by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
For a moment Eril considered telling her the truth, that he had as much chance of getting into the Corps without her as she had getting off Stayman without him. In the mood she was in, she=d probably tell him to stuff a comet up his pitouchee. The only thing to do was to keep his mouth shut and wait for another opening. He hoped he=d get one.
Kithri picked up the water bottle, took a long swallow and then dropped it, sputtering. She pointed down the tunnel.
As he followed her gesture, Eril=s mouth went electrically dry. The last time he=d looked, the tunnel had been empty except for the two of them and the scrubjet. Now a man-shaped mist hovered in the middle of the >hole, one moment diaphanous, then condensing into near solidity. In stark contrast to the rosy glow of the partly-sealed jaydium, it was a clear, untinted gray. Eril made out a bulbous head, two arms, and two splayed-out legs. He thought he saw markings on the head section, but they faded so quickly he could not be sure.
"What the hell is that?" Kithri whispered. "I=ve been running these tunnels for years, and I=ve never seen anything like it."
"Space ghost," he said, dredging his memory. "They=re sighted along the old interstellar routes. There are only about six or seven documented cases known, never this close to a planet. By our best guess, they=re relics of early attempts to exceed the speed of light. Residues of energy that just happen to be shaped like humans. They probably don=t actually exist in three-space."
As he spoke, the figure descended until its feet seemed to touch the tunnel floor. For a moment it stood there, motionless. Then it began to move. First one leg and then the other stretched out and swung back as it drifted along in a mechanical parody of walking.
"Whatever you are," Kithri called out, "you stay away from my ship!"
"There=s no danger. The ghost can=t interact with ordinary matter," Eril said with a confidence he did not feel. It was one thing to listen to a lecture on "quasi-dimensional oddities" when you were sitting safely in an Academy classroom, and quite another to confront one in the middle of a jaydium tunnel.
"There=s nothing to worry about," he repeated. "It=ll dematerialize again in a moment." I hope.
Moving one awkward step at a time, the shape continued to advance, not toward the two humans, but the scrubjet and its precious cargo. Kithri jumped to her feet, as tense as a coiled dust-viper.
"I don=t care what that thing is, if it messes with my >jet--"
Eril grabbed her hand. "You stay here. I=m going in for a better look before it disappears."
He shoved her bodily behind him and took a couple of steps towards the diaphanous figure. For a moment he wondered if her instincts might be right about the thing=s innocuous nature. A familiar thrill shot down his spine, reminiscent of the moments before his first battle in space. He=d been just as terrified as all the other rookies, but he=d never before felt so intensely, exhiliratingly alive.
Maybe Eades was right. Maybe he was some kind of thrill junkie, a real glory-boy.
The ghost was close enough to the scrubjet to touch it, still floating stiff‑legged, as if all its joints were frozen. It stretched out one thick‑fingered hand, now clearly visible as it took on greater and greater solidity. Eril saw the arm reach for the curved side of Brushwacker--
"No!" Kithri screamed. She shoved him aside with surprising force and lunged for the scrubjet.
Eril grabbed her shoulders and jerked her to a halt. She pushed against him, hard. He wrestled her around to face him, holding her close to his chest. She wasn=t trying to hurt him, just struggling ineffectively to get free.
"Calm down!" he said. "There=s nothing to be--"
Kithri twisted away and dropped her weight, breaking his hold. Too late, Eril realized that in their struggle she=d slipped his force whip out of its shoulder holster and was now pointing it at the shape leaning towards her ship.
Ineffective, indeed! He=d never underestimate her like that again.
Aiming mostly by instinct, Kithri pushed the force whip trigger, a broad, flat lever set in a protective groove. Eril grabbed for the weapon, but the beam of the whip was already arcing through space. It touched the phantom shape and exploded in a tiny noval flare.
Eril gasped as a shock wave rattled his teeth. Tears blurred his vision, but not enough to obscure the figure still looming towards the scrubjet.
Kithri raised the whip again, this time holding it in both hands and carefully sighting down the barrel. Eril caught her hand, pulling it backwards before she could press the firing stud again.
"You idiot, it=ll go away on its own!"
"Skies damn you, Eril! If you won=t do something about it, I will! I won=t let that thing mess with my ship!"
Kithri yanked the force whip around again. It lashed out, this time in a wide, unfocused sweep. She clung to the firing button, despite Eril=s attempts to pry her fingers free. The whip beam spiralled downwards to touch the point of the specter=s shoulder.
A blast of air and searing brightness, many times more powerful than the first, stunned Eril. In an instant, the breath was stolen from his lungs, the strength from his muscles. He staggered under the sudden impact of Kithri=s weight and they both went down.
