AUTHOR'S NOTE AND DISCLAIMER

Well THAT certainly took long enough! Apologies for the delay, hopefully it won't take so long for me to hack out chapter 6. Then again, knowing me it'll probably take even longer. This chapter was brought to you by strong coffee and ABC Pencil Jelly. (it's unbelievably delicious! No, really! That's what it says on the packet!)

Speech in square brackets indicates that the speaker is talking in Atlantean. I wish I could write in Atlantean, then I'd confuse the hell out of everybody reading this. (what the hell was the point of inventing a whole new language and NOT publishing any decent guides to it?! Silly Disney...)

Finally, Nikala is the product of my crazed imagination, everything else belongs to Disney. Well, Tillik is sorta mine as well but... eh, who gives a shit about the disclaimer anyway.


CHAPTER V - Decisions


It was a week now since what had almost been the destruction of Atlantis, barely any time at all to the long-lived Atlanteans. Which made the great changes that has occurred since the event even more momentous. Moving through the centre of the city, a woven rush bag over one shoulder, Nikala could see, hear and even feel the difference.

Before the surfacers had come, the day-to-day lives of the Atlanteans had been constant and unchanging to the point of stagnation. Despite the cataclysm that had sent the city to the deepest depths of the earth, once the people had adapted to their new life, it had remained the same for thousands of years. Every inch of the city was soon familiar, even the surrounding caverns lost their excitement. The only changes that occurred were the decay and collapse of buildings and statues; lacking the ability to repair them, the Atlanteans had simply let them lie. Although Nikala had never known Atlantis in it's heyday, she could see that the city was declining.

But not any more. The city was filled with new vibrancy and energy, both the emergence of the Heart of Atlantis from its concealed cavern and the outer districts of the city from their watery graves seemed to have sparked a renaissance. The exploration of the new-old buildings was still not complete; every now and then Nikala could hear people shouting about new discoveries, a temple, a plaza, a building filled with more vehicles like her Martag.

Most importantly of all, one of the surfacers could read the indecipherable glyphs that formed the Atlantean alphabet. Nikala had trouble believing that these strange symbols had meanings as clear as speech; to her it was a concept that bordered on magical. But how else would the surfacer have known how to activate the Atlantean vehicles?

The path leading to the markets ran by a long, semi-ruined wall engraved with more Atlantean letters. Normally Nikala would have walked past it without so much as a glance, but today she paused for a few moments, wondering what the words said. The thought that they were more than just patterns was intriguing, and the ability to read was one that she envied. Reminding herself that she was here for a purpose, Nikala continued on her way.

The markets were busier than usual, which was hardly surprising given the recent events. More than a few people were haphazardly piloting Martags and Aktiraks, along with other vehicles Nikala hadn't seen before. Restraining her curiosity, Nikala made her way through the crowd towards a fruit stall to buy what she needed. But as she turned to leave, a snatch of conversation caught her attention.

["...other surfacers are leaving today, that's what the Nartak in the royal plaza is for...] Stopping dead in her tracks, Nikala looked around for the speaker, but amongst the groups of gossiping Atlanteans it was impossible to find them. There was only one other alternative to find out if what she'd heard was true, and that was to head to the plaza herself.

* * *

"Atlantis will honour your names forever." Kida proclaimed as she placed an Atlantean crystal around Vinny's neck. "I only wish there was more we could do for you..."

Fingering the glowing blue crystal, the Italian shrugged slightly. "Eh, you know, thanks anyway, but... uh... I think we're good." he replied politely, glancing over his shoulder at the huge heap of Atlantean treasure that was being loaded into the stone narwhal. Each of the surviving crewmembers now wore an Atlantean crystal, though Vinny thought they looked a little girly. He'd need to do something about that once they got home.

Standing beside Kida, Milo reflected that their positions could symbolise his decision to stay. The rest of the crew stood in a group opposite them, he was on the other side with the Atlantean princess. Although he knew he would miss them, Milo found that the parting wasn't as bad as he'd thought. Even though, he could feel the beginnings of a lump forming in his throat. "They'll... take you as far as the surface." he said, with only the faintest of quivers.

