The Illumination of Karen
After two hours, Karen awoke anew, just as she had planned. She said a final farewell to Chetna’s still form, then announced to her two remaining companions that it was time to leave. They were very reluctant to abandon their former leader, but finally acquiesced.
They then walked back up the way they had come before, listening at every branching tunnel for the sound of water, and following it. The broken off crystal flower still shone with nearly undiminished intensity and was more than enough to light their path for them. Karen wondered where they had deviated from their original course, knowing that they must have done so at some point since there was no water where they had come from. Eventually the ground became level again, and the sound indicated that they were nearing a stream of some size.
To her relief, they soon came upon what seemed like an artificially improved natural waterway. She had worried that it would be difficult or impossible to follow the water, but here was an actual walkway, running parallel to it on their side. The river itself was slightly less than two metres wide, and considering the intense flow of water, probably not very deep. They drank and filled their bottles, then, with a comforting feeling of hope, they started following it downstream.
The river meandered only slightly, but enough that they never saw more than at most a hundred metres ahead. At many points there were apertures of access with open spaces, like little squares, surrounded by apartments. Where there were openings on both sides, these were connected by small bridges. The overall impression was that this had once been quite densely inhabited, and the river a regular gathering place.
Then came a light ahead. The warm, yellow light of fire, distinctly different from the rather cold, blue-green emanation of their crystal. They saw if first indirectly, from around one of the sharper bends in the river’s course. Wise from earlier experiences, Karen immediately wrapped their flower-like torch in her tunic.
They heard no sound at first, but of course, the river bathed their ears in constant noise. Creeping slowly round the bend, they found something quite unexpected. About forty metres ahead, a large space opened up on either side of the water. It was irregularly lined with both lit and unlit apartments, several stories high, and populated by people engaged in various businesses. Karen’s first feeling of joy quickly subsided as she recognized the typical bearing and outline displayed by their monstrous antagonists from before. Here was an entire community of them! There were women, children and men, all similar, as if belonging to a distinct species, which she couldn’t identify. Altogether, there were about twenty or thirty individuals visible, with indications of several more everywhere.
How were they to proceed now? Karen was convinced that their best, and possibly only chance for escape, lay via this river. But it went straight through the midst of their enemy’s home. As far as she could make out, the open space was about a hundred metres across. There didn’t seem to be much activity or presence beyond it, but how to cross it safely? She briefly considered going back a bit to try and sneak around the place via one of the other tunnels opening on the river. But she soon discarded that notion as it would put them at risk of both running into someone, and getting lost again. They had no way of knowing how large this community was. It might stretch out far into the surrounding tunnels and apartments. Thus, she quickly decided that their best course of action would be to just follow the river straight across. Her idea consisted in walking or swimming in the water, not exposing more than absolutely necessary of themselves. The trick lay, of course, in doing it at the right time, when no one was near or approaching the stream. She explained this plan to her two followers who both immediately refused.
Karen understood that they had not really followed her and Chetna’s reasoning during their various trials. Though not necessarily unintelligent, they had put most of their faith in the leadership of Chetna and, later, both the older women. They had, to some degree, followed where led, without understanding the reasons guiding their course. Therefore, Karen now had to take them back some distance to a place where they felt reasonably safe, and try to convince them there. It took quite a while. First, she had to make them understand that there were really no other options. And secondly, she had to convince them of the plausibility of staying hidden so near their enemy. She tried to fill them with some confidence, saying that they would be invisible to everyone who were not near the water. Also explaining the psychology that made the river into an uninteresting, everyday presence to these people. Rendering it a veritable blind spot in their consciousness.
Then they approached again and, some distance before the bend, they stepped into the river. Happily, it was not more than about a metre deep. Karen had tried to impress upon both her companions the importance of making no sound of complaint no matter how cold it felt. But even so, they could not repress a few sharp intakes of breath and slight gasps at the icy touch of that subterraneous watercourse. This was the weakest link of her plan: For fear of being heard entering the water, Karen didn’t dare do so any closer to the square. But this meant that they had to wait for a good moment to cross, while submerged. She realized that they could not stay like that for more than a few minutes at best.
So, with only their heads above water, and under the level of the walkway, they moved close enough to the square that they could see most of it. As expected, there were still people about. Karen had thought about waiting for something like night-time, but decided that it was not worth the risk of detection waiting around to find out when that might be. She had also theorized that maybe people who lived underground didn’t necessarily have a commonly shared rest-work time structure. She could already feel Thisha’s hand start to shiver in her’s. So, seeing no one being either near the river or walking towards it, she started forward resolutely.
Half walking, half swimming, they made their way across as fast as they could. They were much helped by the current, making it almost possible to float passively in their desired direction. There were no lights near the river either, and so Karen counted on that hiding them in shadow. It really was like travelling along a dark ditch, straight across the square. At both ends were bridges, and in the middle were a few broad steps, allowing easy access to the water. People crossing the bridges were the most likely to catch a glimpse of the trespassers, while they in turn were at their most exposed when passing the steps. At that point they might be spotted from much further away.
As they went, they all glanced nervously from side to side. Moving quickly, shivering violently, and trying to be quiet, they drew breath in tiny, shallow gasps. Soon their bodies were almost completely numb. But they seemed to be doing well, nearing the bridge at the farther end, when something worrying occurred. A number of children raced down, laughing, to the other bridge. Looking back, Karen was at first relieved that they had chosen the bridge furthest from them. But then she saw them dropping something into the water, and soon after run screaming with delight along the river downstream. It had to be some kind of little toy boats which they were now following. As the water would soon pass into darkness again, just beyond the farther end, she believed that the children would not follow their toys very far. The danger lay in detection before she and her two friends could make it into that protecting gloom.
They had gone ten or fifteen metres past the second bridge when the children reached it. These bent over the railing, looking intently in their direction. No doubt, they were trying to enjoy the voyage of their little craft for as long as possible. Some of them seemed to point and scream. But, not knowing their language at all, it was impossible to tell whether that was in reference to them or one of the boats. Soon thereafter, Karen felt one of these bump into her head as it floated past. And moments later, they went around a bend in the tunnel.