Chapter Six: The Proving Ground
Dennethom felt the urge to throw up. His mouth was dry and rage threatened to overwhelm him. The unfairness of it all. He had lost his grandparents early on. He didn’t even remember his father. Now to lose his brother and sister. How? How could he do this? His mother would never forgive him. It would destroy her. His mother….
“Have you been able to raise the camp?” he asked, turning to the warrior on Comms.
“No, sire,” he replied stiffly.
“I wanted to at least say goodbye to them,” he muttered. He found himself glancing about at his crew. Everyone on board the bridge, everyone throughout the ship, knew somebody in the camp. This wasn’t some ugly decision that would only affect him. Every one of them would be affected. But they all know their greater duty was to protect the Boentu people. Of course, invaders were one thing. But a virus?
Illness had taken away many of his family. He wondered how his brother and sister were faring? They wouldn’t want to be cut down by illness. No Boentu wants that.
“Tactical,” Dennethom said, and his voice cracked. “Target GenShar camp. Fire when ready.”
He watched as the plume went up from the planet surface, and felt his insides being torn apart. His mind screamed. But he stayed and watched, even as the blackness overcame his vision.
Dennethom opened his eyes. He was in the glowing cavern again. Only, the rocks no longer glowed.
He stank. He had thrown up. Probably a reaction to whatever radiation exposure the rocks produced. Dennethom wondered if he had made the decision fast enough, before the glowing cavern had done permanent damage to his body.
The memories still clung to him, even as he felt the platform, chair and all, begin to rise, and saw the hazy sky as the ceiling opened.
He refused to think about the all too real hallucination and the choice he had made, as he grabbed Lossepharr and brought him to the platform. Instead he focused on the sky above, and the exit.
Dennethom continued to the platform, even as his cousin’s knees gave out and he began sobbing. The platform held a single chair. More tests. When would it end?
He sat down. What choice did he have? Those creatures would eventually find their way in, and then what? No. He would keep going. Readying himself, he noticed a series of strange crystals. They formed a circle around his chair and they glowed eerily.
He was in the glowing cavern. Of course. The room which had caused his father’s sterility, or so his mother said. He wondered if he had made the right choice but then he felt an overwhelming sense of fatigue, his eyelids grew heavy.
“We need a decision,” said the patient voice of Quani.
Dennethom looked over. He sat on-board the bridge of the Boentu Atten. Looking out at the view screen he could see the capital planet of Anhur spread out before him. Anhur. His home. Below were his wife, his children, his brother and sister.
Hist stomach churned as he realised what decision Quani referred to. How had he let his mind wander?
“Run me through the options again,” he replied.
Quani licked his lips. He looked unhappy. “There isn’t much of an option. The infection rate is too high.”
“We could wait for the Arthemian doctors. Yes?”
“Sire, if we wait for the Arthemian doctors to arrive in another week, the whole planet will be infected.”
“If there was just a way to quarantine them,” Dennethom suggested, feeling desperate. He and Doctor Rymor had already been over this.
“Quarantine is not an option, sire. We don’t know how to contain this infection. We don’t know anything about it. As you know, we’ve already sent medical personnel down to the GenShar camp, using our standard protocols. Within hours of entering the camp, they were infected too.”
Dennethom hissed. He felt ill. He shouldn’t make this decision now. What if he had the infection too? It was impossible of course. He had been visiting the outer planets and only just arrived home shortly after the breakout at the camp. The camp where his brother and sister were training with other warriors.
“If we could pick up one of the sick or dead to study the virus, in a clean environment.”
“The Arthemians have clean environments and robotics. We don’t have that kind of technology. Nothing we have on Mandos is capable of handling an infection of this magnitude.”
Dennethom took a deep breath. “So we destroy one camp, and millions of lives? Or we wait to find a cure and risk losing the whole planet?”
“That’s the choice,” Quani replied in hushed tones.
“My brother and sister are down in the camp,” Dennethom said. His voice sounded shaky.
“And your wife and child is in the palace.”
They ran through the cavernous hallways of the proving ground. Lossepharr took a tumble forcing Denethom to grab his cousin and heave him back to his feet. They couldn’t stop. Not for anything. The hairless creatures, whatever they were, would soon catch up Dennethom didn’t want to find out what would happen if they were caught.
