The Tunnels of Gathol
David Bruce Bozarth
Copyright © 1997
From the world-famous mines of Gathol comes the most incredible variety of wealth. Sections of the great excavation honeycombing the mountain upon which Gathol stands are worked by convicts. Gahan, the illustrious Jed of Gathol, is benevolent and merciful—executions are rare in Gahan's city/state, though a long prison term is usually tantamount to a death sentence!
The word passed from man to man along the dim-lit tunnel. It was not a request to slack thirst, it was a desperate warning that somewhere ahead the tunnel was flooding.
"Water!" came the cry again.
A strident panic echoed through the main tunnel, reverberating throughout the various side excavations.
Now the men could hear it, a low rumbling sound, a liquid rush speeding toward them faster than a racing thoat.
"Out! Up!" The shouts increased in volume.
The water smashed through the tunnel, collapsing walls and pounding men's frail bodies against the stone of the mountain. Lamps were lost or extinguished in the flood. The water rose, deeper, ever deeper, gradually losing its force. It rose to fill the isolated pockets and domes—finally coming to rest, free of current, as darkness became complete.
Sab Toth pushed upward. Both hands extended overhead were finding only water and ceiling rock. The water pressure made his ears ache painfully. If he could only see! If he could only take a small breath to clear his thoughts!
How long since the water swept him away? He could not say, other than it was an eternity of lungs on fire and near crippling desperation.
His body and mind worked separately—both at full throttle. The physical self sought air, life, survival—the mental self struggled with a lifetime of regrets. It was difficult for Sab Toth to decide which was most painful.
The blackness before his eyes was less complete. A red pulse began to show, growing brighter and more hellish with each beat of his frantic heart. Sab Toth knew death was near.
For him there would be no journey down the River Iss—this tunnel of black water beneath the city of his jailers was his River of Death. It was here he would die—far away from his Dusarian plains; yet, so close to his beloved wife.
Tanis, his wife. The woman who eked out a pitiful living in the city which had imprisoned him. The woman who did work that even slaves would refuse simply to be near her husband.
The red pulse was as persistent as was the litany of Tanis' name through his brain. Sab Toth struggled through the cold liquid as desperately as his wife struggled to survive in a city of foreigners simply to be allowed that one day a month she might speak to him through bars dividing a dingy room.
The red faded to yellow, then a dirty white. The end is here, he thought. Now I die.
His mouth opened involuntarily. His lungs did not understand the deprivation and they would be denied no longer. Sab Toth's mouth opened and filled with water. But his throat remained closed through his iron will.
Sab Toth vowed that if he was to die, it would be with the name of his wife on his lips—even if none but the submerged rocks of Gathol's rich mountain heard it.
His right hand broke surface.
"Tanis!" Sab Toth screamed, then drew air into his lungs.
A rough hand grabbed Sab Toth's harness and hauled the Dusarian onto a ledge mostly awash by the flood. The man wore the metal of a Gatholian jailer. At his waist, secured by a stout thong, was an everlasting radium bulb.
"Breathe," the guard commanded. "You're not dead yet, ulsio."
Sab Toth gasped for some time before he could lever himself erect. He looked at the man and felt a chill pass over him.
"I see the dunking did not affect your mental processes, as low as they are by nature."
Sab Toth was too weary to be offended by the all too-familiar contempt from the Gatholian. Enis was the only guard who ridiculed his charges. He was vain and superior, but at least he was not cruel or vicious. Sab Toth believed he could endure insults for another 25 years, but physical mistreatment might have been different.
The two men mutually broke eye contact and searched the walls of their shelter, an inspection over before hardly begun. Gray rock sparkling with veins of silver formed walls roughly pyramidal in shape. The apex lay 5 sofads* overhead, less than the height of a standing man. The perimeter was approximately 50 sofads, resulting in a volume of atmosphere insufficient to sustain life for any appreciable time.
* sofad = 11.7 inches
Enis asked, "Anything on your side?"
Sab Toth shook his head. "I do not recognize this tunnel. Are we in the trunk line or a connecting branch?"
The jailer shrugged. "When the flood hit I was knocked off my feet and swept along like everybody and everything else. I managed to grab one of these," he patted the radium bulb. "Next thing I knew the water had risen to the ceiling."
