and all important question is, where to from here? Flight seems impossible by way of the underground facility, no matter how seldom a passageway is frequented, and definitely not without proper planning, for which they have no time. After all, the eyes of the organisation are everywhere and ever present. Thus, their eyes hone in on Oliver. They assume, or hope at least, he would know the place with all its nooks and crannies and, how to avoid the spying eyes. Unease and tensions rise as they wait for him to talk, followed by a big sigh of relief, when he concedes, that there was a secret passage, no one else knew about. He was the only one, says he, entrusted by Wilson apparently as a token of his love and devotion for him.
Femina’s lips curl mockingly. Does he really believe what he says? ‘Poor Adonis! How naïve can you be? You are devoted to him, not the other way round!’ But he is right to insist on a quick departure. As distrusting and incalculable Wilson is, he may be quicker on their heels than they anticipate. Timing, without a doubt, is crucial.
Unfortunately, the delays start already with Oliver’s difficulty to speak, hampering both sides, in fact. While he has the problem to express himself adequately, they have the problem to understand what he says, particularly when the content exceeds all things basic. Femina leaves the frustration to the men. While they gather around Oliver, she remains seated on her foot stool to rest, her eyes wandering around aimlessly. She realizes suddenly that none of the big figures, she saw the men working on, were still there. As odd as it may be, or where they disappeared to, will have to remain a riddle. And why not! What does it matter anyway? Nothing matters! Neither the now, nor the past, nor the future! Why waste her thoughts, why think at all, when it is good for nothing! Her stream of thought dries up as if there was a red hot sun lapping it up greedily, down to the last bit of puddles. Strangely though, her mind does not want to accept this indifference. After all, she is not dead, yet! ‘Why playing dead?’ Niggling her, it opens up new channels for new thoughts to make way, turning her attention back to the men.
Oliver points to a solid wooden wall panel hung full with tools. Pulling on a special hook, it becomes a sliding door. Rocky is immediately at it and, as the panel slides along one side, a dark man-sized hole opens on the other. Cool air wafts into the room.
“Light?” asks he. If this is their escape route they sure will need lamps or other sources of light.
Oliver waves him to go outside. Rocky fetches a work lamp and disappears into the cavity, Dan and Ger right after him.
Femina hears an approving whistle, which prompts Oliver to provide mumbling, but never the less, explanatory comments. Everything useful or necessary for flight is stored there. Wilson himself takes care of it. With a bit of good will can she understand most of what he says and, the rest she can assume or guess. Goosebumps erupt on her skin like a bad rash. Her doubts, in as far this secret passage is known only to Wilson and Oliver, foster dreadful thoughts. Maybe, all who knew about it, were eliminated, to ensure the secret was safe, like the pharaohs did with their tombs, killing all involved in building them. She has no doubt, Wilson is capable of any atrocity. Oliver just wears ‘pink glasses’, which delude a lover about the loved one; or he lives in ignorance, because he could not possibly tolerate the truth. Whatever! He knows the way! That is what counts!
They hear more joyful outcries and suddenly green light flares up, transforming the dark hole into a green cavity. Rocky re-enters with a bundle of sticks, semi translucent, finger thick, of firm, smooth plastic and, may be 20cm long, or a bit more and, obviously lightweight. He bends one in the middle and with a little crackle, bright green light surges right through it. Perfect! Phosphor sticks! They give enough light, each stick for hours and one can handle them easily and place them wherever convenient, leaving the hands free for other duties.
“Wilson has truly taken care of everything,” he says approvingly. “Not just concerning light, there are a few strong head lights too, but there is plenty of everything; firearms, dynamite sticks, hand grenades and, food supply, pulverised and de-hydrolysed, whole meals; it is enough for weeks! And there is climbing and camping gear, insulation mats and true emergency blankets, and….,” he pauses briefly to emphasize the importance, “plenty of ammunition! But….,” another short pause, “there are no carry bags for water…?”
He looks inquiringly at Oliver, who only shrugs his shoulders, pointing to the entrance. Water is not a problem. He also points out, that their escape route is not really a long one and therefore, it was not necessary to burden themselves with anything. It was just Wilson’s thoroughness to collect all things handy, just in case. Obviously, water bags were not that important.
“Yes,” nods Rocky somewhat hesitatingly, “that may be so indeed and, too much stuff is a burden. However! I will take some things, at least a few water bottles and definitely food. To get down the mountain may take us far longer than you think. After all, you are injured. Besides! …… When have you actually been this way the last time?” Oliver must admit that it may have been a good few months, if not longer.
“Well, then you cannot know if there has been any kind of change since, apart from you being fit at that time too. I know, these mountains have caves, indeed, networks of caves. Not many are known to the public to start with and, not all are stable either. Of course, it is no incidence that Wilson built our centre here! Neither, that he secured a secret escape! I always wondered, how he came to know about these caves! Who informed him……? None of our people would disclose such knowledge voluntarily….!”
Brief silence, then he continues: “Well! There is some knowledge of caves! The public just does not really care about them, because the ones they know, are useless, or so they think. Nobody sees value in them. Only we do! We cherish them all. And obviously Wilson does too. May be, he discovered these ones here himself and knew immediately, how to take advantage of them. Well, he is not for nothing the “top dog”!”
Despite their curiosity, he does not oblige to say more. Like Oliver, he wants to move on. Fetching two saddle bags from the lot hanging in a corner, he disappears into the cave. When he returns he has a rifle in his hand and a halter on his thigh with a knife stuck in it.
“Ready,” says he, “let’s go!”
