Tuesday, January 29, 2013
"Well, if it isn't Marc Anthony and Cleopatra, fresh from a secret cruise on the Nile," Tut said as he looked up from a large yellowed tome. "Miss Lizzie, I presume, late of the wilds of Africa and her mission of terrorizing the locals?" "Tutherone Bergodozzi, PhD of applied science and temporal weapons, esquire... I presume?" Her right eyebrow arched cattily, gaze full of I-won't-spill-you-past-indiscretions-if-you-won't-spill-mine, Lizzie faced down Tut until he shrugged and acquiesced. With that, Lizzie retired to the bathroom for a shower. Coxli was napping on the couch, seemingly dead to the world. "Decker, I see that your metamorphosis back to, er, Homo Sapiens has begun. I hypothesized something of this nature." Tut slid a length of purple ribbon into the book, closed it lovingly, and arose from his study table. "Cletus seems to have vanished. Did you...?" "Me? uh, no. Guessing he kinda de-materialized when I quit thinking about him. You probably knew he was a figment of my imagination, right? Think he'd be useful? Should I try to bring him back?" "In point of fact, I was privy to that information. I suggest you make the attempt to bring him back, but I harbor doubts as to your current ability to do so. With the alternate persona ebbing out of you, it seems likely that your temporo-spatial abilities will also be at an ebb." Decker closed his eyes and brought an image of the scraggly miner into his mind. He willed the image into living, breathing 3-dimensionality; nothing happened. "Well, shit my shits! I suppose this means I can't go mind-surfing off to any of the other worlds I've visited, either." "Most likely not." "Well, this little 'trip home' had better bring some results then, or it's gonna be like Adam and Eve all over again!" "And the end, as it were, for Aida's race, and Coxli's, and mine," Tut added, "And all the others attached to the temporo-spatial matrix of this river's contact." "Shi-... err, yah. Wow." Decker was flabbergasted. "I, ummm... yeah. I think I'll take a shower... itchy." He rubbed his hand across his left shoulder, dragging the rest of the fur off and leaving a smooth, lightly-freckled patch of skin. "Then I suppose we'd better get this train a'rolling." "We? No, Decker. Just you. You're going to have to do this by yourself. None of us were there when you and Furge tore the temporal fabric." Ahhh, yeah, great. Well, maybe we ought to have a little party before I go, in case...you know..." Decker had a thought. "But what about Lizzie? Do you think she could wait in the cave, if she wanted?" "Actually, it might be a good idea if we all waited a little ways down the tunnel to Terra to ascertain the results of your, er, endeavor." "Great, great!" Decker brightened. "Well, where's the good hooch? We should at least bring a bottle of that and have a little toast before I go tearing open the universe again." They packed a week's worth of dry provisions, but only a day's water, under the assumption that the stream at the upper cave mouth would be free of hallucinogenic properties. "And even if it is wacky water, what'll be the difference anyway?" Decker laughed nervously. "There's still a half case of bottled water either in my little Toyota or in the shack. And there's a solid three quarters of a tank of gas in the Toy, so we can get to... um, well at least we could get to good water." In the little chamber below the cave mouth, they passed Tut's bourbon and toasted Decker's success. Lizzie laid a sizzling full-body kiss on him and breathed a torrid "Good luck" in his ear, and he climbed out into the fading glory of an Arizona desert sunset. It was a short hike back to the ruptured shack, where he cracked a body-temperature beer and sat on the old, lumpy mattress. "Welp, this is it," Decker grated. "Wake up in the morning and go on a nice little trip. Just like last time, only hopefully a little different." He guzzled the beer, cracked one more and guzzled that, and laid back for what he assumed would be a fitful night's rest.
