Challenge Two

The telemetry screen was as black and silent as the world around him. No sign of Enforcers, no sign of the Dark Shadows that had gotten him into all this trouble. Rodney supposed he ought to feel relieved, but the sensor hadn't picked up anything since he'd left the city two days ago and it was starting to unnerve him.

He was sitting on a small boulder, taking a quick rest as well as a reading on his portable telemetry scanner. The sensor was not telling him very much though, except that a large space was looming up ahead. A tingle of anticipation tickled down his spine, but Rodney didn't allow himself to hope. He had come across many such places on his journey and this newest was likely just to be yet another wide mine shaft that had been drilled by the colonists half a century ago.

After scrutinizing the scanner for another minute, Rodney got to his feet and started out once more, the shivering beam of his headlamp splashing light across the jagged rock that surrounded him. The crinkling of his infrared cloak and the crunching of his boots over pebbles resounded with unbearable loudness against the close walls. Even now, miles and miles from Telluria, the noise made him cringe and want to kick off the boots and go barefoot once more.

He was in an old mining tunnel that probably hadn't been used for several decades at least. While this probably helped to conceal him from Enforcement sensors, he had to constantly look out for yawning rifts that could appear at any moment to swallow him up, and he had to tread carefully to avoid tripping over chunks of rock that had crumbled from the ceiling over the years. Had it not been for his night vision contact lenses, Rodney would have found the task nearly impossible. Thankful for them though he was, however, Rodney had grown very tired of the emerald hue they gave the already eerie tunnels. He had nearly forgotten what other colors looked like.

As Rodney walked, he noticed a strange smell creep into the air — or rather the sudden absence of an odor that had been there all along. The air smelled fresher, cooler, cleaner. Rodney's pulse quickened and his pace along with it. Could this finally be it? Could he at last be getting close? The ground was sloping downward now and Rodney broke into a half jog. His lamp flashed across something bright and shiny ahead. 

And suddenly, the tunnel walls spread apart. The ceiling arced high overhead, and Rodney found himself in an enormous cavern which stretched out farther than his light could touch. Weird rock formations grew from the ground and reached up to kiss stalactites that dripped like petrified icicles from the shadowy ceiling. The air felt suddenly chillier and resonated with echoing plinks of dripping water.

Rodney slowed and came to a halt at the edge of a vast, subterranean lake. It was black as oil, smooth as a mirror, and it glittered in the glow of Rodney's lamp, reflecting its beam perfectly on its onyx surface. Rodney gazed out over the water in wonder. He had reached Old Telluria.

He had been expecting this, counting on this, but seeing the placid, jet-black water stretched out before him at last filled him with a wonderful sense of relief. He had finally left the tunnels.

When humans had first come to colonize Amber, their resources had been limited. The entire population had come from a single spaceship and they possessed only the minimal supplies they had brought with them. They lacked the tools and time to build a city like Telluria, but they needed protection from the harsh stellar radiation that frequently blasted the planet's surface. So they had settled in a massive network of natural caves, formed by an eternity of gently dripping carbonic acid. Rodney now overlooked the site where that first settlement had once been.

But a little over a century ago, the colony had been all but obliterated. Rodney had researched the event exhaustively as he had planned his escape. It had started as a leak, a harmless-looking spring that some miners came across while they were drilling and which they neglected to notify the head geologist of. But their drilling had started something which couldn't be stopped. In the enclosed space, the water had followed the path of least resistance: toward Old Telluria itself. When the miners returned a few days later, the tiny rivulet had widened to a large stream and the entire shaft was filled with water. The miners tried to plug the spring, but it had already gotten out of hand. It took mere days for the entire city to be submerged.

There was no recovering the colony. It had been buried in a watery grave, costing the Tellurians numerous lives and critical resources. Human life on Amber had almost been extinguished like a candle on a birthday cake. But humanity hadn't traveled through space for nearly one hundred years just to perish in the dark. The colonists were resilient; they clung to what they had left and tried to start over. After the flood, the survivors ventured deeper into the ground, drilling and blasting themselves new caverns until they finally came to the place where Telluria was now, far away from any subterranean water deposits. 

Unlike the colonists, however, Rodney was elated to have struck water at last. Not only had he drained the last droplets of his bottle this morning, but an underground water source was probably his only hope of finding the surface. If his guesses were correct, following the spring that fed the lake should eventually lead him out of the caves. Any number of things could still go horribly wrong, but at least he was no longer lost, and at least he wouldn't thirst to death.

Rodney started to make his way around the edge of the lake, gazing into the inky waters below him. Somewhere at the bottom lay the rusting buildings of the colony, undisturbed, like Atlantis of myth. It was water that had brought colonists to Amber, yet it was also water that had nearly destroyed them.

The End

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