Dan and Ger had been busy too, packing their utmost necessary personal things into Ger’s bag and their tightly rolled up sleeping bags into Dan’s. On Rocky’s advice, they also filled every available space with emergency gear, water bottles, tools and, ammunition. When they went up to their quarters, their bags were intentionally packed only lightly, now they are laden up to the max, and against Oliver’s advice too, insisting that they would need hardly anything, as they would be out of the mountain soon enough. But Rocky does not give in: “Better to be provident, than regretful when indeed the unexpected happens!” He even takes a climbing rope, hands them head lights to wear, though not for use at this stage, and, all phosphor-sticks too, of which quite a few bundles find their place in Femina’s bag, that is, as much space as she has left. He also insists that each of them has a rifle, even though she has no idea how to operate one, but probably to make up for Oliver’s inability to carry one. Of course, the rest of their personal belongings, including the motorbikes, stays behind and that goes without anyone uttering a word. Sure, Femina had not much to begin with, but it just shows that one can lose anything and everything, without drama and wailing, everything but life.
Rocky is most likely stronger than Dan, or Ger and, befittingly, he carries a heavy burden. Though both do not say a word, it is obvious, they look at it with concern, guessing, how heavy the load might be. After all, they will have to share the carrying duties, probably more often than not, because Oliver needs help and, one of them may even be burdened with him exclusively. Rocky does not seem to worry about it, though he actually should, or could be expected to, because he kind of slipped into the role of leader, even if it was rather inevitable, not intended, it comes with certain responsibilities too. Overall, he does it with aplomb and true grace, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, which is probably the reason, why the guys don’t protest, not even Dan, who really does not like to be second in rank to anyone.
Femina however, welcomes it. With his brown skin, remarkably without any tattoos, broad face, broad flat nose, as well as thick lips and black, strongly waved, hair, she immediately assumed, when she first saw him, that he was one of the country’s original inhabitants, that is of native descent. She does not know much about these people, except that they are the survivors of a massive invasion, which had taken place not that long a time ago and, where they were overrun and, nearly exterminated. She always wanted to find out more about them, in any case, more than she would learn from history books and, if she could, from the people themselves, though of course and, who can blame them, it is not easy to make contact with them. Besides! Since their subjugation, the tribes, called families, live in extremely remote regions. Not necessarily by their own choice though! They were coerced by the new rulers, who did not know, what to do with them, finding it the most practical solution to ‘generously’ give them some land, for which they themselves had no use to begin with and, nobody would want to live there either, because nobody really knows how to, or even how to survive there all together. In contrast to the natives. But they did never settle in these areas either for the too harsh and challenging conditions. Instead, they used to roam these lands as nomads, accumulating the skills and knowledge of survival in such most hostile environments nature has on offer and, over time, were forging out a basic but sustainable life even there. Though of course, not all tribes did so, their survival was of no concern to anyone and, sadly, not much has changed since, despite some attempts being made nowadays.
The wounds of these events have not healed yet. They are in fact as raw as the landscape and living conditions of these reservations. In spite, or perhaps regardless and unavoidably so, the interbreeding of the races takes place, though the cultural divide and, particularly the social, are not bridged. To the contrary! The mixed race descendants, as well as the “primitive” living pure bred, are frowned upon, or simply considered inferior people altogether.
Their plight is by no means an exception. History books are full of such events. And while recording of facts and data is useful, it is certainly not good enough an information, to provide insight, or shed light on the circumstances of these tragedies. It raises immediately the question, or so it should, how reliable historical documentation is. After all, paper is patient and reflects only what has been permitted to be written upon. Femina always liked history; as a pupil, because no fiction could be more entertaining; nowadays, because she sees it as human heritage, indeed, as a treasure-trove for the mind. If you like, you can classify it as inheritance, a mental heirloom to be precise. But this heirloom is vulnerable to manipulation; it is not like the biological heritage, where data is stored in genes and not in libraries, or where the law of nature ensures prompt screening, coding and, safe storage, which is necessary to safeguard the biological continuum and ensuing specialisation, though even there can mistakes happen. It is far less straightforward and regulated, when it comes to mental properties, or the mind itself. By the nature of it, biological inheritance is more stable, due to matter being dense; it means that material processes are conditioned to behave predictably, hence, they must be rather stable. Mind however is not dense. It has a volatile nature and is therefore labile, and though mind can be stabilised in matter, this is in itself an intricate process and therefore far more vulnerable to problems, befitting the complexity of that kind of specialisation. (A more complicated engine has more problems too). Besides! Mental heritage serves the biological functioning of the brain (where mind finds its expression), only circumstantially and conditionally, because primarily, it serves the expansion of the mind itself, with an increase of its capacity, like intelligence and intellectual growth, (the brain just has to accommodate it). Now, anything volatile is easily influenced and, particularly, manipulated. How this takes effect can be observed in all and everything humans do. They have fundamentally no idea what the nature of their mind is and why (and how) it is so easily misled, thus making them easy prey to influences and, definitely for manipulators. Therefore, anyone, who trusts historical accounts unconditionally, would be as naïve as Oliver, who trusts his lover. She pauses. Then, realizing, she smiles to herself: Was her mind not just demonstrating its flightiness, even in circumstances so unforgiving?
Though pleased, Femina is more than surprised, that she actually met a native descendant in Wilson’s house. However! It does not imply that Rocky is the prototype of the local tribes man, or a representative of their true culture, nor his ancestors. Who knows, apart from his biological heritage, which he undeniably has, he may not even want to identify with his cultural roots! After all, he is a Desperado! But one thing is applicable for sure, being one of the original residents, he would know the land far better than any of the hated new-comers could. That alone is under the given circumstances more than she could ask for.