"We are in a big tunnel," Sab Toth said. " I know east is that way."
Enis scoffed. "And how do you know that, thoat farmer?"
The Dusarian almost smiled—the epithet used by Enis was the very reason he was confident of his navigation. His people had an unerring sense of direction. "Call it a hunch if you like. The question is: How far from Number 328th Access Shaft are we? Are we east or west?"
Enis grudgingly acknowledged the convict's reasoning. "We're still in the main work tunnel, but how far we have come past the drop shafts, I have no idea."
Sab Toth slid over into the water. He held out his hand for the radium bulb that would burn just as brightly immersed. "I'll go look."
Enis shook his head. "And conveniently forget to return if you find a way out?
Unoffended, Sab Toth said, "Then you go. I will await your return."
Enis liked that idea even less. The Gatholian was no coward on the field of battle or working the range where apes, banths and wild thoats added real danger, but few Martians have ever seen more water than could be found in a bath. To step into a flooded tunnel with no knowledge of how far to the next pocket of air took special courage.
"We'll go together," Enis said.
The jailer removed all metal from his harness, retaining only a knife. After both men shed their heavy boots, they faced each other, drawing deep breaths into their lungs.
Together they submerged and pulled themselves along the wall hand over hand. Enis and Sab Toth quickly located the tunnel opening. Into the darkness they moved, the light of the radium lamp severely restricted due to the reflective sediment.
Sab Toth saw the shimmer overhead before Enis. At his gesture, the men surfaced, drawing air into their lungs.
"Another dome," Enis spat. "Smaller!" he added.
"The shaft must be further on," Sab Toth declared. "We can't stay here."
Again the men filled lungs and dove into the ink black liquid. Perhaps a dozen feet passed and they beheld a glow overhead. Breaking surface, the men found themselves at a staging area beneath one of the vertical shafts. Two radium bulbs burned, the others broken or missing. The floor was under 4 sofads of water. Sab Toth was first on the level area where the water hit the rancher above mid-waist. Enis joined him.
The Dusarian called, "Hello!" and echoes empty of human response bounced back from the half-flooded tunnels. "Hello!" and again they waited, in vain.
Enis pushed through the water toward the shaft. The guide rails to the elevator cage were torn away. The cage itself lay twisted and mostly drowned. While Enis looked for a way up the shaft Sab Toth investigated the tunnels. He carried one of the radium bulbs.
When Sab Toth returned Enis inquired, "Anything?"
"Bodies. At least a dozen. We may be the only ones who survived."
Enis, frustrated at finding no way to the level above, shook his head. "That is difficult to believe. There were a hundred men working down here when the tunnel flooded."
Sab Toth did not argue. The jailer should know the count, but the Dusarian strongly doubted any others would be found alive. He said, "Then we either wait for help from above, or we help ourselves as there is no one else but us."
For an instant Enis let the differences between convict and jailer fade: "Any ideas?"
Sab Toth refrained from smiling, his long experience with Enis reminded him the Gatholian was quite fickle. "We could see if any part of the cage can be used. A climbing pole, perhaps?"
The two men returned to the central area beneath the shaft. Enis noted, "The water is still rising."
"And cold," Sab Toth remarked to himself.
The combined strength of both was necessary to set the broken cage upright. The top of the elevator lift stood three ads* above the slowly rising water. Conversation between both men was spare, centered upon two topics: speculation on when help would arrive or if they could escape the dangerous flood that continued to fill the dark tunnels.
ad = 9.75 feet (10 sofads)
Sab Toth thought of his wife. She, too, was a prisoner of Gathol, though her freedom to leave the city, to abandon her man, was never infringed. Rather, Tanis remained in Gathol performing work that even slaves were not forced to do. Hers was a dreary and ugly life, a life Sab Toth would have spared her if possible, but Gatholian justice, swift and unyielding, had brought disaster to their lives.
As the two men worked, Enis, perhaps nervous from the closed-in feeling oppressing them chatted freely. "Sab Toth, why did you take arms against Gathol. You do not seem the sort to act brigandly."
