Chapter 19

Locke spared a glance at his lantern. Yeah, it was still burning normal-like. Supposedly, the lantern would burn a different color if the gas he was smelling was poisonous.

Supposedly.

He’d have rather had a canary along.

But Locke Cole would have rather had a lot of things, and he would sure as hell have rather been a lot of places.

In fact, there weren’t many places he could think of he’d rather be than this muggy passageway so far beneath the ground that he was liable to head straight on through to Albrook or whatever was around the world from Figaro, looking for something he didn’t understand for someone he didn’t trust to do who the hell knew what.

And that was the least of his worries.

“Dammit!” Locke swore, pounding his fist against the tunnel wall and immediately regretting it when it came away bruised. But that was still better than thinking about...

About where Ghaleon had been going, so smug and confident looking.

That was no proof. It wasn’t. Locke had been telling that himself ever since that night. And he still didn’t believe it.

Locke knew how easily Ghaleon had gotten him suckered into this crazy scheme of relic hunting. When the guy got to talking, it was awful hard not to listen... and the more you listened, the easier it got to do what he said.

Sure, Locke figured Celes was smarter and better than he was, but still, she’d seemed pretty taken with Ghaleon already. He gulped back the words that sprung to mind, words that came unbidden from the times when he’d really been a thief, no matter how much he wanted to deny it.

‘Easy mark’.

Locke shook his head. He couldn’t think about that. He was liable to get himself killed down here thinking about that.

And if he couldn’t work up the guts to ask Celes - which he couldn’t - he had no place worrying.

Locke got ready to pound his fist against the wall again, glancing at the spot where he’d done so.

It was shiny.

He held up his lantern and looked closer. Experimentally, he hit the wall again, this time listening to it and not to himself. Sure enough, that was a metallic noise. Metal, not ore, either, but sheet metal from the look of it. What the hell?

Locke looked at the stuff covering it. It was some kind of algae - probably what the salty dead-fish smell came from - and it looked kinda like the cave walls outside when he wasn’t checking closely. It was soft and damp to the touch, though. He scraped some of it off with his hand, noticing how it clung to the wall without really questioning why.

No doubt about it, it was covering a metal wall, and metal that, once its outer covering was scraped off, hadn’t rusted and didn’t show any signs of age at all. Locke was no metallurgist, but he’d seen metals old and new enough times to know that was unusual. Hell, it was a first.

Which meant one of two things.

Either the metal wasn’t old, which meant somebody had put it down here and was probably still around with it, or it was old, and he was getting close to the thing Ghaleon wanted him to bring back.

Locke wondered if there was some kind of Figaroan facility down here.

No way. That would have to have been built in the last year, ‘cause Edgar sure hadn’t known about even the ancient castle above where Locke was, much less these deep levels. And Locke had been at Figaro most of that year. He’d have seen something.

So what, then?

Imperial, maybe? It would have been a damn fine coup for the Empire to put a base right under Figaro castle.

Locke looked closer at the metal.

It didn’t look like the bare, practical iron that Imperial facilities were built from.

Nah, he didn’t see anything it could be other than what he was looking for.

Which could be good or bad itself.

But at least it was something that had gone right.

Locke looked down at his feet. They were wet. “What the...”

Damp Algae. Dead fish. Muggy air.

“Uh-oh,” Locke muttered. He looked back the way he’d come. No way - that path sloped down long before it went up. There wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell (or a candle’s chance in ocean, as the case was) of him making it out that way. Not for the first time, Locke wished he’d paid more attention when Rachel had tried to teach him to swim all those years ago.

Instead of going back, he went forward. Anyone with half a brain knew that water ran downhill, and after some of the traps he’d lived through, Locke was personally aquatinted with its properties.

He rounded the bend, unable to shake the cold, wet feeling that he wasn’t exactly running fast enough - that water was up to his ankles now - and knowing that he was only going to get slower.

His lantern cast its not-quite steady glow in wildly shifting patterns. Locke almost missed the passage leading left and up a ramp - almost.

He got into it just as the waterflow increased. It was an old system, and Locke figured something must have gotten stuck, because the water level rising behind him was doing it a hell of a lot faster than before. He kept running.

The ramp leveled out.

“Ah, hell,” Locke said. The water was still rising behind him.

He didn’t have any choice but to go for-

Not stuck in the least, or maybe it had been, was the see-through door that slammed down in front of him.

Couldn’t a guy get a break?

Maybe he could. A door slammed down behind him, too.

Overhead, a light flickered on. It was clearer and brighter than Locke was used to - he didn’t remember Vector even having lights like that.

“Airlock system engaged,” said a female voice as clear and bright - and as monotonous - as the lights which were coming on all down the hallway.

Airlock? Please, please, please let that be close enough to my name to be lucky, Locke thought. In case the owner of that voice could hear him, he didn’t say it out loud.

The air in the little fishtank he’d ended up in was losing its musty scent. Locke breathed in deep.

And in front of him, the see-through door slid up.

Locke took another deep breath, this time to work up his courage.

“Well, here goes nothing,” he said, and stepped into the brightly lit hallway.