The path they follow is in fact a dry watercourse, at times very steep and in some sections amended with rough-hewn stairs, where sheer cliffs fragment it. Some parts are wider, others like a deep ravine; the difficulty of descent varies considerably. Oliver, despite all effort and an admirable determination, can succeed only in short stages. They have to wait for him more often than not, help him wherever and however they can. Resting places are found in various kinds of hollows and indentations, some shallow and wide, some deep and confined, in some, if they were filled with water, one could take a bath or even swim a few tempi. Rocky is convinced that there is water running, particularly in the rainy season, when there are heavy rain falls and the plains before the mountain range become mudflats or turn into lakes, because earth can no longer soak it all up and, when even the densely forested mountains cannot cope with the amount of water falling and have to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Under certain conditions, that is in the event of catastrophic storms, it may come to flash flooding. Then, dried up water courses, little creeks and, even the smallest channels and troughs, can suddenly become death traps for all caught in the raging torrents. To Femina’s relief, he finds no evidence that something like this has occurred here, not in the recent past that is and it would hardly be a risk at present, due to the prevailing dry season. Though they may still find water along the way, it sure would not be something to worry about. Water foremost, is the master builder of these subterranean cave networks. And what a great one it is at that! He loves the caves, he states smiling. He himself did and, members of his family still do live in them, particularly, when the heat or the rains are so extreme that one has to take refuge, if you did not want to become a victim! And, they were the best protection against enemies as well. Femina wonders whom he meant, as there was no war going on now, but prefers to listen, instead of interrupting him. Apparently, in the mountain range belonging to his family’s reservation, water has carved out the solid rock to a vast and extensive underground cave labyrinth, with chambers of water, clear like glass, natural cisterns, ponds and tiny lakes and, channels carrying water into the big lake, half submerged tunnels and underground canals. And there were other caves too, a fairy-tale world, where walls and halls were covered in glistening jewels and their shine and sparkling was mirrored in the calmest glassy water of stillness and perfect peace. His face lights up with a bright smile, but he carries on talking. He is certain, they are within another cave system, though he was not familiar with it. “By the way,” says he with pride, “the hotel bar you visited, was designed by an uncle of my family. He is a well-known artist, living but in the southern states. They flew him in for the project, without knowing that he actually has his roots here.” A grim smile appears now on his face. It lingers on, like winter’s night over freezing water. His thoughts seem to wander in fields of darkness now, where horror stifles any smile and kills off any laughter.
Femina feels the urge to embrace him. She can sense his turmoil and pain. Of course, she doesn’t, knowing whether him, nor his customs, gestures can be misconstrued. But she concedes happily that he was a good soul and, a native, proud of his roots. Why he became a desperado is therefore rather intriguing. However! Why he entrusts them with all this information is disconcerting. Perhaps he thinks, they will die anyway and never tell the tale. And though she is bursting with questions, at present her practical side wins. On the run, with one wounded, there is no time for curiosity, but there is for worries. While they seem to be safe for now, it will be a different story as soon as they leave the mountain and, to add worse, time is not on their side. Though medication helps to keep Oliver on his feet, his sight is badly compromised and, with the obvious injuries and possibly others, still unknown, there is a constant risk of a sudden haemorrhage, or insidious bleeding, or even both. He should be in bed, under close observation, not on the run, under immense strain. Besides, the injured arm, resting in a sling, does not tolerate any pressure. No good sign to start with, but it makes it even harder to support him, when the path is so steep that even they have difficulties to prevent them from mishaps. With Oliver, this descend will take an eternity. Rocky sure was right with all his doubts and caution.
They reach a spot where one may have the vague impression that the path was somewhat forged. While the obvious part was clearly leading downwards, there is something else, zigzagging to the other side of the channel and, going up. It may be just an illusion, but Rocky wants to investigate. It’s some more rest for them, though it does not take that long and he is back. He appears quite tense in his demeanour, while looking at them curiously. Then slowly and solemn, he says:
“I think, we better change course.” Pointing with his head into the direction he just came from, then waiting for a response. But nobody seems to know what to say, so he continues, this time with a certain and firm tone:
“I am sure it would be for the best. We have no chance to get down the mountain in time. But, without headway on Wilson, we will never get away unscathed. As soon as we surface, it will be a rabbit hunt. Mind you, we are the rabbits! And the way we crawl, Wilson will be already waiting for us, if he does not come from behind or towards us anyway. The exit, I presume, lies somewhere along the lake road?” Oliver nods. “Here we go! The road can hardly be used unnoticed at best of times, but especially not, when he is on our heels!”
Though Oliver points out that at the exit they would find a strong car and motorbikes for a quick get-away, they agree, it would be of value only before Wilson discovered their flight. And the lake, though at that point apparently skirting the road, was no safe alternative either. Even if they could find a boat, they would only be an easy target from all sides and from above as good.
“What then do you have in mind?” asks Ger obviously open to suggestions.
“We are better off to look for a way through the caves in here. There will be other exits, for sure, somewhere. Perhaps one I could climb to get to my people, while you could wait in safety.”
“Or we could err around in caves and die there all the same!” exclaims Dan
Femina remains silent, unable to calm her battling thoughts. Neither this nor that is a better prospect! She glances at Oliver. Well! Impossible! With him in tow, they cannot ever engage with Wilson in an open race! Or could they swim the lake during the night?” She sighs, her lips pressing together tightly. ”No! Not with him!”
“So what did you find up there?” asks Ger.
“First you enter a small cave, which is connected to another, a slightly bigger one and with another good opening at the back. From there you can abseil a rock wall to a rather flat area beneath. I dropped a light stick,” he adds, “and as far as I could discern, there seems to be a rather big hall there. That gave me the idea to change course. I would not suggest it if I did not see it as a feasible alternative. Not only would we be under less time pressure, it would also give us more safety, particularly, if we barricaded the entrance, with a little help of dynamite,……after we have abseiled, of course. It is not the easier way, by no means, but I am more worried about Wilson than anything else.” His eyes pierce forcefully into Oliver’s with an urgency hard to dismiss. “We have to try it!” says he with the same pressure in his voice. It only takes a brief moment of hesitation before his friend nods agreeing.
Cold showers run over Femina’s back. Explosives? Barricading? Caves nobody knows or has heard of? They have some provisions, sure, but…….! Have these two lost their minds?