"We're really gonna miss you Milo." Audrey's voice was uncharacteristically warm, and Milo had to swallow hard to keep the tears back. Besides, he was sure that if he cried in front of Audrey, she'd never forgive him.

* * *

Nikala watched with increasing panic as the crew made their goodbyes, realising that they would be leaving in less than an hour. Without Helga. Her first impulse was to stop them, to run forward and tell them that the blonde woman was still alive. Helga had told her she didn't want them to know that she had survived yet, but surely it was more important for her to leave with her companions than be stranded in Atlantis.

Deciding that the best course of action was to stop the surfacers leaving, Nikala took a few steps forward into the plaza, then paused uncertainly. The only way for her to stop them would be to tell them about Helga... and she knew Helga didn't want her to do that. Maybe she should go back and tell her what was going on first, then let her decide. Her rational side argued that that was a stupid idea, and would take far too long; the rest of the crew could be gone before she even managed to get back to Helga. So she should stop them NOW.

But Nikala found herself retracing her steps before she was noticed, then heading home at the fastest sprint possible. She wasn't entirely sure why she was taking what was undoubtedly the wrong course of action. Partly because she didn't want to make Helga angry... and partly for reasons of her own that she didn't fully understand. Or was pretending not to understand.

* * *

Helga had realised that trying to outstare a creature with five eyes was a difficult and frustrating task. But since it was the only activity she was capable of that was even remotely interesting, she continued to glare at the animal lounging by the fire pit. Tillik stoically returned her stare, his head tilted slightly to the side. It was as if he knew she was waiting for him to look away. She could have sworn that the creature looked amused, though she knew that a: he was an animal, incapable of human emotion, and b: how could anything with mandibles be capable of an expression?

As Tillik shifted slightly, making a series of low, rumbling clicks, Helga's eyes slid fractionally to the side and caught sight of something. The Martag. She could clearly see the stone fish through a window, (and was struck once more by how singularly unaerodynamic it was) it looked like nothing more than a stone sculpture. It was hard enough to believe that the object was capable of flight, let alone a fast and manoeuvrable vehicle. If she hadn't seen it in action with her own eyes, she'd have found the idea ludicrous. Then again, this whole accursed expedition had been full of surprises.

Then it hit her. THAT was how she could escape! All she needed was an Atlantean crystal, then she could steal the Martag and make a break for the caves, hopefully the shaft in the volcano cavern was still open. If not... well... she'd cross that bridge when she came to it. Getting out of the city before she was found was her main concern. She would need to wait until her leg was healed, but then it would be relatively simple to steal Nikala's crystal and activate the Martag with it. That might pose a problem however, since Helga didn't know HOW to activate the vehicle. Oh well, getting Nikala to show her would be easy; the girl was gullible. THEN she'd steal her crystal...

The satisfied smirk that was spreading across Helga's face vanished abruptly as her conscience prodded her. (it seemed that the fall from the gyro-evac had revived it, since it had grown increasingly prevalent since) Nikala had saved her life. Stealing her crystal and her Martag was hardly any way to repay her. Then again, Helga reasoned that if she hadn't shot the gyro-evac, Rourke could very well have gotten away with the crystalline princess, (the fact that she'd been helping him being a moot point) the girl would most likely be dead anyway. And Helga doubted that she was stupid enough to just help her escape; as far as Nikala knew, she had no reason to want to escape. (and she most certainly didn't want her to know WHY she wanted to get out of the city) So stealing her crystal and taking the Martag was really the only course of action she had left.

However, despite these mental reassurances, Helga still felt decidedly uneasy and unsure, two of her least favourite emotions. With a slight sigh of annoyance, she remembered Rourke's words to the mutinous crewmembers who had stayed with Milo. Why did she have to pick now of all times to grow a conscience? Trying to block it out with calculations of how much the Martag would be worth, (even if it stopped working when it reached the surface, it would still fetch a considerable sum from a museum as an ancient sculpture) Helga's gaze wandered blindly across the interior of the gourd as she immersed herself in the thought of money.

