"No one appears to have noticed us, up here." Hoty craned her neck and stared at the long glowing trapezoid that she realized must be the roof over the First Cut. All the pictures she'd ever seen had been taken from the inside. It was much more impressive from out here.
Right on the edge of the polar ice cap, the cratered and eroded surface was highlighted by ice in every south-facing niche. The ice gleamed in the light of the brilliant stars and both moons. Vee had turned off the crawler's lights as soon as they stopped.
"We're very nearly right on top of L'azlod's cave." Vee rumbled. "All we need is a good way down."
Moving lights to her left caught her eye. Vee had seen them too. He gave a quick look to the immediate surroundings and turned the crawler north toward a dark slash that proved to be a small canyon, ten strides deep. Vee followed the edge until they reached a broken edge and landslide. She gripped her seat with both hands. After three days of driving she knew what to expect. The crawler half drove, half slid down the unstable rocks and sand, and Vee kept it moving until they were well past the loose soil, then turned it back to follow the canyon wall. When he halted, he grabbed his breathing mask and opened the door. Hoty snatched hers and clamped it to her face. He claimed she wouldn't faint for nearly half a split, but she wasn't going to chance it. Apart from brief stops for meals and for her to practice with her mask, they had driven straight through. She'd been allowed to drive on the flats, just following the guidance of some hush hush instrument Vee had brought along.
Any and all rough terrain she had happily left to Vee. Well, not happily. Not the way he drove down, up or over obstacles any sensible lizard would have considered impassable.
He was up the steep canyon wall with his head over the canyon rim.
She climbed easily up to him and watched to see what the other vehicle would do.
It passed them, then pulled up and stopped. Three lizards got out of the cart, and for a second the lights shown on a pair of outrageously dressed pseudofems and a rather elderly looking lizard. The fems bent over something on the ground and pulled up a trapdoor. They climbed in and closed it behind them.
"Well, isn't that handy for secret meetings and so forth. They must come and go regularly from his home this way." Vee stayed where he was. "Let's wait a bit, in case they don't go very far from the entrance right away."
Hoty suppressed desires to twitch, wiggle and scratch this hideous breathing mask for a full split before Vee finally moved.
The modern hatch opened onto a short ladder down to a small room with masks, oxygen, hand lights, everything the intrepid surface explorer needed. Vee shut the hatch behind them, and the room began to pressurize automatically. Another hatch, this one in the wall, drew her. She placed her head against it, then straightened with a shrug. "I can't hear any thing."
Vee nodded. "Don't open it until we're completely pressured. Less we do to call anyone's attention to us, the better." The pumps sighed to a halt, and Vee very slowly turned the latch. The whiff of air was barely detectable, and he eased the door open.
As a patroller, Hoty felt vaguely as if she ought to be the one going first, but Vee just exuded confidence and ability. And experience.
And a sense of humor. Sandy good thing she was a pseudo.
The next chamber belonged in a museum. It was old original rock cut. With a winding staircase leading further down. And no lights. Vee stepped back and grabbed a hand light, then closed the door behind him. He wrapped his coat over the light so it gave only a faint glow. After a careful climb down lots and lots of eroded steps Hoty was starting to wonder about the psychology of the lizards that had settled these caveless wastes. To have to cut and carry off the contents of every bit of habitable space you made, with nothing but hand tools, was an incredible task. Fleeing from the Caroks when they captured the Great Cavern, most of them had been the First People, believers in the Sky Gods.
Well, they'd survived, and built a new nation, far enough removed, at the time, to assure its safety. Ice Cap South was about half as old as the first known occupation of the Great Cavern that had, until so recently, sheltered a significant percent of all Martians.
The stairs ended in a hallway about fifteen strides long. Dark rooms led off each side. Vee stepped into one. "Storage," he breathed, easing the light out of the folds of his coat. "Plenty of places to hide, just slide carefully in and freeze." His light shown on a gap between boxes she thought she could fit into, then snapped out.
"I'm a colleague, not someone you need to protect and guide."
"You mean they've taken to teaching housebreaking at the academy? I'm shocked." He was nearly chuckling.
She growled, and led the way out. And carefully down the hall. The cross corridor was dimly lit by lights spilling out of the rooms that lined its far wall. She could hear voices.
And footsteps. She backpedaled as quietly as she could and stepped into the first dark room. The footsteps tripped on by their dark hallway, leaving a wonderful smell in their wake. Someone was going to eat well. Not showing herself in the cross corridor, she eased out far enough to hear voices. She froze at a faint scrape. A silhouette crossed the intersection, and flattened against the side of the dark corridor, across from her. From the tilt of the head, it was listening. Then it backed further from the lighted corridor. She eased back into the room to avoid being silhouetted in turn. Vee gave ground to her, then edged around her.
"Trev." Barely aspirated, the whisper brought the silhouette around with a snap.
"Vee." And then the huge man was grabbing and shaking a smaller, well, actually fairly tall lizard. Silently.
"Shhh. I'm trying to figure out who the new comers are," the new lizard hissed.
Vee gestured them both back from the cross corridor. "I saw them on the surface, as they came in. Ynno B'thom, Namro V'arm and Redle H'athan."
Hoty glared at him. He hadn't said anything about recognizing them!
"Ah!" The new lizard, the prince, sounded pleased. "The REM contingent shows. There's a tunnel to a warehouse, where I've been visiting with our other old buddy, Blozolli C'dasl. L'azlod's chick Philey, maybe thirteen years old or so, released me yesterday, thinking I was its father. I've been trying to escape from them hiding me from the Bad Guys ever since." The lizard had been studying Hoty as he spoke.
Vee nodded. "This is patroller Hoto R'sah. She's the one that broke the snatch, she's working with us and G'sele to find you, while S'ank has other people working on finding L'azlod, or minimizing the damage he's likely to do. As far as we can tell he's, umm, off with Xaero and that crowd."
The lizard stared at Vee in horror. "I thought this was a straight kidnapping. He's gone to . . . " The prince glanced at Hoty. "Oh sand, Xaero!" He gazed blankly at the wall for a long moment. "If L'azlod gets the . . . tech . . . we're all dead."
"I have a crawler on the surface with a radio frequency comm. It's been six hours since I've gotten an update from S'ank." Vee said.
The prince took a deep breath and nodded. "Right. Let's get an update. Lead the way."
Hoty brought up the rear, checking behind, but no one came. All the way up the worn stairs she wondered about a lizard that automatically censored its speech, even under these circumstances. Undercover for the DMS for decades? Now she believed it. And Vee. Recognizing REM on sight? Apparently a two lizard undercover team. She was surprised General S'ank allowed it, but what did she know about this side of things?
Well, it had been interesting seeing this little glimpse into another world, but with Prince Fatreve rescued, it'd be back to the street patrols for her. Fat chance she was ever going to do any undercover espionage.