Men Not Afraid: Bats!

  1. Chapter 10: Camp Hayes
  2. Men Not Afraid
  3. Chapter 12: The Sleeping City

The lantern’s light sparkled off the dust as the dust settled to the ground. There was no sound of gunfire, and the low rumble had long since died away. There were sniffles from the crowd of slaves. The pathway up the caverns was blocked with rubble, and boulders the size of humans.

“Okay,” said Sam. “So.” She looked at Laura. “How thick do you think this is?”

“I cannot hear a thing from beyond,” said Laura. “No echoes, no gunshots, how can we tell? We either sit and wait for rescue, or we find another way out.”

“I don’t think anyone’s going to rescue rebel slaves and a couple of trouble-makers from out East,” said Sam. “Do you think we can find another way out?”

“No. But these caverns twist all over the place. We might. And as long as we mark where we’ve been, we can always return here if we think it will do us any good.”

“So,” said Kuong Mai. “Nice rescue.”

“Did we cause the rebellion?” asked Laura, unsure.

“No, no, it’s been building for a long time. Don’t worry, this isn’t your fault,” she replied. “But we’re still stuck here. How’s mom?”

“She’s a seer in Miami, Florida,” said Sam. “She goes under the name of ‘Madame Zhuong’.”

“Well, she always seemed to know what I was doing before I even started. I thought all moms could do that.”

“They can,” said Sam.

“So now she’s mom for an entire city?” quipped Mai.

“She also sells things, she runs a curio shop.” said Laura.

“Junk, right? Mom never could throw anything away.”

“No, art objects, religious items, that sort of thing.”

“Yeah, don’t let her kid you. It’s all bric-a-brac where we’re from.”

“We’re thinking about trying to find another way out,” said Sam. “How well do you know these caverns? And do you think there’ll be any rescue attempts?”

“After a minor rebellion? Not likely. And yeah, we know these caverns pretty well, we’ve lived here for five years. There’s no way up, only ways down.”

“Then down, I suppose, is where we’ll have to go,” said Laura. “Maybe we can find another way up.”

“Yeah, or maybe we can have a nice outing before we die,” said Mai.

“You don’t seem to worried about it,” said Sam.

“Beats working,” said Mai. “Here, anyway.”

Laura took a reddish stick of chalk out of her shoulder-pouch.

“Come on, then,” she said.

They walked through the crowd. The cavern was angled perceptibly down. Kuong Mai explained the plan in detail, animatedly. She was obviously happier now that she was separated from the overseers by tons of rock. A few of the slaves opted to stay behind. They were never seen again. Even when a rescue was attempted by Sam and Laura, no one was beyond the cave-in. Just some scrawled Chinese writing: “light” and “sea”.

Sam, Laura, and Mai led the rest of the slaves—ex-slaves—down the cavernway. The child who had led Sam and Laura to Kuong Mai became inseparable from Sam. The journey was difficult. In many places they had to crawl. In a few places they had to climb. They took lateral passages whenever possible. But for the most part they went down, and down, and down. When Laura’s red chalk ran out, she took a similar piece of white chalk from her pouch.

“Seems like we’re destined to go both high and low, Laura,” said Sam, as they crawled through a particularly small, flat passage. “First the moon, now this.”

“Didn’t your Wells write something about the center of the earth?” asked Laura.

“Yes, but he said we’d find open space, dinosaurs, and natives,” said Sam.

“Well then,” said Mai. “Here we are: your open space.”

The flat passage opened onto a thin ledge, and they crawled out to a high cliff overlooking an unknown expanse. The lantern’s light glinted off of something far below. The unmistakeable smell of dank foliage greeted them in the open air. What in the upper world lived only on the fringes, beneath rocks and fallen trees, smelled as if it ruled in this unknown world.

“What’s that noise?” asked Sam. They all heard it: a high-pitched squeeking.

“That would be your natives,” said Laura.

She scanned the “sky” with the lantern; there was nothing. To the left and to the right on the ledge was likewise nothing: neither plant nor animal. The smell and the squeeking remained to tell them that something was somewhere. That the squeeking grew more sporadic and quiet after Laura searched with the lantern did not help their unease.

“Left or right?” asked Sam.

“The ledge is thicker to the right,” said Laura. “It should be easier for our entourage.”

“Your entourage is getting impatient,” said Mai. “Shall we let them out into the ‘sunlight’?”

Laura flashed the lantern in every direction again; still there was nothing.

