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Piqued - A Toki Ponist Adventure
Chapter 28: Tunnel vision

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jan pi jo ala en jan pi jo ale li ken lon pona.
jan ante li wile jo li ken weka mute.
Toki Ponist Pu

“What are you doing here?” Joakim asked Alex when they arrived in his Antarctic residence. The dorm looked the same as his own. Alex had put little effort into making it his own personal space.

“Same as you. There is something strange going on and I will not snooze and see the world go down. Most people just keep on living their lives as usual. It drives me insane.”

“Lenny and Ford said you were on a cruise on the coast of Patagonia.”

“That is what I told them, and it is what I did. But then I applied for a maintenance job here. Believe it or not, in these times many return home from this base to spend time with their friends and families. Meanwhile, I was trying to get the hell out of there.”

He poured himself and Joakim a drink from a bottle hidden in a cupboard, making a bit of a mess of it.

“Thanks,” Joakim said. “So you’re after the same guys as I am.”

“They are hiding something, everyone on the base knows it.”

“I have information that they are operating a very large-scale computer model in there,” Joakim said.

“Makes sense, they are guzzling up a lot of power. Did you know they have their own private geothermal power supply outside the base?”

“Where is that?”

“You can’t crawl your way there, but it’s not far either, just few minutes by quad.”

He cocked one eye and held up his drink, spilling even more on the table.

“You know, I have access to it. There is some kind of maintenance tunnel, so they just gave me the keys to it. Fancy that. I checked it out last week and I saw a few strange devices with no obvious purpose.”

“They might be random number generators,” Joakim said, parroting Piran’s words.

“Whatever they are, I bet they connect to their labs. Tell you what, if you drop by tomorrow morning I will take us there and you can see for yourself.”

“Won’t they notice us? Did you see what they did to that man who tried to break into their lab?”

“I don’t know who that was, but yes, they are dangerous so we will be careful. I have been observing their movements and whereabouts. In the three weeks that I am here, I have only seen one of them visit the tunnel once.”

Joakim told Alex about his trip up the Austrian mountain and his escape from the crow people with Julian.

“So these crow people admitted to stealing something?” said Alex. “And you think these are the same men who botched that break-in today?”

“I believe so, because one of them saw me. Now that he knows I am here, I feel less than safe.”

“I understand. I understand,” Alex said. “All the more reason to sort this out as soon as possible. Maybe you should not be gallivanting about on your own anymore. Something bad could happen, and nobody would notice it.”

“Can I make a call from here?”

“Sure, I’ll get you the operator.”

Joakim spoke to Tessa, and he told her he had witnessed something scary and felt unsafe to go about it alone. Tessa promised to send her colleagues around to pick him up, and so they did.

After dinner and a drink, Joakim went to bed in a sack of unease, tossing his sheets about. He had locked the residence extra tight so nobody could break in. There was no television or radio to distract his mind, and he had forgotten to pack anything to read.

The next day, after breakfast, Joakim headed back to Alex. He told Tessa he would help her with her research the next day, but that he needed to get settled a bit more on the base.

“Let’s go,” Alex said when he saw Joakim coming. He was manhandling a small tractor filled with tools and building materials. “Hop in and I’ll take you to that tunnel.”

It was a bumpy ride, because Alex drove like a maniac. There wasn’t much danger of hitting anything or anyone out here, but Joakim would have preferred taking more smooth approach instead of plowing the shortest path.

“So what does this tunnel do?” Joakim said when Alex had turned off the engine.

“As far as I know, they used it for research like everything else on this base. I don’t know what they were looking for, but the tunnel reaches quite far into the ground and is high enough for Lenny to stand in.”

He smirked.

“I am afraid you and I have to duck.”

Alex took a heavy key from his belt and opened the thick steel leading into the tunnel. He turned on the lights. They flicked on one by one along the tunnel, stressing the straight start and the subsequent bend downwards into the earth.

Joakim hesitated to enter the tunnel, he never liked cramped places. Besides, he was not sure how this would help him understand the neuro implant or getting his hands on the blueprints of the machine.

Alex, noting the reluctance, tried to put Joakim at ease. “Do you notice it is even getting quite warm in here?”

“Remind me what we are doing here,” Joakim said.

“After thirty meters, there is a machine going down into the deep ice. I think it’s the geothermal energy pump.”

