Chapter 14:

Tunnels under the Hill

Keio (9-K-O-512)

Location: hills by the lake
Health: weak
Additional effects - enhanced nature-vision, impaired movement

The badger den is warm and dim. I can feel the life of the nest with every fibre of my being: here, guards with spears head for their posts on the surface; there, a hunting party returns from the brush. In one chamber, glistening slime is scraped from harvested frog skins, in another, mothers teach their offspring to fight. I notice how clean it is. The catch is kept away from family setts and tools are made in dedicated workshop caves. The waste chambers are located at the end of the tunnels, gradually filled with dry scraps.

Deeper underground, where the sand of the dunes gives way to thick clay, the walls of the setts grow smoother. They’re covered in thin, glowing mycelium, strengthened in places by fine-patterned spiderwebs. I can only catch a glimpse of the web-builders, tiny and swift, a far cry from the spider-rats on the surface.

The badgers keep exchanging messages as they move through the caves and, although I can’t quite understand them, I feel they are friendly towards me. I’ll probably have to take the sage’s paws again to catch their thoughts more directly.

At first I keep falling behind my hosts. The sage notices I can’t keep up and gives me his spear to lean on, without hesitation.

In the lower passages I move on all fours without shame. It’s much quicker this way, just like on the ship, where narrow maintenance tunnels wind around low-gravity modules.

The set’s tunnels lead further and further. The whisper of the earth paints a shadow in my mind, of cavern-cities spreading far into the depths, much deeper than the prehistoric lake sediment.

I’m led quite deep under the sand dunes through twisting passageways, larger and smaller cavities, passing by many different production and storage caves and clean water reservoirs. Here I can feel the walls are supported by artificial materials, stronger than they look. In some places, hard metal peeks from under the dirt, unmoved by nature’s rhythm.

As we descend deeper, I can see more and more natural light sources. In addition to the red glow of the mycelium, violet slugs shine in the ceiling and a bright silver film of mold glistens in the moist places.

Finally the narrow passage ends and a wide but cosy vaulted cavern opens before me. The floor gives off heat and lush clusters of mushrooms paint the corners with a pale glow. Hunting trophies are on display in wall cavities, along with several objects of unknown origin. I can’t tell in the darkness where the shine of power ends and the visible luminescence starts.

We gather in the center of the cavern, where a cushion of sedge posies awaits.

One of the badgers who led the way presses a flat transparent vessel into my hands, full of muddy brown fluid. I wonder if I should eat this grub somehow. But no, one of my escorts shows me what to do. He rattles the jar vigorously and the dregs slowly start to glow. I shake my container like the badger, and soon blueish-green light is streaming from our palms.

Now I understand - they’re algae lanterns! The shaking has awoken tiny carrion-eaters floating in the jars. In the ship’s biolabs, we too used the natural luminescence of seaweed to light our way. Although our illuminating barrels were much larger...

I sigh quietly. That’s the second time today the badgers’ living arrangements remind me of my lost home. But I’m not allowed to wallow for long. Oilskin the badger sage sits across from me and raises his paws for contact.

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