The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness hasn't overcome it.
-- John 1:5 (World English Bible)
Chapter 11: Hope in the Dark
Dana awoke to realize that Grandma was shaking her. "Time to wake up! You have to meet Agent Koppelmeyer!"
"Ugh! I don't want to get up until it's light outside!" She could see that it had become dark. When she stood up, nothing was visible through the front-facing windows.
"Bernie will be here in five minutes--at the secret entrance, that is. You are to meet him at the culvert."
"What about Jake?"
"He said you needed some more sleep. He's been up for 30 minutes."
"O.K." Dana was beginning to wake up. She had had to do this often on the adventure to Earthwithin. When she got down to the kitchen, Jake was sitting there in his black power company uniform, drinking cola.
"Oh--black--I forgot." She raced back upstairs, golden hair flying behind her. Since she was already wearing black jeans, it took her only a moment to change into a hood. She pinned her hair up so it would be completely covered.
Jake was pacing the floor when she got back. "We're late." Shades had been pulled down to block the escape of light from the side window and the back door.
"I'm sorry. I hope he'll wait for us."
"I think he will," said Grandma. "It's a lot earlier than the original plan."
Without another word, Jake led the way to the basement stairs. Ducking, he eased down toward a dim, yellowish bulb at the bottom. Dana followed; she had to duck only a little less. Walking to the opposite corner of the laundry room, for that is where they were, Jake pulled on the steps to the back porch, holding a flashlight in his hand. Dana wanted to stop him; "Those go up," she wanted to say, although they ended in blank floor joists. But she kept silent. The stairs rotated noiselessly, and a narrow opening appeared behind them. Dana just thought the stair behind them was constricted. Jake had to bend himself nearly double to get in; Dana bumped her head. The walls, cut from black stone, seemed to swallow all the rays from Jake's light. The tunnel quickly descended and turned to the left, getting narrower as it straightened out. Soon both agents were scraping against its sides, which fortunately were fairly clean, wiped, no doubt by the clothing of previous passersby. The ceiling was not so good.
It soon became wet underfoot. "Yuck!" Dana said. "It's a good thing I'm wearing CBI-issue shoes!"
"And hood," replied Jake. Dana soon found that her hood had begun to feel moist inside. She glanced at Jake's head. She had never realized that a power company uniform had a hood, but this one did.
As they continued, the splashing of water on the floor grew into a steady flow. "I hope these shoes are really waterproof," said Dana.
"They are," Jake assured her. "We'll be coming up where Homehall Run comes out of a big culvert. It's further up the trail, toward the police outpost, not far from the fire station. When we get to the big rock, I'll have to switch off my light--it could be seen after that. Grandma gave me a diagram of where the stepping stones are--it's on the edge of the Run."
"You won't be able to read it without the flashlight," observed Dana.
"I don't still have it--she made me give it back. If I lost it, this passage wouldn't be secret anymore. I had to memorize... but we should be quiet--I think I see the rock ahead." So saying, he switched off the light.
Dana didn't feel at all comfortable following Jake over rocks in the water, in the dark, but she didn't have any choice. He must have memorized well, because his hand never wavered as it held hers, and soon they were standing on the bank. A faint glow from the lights of the city reflected off the sky, and Dana could see a huge, round opening from which all the water was flowing.
Jake looked up and saw a shadowy figure behind an iron railing. He uttered the soft call of a whippoorwill, and the response was a one-syllable bit of the same. He led Dana on the climb to the trail grade, and soon they were standing by a straight three-quarter coach.
The short, slight figure, which must have been Koppelmeyer, gestured to Jake that he was supposed to captain. Jake reached over to switch on the headlight, but the other agent's left hand shot out to stop him, while his right swept down toward the white crushed limestone of the trail surface. Jake understood at once, although he wasn't completely comfortable with the idea of having this veteran agent as stoker.
The three-quarter was black; after he had checked out the controls, Jake mounted and waited for Dana, behind him, and Koppelmeyer took the tail gunner position. Sensing when they were ready, Jake shoved off in silence. In less than a minute, the red-globed kerosene lamps on either side of the fire station door came into view, and everyone enjoyed the increase in illumination, however small.
When they had reached the top of the hill, Koppelmeyer gently murmured, "Turn left here; this trail will take us to the main route to Columbia City. That is the direction of your first assignment. We can talk a bit after we start down the hill."
Jake followed his instructions, and they picked up speed after the turn. "I do hope you are on time henceforth. And please do not talk while you are using the secret entrance. The tunnel acts as a giant speaking-tube, and I could hear every word you said."
Dana and Jake both turned red when he said this, even in the dark, and Jake offered: "It's my fault. I didn't really need to say all that stuff."