“If we are going to find a way back up,” said Laura, “this will be where we find it. This must be the center where all downward passages reach. Sam, go to the left: if the right ledge runs out, we’ll want to turn around and try the left one. Then you’ll lead.”

So Laura moved down the ledge to the right and let the ex-slaves crawl into the open. Mai and Sam stayed to the left, Mai guiding each person to pop out of the tiny passage, towards Laura.

There were things in the cavern. At the edge of the lantern’s light bats fluttered occasionally. They still had eyes, though they must never have used them, and they squeeked loudly when the lantern’s light hit them. Root-like vines, or vinous roots, hung limp, here and there, from the darkness above.

There was grumbling from the ex-slaves as the ledge thinned out.

“I think we’d better turn around,” said Laura. “This is getting to dangerous for some of these people.”

Mai whispered to the ex-slave first in line, who whispered to the next, on down to Sam, who didn’t understand but figured it out pretty easily. The parade turned around.

Halfway back to the “entrance”, a piercing scream froze them, almost literally. Glops of mud fell on and around Laura, blocking the lantern’s light. The scream resolved itself into dozens of loud squeeks. A cold, fetid breath was upon them and each were lifted, kicking and screaming on their own, into the air.

They were carried through the cold, dark air. The vines slapped them occasionally on the way; the vinefields grew thicker the further they were carried. After what seemed to be hours, but was probably less than one, they were dropped unceremoniously onto a plant-covered rock floor. Sam immediately drew her sword, and Laura cleared a few spots on the lantern before preparing her incantations.

“Make everyone crowd behind us,” Laura said to Mai. “And take that kid away from Sam before he gets hurt.”

The fugitives were backed against the cavern wall. Facing in the air and on the ground in front were a band of rat-like people with wings, or people-like bats. They were four feet tall, light-colored and furry and they tried always to move clear of the lantern’s light. They were also unsure what to do about Sam’s silvery sword. One of them moved in towards Sam and Laura. Laura took her Chinese fan and waved it; a huge wind blew the bat-people back. Some of them slipped off the edge, fell, and then swooped back up.

“Can you talk to them, Laura?” asked Sam.

“Yes, invite them for lunch,” said Mai, trembling.

“No, I can’t talk to them unless they’re willing,” said Laura. “But I can understand them: we’re ‘warmfood’. We don’t have to invite them to lunch, we are lunch.”

“So we fight our way out?” asked Sam.

“Out where?” asked Mai.

“Somewhere else,” said Sam. “Somewhere other than the dinner table.”

“Mai, take the lantern and look around,” said Laura.

Mai took the lantern while Laura began waving the fan again. The bat-people beat their leathery wings against the wind it created.

“We’re on some kind of a plateau or ledge,” said Mai. “There ain’t no way off.”

“Then we either go down or up,” said Sam, holding the sword out in front of her to ward off unwanted visitors. “And I don’t think we can climb up.”

“Sam, use your rifle and see if you can scare them off. I don’t think this is a dead zone.”

“That’s good, because I don’t want to be dead,” said Mai.

“And it looks big enough to not worry about cave-ins,” continued Laura.

Sam sheathed her sword and flipped her Marlin from her back. She fired one round past one of the flying bat-people and the sharp retort reverberated slowly. One of the bat-people bared its teeth and hissed, and fought its way past Laura’s fierce winds. Sam primed the lever, aimed, and fired again, and the creature dropped from sight.

The bat-people screeched and let themselves be pushed backwards. Then they turned around and flew out of sight.

“I think that they’re going to wait until we’re gone,” said Laura. “I couldn’t quite make out what they were saying.”

“I could,” said Mai. “They went screech, screech.”

“Thanks,” said Laura. She pulled out her rope. “Is there anything to tie this to?”

Sam hammered some spikes into the ground and they wrapped the rope around them. They threw both ends of the rope down the side of the cliff.

“You go first, Sam,” said Laura, “and lead them down. I’ll come down last. We need to keep this rope.”

They climbed down the side of the underground cliff, Sam leading the way. Near the end of the rope, Sam found another ledge and led everyone onto it. Laura pulled the rope down and they repeated the process. The further down they went the wetter it became, and, if not colder, the dampness made it feel so.

At the bottom were fungi and soft moss the size of trees and bushes, and one dead bat-creature.

“Now where to?” asked Mai. “Which way to Miami?”

  1. Chapter 10: Camp Hayes
  2. Men Not Afraid
  3. Chapter 12: The Sleeping City