Dang. This is a huge chapter. I mean, 4500+ words! Yikes.

Well, here's me hoping this chapter doesn't drag on or anything!


Chapter Four: Our Difficult Situations, Part Two

I looked around the corner of the next hallway, and looked back behind me. Xi and Rho were watching around themselves very carefully. Rho was still annoyed with Xi for some reason, however. I didn't have time to be concerned with that, though, because I was more worried about being seen. Our security system is more geared to take our own kind down if it sees something suspicious going on, and at the moment, our group was extremely suspicious. I did not see any security turrets stationed in the next hall, however, and I motioned to the others to hurry up. They ran down to the next corner and waited there. I ran up next to them, looking behind me still. I would have probably not been as frustrated with this stealth if this cycle was any other cycle. However, this cycle was one where we were restricted to our living quarters, and if we were caught sneaking around like this, we would be in massive trouble. Rho saw my worry on my face, and gave me a slight smile. I smiled back a little bit. Xi was not worried at all, however, and he seemed entirely prepared for whatever got in our way. He looked around the corner, and I heard him speak.

"Alright, guys, the next part is going to be a bit tricky..."

I was a bit confused. "Why? What are we going to have to do?"

Xi frowned. "Well, there are three ways to the abandoned mine entrance. The first way is through normal customs, which normally would not be a problem, but at the moment, this is not normal, and we'd be caught. The second way is through the tram tunnel, but the only way we could get into the tunnel is if we called a tram, squeezed past it to get past the open door, and hope to not get electrocuted or smashed by another tram." I frowned at both of them. Punishment or death. Not easy choices to choose between.

"What was the third option?" I was still certain there would be an easier way.

Xi gestured down the hall to the door at the end. "Well, the last way is through the acid rain. There's a large gaping hole outside that had been eaten away over time, and it's across the outside plaza. However, We'd have to be very careful of course, as it's acid rain. Very acidic acid rain."

I thought over it for a moment. Capture was possibly the worst, as punishment is one of our society's favorite hobbies. Death, of course, is always bad, but if we were careful enough, we could avoid getting electrocuted. The third option seemed the best, however. Pain is durable, and even though we would sustain heavy scarring if we were entirely exposed, I decided it was better than the other options. I spoke up nervously.

"I think the best way is through the acid rain. If we stay to the sides and under other platforms, we should be shielded enough. Worst case scenario, we lose a portion of our flesh. Most likely, however, we'll only burn our feet a little bit."

Rho thought it over, and finally nodded. "Yeah, I think that'll work out well also."

Xi nodded. "Alright then, we'll go through the plaza. Be careful, though. Acid burns don't go away. Ever."

I nodded. "Better than death or intense punishment, though."

Xi held his hands upturned. "Whatever you say. Let's go."

He walked down to the door at the end of the hall, and touched it with one of those pulse shockers, removing the shield and opening the hatch. We ran up to him and stepped outside carefully. It was extremely cold outside, and I immediately began to feel nauseous. Our species is cold-blooded, as my Sciences instructor told us. That meant that outside temperatures could change the temperature of our blood. Warm temperatures were always best for us, but colder ones could put us into shock if we stayed in it too long. That was yet another thing the metal spine helped with: it regulated our bodily environment and kept our body temperature steady. I was really wishing for that spine at the moment. I shivered, and looked at Xi and Rho. Rho was also shivering, holding onto his body, trying to conserve any heat he had. Xi was also cold, but only a bit because of his spine; he was protected from any more danger. He looked at us and frowned.

