So he decided to move.  He bent his head lower, gazing down at the corpse as if entranced by its unnatural majesty.  He leaned in and started a distracted muttering.  Then he spun left and sprinted away.  First he weaved between the upturned crates and makeshift plastic tents.  He kicked with his right leg, and knocked out the supports for one of the overhanging tarps.  It tumbled down, enveloping one of the cultists.  The man slapped at the clear sheet, trying to get it off him.

“Get him!  Kill him!” Catleen shrieked, and the others moved in earnest.  “Kagan,” she shouted, “shoot him!” and the man with the gun fired off two futile shots.  The metal slugs sailed over Yarec’s head and ricocheted off a distant wall.  Yarec kept low to the ground as he ran, dodging around the heavy metal refuse that the last generation of workers had left behind here.  In a few seconds, he was out of sight, lost in the shadowy vastness.

Yarec heard five voices shouting at once.  “Get this off me!” yelled the man under the sheet, and the younger woman stopped to peel it off him.

“You’re an idiot,” she snapped at him, but as soon as he was free the man was off running after Yarec, trying to activate the diode flashlight he had clipped to his belt.

While his pursuers fumbled, Yarec made use of the darkness.  Someone fiddled with the group’s main lantern.  The light sputtered and grew, but by the time it had fully intensified, Yarec had completely disappeared into the gloom.  Blue spot beams crisscrossed the air, sweeping through space and glittering on the wet gray walls.  But they could not find him.  Yarec had thrown himself into a dirty crack.  It split the floor, wiggling ten or fifteen meters across the cement.  It was only just wide enough for him to wedge legs and half his torso inside.  Had a light fallen square on his hiding place, his protruding face and shoulder would have been plain to see, but the cave dwellers were not turned in his direction.  They were searching behind stalagmites and heaps of debris; Yarec had specifically avoided those hiding places because they were too obvious.

However, the crevice in the floor would not be secure for very long.  It was too cramped to crawl along and, in any case, too short to lead anywhere.  He had stuffed himself in that crack facing backwards towards the entrance stairs, so he could keep an eye on the search in progress.  Each of the searchers now carried a blazing beacon light, making it impossible to conceal their locations.  Catleen was kicking around in the encampment itself, holding a white lantern over her head and prodding various sticks and boxes with the worn out toe of her boot.  The others had spread out unevenly, as they shouted back and forth about their consistent failure to find Yarec.

Their quarry waited until he had a fair chance to move without being seen.  While it was easy to see where each of the searchers was, it was more difficult to tell which directions they were facing.  Yarec watched the flashlight beams, waiting for them all to be turned away from him.  Sometimes the lights danced perilously close to his hiding place, and he was afraid that a good chance to move would never come.  His heart thumped a few hundred times; then he saw his opening.  A sloppy noise near one of the far-off walls attracted all the searchers’ eyes, and Yarec wormed his way out of the crevice.

The others were making enough noise to cover Yarec’s footsteps.  He padded softly back toward the staircase.  Yarec thought he knew where he was, and according to the last recorded map of the Georgiansen Mine, there was another exit passage at the other end of the hall.  It should have led down through some old workshop spaces and back around to the entry cavern, probably above the water level.  However, his uncertainty on the last point convinced Yarec not to head in that direction.  Instead, he was going to get back out the same way he had gotten in.

He got around four of the votaries without any sign of being noticed, but the priestess was directly in his path.  Catleen had closed her god’s coffin, but she seemed unwilling to venture too far from the dead deity’s side.  Thinks I’m going to defile its rest, Yarec thought.  What a loon.  She was standing right at the base of the steps, and he watched her from behind the last heap of cover by the edge of the makeshift dining area.  She was turned at right angles to him, and that gave Yarec enough time before she noticed him approaching for him to get past.  He dashed straight at her.  She heard him and shrank back, giving him space to dodge around her and reach the base of the stair.

His feet echoed as he pounded up the steps.  They were slick with limestone precipitate, and Yarec nearly lost his balance.  He grasped the rail for balance and pulled back a glove coated with a slimy paste of lime and rust flakes.  Another poorly aimed gunshot rattled against the rough metal of the staircase, but before anyone had time to fire again, Yarec was up the steps to the protection of the tunnel.