"Are you truly interested?" Sab Toth responded. It was the first time in nearly 25 years of imprisonment that Enis had expressed interest. "I told my story to Gatholian authorities on many occasions but to date no one has heard me."
"If I do not hear you, have you lost anything for making the effort?"
Sab Toth admitted this was true. "I am a thoat herder. In Dusar my ranch is small, less than 10,000 square haads, but upon this range I raised the most magnificent thoats.
"The Jeddak of the North, Hin Abtol, had a fondness for racing thoats. His agents came to my ranch and were impressed with the quality of my steeds. A purchase was made and a month later another agent of Hin Abtol returned with an offer of employment at the Jeddak's stables.
"As you can well imagine it was the offer of a life time. After discussing it with my wife Tanis we both agreed I should accept the position.
"What we did not know at the time was Hin Abtol's plans of world conquest. By the time I learned of the Jeddak's ambition, Tanis and I had already sold our ranch and moved to Pankor. There was nothing to do but follow through on the arrangement—I was being paid well—until such time as I could resign and attempt to start over elsewhere."
Sab Toth paused for a time as both men needed their full strength to move steel railings into place atop the battered cage. Later, panting with effort, the men rested. Enis said, "So, you bred thoats for Hin Abtol. That does not explain the charge of murder which ultimately put you in my care."
"There's more to the story."
"So they all say," Enis grinned lopsidedly.
Sab Toth arched a brow.
Enis laughed mildly. "My apologies. I said I would listen, therefore I shall. Please continue."
The Dusarian frowned briefly, then resumed. "During the Siege of Gathol there was need of thoats to replace those lost in battle. My job was to round up and train wild thoats from the great herds southeast of the city. Though I admit my part in supplying mounts, I was never a direct participant in the battles.
"Our camp was fifty haads from the fighting at Gathol—it almost seemed like a different world. My wife was with me, as were the families of others. The women managed the day-to-day chores while my men and I broke thoats to Hin Abtol's cavalry needs. If this was an act of war, then I am guilty, but the judges of Gathol did not see it that way. They released my men after Hin Abtol was defeated. No, herding thoats was not an act of war—but stopping the Gatholian who attempted to rape my Tanis after a squad of soldiers descended on the camp—"
Sab Toth stopped speaking. There was no need to elaborate the rage which had consumed the Dusarian, it remained undiminished within the man, even to this day. "A conundrum," the jailer quietly agreed. "Killing the soldier— If I had been the judge I do not think I—"
"I did not kill the soldier," Sab Toth said. "I whipped him to the point he wished he had died, but the despicable ulsio lives—and will long remember the price of shameful pleasure."
"If you did not kill him, then who did you kill?"
Sab Toth offered a negligent shrug. "The judge."
Enis arched a brow in return. "Why?"
"He sentenced me to 100 years in the mines for excessive brutality. I said, 'But you have sentenced murderers to 50 years in your court. I have heard you. Why 100 years when I have killed no one?'
"The judge replied, 'The man you humiliated was my son.'
"I spoke to my appointed advocate. 'How much time for murder?' He said, 'The Jed of Gathol does not believe in capital punishment. Fifty years in the mines. Due to accident and adverse conditions it is unlikely you will survive.'
"I nodded to the advocate, 'Then it is in my best interest to serve the lesser of two sentences.' At which point I over-powered the advocate, took his sword, and killed the judge. A second judge, called immediately to hear my case, chose to overturn the previous brutality conviction and ordered I serve 50 years. This is how I came to be a prison miner."
Enis laughed. Sab Toth allowed himself a slight smile before sadly amending: "The one who has suffered is Tanis. She is a good and loyal woman, but she has no life until my sentence is served. She has no family except me, and I can do nothing for her from here. I can endure much, but I fear for my Tanis."
Enis, though hardened after years as a jailer, nodded understanding. "She is the small one outside the fence, the woman with the wide face and green eyes—she limps."
"The result of a fall from a thoat as a young girl. Yes, that is she." Sab Toth's eyes glowed momentarily upon remembering his wife, then reality in the form of deep water and darkness reminded him of the present situation. In a serious tone Sab Toth said, "I have no right to ask this, but if I should not survive, would you see Tanis and tell her that I never stopped loving her and that she should go on with her life. In fact," Sab Toth mused, gazing at the black water, "my death would free her."