The sound of a chittering purr roused Helga from her contemplation, and she realised that Tillik was still watching her. It might have been her imagination, but she was sure that the creature was smiling smugly. She'd looked away first. Scowling faintly, Helga glared at the animal in annoyance. "Alright then... two out of three..." she muttered, regardless of the fact that he couldn't possibly reply.

Barely minutes into the face-off, Tillik looked away sharply, and got to his feet. Helga was about to gloat (no matter how small, it was still a victory) when she heard running footsteps. A chill of foreboding rippled through her as she leaned across to look out the door, and the feeling intensified as she saw Nikala dashing along the path, her long hair streaming out behind her.

Within seconds, Nikala had reached the gourd, and stumbled to a halt, trying to force words out as she gasped for breath, slipping into Atlantean in her haste. ["Surfacers... leaving today... without you... what to do?"] Nikala panted, then slumped down onto the floor, leaning back on one arm as she wiped sweat from her forehead with the other.

"Could you please repeat that slowly... in ENGLISH?" Helga was a little concerned at the girl's exhausted state, but was more worried about the reason behind it. Whatever it was, it was clearly important.

"...sorry..." Nikala gasped apologetically, now leaning heavily on both arms as she mentally translated Atlantean to English. "Your companions are leaving today. Soon. I didn't know whether to tell them about you or not, so I came back to ask you. What do you want me to do?"

"They're leaving?!" Helga's voice was disbelieving. She'd been sure that the surviving crew would have stayed much longer than a week. Especially Thatch, since he'd been obsessed with the place for most of his life. But it was obviously true; she doubted that Nikala would have worn herself out on a mere suspicion.

"Yes, I saw the ceremony in the royal plaza. Once they've finished loading treasure into the Nartak they'll leave." the Atlantean replied, absently scratching Tillik's ears as he lay down beside her.

Opening her mouth to question the girl further, Helga was momentarily stuck mute as conflicting thoughts clashed. Treasure? And what on earth was a Nartak? But most importantly, what to do now? It was impossible for her to get a message to the crew without Kida finding out, Nikala was gullible, but not THAT gullible. The girl was sure to question why Helga didn't want anyone but the crew knowing she was alive. And even if she could get a message to the crew, they were more than likely to turn her over to Kida anyway. Finally deciding that it was best to continue lying low, and escape using the Martag as soon as she was capable, Helga then realised she now had the problem of explaining this to Nikala without making her suspicious. "Are you sure they're all leaving?" she asked, stalling for time as she desperately tried to work out a plausible explanation.

"Not all of them, the one who can read Atlantean is staying with Queen Kida." Nikala told her, wondering what Helga would decide to do. Leave with her companions was the obvious answer, though Nikala felt an odd twinge at that thought. She passed it off as worry, Helga was still injured and the long journey to the surface would not be good for her.

Helga almost sighed thankfully at those words. She was saved. If Thatch was still here then he'd provide a convenient excuse for her. "Well, if he's staying then there's no problem, it doesn't matter if the others leave." she said, keeping her voice casual. "Besides, I can't even walk yet. Once my leg's healed I'll talk to Thatch and sort something out."

"Are you sure?" Despite the odd sense of relief, Nikala felt duty-bound to question Helga's decision. "Wouldn't it be best for you to get back to the surface sooner?"

"Not like this." Helga replied firmly, hoping that the girl would drop the subject before she asked a question she couldn't answer. "I want to be mobile before I go anywhere. I'd just be an inconvenience like this, somebody would have to carry me." She couldn't keep a faint growl from her voice at the thought of that kind of humiliation.

Nodding in acquiescence, Nikala got back to her feet and stretched, her legs still sore from the long run from the plaza. She was about to ask Helga how she was feeling when the woman spoke again.

"Wait a minute... did you say QUEEN Kida?"