Nobody mentioned these creatures living in the caverns of Hadad. Dennethom considered himself well-travelled, but he had never seen creatures such as these. Four legged. Large, almost the size of a full-grown Boentu. With snapping sharp canines.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Lossepharr wasn’t cooperating. Occasionally he would call out for his father, or act as though he had just seen one of his brothers hiding behind a stalagmite. Dennethom’s vision wasn’t entirely normal either. He kept getting turned around. Whatever gas was in that crystal cavern had done something to him. He felt more intoxicated now than on his birthday. And his cousin had gotten a much higher dosage.
When the creatures did catch up to them, Dennethom was forced to fight them off with his bare hands. Losspeharr was too busy cowering, although it wasn’t entirely his cousin’s fault. Who knew what those creatures looked like to him. One of the creatures got lucky and grabbed Lossepharr, pulling him down and causing Dennethom to twist his ankle. To his surprise, Lossepharr clutched his hand keeping him from falling.
Still they ran. It felt as though they were going deeper underground. Dennethom certainly hoped not. Exhaustion, coupled with hunger and confusion left him at his wit’s end. How had his father managed to come home triumphant, while bringing Katha along as well?
Blood streamed down his leg where the creature had scratched him. He so desperately wanted to stop.
The tunnels seemed darker now and the walls closed in on him. He could hear the creatures coming up from behind. But how far away were they? Lossepharr cried out.
One of the beasts clawed at Lossepharr’s armoured tunic. Lossepharr held his hands out in front of him, but did nothing to defend himself. Dennethom turned back once more and exerted his entire body weight as he lifted the creature, heaving it back into the darkness. It yelped in surprise .
“Come on cousin!” Dennethom urged, grabbing Lossepharr’s collar and dragging him along. He could feel his own body slowing down. His muscles were giving out.
It wasn’t until lights lit up the cavernous hall that he realised he was no longer in the tunnels. The creatures, however, remained on their heels. This time Dennethom could see them coming. He grabbed Lossepharr and began urging him away from the tunnel entrance towards what appeared to be a platform in the centre of the room. He watched as the creatures sprang forward to attack. But as they leaped towards the two Boentu, something happened. They fell back, whimpering and huddling in fear. Something was keeping them out. But for how long?
When the heat became too much, he pulled his hand out. He had to know. He needed to look and see the damage for himself. It was bad. The soft downey fur on the back of his hand was gone. His nails looked charred. Blisters covered his skin. Desperate, Dennethom looked for a way out.
The pain in his hand grew so overwhelming he barely noticed the smell of the gas as it flooded into the crystal chamber. It wasn’t until he started coughing and the table seemed to splay in all directions at once, did he realise some kind of gas was filling the room.
He couldn’t think straight. The only thing he knew for certain was his cousin had either succumbed to the gas, or pain. He glanced back at the box, which had now become a metal thing with flames leaping out. This isn’t real. His vision grew increasingly hazy. He tried to convince himself it wasn’t a creature, just a box. He wasn’t having much luck. Given the choice of hallucinations and the fiery box, he would choose the box. As he placed his hand back inside, he hoped he made the right choice.
Instantly, his hand felt on fire again. He wanted to fight the box. Remove his hand. But somehow Dennethom forced himself to stay still. The hallucinations were subsiding now. The box was no longer a living thing. Just an ordinary, if slightly menacing, metal container. With great effort, he brought his attention back to his breathing. In and out, in and out. He could feel his heart rate slowing and the pain fading.
Glancing down at the box, he realised that the fierce orange glow was disappearing. Slowly, he pulled his hand away. The skin looked perfectly normal, if slightly red. For a long while, he stared at his hand, even as a doorway leading out of the cavern opened.
He bent down once more to his cousin whose hand still remained red and crispy. Again he nudged him. A groan escaped Lossepharr’s lips and his eyelids slowly fluttered open.
Dennethom had been following the cavern paths for what seemed like forever. He felt exhausted. Hungry. But mostly he remained edgey. He hadn’t experienced any real challenges since the chamber of sunrise. Something was sure to happen at any moment.
