I should go back—!
There was a chance he could trace his trail in the drying goo—find his way in footsteps, dents, stains. He squatted and flicked the light onto the rock, spying the white trail marking his passage. Better than Hansel and Gretel.
And nothing's gonna eat this stuff.
Phew! His sigh was gusty, and it took some of the tension with it. He rested his head on his arms, making himself stay there until his pounding heart slowed, and the tightness left his gut. No problem. When his legs went from water to sinew, he pushed himself to his feet.
He was trying, almost desperately it seemed now, to hang onto a dream. No one had ever said this would be easy. Not one of the numerous books he'd read had hinted that the artifacts would be standing in plain sight, there for the taking. You knew you'd have to work for it.
Right. He closed his eyes, sucked a deep breath, stilled his quaking thighs, then aimed the light at the big empty water chute ahead. Water comes in, water goes out. If I need to…
He didn't finish it. The size of the channel, and the droplets lining the walls, was daunting.
Click. Click. Click. He forged ahead, toward the source. There were no birds in sight now, but some part of him sought the comfort of those fragile forms. The company of other living things.
Logic. Reason it out, Bradford.
The birds wouldn't be there unless they had another point of entry. Not even a cave swiftlet would nest this deep. Another way in? One that was easy for swifts? Maybe, even, easy for ancient humans?
Swiftlet nests were the source of birds nest soup. Could it be this civilization, such as it was, had found a similar use? Valued and chased the click clack into, down, and through these tunnels? Nudge picked up his pace, almost eager now. I'm close. I know it.
There was a glimmer of light ahead from a split in the tunnel wall. Nudge was nearly running, the sound of his own feet echoing comfortingly. Company…
He was right, though he didn't know it. The clicks grew louder and he slowed, momentarily hesitant. Too loud for birds…
At that instant, a shadow cut the slanting light ahead.