Episode 21: Thrown to the Underjungles

Zack wrinkled his nose. The oubliette’s circular entrance allowed a fetid odor to escape, distracting even the two guards standing on either side of the chair. Zack had smelled sewers before and expected something similar when Murk’s men had taken him from the office where Murk woke him up to the chamber with this pit, but this odor was unexpectedly different. It was infused with something like the smell of rotting vegetation and fermented nectars.

“If you’re trying to start a flower shop, I think your stock’s gone bad. Location’s not great either. It lacks that Alpha Street charm.”

“Compared to the cultures of Veskid, it lacks a great deal,” said Murk. “But compared to the subterranean jungles of Ravelar, I think you’ll find that I did a fine job recreating the environment.”

“Ravelar? The moon in orbit around Skyrrin?”

“Has your memory cleared, then?”

“No. I went to Ravelar for a recent case, but I stayed in the cities, doing light espionage work for a monastery with a grudge against another. I never explored any subterranean jungles while I was there, and I certainly never met you. I’ve been hit in the head a lot the last few days, but I’m positive it’s nothing that would cause a memory lapse like you’re talking about.”

“A pity,” said Murk. He waved a watery pseudohand and the two men on either side of Zack grabbed his chair and pushed it forward.

Zack yelped, falling into the dark chamber below. He could see that it was only a ten foot drop, but he knew that an incorrect fall from even that short distance could be fatal if he hit the ground improperly. The chair he was bound to restricted his movement, but he twisted his shoulder to try and roll with the fall.

A dizzying moment later and his side collided with the surprisingly soft, peaty mud at the bottom of the oubliette. He had an instant of fear when he realized that he wasn’t landing how he wanted to land at all, but the ground was so much softer than expected. His shoulder ached from the impact, but he realized that the chair’s arm was loose. He looked up at Murk through the hole in the ceiling. Murk flowed into the chamber, suspending his face within the prison.

“Welcome to one of the deeper, intentionally forgotten secrets of a more barbaric period of galactic history,” said Murk. “The construction of the Super Cities was not without its uncivilized minds, those who felt it appropriate to take cues from unwholesome eras. Had Helix become the space-faring behemoth it was intended to be, this room would undoubtedly have become the final resting place of many enemies of the state, a place to dump criminals and simply forget about them. Or perhaps the jailers who built it had nobler intentions… perhaps it really was just meant as a form of solitary confinement, a tiny room for prisoners to fight off rats without any other company for days or weeks at a time in the hopes that they would have better manners when they were ultimately allowed to join the other prisoners again.”

“I’ve got a feeling it’s the first one that you’ve got in mind for me,” said Zack.

“Not at all,” said Murk. “I have no intention of forgetting about you. And I’ve also not developed any plans to make you be alone for so long. You probably can’t see it from where you are right now, but I’ve removed a portion of the wall behind you. What was once a tiny, vertical cell is now just the entrance to a much, much larger chamber. As I told you, I spent quite a bit of time recreating Ravelar’s jungles. The ecosystem was tricky to recreate in an artificial cave, but I managed. And that jungle has an old friend of yours.”

“I doubt that.”

“You may claim that you don’t remember our meeting on Ravelar, but know that there is a poetic justice to this end,” said Murk. “it won’t be long before you encounter the little Lusca Vine. Grown from the spores of the same one that you arranged to deploy upon my operations on Ravelar. I’m leaving you with a light source, if you wish to see your doom coming. But know that Lusca is attracted to the light. There’s not much of it down there, and it usually means that she has a meal.”

Murk flowed back, fully departing the oubliette. One of the guards tossed a lumisphere into the hole. Zack watched it land, naturally unlit, into the mud scant feet from his face. The hole’s entrance irised shut, hissing into place and sealing. Zack shook his aching shoulder and rattled the loose arm of the chair between himself and the floor. He knew that rolling the chair (and himself) over might make it possible to break the chair less painfully, but he also knew that he didn’t want to lose track of where the lumisphere had fallen in the darkness.

Gradually he felt the damage on the chair increase. He also discovered inefficiently tied segments of the rope holding him to the chair, most notably near his right ankle and right arm. The rope holding his left arm in place would gradually fail in time as well thanks to the broken chair arm no longer acting as a solid anchoring point.

While Zack was capable when it came to escape artistry, he knew very well that most of what he had was theoretical knowledge rather than practical experience. He made progress, but felt like he was moving much slower than he would like. He didn’t know what a ‘Lusca Vine’ was, but with every moment that passed he imagined the ropes binding him being joined by a vine composed of alien vegetable matter.

With a triumphant shout (mixed with more than a little pain from jerking his shoulder suddenly), Zack finally managed to break the arm’s chair. He gasped at the unintentional noise, but celebrated by lifting the left side of his face out of the mud. The rest of the ropes easily fell away as he untangled himself from the chair’s wreckage.

He took a moment to take stock. No pistols, forms of identification or hard currency. He had his hat, but without a device capable of connecting to a network the hat would be useless, assuming that any networks would be active this far down. And somewhere in front of him was a lumisphere.

Zack had a good memory and reasonable spatial visualization skills, as did any who lasted long in his line of work, but the circumstances still made it a challenge. Shaking himself free from a chair while lying in two-inch deep mud without any light altered his perceptions just enough to make him worried. If it had fallen much further from him, he might have wasted hours fruitlessly searching. Fortunately, one of his hands eventually touched on a round, smooth object that was out of place in the muggy prison cell.

He held it up and squeezed it gently. The sphere began to emit a gentle, white light from somewhere within, a dim light made almost painful due to the amount of time already spent in the darkness. After his eyes adjusted, Zack squeezed it again and saw the brightness increase. Another squeeze demonstrated the surprisingly bright third setting, followed by the fourth squeeze plunging the chamber back into darkness. Three settings. Zack knew that some of the higher end models were psychoreceptive and designed to always provide exactly the degree of brightness desired by the user, but Murk had clearly chosen not to waste that kind of expense on him.

Zack considered activating the lumisphere’s brightest setting before he remembered Murk’s warning that the ‘Lusca Vine’ would be attracted to a light source. He settled for the dimmest setting and found a hole in the wall, inexpertly carved out with blaster fire. Zack approached and stepped through.

A surprisingly large cavern existed on the other side, revealing the abandoned internal sectors of Helix. Likely intended as a chamber for residents to have an open “park” area while Helix blasted through the void of space, or possibly as a future extension of the dungeons to build more cells, Murk had obviously spent a great deal of time making it appear wilder and less controlled than before. Giant trees somehow stretched to the roof of the chamber, making Zack wonder just where the roots were going. The mud was an inch deeper here than it had been in the oubliette, and the distant buzzing of insects could be heard. Vines and bushes were scattered about, and the humidity hit him like a wall. But what Zack noticed more than anything was the smell.

The odor of overripe vegetation was even more apparent than it had been in the cell, but the more fragrant scents of alien flowers and mysterious pollens were almost overpowering. Mixed with the oppressive humidity, the scent of the jungle stopped feeling like a generic wilderness scent, but became something very specific and unforgettable, so unforgettable that it triggered a memory in Zack’s mind.

A wave of deja vu rolled over him as the aromatic sensation fired familiar neurons in his head. The underjungles of Ravelar were imprinted in his memories somewhere, and there was something important that had happened here. Or there, rather. He didn’t know what the sensation meant, but he knew one thing.

“I’ve been here before.”

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