“How much do you know about explosives?” interrupts Dan, eying Rocky mistrustingly. Obviously, he has the same trepidations she has.
Oliver grabs Dan, vigorously nodding into Rocky’s direction while trying to say something, unfortunately, not clearly enough to be understood. So he just continues nodding until Rocky cuts in, stating: “Worked in the mines!”
Dan, not impressed, responds sarcastically: “Good for you! But how much do you really understand from precise blasting operations? And how do you think to execute it? May be we can make do with the dynamite, but…..how certain can you be that it will work out? I don’t want, no, nobody of us should be anywhere close to an explosion in here!”
Oliver reaches again for Dan, but this time reassuringly emphasizing in a few short words that Rocky would know what he was doing. That’s good enough for Ger to agree to the plan and after some coercive discussion, Dan agrees too, though reluctantly and still sceptical.
Of course, no one asks Femina what she thinks! She does not even protest. What for! The proposition may sound far more reasonable than to offer themselves to Wilson on a platter, but it does not make her feel better, or optimistic. So what could she possibly say? She has really nothing to offer, though she has certainly enough to think about. If they have to die, then better in the bowel of the mountain’s belly, than by Wilson’s hand. Rocky is right! To find a way out through the caves is a possibility and, the longer they stay hidden the better, particularly, as searching for them makes only sense, as long as it can be assumed that they are still alive. Maybe they could even re-open the tomb later, just in case they did not find an alternative way out. But……! And when…….and if……! And Oliver? How able is he to climb and endure……? Aren’t even the smallest hurdles already testing enough?
Rocky suggests to carry his friend on his back. He reckons short climbs would be fine and, if it was necessary over long stretches, he would just stop more often and also, they could take turns, at least now and then. Of course, they may have to look for other solutions too. In any case, where there is a will, there is way. Though how to turn Oliver into a rucksack is anyone’s guess. As his legs are not hurt, he could wrap them around Rocky’s hips, but he can only use one arm to hold on. Femina suggests to use her shawl. It is of fine wool, long and wide and soft enough to be slung around Oliver’s back and, the ends under, or over Rocky’s shoulder, so he could grab either both the ends, or knot them together in front of his chest, whichever way he prefers. It would keep Oliver’s body upright and secured good enough, without causing more pain or tiring him out too quickly. They inspect the shawl and agree, appearing pleased with this solution.
But before they start the climb, they decide to utilize the more generous space down here to prepare for the blast. Femina does not pay particular attention to what they do. She cannot contribute anything and does not want to be in the way either. She therefore keeps to the side. Her wandering eyes get stuck on Dan, who seems preoccupied, working silently along with the other two. It looks as if he was clenching his teeth and was rather giving them a hand than participating actively. She let go of him, he looks too gloomy for her. As her eyes keep wandering over the now spread out arsenal of weapons and ammunition Rocky has taken with, she wonders. Laid out like this, it appears as if he had taken more weaponry than anything else. He had certainly prepared for battle. Shuddering, she begins to wonder about their other supplies. Like light. How long will that last? The batteries of their lamps will be exhausted some when, even when using them just for special purposes, like now, where only Rocky has his switched on, to have good enough a light for what he is doing and a stick could not provide. But the sticks will eventually run out too! She asks the guys what their thoughts are on this subject matter. Only Ger answers, rather disgruntled, snarling, that they had enough. Enough, for what? That does not answer her question! But nobody is willing to pay attention. So she falls silent and sits down, resigned and frustrated, next to Oliver, for whom the waiting brings at least relief.
Doing nothing but has ill effects on Femina. Melancholy spreads within her like mould in ruinous walls. No longer is she able to grasp logical thought. Her head becomes an empty cavernous hole, like the ones waiting and it feels as heavy as if it is were made of the same stones. Their light radiates no more than a few meters, thereafter comes nothing, nothing but absolute darkness, a pitch-black monster, starved out and unfathomable, devouring everything, leaving nothing behind, nothing but a deadly calm, breathless and heavy like lead. Perhaps it is a blessing not to think and not to feel. The blackness begins to seep into her, starting to consume her from within. Her senses react highly alarmed, but they appear to be confused too. They signal an approaching iciness and make her believe to smell moisture in the air. Perhaps this is nothing more than understanding the consequences of what they are about to do; after all, they are set on creating a tomb for themselves, with an imaginary exit, not an existing, real one. She turns her head to Oliver. His breath is now more regular thanks to pills and rest, but he has difficulties to breathe freely through the nose, forcing him to take a deep breath now and then through the mouth, not unlike a fish out of water, gasping, being deprived of what is needed most. She turns away again, staring to the ground. Slowly she begins to understand that not her senses are confused, her mind is. All her senses work perfectly, letting her know without mistake what is happening around her, like the presence of cool icy air, how it encroaches on her, slowly but steadily and unfriendly, with thin, long fingers like tentacles, searching and grasping, to get hold of her.
“Okay, finished!” she hears Rocky say and, immediately they get ready for their move. Ger helps Oliver on Rocky’s back. Then shouldering their baggage, they begin their single file climb, Ger behind Rocky, Femina behind Ger and, Dan as the tail-light. The ground is quite smooth but the ascend is steep. Not long into the hike and, in the beam of the searching light, a stone lip, not far off, comes into sight, with a small, almond shaped black hole behind it, which gapes down on them, like a slit eye full of secrets.
