Art Pact 259 - Tunnels
"I hate tunnels," she said, her body rippling with disgust. I pushed past her, peering into the darkness. There were tiny points of light inside, tiny points that I could just about see if I was not looking directly at them. I tried to catch them sidelong, but they really were just indivisible atoms of light, impossible to place as distant or near. I moved aside, sat on the ledge and scratched at my tail nervously.
"I'm not fond of them myself," I told her. "Although I am a little surprised about you. Aren't you - I mean, don't you live in a tunnel or something?"
She rolled her head slightly so that more of her eyes were facing me - an unusually Tillian expression, one that I hadn't thought to see from a Polypede.
"I live in a warren," she said coldly. "A barbarian lives in a tunnel."
"What's the difference?"
"You might as well ask what the difference is between a house and a cave."
"But that's - I mean, you have to build a house from nothing, and it's-"
"Never mind," she said, turning back to the tunnel. "You'll just have to come and visit my home town some day."
The thought of going to a Polypede town was even less appealing than going into the tunnel, and thanks to my unfamiliarity with their expressions and tones of voice I couldn't even tell if Poppy was having a joke at my expense. I frowned, shrugged off my backpack, and started to go through it for the flashlight I knew I had somewhere.
"I was being serious," she said. "You should come."
"What, and be eaten alive?"
"We're not barbarians. We wouldn't eat a guest. Ha ha, that was a joke."
I stopped my rummaging.
"Oh. Uh, wait - what? Is it a joke that you wouldn't eat a guest, or is it a joke that you would eat anyone who wasn't a guest? I'm confused."
"Oh, on my last two feet! The joke is that everyone thinks we eat people, but we eat fungus. No-one would eat a living thing, the very idea is disgusting."
"Well not that disgusting..."
"Very disgusting!" she said, curling up her body tightly. A ripple of disgust travelled along her segments, causing each pair of feet to jerk in turn. "Could we please stop talking about such things and get back to the work in hand. We have to go into the tunnel. I hate tunnels."
I started searching again, and my hand closed on the cold metal cylinder that was the flashlight. The batteries still appeared to be good, and I pointed it into the dark opening. It was rock-sided, carved out with hand tools if I was any judge of the pattern of rocks. With the light on all the little pin-pricks of light were invisible, and I was no wiser as to whether they'd been further down the tunnel or right at the entrance. I took a few steps inside, and heard the sound of Poppy unwinding and scuttling after me. She made no effort to come along side, content to hang back.
The tunnel had, I thought, been made by a Tillian. It was wide enough for me to stand up in, and sloped down at a comfortable angle. Seven or eight Polypedes could have walked down it at once, perhaps more if my suspicions about Poppy's ability to hold onto the ceiling were correct. She didn't confirm it by her actions, though, simply gliding along the path behind me. Her legs made a sort of drumming noise as she walked which echoed oddly in the cylindrical tunnel.
"Say we find this box," I said.
"Yes. We will find it."
"Okay, but what then? I mean, do we bring it out, or do we attempt to open it where it is? Did your guru or whatever have anything to say about that? Is it going to be hard to carry? Is the box going to be intrinsically valuable, or just what's in it?"
"No, he didn't say any of that. Just that I should find the box. Perhaps it will be obvious when we get there."
"I don't like not having a plan," I said. "It's - I just don't like it."
"Well then you must find life in general a terrible tribulation," she told me. "You have to learn to relax and take things as they come."
"That sounds like a rather passive philosophy. We have to prepare for a hunt, we can't just do... whatever it is you do. What do you do, if you don't eat meat?"
"Ugh, I thought we weren't going to talk about eating living things."
"Sorry. But I mean, what else is there? Do you go out and look for fruit?"
"We farm, obviously. Mushrooms, groundberries, that sort of thing."
"You eat mushrooms?" I made a disgusted face which she could not, of course, see, but I think it was obvious in my voice.
"Yes we eat mushrooms, of course. You needn't sound so horrified. Imagine what we think about you."
"You can't, of course, because you think that we eat people. Well, you will just have to start practising that sort of sympathy. You can go back to your towns - or your caves," she added, with an acid tone, "and tell them what we really eat. Then perhaps this ridiculous rumour will come to an end once and for all."
"I guess," I said. Up ahead I could make out sharp spikes hanging down from the roof of the tunnel. They looked disturbingly like fangs, and I picked them out with the flashlight. Just stalactites. "But isn't it something good, that rumour?"
"Good? What could be good about it? It's insulting."
"Well, I guess, although it's not - is it really insulting if it's just-"
"It's insulting to say that we're like mad barbarians who would eat people, yes. Move on."
We reached the stalactites and the floor grew bumpy with tiny conical hillocks, no more than a few inches tall, which I guessed must be stalagmites growing up to join with their descending brothers. I turned the light towards the floor so that it would be easier for Poppy to wind through the little field of bumps - a mistake, because I walked straight into a stalactite that I hadn't seen, and the shock knocked me flat on my tail backwards. If Poppy hadn't been paying close attention I would have ended up sitting on her head, but she was quick enough to rear away from me.
"Are you alright?" she asked. I rubbed at my snout. Fortunately I'd been looking down when I hit the rock, so that the blow had fallen across my forehead and not directly on the end of my nose. I thought I would probably have a hefty lump there, but the injury didn't feel too bad. My tail and legs, on the other hand, had taken quite a shock when I hit the floor, and my back felt as though I'd been punched in the spine.
"Yeah, I'm... I'm fine," I said weakly, carefully rolling so as to be able to walk my hands up the tunnel wall and get myself upright again. "Just a bit of a shock, that's all."
I let go of the wall and tried out my legs for a second - which was about all I got out of them. My left leg crumpled under me, pitching me sideways. I was only able to avoid crashing down again by clinging onto the stalactite that had floored me and then letting myself slide gently to the floor.
"Now you know why I hate tunnels," Poppy said.