"C'mon, guys. Once we get into the mines, it'll be much warmer. all we have to do is get across that." He pointed at the plaza. On the opposite side, a hole that was big enough for a large person had been eaten into the metal wall. In between it and us was a brown and sizzling expanse of metal, being continuously struck by the acidic rain that caused it to look that way. I was a bit concerned. Looking around, I saw that the very edges of the plaza floor were still the same rusty-red color the insides of the buildings around us were. That meant that there was no rain landing there. I crept up to the wall, and began to sidle very carefully. Rho began to protest, but then saw what I was doing, and joined in. Soon, all three of us were sidling along the wall, watching our toes to make sure nothing landed on them. I looked up at the ridge above us, and could see acid rain dripping from the edges. As I watched, one drop fell and landed directly on my shoulder. I yelled out, and tried to refrain from jumping in pain. I quickly wiped up the drop, spreading it so that it wasn't concentrated in one place. The area where it hit was a bit paler than before, leaving me a bit depressed at this fact. Rho looked at me with concern on his face, but I shook my head, to inform him there was nothing to worry about. He nodded, and we kept sidling across. My feet were beginning to feel numb from the cold, and my hands as well. I could even swear that my nostrils had become frozen on the inside, but with remnants of acid on my fingers, I did not want to stick them in there to find out. I could see the opening nearing us as we crept closer. The hole had been eaten away by the acid rain, and because of this, an outcropping had been installed above it to avoid any more erosion. I found it amusing that no-one had thought about closing up the hole as well. Luckily for us, this mistake would allow us into the caverns below. Xi pushed past me carefully, climbed onto the edge of the hole first, and looked down. He surveyed his possible descent, and jumped nimbly below. I quickly sidled to the hole and climbed onto its edge, looking to see what happened to Xi. I could see his dark green form faintly in the darkness. He looked up at me, and I could see his glowing eyes burning brightly in the darkness. He called out to me.

"Delta! It's safe to jump down. I'll catch you if you're worried." I could see him grin in the darkness.

I rolled my eyes. "No, I think I'll try to make it down myself." I made sure to sound as sarcastic as possible. Looking down again, I leaped into the darkness, spinning around a bit, before I landed onto my feet, toes first. I felt a bit of pain jolt through my thighs, and I grunted a bit in reaction. I looked up for a moment, and could see Rho attempting to climb onto the edge of the hole precariously. As we watched, Rho suddenly yelled in surprise, and he slipped on the edge, falling towards us with increasing speed. Xi saw this, and ran forwards quickly underneath Rho, catching him at the last second. Xi grunted under Rho's weight.

"Gah! Ugh, are you alright, Rho?"

Rho struggled to get out of Xi's arms as quickly as possible. "Yes, I'm FINE. Could you let GO of me?"

Xi's eyes widened in surprise, his feelings obviously hurt. "Well sorry. Just trying to make sure you don't DIE."

Rho scoffed. "Whatever."

I watched this little quarrel off to the sides. I wasn't exactly sure what the problem was between them, but I was too enthralled by the vast, wide chamber of the cave we were in. Everything was made of stone, which I was familiar enough with, but it still amazed me all the same. I looked to a far-off tunnel, and could see objects crawling in the darkness. Even though my luminescent eyes helped see in the darkness by a certain extent, it was extremely difficult to see things in the dark distance. I called out to Xi, who had already began to ignore Rho, who was still annoyed with him.

"Xi, do you happen to have a light source with you by chance? It's hard to see what's in here..."

Xi nodded, and he un-clipped a small disk from the harness on his chest. It began to give off a bright light all over, and the cavern was illuminated, allowing us to see what was around ourselves. Rho squinted in the light.

"So, Xi, what did you bring us down here for anyways?" Rho was slightly less annoyed with Xi at this moment.

Xi grinned. "We're going on a bit of an adventure. There is an exit to this cavern that will prove hard to get to. What we need to do is survive and escape as quickly as possible."

I was suddenly very nervous. "Survive? What do you mean by-"

Xi laughed. "Well, I did say it would be dangerous. The truth is, this is your final exam before you earn your spine. I've been selected as your instructor in this moment, and this test has been ordered by High General Ridley."