Femina stops looking up. It is better to concentrate on the steps to take. The green light from Ger’s wand, stuck into his neckerchief wound around his head, is bright enough to show her along, but the light is sallow and the shadows are long. She has to take care not to trip. How difficult a climb it is for Rocky, all can hear. Though climbing slowly and steady, his breath got louder and louder. It sounds now like the heavy pounding of a steam locomotive labouring along its track. It sounds somewhat calming too. Here is a man who knows what to do and, how to do it and, in the true meaning of the word, in all this black hopelessness shines the green signal of a traffic light, giving the go-ahead sign to all the traffic in waiting. Something like trust wells up in her. She synchronizes her steps with Rocky’s, putting them as mindfully and as assured. That does not just serve her own safety, but also prevents her from treading off loose stones. Not that she can see a lot of those. They are jammed in the little cracks and wider gaps of the rock solid ground, but to assume, there are none loose, could be a costly error. Ger surely is aware of it too, taking his steps as carefully. Dan however, as the tail-light, does not need to pay as much attention. Nor does he. A sudden splitting crash and the rumble of stone tears through the silence behind him. She hears him swear, but as no other sounds follow, neither she nor Ger turn around to enquire. Finally their procession comes to a halt. She could not even say for how long they had been climbing. A steep ascend as this and, burdened by a heavy load makes any distance longer than it is and, time becomes infinite. With Ger’s help, Rocky turns around to offload Oliver on to the ledge. Then they help him up, before assisting Femina and making place for Dan.
The cave is bigger than anticipated, but they still have to bend over, before they can pass upright through the second one. It is only a few meters to its exit, which has just like the front entrance a small ledge. There they finally sit down to have a rest and, even more importantly, take stock to plan their next steps.
Femina does not dare to let her emotions run uncontrolled, because what she sees and worse, what she doesn’t, makes her heart stop in its beat. There is this wall they need to abseil. From a small flat space at the bottom, a pale green eye stares up to her as she dares to look down. It must be about 4m or more. It is too difficult to estimate the true distance, any distance in fact, because there are no reliable reference points, no essential footholds to go by. Everything outside the light is cloaked and lies hidden within this unfathomable, impenetrable blackness. Above them, beneath them, in front of them, space expands into unknown heights, depths and, distances. And she asks herself, how on earth Rocky can believe that this crazy plan of his, this crazy climbing and scrambling, was the better alternative to a rabbit hunt. And now, they are seriously considering to block off the only known exit too!
Femina moves over next to Oliver, while the men, stern and resolved, begin with the final preparation and physical tasks necessary to execute their plan. She hears them rummaging in the caves, only Dan appearing now and then, to fetch something from their bags. Oliver breathes now with a constant rattling noise. His inability to open even his better eye to no more than a slit, is actually fortunate, as it prevents him to grasp the extent of the black horror that surrounds them. Though he may be in more pain again and may need more medication. Considering their circumstances however, all their supplies have to be rationed. Poor Oliver! He will just have to wait for his relief a bit longer. She feels his hand searching for her and reaches out to him. He only wants to hold hands it seems. Maybe, he needs her support, or maybe, he wants to reassure her. Who indeed can know his motivation but him! So they sit, holding hands, waiting in silence. She however, no longer believes that he sees Rocky’s plan as a promising solution to their plight, but just the lesser of two evils. Or is it she, who loses courage? ‘Whatever!’ She sneers. ‘We are dead meat! This or that way!’ Pondering, it seems like an eternity ago, that she had been looking for death, wanting to throw herself at his mercy, just to avoid to lose her life piece by piece. But death really did not want her then, not straight up at least. And now, after she has given up to look for him, now he remembers her again and, now he decides to play another game with her, no less cruel than the other one. The green light in the dark was no go-ahead signal as she was lured to believe before. A grave light it is, now, that she sees clearly! So why hang on to illusions?
As if Oliver was reading her thoughts, she feels him squeeze her hand. Turning her head, she looks at him. He, swaying his softly, utters a couple of words: “Rocky okay!”
She wonders whom he tries to console, her or himself. Forlorn, she smiles: “Sure! You know him, better than any of us, for sure…, “pausing, then adding: “……Whatever; we stick together, I say, for good or worse.”
The men come out of the cave. Rocky has a piece of pipe in his hands, looking for a safe spot somewhere to put it and prevent it from rolling off, or being stepped on.
“Now! Before we blast, I want everyone abseiled!” says he. “Ger, you first! Then we let Oliver down, then Femina, Dan and, I come last.”
Ger and Rocky get Oliver ready, bundling him into a sleeping bag again, as they had done before, when letting him down the ladder. To get him down the wall, it should help to cushion him against its rough surface. While he and Dan will manoeuver him from above, Ger has to manage him below as he arrives. The men sure are strong enough for the job, but it still will require their full attention and a precise co-ordination of action, to bring him down safely. Ger, light stick still stuck to his head, disappears over the ledge and down into the dark. After they hear his “okay”, they retrieve the rope, and immediately sling it over and around Oliver, knotting it up. Femina, as good as she can, gives a hand too, to get him over the rim, which is the most difficult part. The abseiling itself is the lesser problem, though certainly not without risks. When they set out on this flight, climbing was not something they had considered to be doing, to their regret now. At least, Rocky had some foresight, taking some essentials with him, though not enough. But, how can you ever estimate what is enough or too much of the things you may or may not need, when the way you have to take is unknown and time pressing? Big sigh of relief when they hear Ger’s “okay”, just as the rope loses traction.
It is Femina’s turn now. She and Rocky are just about to discuss her descend, when a loud “STOP” freezes them mid action. Puzzled, they turn around.
“I am leaving!” says Dan categorically, his voice being firm and unwavering.
What? They stare at him, lost for words. ‘Did he say, he won’t come with them?’
Dan kneels down at the rim, stretching neck and head over it, shouting his decision down to Ger. Dead silence. And then shouting from below, for Ger wants to come up at once. But Dan wants no discussion.
‘So that’s what he was brooding about! And now, he is panicking!’ The thoughts bolt through Femina’s mind like lightning, as she recalls his recent sullenness and silence.