Eventually the path led him to a new crystal-walled cavern. Unlike the previous caverns, there was no way out. It was a dead end. In the centre stood a table holding a metallic box. Laying on the floor next to the table was his cousin.
Dennethom rushed to Lossepharr. He lay sprawled on his side, his breathing erratic. Dennethom shook him but his cousin remained unconscious.
He studied the metallic box. It had no lid, only a hand-sized cut out. From the cut out, he could make out an eerie red glow.
He frowned, unsure what to make of this new task. Was it a puzzle? Had Lossepharr failed? If so, what did Lossepharr do that Dennethom could do different? Glancing back down at his cousin, he saw that Lossepharr clutched his left hand. The skin was red and cracked. It was obvious Lossepharr’s hand had been in the box.
Dennethom walked around the room, searching for an exit. None. Even the door in which he arrived was now gone. He was supposed to put his hand in the box. Of that, Dennethom was certain, but why then did Lossepharr lie on the floor, unconscious?
Taking a deep breath, Dennethom placed his own hand inside the box. His skin felt tingly, as though he had pins and needles. A warmth washed over his hand which quickly grew hot. He flinched as the heat increased, forcing himself to remain still. It didn’t seem to hurt quite as much if he stayed very still.
The unbearable heat continued to sear at his skin. Sweat poured down his forehead, but Dennethom remained still, trying to breathe through the pain. His hand was on fire. There would be no hair or skin left. He would be scarred, even worse than his cousin. Surely he wasn’t expected to stand by while all the skin on his hand burned away!
The cavern was strange-looking. The walls were made of some type of crystal, giving it an eerie glint. It looked like nothing he had ever seen before. He stood wearily at the entrance. His senses tingled. There was danger all around, Dennethom was certain of it, but he didn’t know from what, or where.
He placed one foot on the mysterious crystal floor and his boot sank down. The crystal had turned to some kind of muddy, almost liquid consistency. He had no choice though. There was no other way out. He placed another foot in, and felt himself sink down to his waist.
This was impossible. And yet, after the hallucination with his cousin, nothing seemed impossible to Dennethom. He continued to struggle forward, but for each step he took , he found himself sinking deeper. I must cross this way, Dennethom told himself. Still, as the oozing liquid reached his chin, he couldn’t help feeling apprehensive.
Another step. The ooze was up to his eyebrows. He could feel the thick sludge in his nostrils and in his ears. It would suffocate him. He struggled above the ooze. He had no choice. Taking a deep breath, he dove down into the ooze, pushing out as best he could in a straight line.
It was becoming increasingly difficult to move or breathe. Still Dennethom struggled, determined to keep moving forward. Suddenly his whole body collapsed with a thud on the strange crystal floor, all the earlier resistance having disappeared. He opened his eyes, having closed them to keep out the ooze. He was now at the other end of the chamber. His clothes were dry. No sign of the sludge remained.
Taking a moment to collect himself, Dennethom moved on, following the path to yet another chamber of crystal walls. Again he stepped through apprehensively, unsure what to expect. The instant he entered the cavern, a loud high-pitched sound tore through his brain.
He continued forward, undeterred but still the noise pounded in his head. Which direction should he go? Oh, there’s the exit. He just had to walk in a straight line. But with every step he took, Dennethom found his vision blurring, the sound roaring against his brain, so loudly and so constantly, he could hardly recall a time before the sound. His stomach churned. The noise was making him nauseous. Still he kept on moving forward. What choice did he have?
Together they walked through the tunnel, which led deeper under ground. Although the tunnel widened, it still seemed to wind further down leading the gods only knew where. Dennethom was at least grateful that if they had to leave, they knew which direction to go. The tunnel was bright. Artificially lit, though Dennethom couldn’t tell from where or how.
Eventually the tunnel broke out. In one direction it continued on. In the other direction, the path ended at a precipice. Dennethom glanced over the edge but could not see the bottom. Lossepharr shined a light down, but still nothing.
“It looks as though the path continues this way,” said Dennethom, turning back.
“Are you certain?” asked Lossepharr. “The proving ground is a maze. Just because we can’t see the path, doesn’t mean it isn’t the direction we should go.” Lossepharr paused, peering down. “Actually, I think I see a way down.”
