Sunday, February 3, 2013


(NOTE: This serial takes place out of order chronologically with the Challenger Storm novels, which are being written with a definite timeline in mind.  "The Valley of Fear" happens after at least book 5 or 6, but this shouldn't hinder the reading experience.  I'm flying by the seat of my pants here, so I make no guarantees in regards to quality or coherence.)


Episode 8: "The Same Deep Water as You"

Storm made another circuit of the room, inspecting the walls closer now.  At his legs, the icy water splashed and lapped at the concrete cylinder around them.

The blonde woman watched him as he walked sloshing through the room.  The water was rapidly getting deeper, rising above their knees.  "Well, you're awfully calm about all this," she said with panic creeping slightly into her tone.

"I'm thinking," he snapped tersely.  Then his voice softened.  "You shouldn't be here.  I'm sorry you're in this with me," he said gently.

"No offense, but I am too," she said back.  Then she snapped her fingers.  "You!"

"Huh?"  He looked at her quizzically.

"You!  You're that guy that's in the papers sometimes, the one that helps people and has all those scientists on his payroll... whatsisname?  Conqueror Strom!"  She grinned.

"It's actually Storm," Storm replied, "'Challenger' Storm is what they call me in the news.  But please- please- call me Cliff."

"Okay then, Cliff: how are we going to get out of here?" she asked him.  The water was now nearly at her throat, rising faster than they originally thought it would.

"I'm working on it," Storm said, looking up at the roof high above them.  "Can you swim?"

The blonde scoffed.  "'Can you swim?', he asks me," she shook her head.  "I should say so: I was part of Billy Rose's Aquacade before I went to Hollywood."

It was Storm's turn to recognize her.  He did a double-take, seeing her face again, but really seeing it for the first time.  "You're Fay Durning," he said to the actress.

She smiled for a second, the habitual response overriding her fear for a fleeting moment.  "That's right.  I'd shake your hand but I've begun to tread water now," she said.  Indeed, the water was high enough now that the duo's feet were off the bottom of the room.  The chilly water was rising, and fast.

"I heard a woman screaming out there in the jungle, before Zodiac brought us to his castle," Storm remembered aloud. "That was you, Miss Durning?  Are you okay?"

She laughed.  "You heard that too, huh?  Yeah, that was me... but it wasn't me, it was audio that was recorded for the film we were making with that rat Jimmy Keane.  Zodiac's men took it out into the jungle with them.  They had a loudspeaker mounted on a truck."

Storm rolled his eyes.  "I knew it sounded familiar.  He played us for suckers, trying to lure us with that screaming."

"The movie rags say I'm the 'Queen of Scream', Fay said proudly, despite the situation around her.  "My claim to fame, apparently."

The water had risen to nearly half the height of the chamber by now.  Storm swam down to the bottom of the room, which was now lighted as well, to ensure there was no way out they had missed.  There wasn't.  The cylindrical concrete walls were smooth and unbroken, apart from the nozzles for the jets of water near the floor.

Swimming back to the top, his head broke the surface and as he shook the water from his face, something caught his eye near the top of the room, something he hadn't noticed before when he and Fay were at the bottom of the room.

The protuberances that were jutting slightly out of the walls that they had seen were levers set almost flush with the concrete.  Next to each lever was some kind of symbol carved into the wall.  Now that they were closer to the top, he could almost make them out.

Fay noticed him examining the walls closer.  "What is it?" the actress asked him.

"I don't know, but it might be a way out," Storm replied.  "I'm sure that Count Zodiac has no intentions on actually letting us go.  But he's going to play with us first- his ego is his downfall- and if we play along smartly enough we could just beat him at his game."

The water was now about level with the bottom row of the levers, which were staggered around and up and down the wall near the top of the room.  From the floor the carvings next to each lever had been almost invisible but now that they were almost on the level with the carvings, it was apparent to Storm what they were.

The carvings were zodiacal symbols, and each was on its own door, set flush with the walls of the chamber.

"They're doors," Fay said, and before Storm could stop her she swam to the nearest one, which was Capricorn.  Bracing her feet against the wall, she pulled the lever down.