The light gave way to enveloping darkness. For an agonizing moment, Eril was afraid he=d been blinded. He struggled to sit upright, blinking furiously.
"Of all the comet-brained things to happen..." moaned Kithri.
"I warned you," Eril grumbled. "We had no idea how the whip=s energy would interact with that thing. I=ll bet your damned heroics haven=t even touched it. The ghost will disappear in its own sweet time when the dimensional gap shifts. Meanwhile, there=s no way we can duo that jaydium back now. We=re half blind ‑‑ hardly fit to fly--or at least I am. Can you see anything yet?
"No...yes, I think that blob is >Wacker." Her voice took on a new urgent tone. "Eril! There=s something on the ground next to it."
Eril forced himself to concentrate on the gray soup before his eyes, with very little success. "Don=t trust your vision, not so soon after a blast like that. Our eyes were pretty well dark-adapted‑‑"
"Stuff it!" She pulled herself free and clambered to her feet. "There is something. Something that wasn=t there before."
Eril=s vision cleared as he stumbled after her towards the nebulous shape of the scrubjet. Tone-on-tone gray replaced velvet black, slowly resolving into the outlines of objects. No rosy glow came from the cut jaydium face. It must have become sealed under a layer of protective ash, quicker than he=d thought possible.
They were almost on top of the sprawled figure before he was able to make it out. The thing was flat gray instead of its previous luminous transparency. The bulbous head absorbed light without any hint of gloss.
Eril touched it cautiously with the tip of one boot. The surface yielded like stiffened cloth. His vision cleared a little more and he saw--not a ghost, nor any inhuman figure--but a Terran spacesuit of ancient design.
"There=s someone inside!"
"He=s not a space ghost, that=s for sure," came Kithri=s voice from beside him. "But what--who is he?"
Without waiting for his answer, she knelt down. Eril crouched beside her and began searching for the seals of the globe helmet. In a few moments, he found the primitive lock‑clasp. As they wrestled the helmet free of its moorings, he wondered what they would find inside--a human spaceman, in all likelihood long dead--or something else, some horrendous relic from the depths of space? A thrill raced along his nerves.
The opaque globe came free with a snap and a burst of humid but not stale air. Inside was no desiccated corpse, but the fully fleshed head of a living man, lolling in unconsciousness. Eril shoved the helmet into Kithri=s hands and ran his fingers along the man=s neck. The flesh felt warm and resilient under his touch. "I=ve found a pulse, slow but he=s alive."
Kithri sat back on her heels. "Where did he come from? How did he get from deep space to the middle of this tunnel? And, more to the point, what are we going to do with him?"
"Take him back to Port Ludlow," Eril said. "He seems stable enough to move. He=s breathing regularly and his pulse is steady. Do we have room for him in the hold?"
Kithri considered for a moment. "We=ve more than half a load of jaydium, but if we leave the sealing equipment here, we can make it. It=ll be a tight fit."
"Don=t worry. Our friend here is in no position to object."
Kithri insisted on reorganizing Brushwacker=s hold by herself. She managed to create a space large enough for the spaceman. Together they lifted him in and strapped him in place.
As they flew back through the tunnel maze at duo speed, Eril marvelled again at the sensitivity of Kithri=s handling of the tiny ship. By all the powers of luck and space, he wasn=t wrong in what a great team they=d make! Look at the way they=d gone into action together to detach the spaceman=s helmet. She might be impulsive, but that was no crime. So was he. And to fly duo with her, not down some cramped jaydium tunnel in a patched‑up scrubjet, but through the starfields in a proper ship...
They burst from the tunnel into solar brightness. Kithri cried aloud and dropped them jarringly out of duo.
The pain of Eril=s watering eyes blanketed a fleeting moment of erotic backlash. He squinted reflexively. The quality of the light was too vivid, as if somehow cleansed of the omnipresent dust. He leaned forward and looked down over Kithri=s shoulder.
No barren plain lay at the foot of the Manitous, no endless expanse of rock and drought‑tortured scrub. No curling plumes of dust where trails had carved through the fragile crust.
Lush, exuberant green stretched as far as his eyes could follow. Shade upon shade of it filled the bowl of the Plain and spilled on to the sheer sides of the mountains. Trees massed so close and dense they seemed to be a single growth.
"I see it," he said in the same hushed tone. "I see it. But I don=t believe it."
If you can't wait to find out what happens next, you can download the whole thing from Book View Cafe (And the files will play nicely with your Nook or Kindle, as well as other devices). If not, come on back next week for the next episode...