At the top, Yarec finally reached for the xaser.  It had been knocked out of position when he was jammed into the crack, and it it took a couple seconds of fumbling to bring the weapon down and aim it.  Yarec faced back into the chamber and pointed the xaser’s broad barrel down.  Then he held down the trigger stud and swept the gun back and forth.  It was set to fire a repeating stream of x-ray pulses, which tore through the battered steel stairs.  Rust particles vaporized, producing a ferociously vile smell, as the xaser beam sheared away pieces of the staircase.  Risers and railings broke apart.  The landing slit in two, and the supporting girders buckled as the heavy mass pulled away from the wall.  Then the last supports were cut, and the entire upper half of the staircase collapsed to the floor.

Yarec pulled back into the tunnel and crouched down close to the floor.  He could not see what was happening down below, but he heard angry shouting, and all the inhabitants’ lights were now focused on the tunnel mouth.  They lit up the ceiling above him like a military floodlight, but Yarec remained invisible, protected behind the lip of the tunnel.

The simple projectile weapons he had seen could not reach him there either, and he took advantage of his temporary safety to offer his erstwhile opponents some advice.  “Listen!” Yarec shouted, but the order was only met with jeers.  He yelled again, this time fully utilizing his massively enhanced lung capacity.  “Listen up!” Yarec boomed, and this time the response was a brief, stunned silence.  “I’m not going to cause you any more trouble,” he continued, not quite so loudly, “but I have to report that you’re here.  I suggest that…”

A shouted question cut him off.  “Report to who?”

“It doesn’t matter who.  But people are going to know you’re here.  I suggest you clear out, in case somebody else comes looking for you again.”

“We cannot abandon our god’s resting place,” came an angry voice that Yarec recognized as Catleen’s.

“Take him with you.  Or don’t,” Yarec snapped, unwilling to be drawn into any more religious discussion.  “I’m leaving now, and you ought to do the same.”

There were more shouts, but Yarec intentionally blocked them out of his mind.  He was finished here.  He returned to where he had stowed the rest of his equipment.  The climbing gear and most the reconnaissance devices had made it through the mission untouched.  He stuffed the xaser back in with the rest, content to rely on his light projectile sidearm for the remainder of his underground excursion.  Then Yarec looped the two bags’ straps over opposite shoulders and started back up the tunnel.

Over his head, Yarec spotted spindly gray-green cave spider scuttling across the wet ceiling.  Its body was tiny, barely a pale speck, but its legs were almost as long as Yarec’s forefinger.  He sidestepped as it passed over him, picking its inverted way along the peak of the ceiling’s arch.  In a way, it seemed much more alien and discomfiting than the dead man he had seen cradled in the box, and yet after it was past, Yarec turned back to watch it go, following it with the even light of his wrist lamp.

He made his way back to the flooded entrance cavern, which was as dark now as all the hallways further down deep.  He activated his pickup beacon, which broadcast its signal to the Solaras using several different wavelength bands, which the brothers were supposed to be monitoring.  However, it was not actually known how much artificial shielding had been erected inside this mountain, and Yarec did not have a straight line of sight to the outdoors.  So there was a distinct possibility that no one might hear his message, and Yarec did not like the prospect of still being stuck inside the complex when the cultists managed to climb up out of the pit in which he had marooned them.

He descended back to the level of the lake and got a one-person inflatable raft kit out of his bag.  Yarec set the cube down on the broken walkway in front of him and broke off the plastic trigger tab.  The raft made a tremendous racket as it inflated.  The sound echoed off the lapping water and the concrete walls, so that it bounced back sounding like a discordant collection of drums, beaten by soft, unstable hands.  The raft swelled up to make a bright yellow ring, which began to slide slowly down into the water.  Yarec grabbed all his equipment and knelt down in the center, letting the puffy walls build up around him on all side.  He dislodged the folding paddle and snapped it straight; then, when the automatic pressure sensor decided the inflation was complete, he pushed off with the paddle and sent the whole craft bumping into the lake.

It would not just float him out of the cavern.  The current was headed the wrong way.  If Yarec let himself drift, he might eventually become caught in a whirlpool, which would send him to his death along a long plunge into the mine’s depths.  He needed to paddle, so he jabbed his hollow-handled blade into the choppy waters.  Yarec tried to keep close to the wall, hugging the side of the cavern, where the current was weak and filled with back-flowing eddies.  His lone light struck across the surface of the lake like a static bolt, illuminating his way over the dark, enclosed abyss.  However, before long he saw another light.  It entered from the main gateway, petering along the surface until it touched Yarec’s own beam, into which it dissolved.  He kept paddling toward it, and soon the Solara brothers’ canoe nosed into view.  Arriving promptly this time, they slid up alongside Yarec’s synthetic coracle and took him aboard.  Once he was in the canoe, Yarec realized that he was exhausted, and he fell asleep as soon as the brothers had hustled him into their tent, which was pitched a short distance up the river bank.