“Okay, show me,” Joakim said.

They crouch-walked towards the gentle hum of the machine. Cables, tubes, and conduits lined the walls but could not prevent the humming to reverberate around the entire tunnel.

“Here we are,” he said when they stood before a metal gate. Behind the gate, a glorified metal box with gauges showing pressure or power or something else whirred with glee.

“So what is strange about it?” Joakim asked.

“I have access to all machines, because I fix all the things that break down in this forsaken climate. But I don’t have access to this gate and this infernal device.”

Something beeped outside.

“I am being called,” Alex said. “I have to take it, you investigate this machine and tell me what you find when I get back, okay?”

“Sure,” Joakim said, and he studied the markings on the walls around the machine. The characters on the machine were Cyrillic, but he could not make out what language it was.

When Joakim put his eye against the gate between the main tunnel and the machine, he shook up from a loud bang. The door to the tunnel had been closed. And far before Joakim could reach the door, he heard the familiar clicking mechanism of a lock. “Hey!” Joakim called out. If the tunnel had not been so well insulated, he would have heard the tractor disappearing in the distance.

With the doors closed, Joakim felt the temperature plummet. Joakim was not a person who thought bad of people. Alex got an emergency call. He remembered protocol and shut and locked the door before leaving. There are people where others always populate their mind, and you have more absent-minded people that forget others exist when they are in pursuit of their own goals. Neither attitude is only bad. Though, there was being free plus warm and locked in plus cold. Personality and situation aside, Joakim had had no choice.

After a minute, the lights turned off and only the faint glow of emergency low-energy LEDs lightened up the place. Joakim could just make out his bearing. He banged on the door and checked if he could open it from the inside. Both approached turned out to be futile. If Alex had wanted to leave him here, there would be no one around to rescue him, and if a rescue team was coming, they would not need him banging on the door either. He glanced at the thermometer on his wrist. It had dropped from around freezing point when they were outside, to an uncomfortable minus twenty-three degrees Celsius. He wobbled towards the gate, safeguarding the supposed energy source. While it was warmer here near this energy-leaking device, the temperature was still plummeting. It was now minus thirty-five and breathing hurt as the moisture leaving and entering his mouth and nostrils was battling at the front of phase transitions.

Then he remembered Tessa’s explanation of the wonderful technology in the suits they were wearing. He had not been paying attention, because he would not do any field work. He felt his neck. There was a bulge of fabric. He grabbed it and pulled it over his head. With a zipper he locked it tight, allowing for sight through a little hardened plastic window. A velcro patch of fabric glued itself over the zipper for extra insulation. This soothed his throat, but the cold remained. He tapped and dabbed every part of his suit. Not to warm himself by physical exercise, but he recalled a button he had to push in case of emergencies. And this situation felt like an emergency. If it wasn’t, he did not mind getting told off for misusing the emergency button. Right when his feet were getting so numb he thought his knees were standing on the tunnel floor, Joakim bumped a switch. A light blinked and there was a beep. And after that he felt a warm flow emanate from his back across his entire body all the way to his coldest extremities.

Joakim sat down, relieved and lulled by the sudden warmth. But in the tunnel, the temperature dropped further to a steady minus seventy degrees. He was still close to the energy device, but too far to reach it and to interact with it. Joakim ventured further into the tunnel. He had nothing to lose. He did not expect another exit, but if someone builds a tunnel this long in such an inhospitable place, there should at least be something interesting at the very end of it.

There wasn’t. At least, not that Joakim could make sense of.

The tunnel seemed to be otherwise out of use and tidied up. Nobody abandoned any tools in a dark corner. Life was not a point and click adventure, nor a hidden object game. This tunnel is nothing more than a death tube towards the gates of heaven or hell.

If I don’t make it out of here, my body will make an excellent cryobiology specimen. That would take a fair amount of time. Anything that could happen in here, from being rescued, found, frozen, or starved, would take quite some time. Joakim had a standard way of crossing off time as a variable, and that was to just sit. Or meditation, as others would call it. He folded himself as well as his thermal outfit would allow into a seating position. It was harder with his visor fogging up, the ill-fitted outfit and the unfriendly environment. But this was what meditation all about anyway, breaking away from the strings of existence in the face of all physical and mental distractions. With time grinding to a halt, matters more and more approached the qualities of light. He dug deeper into himself until the world around him blurred into an experienceless, yet spacious void.

