Better

Perhaps Doug thought that to see the Tzvaleubhoi at last could only be entry into a Shangri-La or disillusionment, but there are more choices, and with more options than one would imagine, things can always get ‘BETTER’. Swimming through an underwater maze to get to the Tzvaleubhoi is hard enough with Utcoozhoo as a guide, but swimming back alone when the tunnels are collapsing is somewhat harder. Rewards await? Doug wrote in his diary:

Swimming Underwater in the Maze

“Utcoozhoo,” I said, “does the revelation have something to do with Zusoiti?”

“Yes, I think she’s tapping into the grzepepa looking for information.”

Naztko asked, “Can she learn to control the pfayohoqwaahujpi?”

“That’s,” said Utcoozhoo, “what worries me. She is trying …”

Naztko said, “You’re right — we had better call a meeting. We’d better go now.”

Utcoozhoo said to me, “Doug, listen carefully. Do you know hexadecimal to binary conversion?”

“Um, well, yes.”

“Then what would nine be?”

“You mean, 1001?”

“Yes, and two?”

“That would be 0010.”

“OK. Now I want you to change each ‘one’ to an R, and each zero to an L. So now say, nine is R, L, L, R.”

“Nine is R, L, L, R. ”

“Now say two is L, L, R, L.”

“Two is L, L, R, L. But what is this for?”

“R means take a right turn in the tunnel. L means turn left. These are the directions you will need to leave through the tunnel maze. Naztko and I have to go to the Forbidden Zone and you have to go back to the Nipeiskwari by yourself. You’re going to have to hold your breath and swim out. If you get lost in the tunnel, you won’t have enough breath to get back home.”

“Uh, oh, um, what is that again?”

“Nine: go right, left, left, right. Two: go left, left, right, left. Just remember 92. OK?”

“Uh, well, I … ”

“We have no more time. Take care.”

“Bye Doug,” said Naztko over his shoulder as Utcoozhoo and he broke into a run across the meadow, past the willow, and over the hill. Even Naztko with his frailties was able to put on a burst of speed, and they both vanished.

I walked slowly to the ledge thinking 92, 92. Well, at least, this would be the beginning of my journey instead of the end as it was when I came here and was out of breath in an unknown place. This time I would be desperate for breath at the end of my journey in a familiar place — I think I’d rather die at home than here in a tunnel like I had thought I might when I came here. OK, I had to focus on 92.

I dove into the water, thinking, OK, nine is: right, left, left, right. When I touched bottom from the force of my dive, I could feel a tremor. I swam forward towards the intersection as the shaking increased. Rocks started falling from the ceiling and I wondered if I should go back.

A bright gnolum lit the first intersection and I could easily see the right and left branches ahead. OK, first is right.

Before I could reach the right tunnel, I heard a rumble. An avalanche of rock and crushed gnolums filled the right tunnel, totally blocking it.

What now? Well, I thought, I should at least see where the left tunnel goes and then I could always go back, rest, and then maybe think of a new strategy.

I entered the left tunnel. It went leftward for a short while and then started into a clockwise curve. Maybe it was curving back toward the direction of the blocked pathways. In fear, the journey seemed endless, but eventually I came to a passage that seemed strangely familiar. There was a sharp jagged rock by a gnolum that reminded me of something that I had totally forgotten, because it was such a minor injury: coming in, I scraped myself on the rock, swimming swiftly in a panic behind Utcoozhoo. Yes, this was the rock. Now I had to think, how many more turns were there when I scraped myself? I had to try to bring the memory back in detail. There I was, annoyed by the scrape, ignoring the pain, focusing on where Utcoozhoo was swimming, and then we did, turn, turn, turn, turn — dum, da, dum, dum, or something. I thought: it doesn’t matter; it’s just that there were four turns, so I must be at the place for the last four turns. Yes, that has to be it: left, left, right, left. Was I right or did I have to go back?

I couldn’t waste anymore air thinking about it. I turned left, then left, then right, then left.

Hurray, I was out of the tunnels. I swam past the orange-blue mosaic and didn’t think I could make it.

I floated upward, and gave one last kick. I burst out of the water like a flounder, falling onto the rock of the Nipeiskwari where Zawmb’yee was waiting for me.

She was going to give me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but I put up my hand to stop her because I was gasping so hard I thought I would suck her lungs out. While I was breathing in and out, in and out, I pointed at my cheek and she kissed my cheek.

She said, “Utcoozhoo is in the Forbidden Zone, and reactivated its pfayohiqusi. He used the grp’nl to send me a message in the sacred quarters. He said the tunnel collapsed, and I didn’t think you were going to make it.”

“It was,” I said, “a close call and …”

Zawmb’yee burst into tears, and my tear suppression self was too overwhelmed by her love to stop my eyes from flooding. I couldn’t deserve all this when I had done little, and I hated to see her suffer. “I’m alright,” I said, but I felt so sad to be in a world of gloom.

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