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With a few clunky steps, Yarec emerged onto the metal landing.  “Hello,” he called out.  “Is someone down there?”  He cast his bobbing beam of light down the descending line of the staircase.

There was a clatter and then furious shouts.  “Who’s there?” said a male voice, above the rumble of other voices.  A lank figure stepped into the spot of Yarec’s beam.  A long metal barrel was pointed up at Yarec, and a fulgent blue beam shot up toward Yarec’s face, so that he cast a sharp shadow across the open tunnel mouth.  “Who’s there?” the man with the gun repeated.

“Ho!” Yarec said loudly.  “I don’t mean any harm.”  He raised both arms over his head, so that his wrist light danced across the lumpy wet ceiling.  “There’ve been rumors about people living in here.  I’m just here to check it out.”  He took a single slow step down the staircase.  “I’m coming down,” he shouted.  The man at the bottom, back in shadow now that Yarec’s beam had been turned away, took a small step back himself, but he did not say anything or motion for Yarec to halt.  The other inhabitants, including whoever was holding the stout LED spotlight, which tracked Yarec as he began to descend, remained still and silent further back.  Yarec moved down another step and then another.  Each footfall clattered like the sound of the clapper in a rusty iron bell.

He had left most of his gear behind—waterproof yellow bag laid away in an isolated corner.  However, the xaser was slung across his back, anchored with snap-away straps.  He could flip his arm back and bring the whole weapon to bear in a single motion.

With each step Yarec took, the man at the bottom, who was following Yarec’s descent with the bore of his rifle, took a smaller step backwards.  By the time Yare had reached the floor of the vast chamber, the gunman had backed five or six meters away.  The bottom step ended with a angled mass of flowstone, like a slippery slide that carried Yarec’s booted feet down the last twenty centimeters to the floor.  Yarec’s legs wobbled a bit as he bumped down the short slope, since he did not want to look down at his feet; to do so would mean breaking his tenuous eye contact with the tall fellow covering him.  As he descended, Yarec had maintained a practiced expression—serious, but with just a tiny curl of a smile on one side of his mouth, which human interaction specialists had determined made him look least threatening.  Now, he let his grin grow more pronounced as he addressed the five figures hovering in the shadows before him.

“I just came in here to see what was going on,” Yarec said, putting on his best country bonhomie.  “You can’t be too careful, you know.  But you lot don’t look like bandits to me.”

“Damn right we’re not bandits,” said the man holding the rifle, which was now leveled at Yarec’s neck.  “Damn right.”  A couple of the others murmured in the back.  The tone suggested that they were expressing similar sentiments, but again Yarec could not make out the words.

“I’m just glad that’s sorted out then,” Yarec said, now beaming broadly.  He paused, inhaled, then added, “And I’m sorry to have disturbed you.  I won’t take up any more of your time.”

“Get out of here then,” said the spokesman with the gun, gesturing with it forcefully.  “Leave us to worship in peace.”  However, Yarec did not yet turn to go.  The word “worship” interested him.  He also sensed, correctly, that not everyone present was satisfied that this encounter was over.

“No.  Kill him.  He will betray us,” said the woman standing by the elongated box.  She had halfway turned and was gazing at Yarec now over her bony left shoulder.  One of the inhabitants’ several small lights that had been, up to that point, trained exclusively on Yarec turned to illuminate her.  She had frayed, graying hair and large gray-flecked eyes.  The hair was tousled, and she looked to Yarec like one of the classic images of a prophetess.  If this was a religious cult, she was one of its wise women—not the serene, perfectly coiffured sibyl from a high-columned temple, but a seeress who had been touched by the spirits after a long wandering in the wild.

“This intruder will betray us,” she reiterated, and the other four worshippers looked afraid to disagree.  Her voice was not loud or overwhelmed with emotion, but it still had the tone of command.  “Remember all the others.  They challenged us before we found security here.  They wanted to stop us, so they needed to be dealt with.”  Her companions shifted uncomfortably, clearly not prepared for a peremptory execution.