The sun on the blankets was a palpable force when Decker awakened. He struggled up out of their cloying folds in a sweat. He was alone again; either last evening's carnal adventures had been another hallucination or Lizzie had left him to swelter on the beach. He wiped at his brow with a tacky forearm. This was strange, he thought; the Degren body had not shown any intolerance for heat before. The sensation of hair pilling up between his arm and his head as he wiped brought an extra flash of heat to his chest. He brought his arm down for a look. Several clumps of his pelt were rolled into little football-shapes on his forearm, and the fur where he had rubbed was markedly thinner than it was elsewhere on his arm. He dragged his other palm across his forehead and felt a bunch of fur come loose between his fingers."What the...LIZZIE!, HEY, LIZZIE!" A pair of hands slipped over his eyes and he felt a wet body press against his back. "Guess who?" "SHIT SHIT SHITTLEY SHIT!" His first instinct was to lunge forward, but he caught himself when he recognized her voice. "Whooo-ey, you scared the..." "Shit out of you? Guess so, sweet-cheeks." She slipped under his arm and around to the front of him, her whimsical smirk morphing to a look of concern. "What's the matter, lover? You look all shook up." "Ah, it's probably nothing, but I do seem to be, er, shedding pretty heavy right now." "No kidding! I had to go rinse off in the waves to get it off of me. It's like a Malamute kennel in May all up in those blankets." She made a show of brushing him off. "Maybe you ought to go for a little dip. Come to think of it," she mused, letting her fingernails drag lightly down along his sides, "maybe we ought to go for a lil' dip together... meow meow meow..." "Maybe a quick rinse and we ought to get moving, back down to Tut's place..." he searched her face then, and asked, "You do want to go with me, don't you?" She smirked again. "Decker, you could be the last man in the world... how's that old joke go?" Her face got serious then. "And not only might you be the last man in the world, or on any number of worlds, I... I am stuck on you. I had every opportunity to take you down, even take you out when it was my mission to do so. I couldn't do it. And that was before you were the last man in the world. So if you think I'm gonna let you get away..." About half his fur washed off in the freshwater sea, and he noted that the skin showing through beneath was very familiar to him. Experimenting in the waves, he discovered that the physical prowess of Degren's race was starting to ebb out of him, too. His scalp was down to the sort of peach fuzz found on a human baby's head, and it itched like crazy. He waded on shore and made an impromptu toga out of one of Lizzie's sheets, after shaking the fur out of it. She showed him where the lost-and-found was in the hotel office, and he chose a pair of huarache-like shoes out of the shoe bin; his human feet were far tenderer than his Degren feet had been. At the entrance to the tunnel, they both turned, arm in arm, and looked wistfully down at the silhouette of the hotel and the broad, beautiful beach. The image and the events there burned lovingly into both of their minds, they put it behind them and followed the bubbling stream down into the bedrock of Cradsell 4.
Monday, January 28, 2013
He was dreaming of being chased into a desert cave by a small horde of phantasmagorical Jurassic creatures. He could feel the wind of leathery wings; smell the fetid breath of the great beasts, and their roars and screams shook him like the ague. Trapped in a shallow, crumbling hole in the bluff, he cowered against the farthest wall, but the groping claws scrabbled ever closer until he felt their grip on his shoulder... "Decker...Decker!" It was Lizzie, and she was shaking him awake. "Hey, Decker... come on, it's a dream. It's a dream!" "Unhh... shi-, er, sheesh!" He spasm-ed into a sitting position, almost bumping heads with her. "I, er... umm, hi! S'looking for you. Where...? She'd found a floral print wraparound sun dress somewhere; it covered her very tan and very obvious nudity. "I've been playing the beach bum since you left, spearing fish, surfing, getting a tan..." she arched her eyebrows teasingly. "You wanna see?" Still groggy and tongue-tied, Decker reached up to scratch his head. "Well, um, you... I mean, we... we maybe ought to talk, I think..." His scalp felt strange, and he looked at his hand, which was dusted with a few dozen short cream-colored hairs. "Shedding?" She reached to brush his scalp with her fingers, and he instinctively jerked away. "Ah, maybe." His forehead creased as he rubbed the pelt on his chest; nothing loose there. "Hmm. Anyway, I came back here because... um, because Tut has this plan, see, and I'm supposed to go home to try to duplicate the scene where all this crazy stuff started happening... we went and found some peyote, and..." The story tumbled out of him helter-skelter, out of order, semi-coherent. She sat next to him as he babbled on, listening, nodding. "But anyway," he concluded, the words now starting to slip into a more sensible pattern, "I wanted to come and