"And I dressed wrong," added Dana.
"A very wise person once said, 'All's well that ends well.' Just don't tempt fate too often. The job is dangerous enough as it is." There didn't seem to be anything to say after that, so the couple didn't. After a few moments, Koppelmeyer added: "It's all right to use the headlight now; I'd leave the taillight off, though." Heaving a sigh of relief, Jake reached down and flicked the switch. His stokers felt more comfortable, too.
With three aboard, Jake soon had to apply the brakes. Before they reached the main trail, though, the grade leveled off. Before long, the beam of the headlight fell on the white letters of a sign proclaiming in large white letters: "Castle River Trail," with arrows indicating Castleburg to the left, and Columbia City to the right.
"It's 175 miles to Columbia City. You should be able to make it in five days."
"Whoa! I thought I was supposed to start driving for Carolina Trails."
"They will probably be adding a route to Columbia City soon, but plans have changed. You have heard about the fall of She-Kag-Ong."
Dana spoke up. "Yes. Grandma told us."
"That changes everything. I'll tell you more when we get to the Rock."
"How far is that?"
"Not far. We have a secret hideout there, for agents to use in case of danger--a cave cut into the wall of a ravine behind the rock. I would normally turn the taillight on, but not tonight, since we are going there. I'm even going to ask you to douse the headlight about half a mile out."
"O.K.," said Jake. Just then he noticed a large, white-painted, triangular concrete post beside the trail. It bore a fat, black number 22. "Does that tell us how many miles?"
"Yes. When we've gone half a mile, extinguish the headlight."
Jake reached down to the light. "That means it's 23 we're looking for. I'm comfortable doing it now. The trail is level and straight, and the trail surface reflects the light from the sky."
It really wasn't as comfortable as Jake had imagined, since he had grown accustomed to the headlight. He got a bit worried about seeing Milepost 23 in the faint light. Trees were arching over the trail more now, and the glow from the sky was getting fainter.
Dana saw the post before he did, leaning forward and murmuring in his ear. Then Jake saw it, too, and gently braked their mount to a halt. Koppelmeyer pulled a blackened chain from a side pocket of one of the panniers. Silently, and with incredible swiftness, he and the three-quarter disappeared into the trees on the hillside to the right. There was the faintest rattle of the chain being pulled through the frame, and then the soft click of a lock.
Jake and Dana looked around, trying to see the Rock. It was difficult, because they were looking for a black object in darkness. This time Jake found it first--found, because he did not see it, but bumped into it--thankfully not too hard. He gently spun Dana around and placed her hand on its rough, cool surface. She recoiled at first, but then she pressed up against it, snuggling up to Jake's side. "At least nothing can attack us from that direction," she murmured. Jake whispered his assent. The rock seemed to be quite large, but not very high--it came up somewhere below their waists.
Before either of them could entertain any other thoughts, they heard Koppelmeyer mutter in the darkness: "This way." Jake thought that sounded oddly familiar.
The Susquehanna agent led them behind the rock and to the right. They descended quickly into a narrow ravine, turning at once to the left, up the hill. There was a tiny gurgle of water, and the couple heard a quick instruction in the darkness: "Don't get your feet wet." Dana didn't know how they were going to avoid doing that, since trees now completely shut them out from the sky's meager light, but somehow she managed, reaching out to touch small trees and the rocky, sometimes muddy walls, which were less than an arm's length away on either side.
The party did not have long to wait, in any event. "Duck hard," said Koppelmeyer. "On the left." Following orders, Jake and Dana managed to avoid splitting their skulls on a ledge of rock protruding on the indicated side. They heard a rustle as their leader pushed through some bushes. Following suit, they found their feet resting on a firm, dry surface, and in a few more footsteps they were able to stand nearly upright. Then they scrambled around a sharp turn to the right and up three stone steps.
There was a sulfurous smell and a flash of yellow light as Koppelmeyer lit his dark-lantern. Opening its shutter to a narrow slit, he handed it and a length of fishing line to Jake. "There are hooks set into the rock just past the entrance," he said. "Tie this tightly--it will be at knee-height, and cause any intruder to trip and fall. We must remember to remove it on the way out."
Jake quickly complied, and in moments was back with the dark-lantern. Koppelmeyer quickly closed the slit entirely. "We'll use it to untie the line on the way out. But now to the main course." They all sat down on a stone ledge which was wide enough for the three of them; the senior agent opened the dark-lantern a bit wider and directed the beam behind them. The shelf extended some distance into the hillside. "You can stretch out if you are tired, and if you keep going, there is a back entrance. It's terribly tight and uncomfortable, but it beats hand-to-hand combat with a Destroyer spy any day."