After chewing his hairy lip for a few seconds, one of the men spoke up.  “Catleen, let’s not get hasty,” he said timidly.  His eyes flicked back and forth between Yarec’s hard frame and his own booted feet.  He did not look at Catleen, but she was glaring at him out of the corner of her eye.

“Look, I don’t mean to cause any trouble,” Yarec began, but several voices burst in to interrupt him.

“Let him decide,” said a heftier man.

“Give him a chance,” said the second woman, who looked younger than Catleen and less worn down by the world.

“Yeah, he might be a convert,” said the third man, somewhere in the back.

“He won’t understand.  I think we should kill him and have done,” Catleen said, but her tone had changed.  She sighed and added, “You should do as I say.”

In the opaque darkness, with a brilliant blue beam shining right in his face, Yarec could not really read any of the faces except Catleen’s.  The neural circuitry of his eyes had been modified, to enhance his visual acuity in extreme conditions—when the light was nearly nonexistent or when it was overpowering.  However, there were still limits to the power of his carefully engineered cones.

Someone mumbled something, but it was either in a language Yarec did not know, or the accent was suddenly too unusual for him to make it out.  Other heads nodded in assent, and the man holding the gun said, “This way, stranger.”  He jerked the barrel to the side, indicating the direction.

Yarec hesitated, and the graying woman glared at him.  Her face, illuminated from below, seemed almost to have a cold, silver-blue glow of its own.  “Will you join us?” she asked, with more than a touch of a sneer in her voice.

“Move stranger,” ordered the man with the weapon.  “You only get one chance.”

None of the people before Yarec looked like hardened fighters.  I could probably kill them all, right now, Yarec thought, but he did not reach for the xaser yet.  He nodded slowly and, with no sudden movements, began walking in the direction the man had indicated.  The floor here, in the midst of the group’s encampment, had been cleared of standing water to the extent that was possible.  However, it was still slick with condensation and fresh drippage.  Yarec’s heavy tread splashed noisily as he crossed ten meters from the base of the staircase to the foot of the container.

Catleen was still standing at the other end of the box, and two of the others padded up to stand along the sides.  Someone began to hum—a low, throaty noise that seemed to echo ominously even in the dank air.  “Open it,” Catleen said.  She pounded her fists on the coffin-like box.  “Open the vessel.”

The box opened silently, without even a whisper from the perfectly formed hinges, and Yarec saw that its oblong shape had not deceived him.  It was indeed a coffin.  Opening the lid revealed a corpse, unlike any Yarec had ever seen.  It was bipedal, clearly of human stock, but it had been bred or altered into a form that was obviously foreign to nature.

The naked male body was dessicated—sapped of useful fluids, probably by the very people who had created it.  In fact, it might have been specifically grown as a farm for some particular class of organic compounds.  The dry skin was stretched taut, which made the legs look even more warped and malformed than they would have been in life.  They were short, narrow at the ankles and probably insufficient to carry the poor man’s weight.  If he could walk at all, it would have only been with a rough stagger.  The corpse’s torso was hairy, tufted with black curls, but the hair could not conceal the massive, corded pectoral muscles that bulged beneath the tightly drawn hide.  The head was swollen up on either side, with mottled growths like twisted horns, framing a face that was almost normal, although fixed in a rigid mask baring stubby teeth.

Yarec gasped, wondering what life could have been like for this sorry fellow.  For a being grown in such an unnatural shape, had existence itself been a source of pain?  Everything he saw was wrong.  Yet somehow he recognized this corpse.  It was an atavism, from a time before reason and technology.  Punisher of oathbreakers, wild man of the countryside, he had returned—and died.  The ancient name came to Yarec from some recess of memory.  “Orcus,” he whispered.

“We found this god at the side of the river,” Catleen said.  “He was dead, so we brought him here to be buried.”  The humming died away.  “But I decided to wait for him to rise again.”

I don’t think that’s going to happen, Yarec thought, but he did not think these worshippers would appreciate the irreverence.

“Will you stay with us now?” said one of the men.  There was an earnestness in his voice that made Yarec uncomfortable.  All the faces around him, except for Catleen’s, looked eerily similar now.  Their gazes were tipped downward, and their eyes were wide with empty adoration.  Yarec decided he had only a few seconds to decide what to do, and he was obviously not planning to spend an eternity waiting for this stale carcass to reanimate.