find you, see what you wanted to do, where you wanted to be, in case... um, in case things get... y'know, weird." "Oh, yeah, like things aren't already weird!" She beamed a bemused, ridiculous smile at him. "Well, Mister Decker, I see no evidence of any other human life anywhere around here. Unless a whole bunch of humanity turns up in my general vicinity real soon, I'd say the options are kinda limited. And lucky for me, I'm kinda drawn to that one particular other human that I've been seeing around. Sooo... I guess it comes down to, um, whether you're okay with seeing me around, and I really hope you are, because a girl can get mighty lonely out here with just the sun, the surf, and some sea bass." She edged closer to him on the bench; he could smell the perfect mingling of the sea and her skin. is hear was beating fast and hard again; the doubts and the desire were a whirling inferno inside his chest, his head. "Shittle-de-shit sticks," he mumbled under his breath, slowly succumbing to the heat of her skin, the depth of her eyes, the delicate gleam of her teeth between slightly parted lips... "Awww, hell," he moaned, "I've been fantasizing about this moment for way too long." He raised a trembling hand to her cheek, touched her ear with an outstretched index finger, then leaned into her, letting the soft fur of his cheek brush her neck before he turned his lips to hers. Their ragged breathing syncopated, melted into one, and they were in each others arms, locked in an electrifying, exhilarating embrace, hungry mouths nibbling, pressing, submerging in each other. Rapt in each others passion, they did not break their embrace for long minutes, barely took time for breath. Finally, as the stars of surrender were flashing before his eyes, he pulled back. "Here?" he looked down at the stone bench, hardly wide enough for one of them. She giggled, brushed her hand across his thigh, letting the sun dress flap open. "Silly... follow me." She stood, bent down for another ecstatic, sense-drowning kiss, took his hand and pulled him to his feet. He staggered along with her, their ambulations broken by frequent, mind-thundering embraces, down several flights of stairs, out the great front doors of the hotel, and down to the beach, where her blankets were laid on the warm sand, where the sun was in its death throes on the horizon, spewing its blazing blood across a deepening blue sky; she pulled him down then, and they ravaged each other tenderly, mercilessly, until the stars had gotten a good long eyeful, and then they rolled up together in her sandy blankets and fell into the heat-forged, satiated sleep of satiated angels.
The river phosphoresced hypnotically; green, pink, lilac, cobalt, carmine, all melding, swirling, eddying around Decker's calves as he waded across. He was tired and numb, feeling like little more than a specter in this shadowy place. Only the chill of the water and the bruising solidity of the river rocks on his feet seemed real enough to keep him anchored here. His companions were flickering phantasms floating over the psychedelic rills, silent in their own contemplations. The gurgle and splash of their steps and his set off chromatic echoes in his mind, like haunting, distant background music in some avant-garde surrealistic film about depression and self-discovery. Their crossing was agonizingly slow, as each member of the party occasionally stopped mid-stride to fall into glazed revery. The consuming inner visions that brought Decker to pause were mostly about Lizzie. He kept seeing her in the mellow orange torchlight of the hotel on Cradsell 4; wet, smiling, emerging from the pool, toweling her hair, then flashing back to their meeting on the river, the confrontation at Tut's scientific complex... why was she occupying so much of his mind now? Contact with the stone walkway on the riverbank brought him out of his daze, though Lizzie kept floating around in the peripheries of his mind. His companions, too, seemed to be coming back to full consciousness. Once they'd made their way back to where the regularly-spaced electric lights glowed, they'd all shaken off their daze and were conversing like the adventure-bonded compadres they'd become. Decker mused on their friendly repartee as he sorted out his emotions. When they reached the stainless double doors, he broke into their conversation. "Hey, uh, guys... I think I need to make a little side trip back to Cradsell 4 before we do this peyote trip reenactment thing. I've got to see how Lizzie's doing, find out what she wants to do before I maybe set this whole, er...multiverse, right, Tut? Before I maybe set this whole multiverse on its ear again." He could see Coxli sputtering, working up to one of his alliterative harangues, and Cletus was starting to shake his head and mutter about "them danged wimmen", but he put up a palm and went on. "I know, I know... she's been trouble in the past, but she's the only other real person I've seen for a while, and she is a woman. which could be a pretty important factor if we were interested in keeping the human race going if... if things stay as, er, weird as they seem to be right now. You're not going