Dennethom watched his cousin warily. Lossepharr hung his body over the edge. “I’m not sure,” Dennethom began.
“Let’s just check this out first,” Lossepharr said as he hauled himself back up. “Give me a hand.”
Dennethom reluctantly agreed and walked to where his cousin knelt. Lossepharr handed him the his light.
“Here, hold this while I take a better look.”
Dennethom did so, crouching down and dropping his hand over the side. All was inky darkness below.
“A little lower,” Lossepharr said, as he began climbing down the side.
Dennethom laid down on his stomach, his chest hanging over the side, much like his cousin had been doing a moment ago. Suddenly the light wasjerked from his hand and Lossepharr, much stronger than Dennethom anticipated, began pulling him down. Dennethom attempted to struggle free from his cousin’s vice-like grip but to no avail.
“What are you doing?” he cried, punching out at his cousin. He felt himself being yanked over the ledge. This was impossible. His cousin was barely clinging to the wall and yet he was still so strong!
“You knew this was the only way. Only one of us can return from Hadad,” said Lossepharr’s calm voice.
“That’s not true,” Dennethom said, gasping as he dug his feet into the ground, trying to gain some traction. “Our father’s both returned from Hadad.” His breathing was ragged as he struggled against his cousin’s grip. And then it struck him. Lossepharr was strong. Too strong. And he wasn’t gasping for breath. In fact, Dennethom wasn’t sure he was breathing at all.
“You…. are not…. my cousin,” Dennethom roared in fury as he gave an almighty yank and pulled himself away.
He hit the ground hard, cracking his head against the rock floor. Dennethom drifted into unconsciousness. When he awoke, all was quiet, and he found himself back at the entrance to the proving ground.
As his head slipped down into the tunnel shaft, Dennethom heard a noise. Glancing up, he saw the hatch to the tunnel closing, leaving him in darkness. He felt his muscles tighten and told himself to breathe. He, like most Boentu, had excellent night vision. Still, he couldn’t help feeling slightly suffocated by the darkness. Slowly, methodically, he forced himself to keep going.
Eventually his feet reached the bottom. As soon as his boots touched the ground, a blazing white light shone, illuminating him. He pulled away for a moment in terror. It was no secret Katha had lost his vision on the proving ground. Had he inexplicably found himself in the cavern of sunrise? But as his eyes adjusted to the bright light, he realised he had panicked for no reason. All was fine. He chuckled nervously to himself.
Waiting for his eyes to adjust, he wondered if this was the only entrance. If so, was Lossepharr already in the proving ground, or still searching for a hatch? Dennethom tried to push the thought out of his head. This wasn’t a race. The proving ground could easily cripple both him and his cousin. He just had to do the best he could.
Once his eyes had adjusted, Dennethom noticed a small opening in a wall. It was a water dispenser, similar to the one on his shuttle. A cup sat beneath the dispenser, already filled with water. With relief Dennethom took the cup. His throat felt scratchy despite the breather that filtered out all the dust. Removing his breather, he would no longer need it in the proving ground, he swallowed the entire contents of the container in one motion before collapsing to the ground.
Dennethom struggled to open his eyes. They wanted to stay glued shut and refused to cooperate.
“Are you all right?” asked a voice.
He recognised the voice, though he couldn’t quite place it.
“Slowly now. Whatever was in that cup messes with your senses. Take your time.”
Dennethom blinked several times, trying to blink away the throbbing feeling in his head. Finally his vision cleared and he glanced up to find his cousin kneeling next to him.
“Where are we?” Dennethom asked. His voice sounded clear but soft. The liquid, whatever it was, at least seemed to quench his thirst.
“At the entrance still,” Lossepharr replied, giving his cousin a helping hand. “I climbed down and found you here slumped on the ground. Looks like you drank something poisonous.”
“It looked just like water to me,” Dennethom muttered.
“Don’t trust anything you see to eat or drink when you’re in the proving ground. That’s what my father said to me.”
“Oh. I didn’t know,” Dennethom replied. Perhaps had his father lived, he would have told Dennethom just the same thing.
“Looks like we go down this tunnel,” said Lossepharr. “It’s the only way out of here.”
Dennethom blinked. His head still ached. “We’re travelling together?”
