One minute later, Lasko and Tunnel were in Leonard’s basement, gaping at a long, dark tunnel that led into infinite darkness.
Leonard grinned proudly. “I discovered these tunnels when I was digging. They branch out underground all over the hex, forms a pretty tricky maze. I’ve only explored maybe a fraction.” He shone a light inside, revealing that the walls and floor were made of densely packed trash. “I’m pretty sure that the rats made these over the years. I never figured why they would make them so big though.”
Lasko took a step back. “Rats?” he said with a disgusted and shocked expression.
“Yup.” Leonard laughed. “You might even run into a couple. But don’t worry, just shine a light, and they’ll scamper off.” His tone became more serious.
“If you run into a larger animal though… best be on your guard.”
“Large? Exactly how large?” The underground passageway was seeming to be less and less of a good idea to Lasko. Tunnel, on the other hand, was already starting to scamper down the passageway, looking extremely excited.
“Eh. It varies.” Leonard said cryptically. But then he patted a floating robot nearby. “But that’s why this little guy will be giving you the tour.”
“Your… flying lightbulb, is supposed to be our protection?” Lasko was starting to get uncharacteristically upset. It was probably the fear talking.
“Don’t underestimate it, just ’cause it’s small.” Leonard said with an offended tone. He nudged the floating robot affectionately. “Glinda, don’t you listen to that mean man.”
“I will not listen to that mean man” Glinda’s voice spoke from the small robot, and then floated slowly into the tunnel.
Leonard laughed, watching it go, and then turned to Lasko. “But seriously, you’ll be fine. Just make sure you don’t separate from this floating fella, and you’ll surface some twenty miles southeast of here. Hopefully unharmed.”
“Twenty miles?!” Lasko’s face was getting red.
“Were you expecting a highway to your house? Trust me, young man, you’ll want the distance. Who knows how wide Vance’s net is spread.”
Lasko shouldered the pack full of tools and now also the two weeks supply of food. He looked down at Sharp, who was now laying on a hover cart that Leonard lent them, (for a usage fee.) The boy was still blissfully asleep. Lasko wondered how long the boy would be out.
How long did I sleep for that first time?
“Tunnel, come take Sharp.” Lasko called out. Tunnel climbed out of the Tunnel, and grabbed the lead for hover cart. It was exactly like the one they owned, except that it looked brand new, no dents and scrapes on this one.
Leonard coughed awkwardly. “Well, there’s one more thing.”
He exchanged an embarrassed glance with Lasko. The old man, suddenly acting self-conscious, mentioned with a hand in the empty air, and another robot flew towards him carrying an object.
It was a large, brown, teddy bear, with black, shiny eyes.
Tunnel’s eyes grew wide as he saw the stuffed bear. Lasko tried to hide a grin. Luckily Tunnel was too focused on the toy to notice.
Leonard pulled the bear from the robot, and sighed dramatically. “I got an order for this, but turns out the buyers canceled the sale. Seeing how selling to me seems to have caused you folks some trouble…” He held the bear out to Tunnel. “I’d figured that I owed you something.” He said gruffly.
Tunnel at first didn’t understand what Leonard was saying. The small kid just stood there blankly, staring at the doll. It was only when Leonard tossed the stuffed animal to Tunnel that the boy dropped the hover cart lead and grabbed it reflexively.
The boy’s mouth fell open as his fingers felt the soft plush fur of the bear. Hiding his smile, Lasko made his face stern. “I guess it’s yours now, Tunnel.”
Tunnel finally looked up, staring at Lasko with amazed eyes, and then at Leonard, who nodded in affirmative.
The poor boy couldn’t say anything, his grip around the bear getting tighter and tighter as Tunnel realized the full weight of what they were saying. His wide brown eyes began to glisten.
Here come the waterworks. Lasko readied himself.
Leonard also noticed the incoming tears. “Now scram. Before I change my mind and take the bear back,” the man threatened quickly.
A look of horror came across the boy’s face, and in a flash, the small boy had turned and jumped into the passageway with his gift. A couple seconds later, he came scrambling back, and not making eye contact with Leonard, picked up the hover cart lead with Sharp, and pulled it carefully into the underground tunnel.
Lasko chuckled, and nodded to Leonard, who also couldn’t help but give a small smile. “Thank you.” Lasko said honestly.
“Just doing what you paid me to do.” Leonard said stiffly. Lasko noticed that the tips of the old man’s ears were bright red.
Lasko stretched out his hand, and after a little bit of hesitation, Leonard took it. They shared a firm handshake.
“Are you going to be alright? They tried to kill us out there,” Lasko asked concernedly.
A shadow flickered over Leonard’s face, but then the older man grinned mischievously. “I’ll be fine. An underground exit’s not the only trick this old dog’s got up his sleeve.”
Lasko laughed, and with a nod, he turned and jumped into the tunnel, quickly catching up to where Tunnel and the guide robot were waiting. Tunnel gave one last wave to Leonard, and then the two of them followed the floating light down the downward curving passageway.
The old trader stood there silently, watching well after the last flicker of light disappeared. A crease of worry stretched across his brow. Then Leonard sighed and turned, headed back upstairs. He had better start preparing.