Rocky seems to share her opinion. They start talking to him, trying to persuade him and to reconsider, but he counters by pointing out that, if he succeeded, he could bring them help. Yes, true, they say, but he still should not leave too hastily. He should at least talk it out with his friend and, does he not want to know what to expect, if he was leaving? Does he not want to get all the information, like how to exit the mountain and find his way beyond? That does it, only a dim mind could argue against. As Ger comes up, he reacts as emotionally as one can expect, pouring a tirade over Dan’s head, like he was pouring buckets of cold water over hot stone. He sure wanted an explanation, being friends, or aren’t they? Besides, he does not see any reason, nor a need, nor any kind of true advantage that could make him understand why he would want to leave. Friends stick together for better or worse! And doesn’t he see that he cannot expose his brother to a hunt like this? They would be lucky to escape at best of times, even without an injured one in their midst, but with one, it would need a miracle, wouldn’t it!
“True,” says Dan unperturbed, having endured his friend’s torrent of words until it ran out of steam. He shows no signs of panic, just grim determination: “Impossible, indeed! But on my own I see a good chance. Just think about it! What you are going to do depends as good on luck. But if I make it, I can at least organize help for you.” His head turns to Rocky, looking at him as if he was seeking his support.
Rocky does not reply immediately but then he nods: “It has its merits! But! It may also not be as easy as you may think, to organize help. You may even have to do it all by yourself, including to find your way into the reservation to get hold of my family. And they are not easy to find, not for you that is, if you escape Wilson to begin with. You do not know the area and not the dangers. Here in the mountain you may die in darkness, out there, the sun may fry you to death. But…….,” he pauses for a brief moment before he concludes, “….it is as good a chance as lucky incidents happen.”
“You are crazy, believe me!” Ger hones in again. “Of course it is easier on your own and, yes it is a welcome prospect if you can organize help for us, but, you are safer in here, with us. Besides, your help here is as important, if not more so than when you take your chances out there.”
Dan shakes his head: “You can do without me, I know. To separate is worth the try. I am sure, I can make it. At least, it is something you can hang on to, should you get stuck in here.”
Ger gives up, realizing he cannot persuade his friend to stay. He shakes his head in sheer resignation: “Okay then, so be it, but let me talk to Oliver first so you know all you need to know and, I am sure, Rocky will also want to help you as good as he can.” Confirming nods from there.
Ger abseils. They cannot hear the brothers talking below. Up on the ledge no one feels for talking at all. They are occupied with their own thoughts.
Femina does not believe that Dan was risking his life for the sake of their rescue; he does not want to sacrifice it, friendship or not. Though he may even feel a hero, believing he will get them help, if he can, he just sees the best chance for his life, if he was on his own; not burdened with others, not having to consider anyone else. Her lips purse in contempt. She never had illusions about his person and, definitely none, how or what he felt about her. He would leave her behind even if she had accepted the necklace “out of love”, making him obligated to take care of her. He will always find a way to get rid of anything that does not serve him, because he serves no-one, but him. There sure was no panic in his decision to leave, only icy cold calculation! Though beneath the surface of his demeanour lies indeed fear, panic stricken fear of losing his life, thus enforcing the primitive life instinct, essential for survival, giving it control and determination accordingly. It is a reflex action, short circuited, with no place for interference of any kind, be it friendship or rational thought. It is an auto pilot set in motion, with only one goal that is to survive, regardless, and at whatever cost.
She pauses. What unfriendly thoughts these are and plain useless! Instead, she better thinks about herself than him. Besides, she has no obligations either, neither to Dan, nor to the others. She could leave too. With, or without Dan, out of this mountain and thereafter for sure on her own. She may be even more likely to get away, at least more likely to stay alive. Even if she could not escape Wilson, she knows, he would rather want her alive than dead. For now, that is.
Femina stares down to the ground. She does not want to catch Dan’s eyes. Indeed, she does not even want to be alone with him anymore. No! She prefers to stay here! With people for whom she is no hindrance and definitely no prey. To the contrary! There is an injured human who needs her help. It would be against her nature to negate that fact. NO! NO! They will make it together, or not! Besides, she feels sorry for Oliver, indeed, she pities poor Adonis, for jealousy cost him so dearly. But there is something else! She needs to ask herself the all-important question: ‘Does she sacrifice her life for him?’ Hum! No! Not necessarily, not unconditionally! But as a matter of fact, she finds it utterly pointless to want to escape death. Why and for what? For a few hours, a few days more? Sure not! If death wants her, he will get her! He, after all, has the last word, no matter what. Apart from that, why does she turn death into an enemy? He is no enemy! To the contrary! He is often enough more compassionate than life. The saviour from unspeakable and relentless pain! How come, she does not remember, why she was looking for him not even that long ago, if she recalls it correctly? No! She has no reason to fear death! It is only her mind, her rationale that tries to convince her of that. Far more important is, that she is in peace with herself, now and, particularly, when death will take her, whenever it may be.
“Okay!” shouts Ger. They hang their heads over the rim.
“Follow the water course! Further down it will dissipate but a tunnel will lead you to the bunker from where you can exit the mountain. You will find several bikes and a strong 4 wheel drive and everything you may need, even several canisters with petrol. The door opens with a remote which hangs on the board to the right. It will also operate the camera. The screen above shows you the street outside. It will run only half an hour, but you can start again as often as you need. Make sure the street is empty when you exit! And you have not much time, because the door closes immediately behind you, when you have crossed the threshold. You cannot get back in and the exit is perfectly camouflaged. Nobody would ever know it is there. But there is no space outside either where you could halt. You have to turn into the road straight away. Turn left! That’s the way to Abebe, the capital and biggest city of the area. Though the street runs here right next to the lake, it is not a viable escape option, except you try to swim at night, following the western shoreline. Oliver advises against, because the lake is big and very busy and built out to the west with lots of local traffic and industries. To the east it is quite shallow with many grass islands and water channels hidden in reed. You may get lost and end up in the mud flats that expand endlessly. No matter which way you go, the air scouts will always spot you; during the day you have no-where to hide. Oliver believes, you would probably be best off on a bike. From the town centre to the harbour is about 30km, but from where you will come, it is around 100 km to the city, with several villages on the way. In Abebe, Rocky may put you up with his people for a while, not too long though, to prevent unnecessary, ‘neighbourly’ attention. Abebe is a big city, but not big enough to remain ‘incognito’ indefinitely. It is no city for holidaying either; it is a snake pit, corrupt through and through, and street gangs, where ever you turn. You can only breathe easy again when you cross the border into the northern territories. Either you go overland or by the lake, both routes will be extremely dangerous for you as the hunt is on. And there is no alternative way! It would lead you into the region controlled by the ‘Harrissars’, deadly for anyone who enters their land without their permission, but more so for you, a lone stranger.”