"You said 'main course.' When are we supposed to get married?" asked Dana.
"That is the result of what has happened."
"How is that?"
"It was to have been soon in any event--no more than two weeks. Trouble has been brewing between here and Columbia, and a couple is just what we needed to get inside the situation. A honeymoon couple is absolutely perfect. But now She-Kag-Ong has fallen."
"That's really hard to wrap my mind around," said Jake. "Our largest city. How could they do it?"
"We are too civilized," replied Koppelmeyer. "Nobody believed that their intent was so sinister; furthermore, their engines of war were unknown to us. Most reports indicated that they simply had large amounts of earthmoving equipment. They had that, of course, but they had more. It is a time when we must all reassess the situation, and we must do it swiftly."
"So when are we getting married?"
Dana drew in her breath sharply. She had been excited about the prospect, but this was so soon!
Koppelmeyer continued. "Leader Jim Harkins will perform the ceremony, at his Meeting Place."
"Where is that?"
"It's on the north side of Castleburg--a really beautiful, low building made of stone, with vivid stained glass windows."
Dana wanted to wail out loud; instead she restrained herself. "But I haven't picked out a dress--attendants--anything!"
Koppelmeyer continued. "I'm very sorry--I know brides like to make all sorts of detailed plans, but we do have a beautiful occasion prepared. The agents in the district took up a collection, and Headquarters kicked in more. We all want to see this happen. There will be lots of flowers....."
"My dress!" interrupted Dana.
"Thankfully we had done some advance planning on that. You will have a lovely dress--lots of white satin and lace. I have seen it myself."
"But my size!"
"It was made by people who know your measurements--by people who have made dresses for you before."
"But how? They are in a different world."
"We had to make special arrangements with the APK--someone named Mothkin."
"We learned about the APK," said Jake, "but I'm not sure if I remember about Mothkin."
"Mothkin has been in several worlds. I don't know if he has ever visited Earthwithin, but he is highly-placed in the APK."
"I guess I'm satisfied," said Dana, "if the Dwarf-maidens made my dress. The others were so beautiful! But how about a wedding-party?"
"We have made arrangements for that, too. Sheldon Horton will be there, and your old roommate Jude, Jake."
"What about me?" asked Dana. "Who will give me away? And how about my mother?"
"I was told that your mother was increasingly unhappy about your connection to the CBI--if she were still required to give her consent, you wouldn't even be here--and that she had decided that she didn't approve of Jake. I can't see how that would work."
Dana's face fell in the dark. "You're right. But I had hoped."
"We all have hopes," said Koppelmeyer, gently. "Maybe your mother would agree to a second ceremony in your home meeting place, sometime later."
"My dad would like that," said Jake. "He never said so, but I always thought he would like to officiate at my wedding."
"What about your mom?"
"I don't think she approves of Dana, either."
"Are you all right with that?"
There was a moment of silence, but then the answer came: "Yes."
"It won't be a fancy honeymoon, but we will make sure you are comfortable at Grandma's for the first night. You'll have to rough it, after that, in a tent, to carry out the assignment, but you'll have to stay in an inn at least one night--maybe more."
"But what about my attendants?" said Dana.
"I think you should just trust us on that. I don't think you'll be disappointed."
"All right." It wasn't really all right, but Dana had decided to make the best of it.
"The wedding is set for two o'clock tomorrow. Another agent is to meet me here soon on a half, concerning another matter." Koppelmeyer looked down at his watch, which glowed in the dark. "Here is the key--the two of you will take the three-quarter back to Grandma's--it's safe now to go in the back door and put it in the storage aisle. All the wedding attire will be delivered there, and separate CBI coaches will deliver you to the Meeting Place."
"But what about Carolina Trails?" said Jake.
"If you'd just be patient!" Koppelmeyer grinned in the dark. "I was getting to that! Carolina Trails is going to send their newest commercial coach--it's a really nice one, I'm told--and never been out on a run--to take us all to the Eating Park for dinner and dancing. They have the best food around."
"I'll take your word for it," said Jake, "but I thought I was supposed to work for them."
"You will, in time, but they are very understanding about this. Among other things, they had hoped some day to put on a run to She-Kag-Ong. Not to mention that the security of the whole country is in grave danger--the Destroyers have done everything without even bothering to declare war, but that's what it is." Koppelmeyer glanced at his watch again. "You two had better get going."
"Don't forget to remove the trip line," reminded Dana.
"Take my dark-lantern. Close the slit and blow it out when you are done. There's a ledge on the right--leave it there."
The couple eased out of the cave in silence, with a curious mix of great anticipation and terrible dread.