The door opened smoothly on its hinges, and unleashed a torrent of water into the room.  The rushing liquid hit the actress in the face, knocking her back and into Storm's arms.  The water level rose now, even faster than before, magnified by the water rushing from the open door.

"Well, I won't do that again," Fay said, sputtering water out along with her words, as Storm swam over to the now submerged lever next to the Capricorn hatch.  He dove under and tried to pull the lever up, bracing his feet on the wall and pulling with all his strength.  It was no good.  The door was now in a permanently locked and open position.

The water level was nearing the top of the room.  Fay Durning had now clambered up onto the platform holding the Aquarius statue, which was still pouring water from its urn.  She watched as Storm broke the surface again.  "Sorry," she called out.

"It's alright," he replied.  "Just check with me first before doing something.  There's a method to this, I know it.  Zodiac doesn't do anything like this arbitrarily.  I just need to figure out the pattern here.  I'm sure that if any more wrong doors are opened we'll be in big trouble."  He looked around: all the doors and levers were now submerged, and there was only a few feet of air left at the top of the room.  One door had to be the right way out... but which was it?

Fay was clinging to the top of the Aquarius statue's head now.  "Oh no," she moaned in despair, "I almost drowned once when I was with the Aquacade during a 'Moby Dick'-themed number... it's not fun at all.  This is going to be much worse... and final!"

Storm's head snapped up, a look of sudden astonishment on his face.  "'Moby Dick'!" he shouted, and dove underwater again.

Confused, Fay asked nobody in particular, "What?"

Under the water, Storm stroked down to the doors.  He strained to make out the symbols on them through his water-fogged eyes.  Libra, Cancer, Gemini... he was searching for one particular hatch.

Fay Durning's comment about Melville's novel sparked a memory: the line "when Aquarius, or the Water-bearer, pours out his whole deluge and drowns us; and to wind up with Pisces, or the Fishes, we sleep."  That line echoed the order of the western zodiac's symbols.  Storm and Fay had been locked in the Aquarius room, and Storm supposed that only one of the doors led out of it.  In the horoscope, the sign of Aquarius was followed by that of Pisces.  This could mean that it was the way out.  It was a gambit, a risk Storm was taking.  If the door opened to more water, he and the kidnapped actress were surely done for.

Storm found the Pisces door, its surface carved with the symbol that looked like a capital letter "H" with inwardly-curving sides.  It was one of the lowest doors in the water-filled room.  Above, the water was now inches away from the ceiling, Fay Durning pressed her face to it to breathe whatever air remained for her.  Here goes nothing, Storm thought, and he gripped the door's lever.  He braced, and pulled.

There was a massive slurping sound underwater, and the door opened inward instead of outward like the Capricorn door had.  A massive pump activated somewhere:  the water was sucked into the tunnel beyond the door, pulling Storm and Fay with it.

Lungs bursting from need of oxygen, the two captives found themselves swept at lightning speed through a long, dark, narrow conduit as the water was purged from the cylindrical room.  They could drown here just as well if they didn't get any air soon.  Then, up ahead through the murk a dim circle of light showed...

Suddenly they were out of the tube, out in the open air and falling, water all around them as they were poured out of a tunnel set into a hillside.  The water and the captives fell dozens of feet to splash down in a deep pool below.

Bobbing up to the surface, they gasped air into their lungs.  Fay coughed raggedly: she hadn't been ready for the purge and had sucked in some water with her last gasp of air.

"Warn somebody before you do that!" she yelled at Storm between hacks.

"It's my turn to say 'I'm sorry'," Storm replied.  He was looking around them: they were at the head of the island's valley, in a deep, waterfall-fed pool surrounded by lush jungle.  "I wasn't sure it would work.  Thank God for your 'Moby Dick' experience."

"What are you talking about?" she yelped, still indignant over her near-drowning and their sudden fall through space.

Storm started to tell her about his "eureka" moment, when suddenly something brushed his leg.  Something huge was in the water with them, and it wasn't exactly shy.