Enis gripped the quiet man's shoulder. "That is no way out—not for the man who judged the judge so appropriately. We will survive this and I will see what I can do."
"Why the interest now, after all these years?"
Enis shrugged. "You've never given me any trouble like the usual convict. Maybe I just admire that little woman's loyalty. But first, we have to get out of this alive."
Sab Toth measured the Gatholian and liked what he saw. "Perhaps in another time and place we might have been friends."
Enis waved the sentiment aside. "My promise may come to naught if we do not resume work."
The jailer rose from the half-submerged seat atop the elevator cage. He looked up to gauge the height of their precarious escape route. "A few more ads and we should be able to reach the next level. Unfortunately, all our building material is now under water."
"I can bring the wire and rails," Sab Toth said.
Having volunteered, the Dusarian stepped off the cage into water twice the depth of a tall man. Surfacing to draw air, Sab Toth took one of the radium bulbs and dove beneath the water. Enis watched the diffused glow dim as the rancher pulled himself deeper and further out. A moment later the light began to return.
Working one-handed in an environment as foreign to desert Barsoom as atmosphere is to the vacuum of space, Sab Toth made three trips, dragging heavy rails to the cage and helping Enis hoist them on top.
The jailer stopped the rancher about to make a fourth trip. "My turn."
Enis made one transfer then hung to the cage to catch his breath. "I am more impressed with Dusarian ranchers by the xat, Sab Toth. By Issus, that is hard work! We need one more rail." Then he added with a full sense of amusement, "Do not go away!"
Sab Toth had wired the rail into place while waiting for Enis to return. But when the time extended and there seemed no movement in the light beneath the surface, The Dusarian became concerned. "Enis!" the rancher called.
A heartbeat later Sab Toth hurried into the water. He found Enis trapped under a fall of rails. The Gatholian was in an awkward position and could not help himself. In the diffused light of the radium bulbs, Sab Toth strained against the rails until the jailer was free. Lungs bursting, both men struggled to the surface.
Away from the objects and supports they had used to move between the rails and the cage, the men flailed their arms, barely keeping afloat as a slow current carried them from the chamber into one of the connecting tunnels.
Enis growled. "Though I thank you for my life, I apologize for being the cause of both our deaths."
"I still live," Sab Toth declared.
"Perhaps," Enis replied, "but I cannot help wondering if I would have done the same for you."
"Save your breath for breathing, Gatholian."
They were in complete darkness. Though the walls were invisible and the only sound was their awkward attempts at swimming, both had the sensation that the current swept them along at an increasing pace.
"Another tunnel must have been breached," Enis surmised. "Perhaps the water level will equal out."
Sab Toth started to respond when he suddenly cried out in pain. A large, solid object floating in the water had slammed into his side. It was a timber torn loose from a wall somewhere.
"Grab on!" Sab Toth yelled.
The timber barely kept both heads above water as they fought against the flood in a darkness greater than any midnight.
The Gatholian said weakly, "You're a better man than I. I am worn to exhaustion."
"It's that too easy life you lead that has weakened you. You are used to being lazy and ordering others to work while you look on. You—"
Enis chuckled. "You are also a wise man to attempt provoking anger and pride to get effort. Rest assured, Dusarian, that I will not quit before you, and never had such intention, but I am a practical man who will admit the limits of his physical endurance."
Sometime later Enis added, "If I do not survive no one will care. My family died during the Siege of Gathol."
Sab Toth said, "It seems we both have grievance against the Panarian house which brought so much distress into our lives."
"I—" Enis began then gasped as the current threw him against a wall—and followed that with the heavy timber and the Dusarian's weight.
An instant later Sab Toth saw two things: a light at the end of the tunnel and the Gatholian jailer lying face down in the water an arm's length away. Though Enis had been tough on his charges, he had never been brutal, thus Sab Toth could not let the man drown. He grabbed the jailer's harness and held the man's head above water.
The current swept them into a secondary tunnel system at increasing speed. They abruptly shot through a break in the wall and tumbled onto a rough floor. A dozen hands laid on, dragging the men out of the flow. Enis began to recover at that time.