Joakim wanted to sense Kalisa, but no ripples propagated through the unperceivable emptiness. He focused on using the tunnel as an energy conduit to other continents. There might not be any travel worthy energy lines yet, he knew just putting your attention to them could create them. Ropes unrolled to all sides, searching for a connection to anything or anyone. Joakim’s heart stayed vigilant, because in this in-between, it could be dangerous to fish with a catch-all strategy. One rope found its way, because he could hear Kalisa’s voice in the vibrations of the rope.

“Joakim!” she said. “You found me. Hold on, I’m on my way.”

Then a second, and a third rope got pulled on. Distant growls entered Joakim’s attention. “Something’s coming!” he yelled to Kalisa.

“Cut the ropes and fall back into consciousness,” Kalisa said. “You have given me a map, and that is all I need. Do it, now!”

Joakim let go of all the ropes, but the last one lashed back and coiled itself around his ephemeral arm. He tried to pull free, but this only tightened the grip. A miasmic odor crawled into his body, disintegrating his ethereal cells one by one. Joakim tried to find solidity in the minute details he could remember of the icy tunnel. This brought him back to the cold, lonely, and almost pitch-black tunnel.

All was quiet, until the temperature dropped again. The stench re-emerged straight into his suit, now as real as nostrils could signal. Within the dark tunnel, a new level of darkness swallowed even the faintest glow of the emergency lights. An icy scream filled the tunnel and seemed to bellow Joakim’s lungs with so much air it bursted out into another raw scream. Both screams reverberated up and down the tunnel until they synced up unison. Silvery pain.

Then, amidst the agony, footsteps came his way. The screams stopped.

Then the tunnel flooded with another, now even more real and intense cry.

mama sewi pakala o unpa mi a!“ Kalisa cussed, almost dropping to the floor when she saw Joakim. “Couldn’t you have warned me I’d freeze to death? I’ll be back.”

Kalisa stumbled back into the darkness of the tunnel. “You look terrible, by the way.”

“It’s Antartica, what did you expect yourself?” he yelled into the void. His words reflected on the end of the tunnel. “Self, self, self,” the walls said to Joakim. Joakim recoiled in the aftermath of anxiety.

After a few minutes, the footsteps returned at a much more relaxed pace. Kalisa appeared from the darkness, dressed like a cave dweller from a distant planet. Thick layers of animal skin and fur covered her body from top to bottom.

“Looking good,” Joakim said.

“Your microwaved carrot look is also quite charming,” Kalisa replied. “So how’s tricks? Is this your new office?”

Joakim brought Kalisa up to date with what had transpired in the last two days.

“We’ve been in a prison before and we have escaped before.”

Kalisa inspected the walls and the gate to the energy device.

“One way of getting people to flock here is to destroy as much as we can of this device and all the tubes and conduits in this tunnel. Someone will come and see what is going on here, and then we can take them out and escape.”

“I’ve tried to open and break things, but I did not get anywhere.”

“Never underestimate the destructive powers of a woman’s touch,” Kalisa said smirking, but her frown and frantic touching of the solid surface of the tunnel revealed she failed at getting very far.

“And the door?” Kalisa said.

“It’s locked.”

“Let’s check it out.” They half-walked, half-crouched towards the tunnel exit.

“If you build a tunnel, and have emergency lighting and you have a lockable door, you always design a way to open the door from the inside, unless you designed it to be a prison, of course.”

“That is what I thought too, but not this door,” Joakim said.

“So you did not find this at all?” said Kalisa while a loud click and hiss released the door allowing the warmer freezing air in along with a sharp white light.

“You know the word for a solution like this,” she said.

pona,” they said together.

“Now show me the facility where this computer is eating up all that energy,” said Kalisa.

They ventured out into the icy dessert. Looking around did not help in orienting at all. Joakim ran around in a frenzy, while Kalisa waited at the tunnel entrance.

“Found it,” Joakim said. He pointed at tracks in the ice. These are the tracks of the tractor Alex was driving bringing me here. All we have to do is follow them back to the base.

“Let’s get to it then,” Kalisa said, taking monster steps with her heavy furry snow boots.

“I’ll warn you when I see a mammoth for you to hunt.”

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