Lossepharr shrugged. “We’re going the same way. I don’t see we have much choice. Believe me, this doesn’t change anything. I will beat the proving ground, and you, but for now, we may as well work together.”
Dennethom nodded his head. He supposed it made sense, though he was still unsure whether or not to trust his cousin.
Dennethom scoured the plateau, but to no avail. Finally, he paused. It didn’t make any sense. If by some miracle the entrance to the proving ground was also on this plateau, it would stand to reason Lossepharr’s craft would have landed here as well. Since he was sure his cousin was nowhere nearby, it meant only one thing: the entrance to the proving ground had to be somewhere down below in the rocky craters.
His boots crunched on small loose pebbles as he climbed down the plateau. Several times, he lost control, sliding down on the dirt, allowing gravity to take his body down the rocky hillside. Finally, he found himself on level ground. Through the dust-filled visors, Dennethom spotted several large craters. But which one should he search first?
Exhausted from climbing around the plateau, Dennethom breathed hard as he walked about the craters. There were so many of them, at least twelve he could easily make out, and they all looked remarkably similar. What was he missing?
Frustrated, he kicked at a small pebble. What was different about them? he wondered. They varied in size. Some were so small he could lie down in it quite snugly. Others were several times as large. Glancing back at the plateau he considered returning up the hillside. Perhaps there was something about the craters that could only be viewed from above. Maybe. He cringed at the thought of climbing back up. His throat felt parched. What he would give for a glass of the sweet wine currently being stored at Boentu palace.
Suddenly, Dennethom stopped and blinked. He then began walking around the craters again, this time carefully and methodically counting. He was right. Twelve craters. He walked to the smallest of the craters and began searching. Nothing. Dennethom cursed. He had been so sure the craters were representative of the Boentu System’s twelve planets. If that were true, then the smallest crater would represent Hadad, the smallest planet in the system and home of the proving ground. Surely the entrance would be in that crater. He searched once more, kicking aside rocks but to no avail.
Glancing about him, Dennethom noticed a nearby medium-size crater. That would be Anhur. Anhur, home to the Boentu Palace and the Leader of the system. He hurried over, jumping down into the crater. His boot landed with a hollow clang. Dennethom jerked up, then jumped again. Once more, a clang. Beneath the breather on his face, a slow smile escaped his lips. Somewhere within this crater was the entrance to the proving ground. He kicked about in the dirt searching for a handle or a button of some sort. Nothing. Finally he knelt with his hands on the ground, carefully sweeping the floor with his palms. His fingers felt a grove. More sweeping and he found a large hatch. There were no buttons or latches. He kept running his hands over the entire surface when suddenly the hatch gave way, slipping down and revealing a tunnel with metal rungs attached to one wall.
With relief Dennethom climbed into the opening, his feet easily finding the rungs, and carefully began climbing down into the tunnel.
Dennethom watched as the craft landed on the brown plateau. He peered through a view port. Light brown dust clung to the windows and every other part of the ship he could see. He felt the engines power down. For a moment, all was quiet, save for the hiss as the doors to the small shuttle craft automatically opened.
He looked down at his waist to make sure the small emergency pack was still secured at his belt. It was. He then took one last gulp of water from his cup and set it down. That would be his last sustenance for some time. From now on, if he wanted food or water, he would need to find it for himself, somewhere within the proving ground. He placed his face respirator down and, with some trepidation, Dennethom climbed down the ramp to the desolate planet outside.
It was like no planet he had ever visited before. The ground remained hardened and cracked. The colour, almost a monotonous shade of light brown. Even the sky had a brown haze from all the dust in the thin atmosphere. If not for the dust in the sky, he might be able to see for miles. As it was, his visibility was somewhat more limited. Not that it would change the view. Hadad was a dead rock. No life to speak of. No water, at least, not at ground level. No trees. No anything.
Well, there was one thing out there. Somewhere in the haze his cousin’s craft had also landed. He wondered how far away Lossepharr actually was. It wasn’t important though. His cousin would not be standing around taking in the scenery. Lossepharr would be making his way to the proving ground entrance. Which meant Dennethom didn’t have the luxury to hang about either. He needed to find a way in, and quickly.