That was the second time I had heard that name: Ridley. I still did no know who that was, but I did not care at the moment. "This is a test? I've never heard of this before. When did-"

Xi interrupted. "I know what you're going to ask. Ridley began these tests exactly this cycle. You notice how everything was quiet earlier? It's because of the tests. Several other groups are in this cavern right now, and others in different caverns. The main goal for each each us is to reach the main cavern mouth. You guys already passed the first part of the test, which was to try to reach the cave safely and successfully."

Rho was thinking, as I could see. "But why did you help me after I fell then, if you're my instructor?"

Xi held his hands upturned. "Well, I hadn't explained everything at that time, so I thought it would be unfair to treat you as if I did not need to without any warning."

I nodded at this, and was suddenly startled by a distant cry, as if someone had been injured. I was worried.

"Xi, we wouldn't happen to be allowed...weapons, would we?" I was very nervous now, as I had never expected that I would be in danger like this before.

Xi nodded. "Yeah, but they aren't projectile arms of any kind. Here."

He tossed both me and Rho something that looked like a wrist-band, made of metal. It had a protruding part that had a slit carved into the surface. We both put them on our wrists, and to our surprise, a metal extension stretched out and linked to our elbow. I was curious of what this was.

"Xi...what exactly do we do with this?"

He held out his own wrist, which had a slightly more advanced version of the device wrapped around it. "This is your standard-issue plasma blade, designed to provide a source of protection and also serve as an emergency weapon when needed. It can also slice practically anything, except for energy-based objects, like shielding and similar things."

With his arm still extended, a beam of light shot forth and stopped about an arms length from its source, creating a shape that resembled a machete. I held out my own arm, and with a simple thought, my own plasma blade was activated as well. Rho followed suit, and we all stood there with our weapons ready. I looked to the distant tunnel, and I looked back at Xi.

"Are we going to begin our test, then?"

Xi grinned. "Indeed. We shall begin by going this way. Stay alert." He began to walk towards the tunnel, and we followed, unsure of what was to happen. Rho stayed close to me. Even in the darkness, I could tell he was no longer glaring angrily at Xi, but I could tell by his body language he was still annoyed with him. I scanned my memories for a hint of what he was feeling, referring to what I read in the datastacks. From what I could observe, he was displaying...jealousy? What did Rho have to be jealous about? I let it slide for now, and we followed Xi into the darkness.

Fact about the darkness: it's dark. I tried to remember this as well as I could. I knew it was silly to try to remember something as obvious at this, but in reality, I had underestimated the darkness by a large amount. Even Xi's light and my plasma blade were insufficient to keep things bright enough. I looked around carefully. I could hear things crawling in the darkness, things chewing on unidentifiable things. I heard a loud snap from behind me, and something fell from the roof of the tunnel at my feet. I cried out in surprise, and stabbed whatever it was with my plasma blade. The thing squirmed under my force, and the light from my weapon revealed that it was a zoomer, now with a large stab wound through its belly. I quickly pulled my weapon from its body, but it was too late. The creature was dead. I was mortified. I had killed a living creature, that would have normally done no harm to me, all out of fear. Rho saw what I did, and looked at my face. I'm certain he saw an expression of sheer horror, since he gave me a face that signified sympathy. Xi looked at me, and then looked at the dead zoomer.

"I will admit, when I killed something for the first time, I was absolutely horrified." I could see his face, and it showed remorse. "In our lifetime, we'll be killing many different creatures and beings, as we are a state of war. This is one of the requisites to pass the test: to show you can kill and survive, as well as move on." He looked at the dead zoomer, and to my surprise, his face became stern, and he kicked the corpse to the side of the cave. I could hear it hit the cavern wall with a resounding sticky thud, filling my stomach with nausea. I doubled over, and I promptly threw up at my feet. Rho backed away from my puddle of vomit as quickly as possible. I stood where I was for a moment, and I stood up. Xi looked at me with a concerned expression on his face.

"You ready to move on? You can come back to this test another time if you need to. There is no penalty in coming back later, other than getting the spine later than the others."