The steady stream of information stops short, only to draw the final conclusion: “That’s it! Needless to say that the city is crowded with Desperados. They are everywhere! It is their city, their territory! Still thinking of leaving?” asks Ger and waits briefly but, as there is no answer, he finally concludes: “Well then! All the best and good luck!” The whole speech he was standing, looking up to them, now he walks off and sits down next to his brother, head down, no attempt to engage further more.
They retreat from the rim. Dan looks at Rocky, waiting, while the latter sits silently, looking at him in deep thought, but what he thinks is anyone’s guess.
“Maybe I start with this…..,” he begins after all. “Abebe is divided into 4 rivalling zones. Though the Desperados have the overall control, these zones have their own captains who run their businesses by their own rules in their own interests, enforcing them as they like. This has nothing to do with council administration and the law as such. They are no law obeying citizens, conducting business accordingly, using the corrupt officials to push their agendas. Mind you, they also keep chaos at bay! My people control the East-Quarter. Lucky for you, because from where you will come, you can directly enter the city through the area of our domain. I still advise you, not to drive into the city, get off the bike when you reach the outskirts. Hide the bike and bike gear well off the travelled tracks so it’s not detected easily and continue by foot, but wait for the morning, because you can then mingle with the crowd, heading for the farmer’s market in town. Wear inconspicuous cloths and thongs, or whatever but boots, because they stick out, giving you away as a possible gang member. Simple country folks hate anyone who may belong to a gang, particularly when they don’t know, which one. Generally, they are harmless people, easy to go along with. You may even be able to catch a hike with one or the other. But do not underestimate them! They all head to the market near the city centre, where they have their stalls or do their dealings. The market operates daily and is very popular, particularly during the morning hours. Look for the central hall and there for the fish stand “Charlie’s Fish of the Day”. It is not really a stand but a converted caravan. It is a well-known place. The chefs of the city are all regular customers. Usually, Charlie is there by himself and he closes shop as soon as he sold his goods, which is usually midmorning. He definitely is never there comes midday. Selling only the freshest of fish and rarities, his stock is always in high demand. The sons do the fishing, passionate about it, as Charlie is. He just can’t do it anymore. They do not operate big commercial boats, but are a very old family business, small and, renowned for the quality of produce. Ask for him should he be absent. He is a white haired elderly man with grey facial hair if not a beard. Tell him, you come from me, but you have to use our code for this, an absolute necessity, to ensure only trustworthy people contact us. He will ask you how many fish I would need. Answer only with a number, in this case 6. It tells him that you are a friend of mine, who needs his help. He will then take care of you. But I warn you! Do not trust anybody besides Charlie and his people. If you get asked personal questions, stick to something like, you wanted to visit a friend but not finding him, so you head back to the city or out of and back home etc. Keep it simple to avoid suspicion. You have to understand, it is not a matter of avoiding Wilson’s net, you a r e in his net. The question is how to get out of it.
Dan listened carefully. Now he smiles. Even Femina believes that he may have a good chance. It comes back to the all-important time factor, - the quicker he gets going the better.
“What about weapons,” asks he? “I probably should have some defence, just in case, don’t you think?”
“Perhaps a knife, something you can conceal easily,” suggests Rocky. “Country people distrust anyone who carries arms, though they themselves do. Everybody does! But they don’t see it that way, because they carry knives, not guns. Guns are the weapon of choice for gang members. Mind you! Knives are formidable weapons!” A grim smile flits over his face. He hesitates briefly, then rolling up his jeans, exposing his calves, each carries a holster, one fitted with a knife and the other with a small pistol. He takes them off and hands them to Dan. “Maybe it is better for you to have both.”
Dan puts them on immediately. His self-assured attitude and determination shines through him, changes him, not only his demeanour and how he acts, it is his whole body, his whole appearance, transforming him into the alluring bike-rider again, with whom Femina set out on this journey, though with the difference of him displaying more his warrior side, than the relaxed and cool she had found so appealing. Maybe he is right to follow his instinct. Instinct is after all nothing negative. Dan is, despite his weaknesses not a bad person. He is rather a beautiful, exotic animal that has its value and deserves respect and, her love, as much as she deserves, or any other creature. Even if his motivation to leave is only due to the driving force of self-preservation, what difference does it make, if it serves others too? He will send them help should he reach safety and that is good enough! As far as her feelings for him are concerned and, being very honest to herself, she just is angry with him! Angry that he is the role model of a world order that limps behind the evolutionary progress, destroying but everything, as it holds on to tradition and, not wanting to let go, despite its out-dated usefulness. She loves the beautiful Dan, the “easy rider” but not the society he represents, nor his ambiguous morals and, definitely not his ambitions.
“Go on!” says Rocky. “Delaying only increases your risks.”
“Thank you brother!” answers Dan getting up. “I will make it! I shall get help! I promise!” He grabs an extra light stick and stuffs some essentials into his sleeping bag which he then shoulders and finally, disappears into the cave for good.
Rocky does not waste any more time either. He asks if she needed help with the abseiling or if she was able to climb the rope by herself.