to talk me out of this. And I'm going alone. I'll just grab a few things and head on out, shouldn't be more than a day or two." After a comradely meal in the cafeteria, Decker tossed a few granola bars and a couple canteens in a messenger bag and headed for the Cradsell 4 tributary. There was a pleasant, tingling excitement coursing through his veins. He found himself humming sporadically, then actually singing a few of the old radio songs he remembered from... before. The climb went smoothly, and it felt like only a few hours before he was ascending the slow-sloping ramp to the Cradsell 4 surface. Visions of Lizzie kept drifting through his mind; her smug grin, her coquettish glances, her mischievous eyes... her hair streaming behind her as she surfaced at the edge of the hot tub, then vaulted up onto the ledge... the images turned to soft-lit vignettes that included him; a table, a candle, some wine, her smile... The stark light of a bright-sunned Cradsellan sky broke his revery. It was blazing hot as he stepped onto the cobblestones in front of the big hotel, and the air was stiflingly humid. His heart banged, pendulum-like, against his chest. What if she was just playing him? And what if Degren's deep love for Furge, still ensconced in his chest, came surging back up in the middle of his revery's realized culmination? "Shit-damned shittle shit!" He steeled himself for their imminent reunion. He was going to carry through on this, for better or worse. "You made the trip, asshole," he grumbled to himself, "now go poke that tiger!" The stone halls of the hotel echoed with his footsteps. "Lizzie? You here?" No reply. He wandered down to the bathing area. The pool was still. He stuck his finger in the water; air temperature at best. "Shit!" She hadn't bathed here in at least a day."LIZZIE!" His heart was starting to thud again, and his breathing became ragged. He wandered the halls of the hotel, up and down stairs, calling her name. "Dammitall, where'd she go?" He stopped and collapsed onto a stone bench outside the large, gaping French doors of a partly-vandalized library. The excitement and adrenaline of the last two days were ebbing; Decker was practically exhausted. Coming down from his romantic fantasies of Lizzie was the last straw; he felt totally drained, unable to keep his eyes open. Chest heaving in the sultry afternoon, Decker Quall laid back onto the broad bench and passed out.
Friday, January 25, 2013
Decker awoke to red-glowing eyelids and soft gurgling from the little stream. The sun was a brilliant orange hemisphere resting on ragged shadows; the sky was a great striated agate in hues ranging from liquid gold to deep, cold blue. Wispy cirrus clouds luminesced in the dark upper depths like primitive deep-water fish. The last tenacious stars went out like oxygen-starved candles. He stood and watched the whole vista slowly brighten; watched the shadows retreat into the morning light. The scene cued memories from Degren's life; childhood games along stony creeks, gathering of hunters and forays into the wild lands where big game resided, nights full of song around cheerful fires, mornings with Furge, sharing sunrise spectacles just like this one. The gelid dawn air, which would have set Decker's old body to shivering, was deliciously bracing for him now. Amidst the flood of Degren's memories, it was difficult to sort out who he currently was; the longing for Furge's companionship seemed to balance with the hungry animal urges he'd felt when he'd last seen Lizzie; the vestiges of Degren's personality were not nearly as intense as his memories; oddly, though Decker felt that his personality was the stronger, his memories seemed more distant... was that merely a function of where he now stood? Would his memories of life in Arizona, in Minnesota, fulfill him as these current memories did? Somehow, it did not feel as though they would. It was a strange and lonely feeling, living in this mixed-up amalgamation of two completely different people. "Be-YOU-tee-ful morning, pardner!" Cletus' blatant exclamation and his rough, gnarled hand clapping down on Degren's shoulder startled him out of his revery; set his heart to thumping. "Yuh sleep good? I'uz out like a clubbed catfish meself." The scruffy miner stretched his arms out, arched his back, and groaned; Degren could hear joints popping and tendons creaking. "Yeah, um... yeah, I slept fine." Degren clapped his furry hand down on Cletus' shoulder, just a little more firmly than might be considered amiable, and Cletus staggered a bit with the impact. Degren grinned at the miner's brief discombobulation. "And it is a beautiful morning. The other two up yet?" "Ayup. Tut's heatin' up some vittles up by the cave, and Coxli is scrambling all over hell and creation. He takes a real shine to this here countryside." The sun was starting to feel warm on their backs when they broke camp and headed down the hillside. Tut studied the landscape as they walked, muttering biology and geology jargon under his breath, all the while scribbling notes on a small pad. He stopped and pointed with his pencil. "It is my hypothesis that we will idealize our prospects of