I coughed a bit, and wiped up what was left on my face with my wrist. "I'm not giving up. There will be obstacles in this test, right? This is one of them. I need to work past these barriers." I looked at Rho for a moment. "You can do the same, right, Rho?"

Rho was a bit surprised by my comment. He stammered a reply. "Uh-um...yeah. I'll follow you through this all the way, Delta."

Xi looked at the both of us with a grin on his face. "Your training is going to pay off here, soft-spines. Don't forget any of it." He looked towards the direction we were headed. "It looks like we'll be in the largest cavern soon. We have some lights already installed there, which will benefit us greatly. Be careful, however. Kihunters are situated there. Other groups have gone through there already, however, so there may not be as many left..."

I swallowed my saliva with a hard gulp. I wasn't going to back down here. With my plasma blade still extended, I began to walk quickly towards this upcoming room. Xi and Rho chased after me. I could see faint light up head, around the next turn of the tunnel, and I began to increase my pace. As soon as I reached the end of the tunnel, I saw the massive room that greeted us. Its floor was comparable to a chasm, except that it had a bottom to its depth. Rock formations that were similar to bridges arched above us. Near the top, there was a large opening bordered by metal: it seemed to be a doorway. I looked around some more, and I could hear Rho and Xi coming up behind me. As I searched the room, I saw two things that concerned me. The first one was a large purple sack that hung from a distant wall of the cave. The second thing that concerned me was that there was another test group of four that was unknowingly passing underneath the sack. I looked to Xi with concerned feelings.

"Xi, is that a...Kihunter hive?"

Xi frowned. "I believe it is...and seeing that the hive has not shriveled up yet, then the Kihunter king must still be alive, and is most likely still controlling the worker drones..."

I was extremely nervous. "A hive of that size would have many workers...enough to entirely annihilate that exam group down there. What are we-"

Xi interrupted. "Nothing. We do nothing. They will have to find a way to survive on their own." He was stern on the matter, but I could see that he was worried as well. Rho looked like he was about to vomit. He neared closer to me and watched the distant group with fear. The group was climbing on a cliff that was lit up with small light rods, enough to illuminate the cliffside entirely. Once they reached the top, they paused for a moment, and then they moved forward. As I continued to watch, I saw a large red and green insectoid creature climb out from the entrance of the hive. It began to emit a shrill shriek that could be heard where we stood. The group below heard it, and they began to panic. They activated their plasma blades, and prepared for the incoming attack. Around five or six more Kihunters emerged from the crevices of the hive, and they flew toward the group with immense fury. One of the testers sliced one of the Kihunters in two as it flew past him, but he did not see another one come towards him. It wrapped its arms around him, and as I watched him flail in desperation, He fell off of the cliff, bringing him and the Kihunter to their death. I was mortified, but I kept watching. I could tell that Rho had closed his eyes already, however. Xi just looked on with a look of sadness in his eyes. Their shouts were finally audible to us, and I unwillingly listened to their frantic cries and calls for help. Their instructor had already been impaled with the claw of another Kihunter, and he was bleeding profusely on the floor, barely hanging on to his life. The two others were dodging the charging Kihunters as well as they could. One was knocked on the backside of his head by the leg of a passing Kihunter, and he fell to the floor. Two other Kihunters landed on him, and I couldn't tell what they were doing, but I was certain they were eating him alive. The screams and cries of the fallen tester filled the cavern, and I winced in pain and disgust as I saw his detached arm fly loose from where he lay at the moment. Another Kihunter came by and picked up the spoils, and I felt like I was going to vomit again. The last tester remaining, however, had evaded the attention of the Kihunters. He had began to climb the cliff nearest the hive, and was now ascending the side of the hive itself. He was locating the parts of the hive that kept it attached to the wall, and he was slicing them away with his plasma blade. The hive began to shift, and the Kihunters' attention was torn away from their meals to the impending danger to their hive. They flew as fast as they could to their home, but the tester was too fast for them. He sliced the final connection, and the hive lurched and fell to the ridge of the cliff. He jumped off of the hive as quickly as possible, and the hive fell to the chasm floor below, filling the room with a loud, wet smack that rung the ears. The screams of mutilated Kihunters echoed from the pit, making me feel both disturbed and relieved. Rho had opened his eyes, and he smiled when he saw the survivor standing on the edge of the cliff, who was looking below for any more signs of Kihunters. I looked to Xi with a grin on my face, but he was solemn. I was suddenly concerned.