“I do remember my physical training at school,” says she. “Rope work was not my favourite, but I should be able to get down. I know what to do.”
“Okay!” He looks at her somewhat curiously. “But be sure you are strong enough!”
He leans over the edge informing Ger of what they intend to do. Femina does too, more as a means to reassure herself that she knows, what she is in for. As she looks down, she is not as sure any more and jolts back. Rocky immediately noticing it, says: “Don’t worry!”
He calls back to Ger for change of plan and rolls up the rope. “We don’t need another casualty! I let you down. You’ll be alright.”
He wraps the rope in a spiral along one of her legs and up the body to her chest so her arms can hold on to the rope. It still lets her co-operate in the abseiling as needed. With the face to the wall and, keeping to it, she is so quickly down that she wonders, what on earth she had been scared off.
Rocky lets the rest of their goods down. While Ger gets busy to pile them up against the wall, he will make the final arrangements up there. The rope moves for a little while, to here and there, and up and down and, around, until it hangs limp for some time. Then it starts dancing again and Rocky swings himself over the rim. They watch him how he catches the rope with his legs alternating, and how co-ordinated and, swiftly, he manages his descent.
As he joins them, he looks pleased and says: “Well then, let’s get to it!” And he grabs a thin greyish dark string running upwards, which Femina would not have seen if he had not reached for it.
“What is with the rope? Can you get it down? Would be good, don’t you think?” asks Ger
“Yes, I think we get it, but after the blast, when it comes lose from its anchorage. At least I hope it does. If not, well, then we just have to do with a shorter rope.”
“Good,” says Ger, seemingly quite satisfied by Rocky’s thoroughness. “Let’s hope for the best!”
Femina sits down next to Oliver on the bags along the wall. Now the time has come. The tomb will be shut and then…, well what then? She feels as if she was suffocating already but, of course, this is only her mind going crazy, her rational mind that is, the intellectual mind, the one always wanting to know everything. Well, it knows ‘angst’ too and, fear that comes with it. And they are far bigger than it can handle. She hears herself gulping, loud and unmistakingly. Everyone can hear it! Ger sits down next to her. What miserable lot they are; one physically damaged, herself mentally and Ger torn by emotions. Only Rocky seems to be unperturbed, holding up the lighter as high as he can. ‘Snip!’ There is the flame!
Their eyes follow the hissing and spark spitting little red dot as it ascends up and up until it disappears. Now the waiting begins. She stares aimless into nothingness, while Rocky still stands, staring up. Femina, without really being aware of it, reaches for Ger’s and Oliver’s hands, grasping them to connect, so she can feel them waiting together. And so they wait. And wait, immersed in deadly silence. Her brain is shutting down, only her heart beats loud and louder. It tries so hard to raise alarm, but locked away as it is, it must beat even harder and harder. The lungs instead seem to forget breathing, or maybe her breath just got stuck in the choked up streets of her brain, and there it is kept waiting, though it does not know why and for what. So it continues waiting, as well as she does and the others do too. If she just could remember, what they are waiting for! Then, suddenly, she hears a loud ‘BUMM’ and, a thunderous crushing and, cracking and, knows not why. A wave of quivers and shivering surges through her body and, she is lifted up and, pushed against the rock wall. Rocks hurtle down from above, rumbling noisily past into the darkness, where they finally come to rest.
She is shaken out of the trance like state she was in. She looks around, startled and horrified. They are standing tightly together, pressing against the wall. What, or who got her there, she has no idea, but even Oliver is pinned against it, with Rocky’s arm wrapped around his back, either to hold him up or to protect him, or may be both. Nobody moves. Only when all appears to have settled, do they dare to move again. Rocky does not mind them sitting down, while he tugs at the rope to retrieve it. It seems to hold firm, so he attempts to climb up. But he does not get far, swiftly letting himself down again, while rock debris follows right behind him, as well as some bigger stones. However, the down pour ends as suddenly as it began.
“Good!” says he with a grin. “The rope is not anchored any more, just a bit stuck. I should be able to get it. I’m also certain that a good part of the caves is now impassable. We would not have rubble coming down so freely otherwise. Better you guys hug the wall again, while I try to get the rope!”
He positions himself with his back in front of them and begins to swing the rope into all directions, vigorously tugging at it in between. Again, gravel and stones are falling as he pulls, but he is only ready to give up when some serious big rocks come down as well. Then, in his last attempt and a final strong pull by hanging on with the weight of his body, amongst the falling rocks there also comes the rope. A big sigh of relief and they break into cheerful laughter, strange though it is, for none of them gives it a second thought, of how little difference it makes, if they died from falling stones or die in the dark chambers ahead. As long as there is breath, life hangs on, no matter how thin the thread may be. The mind is programmed for survival. It cannot react other than that, nor is it permitted to; it is its duty and its priority to sustain life, even if life is no longer desirable and, even if it is mangled and pained.
“Hope, it is not just gravel blocking the caves. It would be safer for us. Gravel is after all removed too easily.” Rocky’s remarks put an end to them cheering.
“You don’t seriously think, Wilson would chase after us here, within this unforgiving darkness and uncharted hollows?” Ger looks at him rather astonished. But both, Rocky and Oliver nod. Oliver’s flight is treason and treason warrants death. Not just any death! Wilson will not let anything stand in his way to get hold of him, be it rubble or else and, will not give up, definitely not as long as he believes, he is in the mountain and alive. Of course, their advantage is that he will not easily disclose his secret passageway, at least not if he sees a chance to get hold of them otherwise. But he has dogs and how many men does it really need to follow their tracks? Naturally, it would be best, if he thought, they already left the mountain and he would concentrate his search on areas, where he would expect them to be.
Therefore, Rocky lets them rest only briefly. He wants to press on, get away from here as far as possible and as long as they are strong enough to endure. Rest they can later, may be even more than they desire.