finding specimens of Lophophora williamsii if we follow the stream. Though it does not absolutely require much in the way of moisture, it is often found in the shade of other types of desert flora." "This here looks like sidewinder country to me," Cletus said. "I don't reckon we might want tuh be gallivantin' alon too close tuh thuh water. Them reep-tiles favor a warm rock by a crik, yuh know." Decker dug around in Degren's memories, noted several varieties of venomous reptiles, arachnids, and insects. "Cletus is right. Keep your eyes peeled for snakes in either a solid greenish-brown color or with a sort of reddish tapestry pattern, and there could be some wicked scorpions hiding in the same shadows the peyote is likely to be. If we stay out of caves, we'll probably avoid the worst of the spiders." "Ugh... yuh jes' had tuh go and mention spiders, din't yuh?" Cletus shook, as with an ague. "Cain't abide no gol-dern spiders." "We'll have to venture near enough to the stream to investigate among the flora," Tut said. "In this particular setting, it is far more likely to be tucked in under a protective shrub." Decker noted a stand of stunted trees where another small stream joined the one they were following, and pointed. "Maybe we ought to get ourselves each a nice poking stick, so we can investigate the shrubberies without sticking our hands in them." Now that'er's a plumb fine idear, fuzzball," Cletus offered snidely, "But who's gonna stick his hands into thuh brush tuh cut thuh sticks?" Coxli popped out of a dense patch of sagebrush at Cletus' feet, startling the skittish miner into conniptions. "What are you guys so worried about? Don't your scales protect... oh, yeah." Cletus fumbled his big pistol out of its holster and waved it around shakily. "Yuh sneaky lil' sidewinder, yuh gotta be more kyer-ful! Tarnation, I plumb near plugged yuh just then!" "Anyway," Coxli continued, holding up a handful of green, turtle-ish looking bulbs, "do the things we're looking for look something like this?" "Ah, lovely specimens of the Lophophora williamsii node, or button as they are referred to colloquially!" Tut took one from Coxli and scrutinized it. "Where precisely did you find these?" "Just over there, tucked in under those bushes covered with spiderwebs." "Argh, confustulation and dagnabbit!" Cletus commenced waving his arms around as though swatting away flies. "Whut'd I tell you about flappin' yer jaws with that consarned spider talk?" Coxli filled a lunch-sized sack with peyote buttons and they found a clear bank along the stream to fill their canteens. It was decided that they'd make their way back to the cave mouth and camp for the night (the sun had passed its zenith by the time they'd discovered the cactus) before trekking back down to the river and ultimately to the Arizona shack where Decker had started on his mad hallucinatory adventure.
Friday, January 4, 2013
The four unlikely adventurers stood on the stone river walk. Tut had procured four backpacks and they'd put together a traveling kit. "The less we rely on your conscious power in this venture," the turtle had said, "the more likely I surmise it will be that we will find what we are looking for." "I just thought of something," Decker said. "I never went to Degren's world through one of these, er, cave portals. Tut, where's the portal to that reality?" "The passage to the reality fractal wherein occurs the planet Horu, Degren's home world, branches off just a little downstream and on the other side of the river from yours. We'll have to ford the river, which will mean going a kilometer or two downstream. I have not been able to locate my old boat, so I fear we'll have to walk." "Fer chrissakes, yuh mean I gotta get these nice boots all wet?" Cletus shook his head and commenced to muttering, then dug in his coat for a bottle. After a long draught, he gave Tut the owly eye and said, "Well then, let's git this all-fired medicine show on the road." Coxli, whose anterior fin made conventional backpacking difficult, had his pack strapped to his belly and was waddling on four legs like a crocodile. "Arr buggle bunkies, now I know how it must feel to be gravid with eggs," he grumbled. "Hope it's not too far to these silly cacti we're looking for." They came to a straight, wide run in the river where there were myriads of phosphorescent rills weaving hypnotic patterns shore to shore. "Ah, here is our crossing place, gentlemen," Tut declared. "Mind the moss and step carefully; one never knows where the odd portal will manifest. We had charted most of the more discrete realities before things went, er, belly up, as you might say, but we had not yet established formulas for predicting random generation. To your left and upstream seven or eight paces, for instance," he pointed to an area where the water seemed to eddy in a Volkswagen-sized circle, "is what I surmise may be one such random eventuality." Decker noted that it was moving down the riverbed at about the pace of a lazy carp, and planned his steps accordingly. "What a wild and woolly theme park this place would be if a family had time to explore," he said as he hiked up his pants futilely before