"Xi, what's wrong?"

Xi looked at me, and I could see despondence in his eyes.

"He might have won against the Kihunters, but there's a major problem: his instructor is dead." He pointed to the corpse impaled with the Kihunter claw, and I could see that his eyes had indeed stopped glowing, a sign of death among our kind. I looked back at Xi, who was beginning to look for a way to ascend the cavern walls.

"What does that mean, Xi? Does it mean that..."

Xi nodded "Yeah. If your instructor is not with you, or is dead, when you reach the end of the test, you'll be refused the spine and will have to go through a full centicycle of maintenance work before you can earn it again. You would also have to take the test again after the 100 cycles."

Rho's eyes widened, as did mine. We looked at each other with a feeling of horror. If Xi died, or went missing, we would have to perform maintenance work. When we first learned of the maintenance system very long ago, we did not think of it to be a bad thing. However, we then discovered that the maintenance duties were a form of cruel servitude, in which the workers were attacked with various weaponry if they did not perform dutifully, and the types of people down there were comparable to people who were insane. I swallowed nervously, and looked to the distant tester. He had tried to awaken his instructor, and he was obviously going under a mental breakdown. He was slamming his head onto the wall of the cavern repeatedly, and was clutching his head, yelling in fear. He looked around desperately, and he saw us. I could barely hear him call out to us.

"You, up there! Please, take me with you! I don't want to work in maintenence! Save me!" He was close to hysterics.

Xi heard this, and I looked at him with a feeling of hope. "Xi, can we take him with? Please tell us we can! We can vouch for him, say what happened to his group!"

Xi frowned. "It is true that we can vouch for him, but there is a major issue. Where he is cannot be reached by the route we are taking. In fact, it is impossible to get to him from here at all. The only thing we could do is meet him at the top and continue from there."

"Well, can't we do that?"

Xi thought over it. "We'd have to be quick. He most likely reeks of Kihunter. If there were Kihunters on patrol around the cave before he destroyed the hive, and they come back to see it missing, They'd go after whatever smells like Kihunter, which would include the remains of the hive down there, and him." Xi looked down to the chasm below, and the writhing legions of Kihunter larva and remains could be heard screaming out in pain. "Not to mention, if any Kihunters survived down there, they'd be madder than anything you've seen before."

I didn't think twice about it. "Well then, what are we waiting for? We should tell him the plan!" I ran up to the edge of the chasm, and I called out to the distant tester.

"HEY! Meet us up at the top, and we'll get you through! Be careful, though! The Kihunters will chase you now, so stay alert!"

He looked up at me, and he nodded to what I said. I watched him run to the nearest wall, and he began to ascend it, climbing up to the exit of the cavern. I looked to Xi and Rho.

"So it seems that we have a mission now."

Xi held his hands upturned. "Rescue missions are rather...peculiar, in our society. In fact, we usually don't even bother with rescuing people. Ever."

I rolled my eyes. "We'll get this done. Survival includes being able to depend on people you trust, right? He depends on us."

Xi held his hands upturned again, and he began to climb the wall that would lead us to a higher ledge. Rho followed, and I began to climb the wall as well. I looked behind me at the other trainee, but he had disappeared. I hoped that he would be safe.

Huh. Looks like I managed to turn this chapter into a three-parter, huh? Welp, stay tuned! More action to come!

Seeya next time!