Isabella backed David up to the top of the stairs and into the shadows there, but he refused to go back round the corner, and with a mental kick she remembered telling him about the spiders to get him down the rope. She controlled a sigh and, not for the first time, told herself that she ought to have a clause in her treasure-hunting contracts that explicitly prohibited the person commissioning her from coming along for a jolly. David stood in front of her so that he could peer at the corner and get first glimpse of any spiders chasing them, and she allowed him to, reasoning that if she got shot he was definitely going to die, whereas if he got shot she still had a fighting chance.
“We’re not going back up that rope, Izzy,” said David. He was managing to keep his voice low now, and she was grateful for that. “There’s a spider’s nest at the top. It’s certain death.”
“They’re only spiders,” she said. She saw immediately that it was the wrong thing to say. David’s face paled and his eyes widened, even though his pupils shrank down to a pinpoint. He gripped her arm urgently, and she noticed that it hurt, something she’d very much doubted he was capable of.
“They’re not!” he hissed, staring at her. She noticed that his hair was so heavily gelled that it still looked as though he’d only done it up a few minutes ago. It was slicked back against his scalp and down the back of his neck in a thoroughly unfashionable mullet. He reminded her strongly of football players in the seventies. “They’re not!”
She thought before answering this time, mostly of what she’d like to do to him for lying on the application form about his phobias.
“Damn. So you know too?” she said. David’s gaze became very slightly less terrifying and his grip slackened a little. He nodded. “Well, then you know I’m not going to try and go back up the rope,” said Isabella, who’d been intending to do exactly that. “But there’s a very real danger down here too, David. Bigger even than the spiders.” His gaze intensified again and she wondered if she’d judged it wrong and he was about to flip out. Then he let go of her arm, though he didn’t drop his gaze.
“So what do we do?” he asked. “It seems like we’re cut off front and back.”
“We don’t know that, we only know that there’s dangers here that we don’t know about,” she said. “They’re known-unknowns in the matrix formualation: we know that there are things we don’t know enough about to address, but knowing that we know this allows us to prepare to address them. It’s very meta.”
David nodded as though he were taking her seriously. “And the unknown-unknowns?” he said. Isabella felt her jaw drop, but she started speaking quickly to cover it up.
“Are always a problem,” she said. “And by their very nature they can’t be anticipated or planned for. Specifically, that is, there are general precautions we can take. And it helps if we have some unknown-unknowns of our own.”
“Like what? We’ve not brought much equipment.”
And whose fault is that? thought Isabella immediately. David had first refused to carry anything that looked heavy, then he’d moaned about carrying anything at all, and eventually she’d been forced to leave quite a lot of things she’d have liked to have with her. Most of them were geo-tagged for later collection, but it was still vexing.
“We have some,” she said. “And in fact I’m intending to use one of them now.” She slipped her fingers beneath her blouse and located the slender leather holster she wore against her skin. Her fingers tingled as she touched it, the action of a neurotoxin whose antidote she ingested every morning without fail. Undoing it with a soft clicking sound, she slid a knife out and out of her blouse. Its handle was the length of her palm and wrapped with a fibrous plant material that gave it good grip in wet or sweaty hands, and its blade was about wavy, half as long again, and made of a metal that looked like steel. It glittered even in the poor light of the cave.
“That’s a knife, Issy,” said David. “That won’t stop a bullet.”
“It’s a kris,” she said. “It’s made of some odd alloys that are quite hard to find. It’s proper name is a Brinchev kris and there are supposedly only five of them in the world.”
“It’s valuable then?” David’s voice took on a note of greed which made her feel slightly sad. The man had more money than he knew how to spend and was bored enough to hire her for a treasure hunt and then insist on coming along, yet show him an expensive rarity and he wanted it.
“In a way,” said Isabella. She held the knife out in front of her, laying on her open palm, and slowly turned in a circle. About two thirds of the way round the knife quivered, but she completed the full circle before returning to that point. “They’re used for a very specific purpose usually, so if you don’t have that purpose they’re not all that useful.” She took a step forward, watching the knife tremble.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” she said. “The propaganda is very good.” She took another step and was gratified to see a bar of light suddenly shoot down the length of the blade and strike the floor, where it vanished.
“What was that?”
“The location of the door,” said Isabella. “There are doors everywhere, David, but what’s on the other side is generally not safe. And I really, really mean not safe. The only reason I’m doing this is because I know what’s on the other side, and I don’t know what’s going on in that cave. So we trade a known danger for an unknown one, and hope that it’s all worthwhile in the end.”
“I don’t think I understand you.” His voice was small and his head drooped. His eyes focused on his feet, but she refused to feel sorry for him.
“I know that,” she said. “But you’ll have your chance soon enough.” She gripped the Brinchev kris firmly, pushed into empty air, and began to cut.