stepping off the shore. They wended their way across, Coxli on his hind legs and leaning on whomever he could to keep from overbalancing, Cletus falling once as his pussyfooting style and his stacked-heel boots kept him in an arm-gyrating, teetering clown dance, Tut belly-down and stable and Decker relying on the catlike balance of his Horuan physique to make the crossing with a modicum of grace. The stone walkway was much narrower and rougher on this side of the river, and followed the stony bluff up and down as the natural formations allowed. They had to go single file in many areas, and a couple times found themselves edging along a crumbling ledge barely wider than a boot; here Tut's anatomy was not such an advantage, so Decker and Cletus bracketed him, a hand on either side of his shell to keep him from tipping. The passage to Horu started off with a series of hand- and footholds carved in a nearly sheer cliff, extending about seventy five feet diagonally up and left from the narrow ledge. Coxli took off his pack and skittered up to where a metal staircase, set here and there with what appeared to be electric lamps on hooded poles, terminated abruptly and tied off a length of rope. Decker found an outcropping in the ledge where he could secure the bottom of the rope, roughly in line with the climbing path. They sent Cletus, moaning and protesting adamantly, up first, then Decker climbed up behind. There was no way Tut was going to make the climb, so he untied the bottom end of the rope and they lifted Coxli's and Tut's packs to the stairs and dangled the rope straight down. Tut fashioned a rude harness with the bitter end of the rope and they hauled him up last. The stairs creaked and groaned a bit, (the abrupt end of the stairs seemed to be where some terrible force had sheared the last flight down to the ledge, jarring loose some of the lower attachments) but everything held together. Puffing and blowing, they warily made their way up to the first landing before they stopped for a breather and a swig or two from their canteens. The rest of the climb was exhaustingly long but uneventful. At the top of the stairs a long, rough-hewn round tunnel with a shallow water channel at the center ran straight through the bedrock at a gentle slope. If there were lights in the tunnel, they must have been turned off or burned out; no light was apparent and the darkness swallowed up the view before perspective could. They were quickly out of the lamp glow, in nearly total darkness, within a couple hundred paces. "Shittledy-shit, why didn't we think to bring flashlights?" Decker nursed a weeping abrasion on the side of his head where he'd repeatedly grazed stone projections while dragging his hand along the tunnel wall as a guide. "Tut, how long could this freakin' tunnel be? I'm not gonna have a head left if it goes on much farther!" "Er, at the slow inclination it follows, it's hard to say... a steeper incline would weigh toward the probability of a shorter passage, as the vertical limits of the bedrock are significantly more limited than the horizontal, of course... the architects of this monitoring system were limited to some degree by the terrain at the site of entry, but they would certainly attempt to utilize the shortest path, with consideration toward remaining covert..." "OW! Shitfuckshit, nevermind, I think it's too late for my head anyway..." "Hyuk hyuk, Decker's melon's bin busted," Cletus guffawed just before his boot heel caught in a crack and he lurched sideways, knocking off his drover's hat and banging headfirst into an unlikely stalactite, "Eyow, whutthehell..." "Serves you right for laughing, shit-for-brains." Decker rubbed his own head and wondered if using just a little of his power to get a taste of revenge would influence the outcome of their mission. It was the dimmest of glows and a gentle giggle of falling water that finally indicated the end of their spelunking; starlight seemed almost as bright as day when they emerged over a pile of rubble and through a thick curtain of brush and vines at the tunnel mouth. they were in a wide, low arroyo that snaked down a slow slope from the stony bluff behind them. An artesian spring originated just a stone's throw above the tunnel, creating a little waterfall and a small pool right at the mouth. The arroyo was dry, which seemed to indicate that all the water currently flowed down into the tunnel. Beyond the pool there was little vegetation to be seen in the weak starlight. Shadowy bluffs and hills were just visible on the near horizon. The air had a dry, cold feel, reminding Decker of Arizona nights. "I wonder if this water is any good," he said. "Feels like we might be in for a dry adventure here. If we can, I think we'd better fill our canteens." "The prudent thing to do now," Tut said, would be to sample the water here and then rest. We'll know, then, if it is going to have any adverse effects before we proceed." All four of them were quickly belly-down at the pool, slurping up the cold, sweet water. It had been a long, mouth-parching, exhausting delve. Having quenched their thirst, they found the nearest flat spot to spread their sleeping gear