Shaking free, the jailer took Sab Toth by the arm. "This man is my prisoner," Enis told the officer guiding the evacuation. "Attempted murder."
Sab Toth said nothing. For a short time he had allowed a faint hope that Enis might be of assistance to Tanis and himself, but it was all too apparent the Gatholian believed the collision with the tunnel wall was a deliberate attempt to kill him.
The Dusarian offered no protest or resistance when Enis shoved him toward the elevators off this level. The Gatholian glared at Sab Toth all the way to the main tunnel hundreds of feet above. The other guards and convicts avoided the two men—the first out of professional courtesy, the latter for fear of drawing attention to themselves.
The cage rattled to a halt two levels below the surface. The tunnel was chaotic with men shouting and running on urgent errands. Groups of prisoners hustled through the corridor and occasionally a guard's whip was heard.
Sab Toth continued moving in the direction Enis pushed him. Only now he noted the Gatholian carried a jailer's club in hand. "Move on, you!" Enis ordered. "Eyes front!"
The section of tunnel ahead was poorly lit. There was a thick pall of dust hovering in the close air, raised by the hurrying traffic. Oddly, at that moment, there were only two people in sight—ahead and walking in the same direction.
Suddenly Enis shouted, "Stop! Escape!" and Sab Toth felt an instant of searing pain exploding from the back of his skull. The Dusarian had one brief moment of disbelieving shock, then lost consciousness.
It was the tender touch which brought Sab Toth around. The tenderness was the gentle care small hands used tending his wound. It was the warm moisture dripping onto his face that opened the rancher's eyes. Leaning over him with tears dripping from her upturned nose and the point of her small chin was Tanis.
"My princess?" Sab Toth's voice was husky.
"Oh! You live!" Tanis hugged the Dusarian and kissed him repeatedly. "Dear Sab Toth, you live!"
The man sat up, gingerly exploring the lump on his head. "Where are we?"
Tanis looked around the small room with Sab Toth. "I am not sure. He brought me here so quickly—it was dark—"
"Enis, the jailer. He said, 'You may have your man's body. He died attempting to escape.' He showed me here and I saw you still breathed. 'Sab Toth is not dead' I said. Enis came and looked. He said, 'This man is dead. Wives are permitted to take their husband's remains to send down the River Iss or to leave as carrion on the desert. Dead, you can have him. Alive, he is mine.' So, dearest Sab Toth, you are dead."
When Enis entered the room a short time later the jailer found the rancher and his wife in tender embrace. The Gatholian tossed a cloak, harness, rope and large knife to the rough pallet. These were Sab Toth's possessions at the time of his conviction.
"His things," Enis said. "There is a thoat outside. Put your man's body on it and ride from Gathol. Do not return."
Tanis gathered the items Enis had brought. "Thank you, sir!" The woman choked back a sob of relief.
"Do not thank me," Enis replied. "That husband of yours murdered the most vile judge who ever sat the justice bench of Gathol. Why, I once had a good friend who made the mistake of acknowledging a pretty girl's smile. A jealous judge sentenced him to 25 years labor in the mines. My friend did not survive a month. But, though they should have made your husband a hero of the people, that is no excuse for Sab Toth's murderous attack upon me while attempting to escape. Too bad I had to kill him, now my work gang is short a man."
Enis stared with narrowed eyes at Sab Toth. "Perhaps, in another time and place, we might have been friends, but alas, it is too late for that, for Sab Toth is dead."
As the couple walked to the door, Enis had one last remark: "I suggest you leave that carcass for the carrion eaters. He was a poor man to expose his wife to such hardships. Then again," the Gatholian's voice and expression softened, "you are a much better wife than any man deserves. Go in peace, Tanis."
Tanis, with a nod of approval from her dead husband, reached out to touch the Gatholian's hand. "Thank you."
"Get out," Enis scowled.
The Gatholian jailer stood at the doorway and watched the two ride through the dark, narrow street until the thoat turned to descend the mountainside.
"Maybe it is time to seek another profession," Enis mused. Then, snorting wry amusement he said, "Then again, I have all these years time and grade. Perhaps we should not be too hasty..."
Enis jammed both thumbs behind his belt and walked up the Gatholian street to the mine, whistling.