by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
"What=s happened?" Kithri gasped. "Where the bloody hell are we?"
Eril didn=t answer. For the moment, he had no ready answers. Adrenalin thrilled through his veins, bringing his vision into sharp focus--every instrument on the scrubjet=s panel, every tone of green filling the endless Plain, every brilliant mote of sunlight.
Silently they circled back and brought Brushwacker to a halt on the wide, wind-scoured ledge. In contrast to the debris-strewn entrance they=d flown into, here they found ample room here to land. Otherwise, the treeless purple-gray mountainside looked just like the one they=d left, but that was the only familiar feature of the landscape.
Eril had to agree with her. Standing there open-mouthed and momentarily speechless, he could see for hundreds of miles, clear to where the dazzling azure sky melted with the forest in a thin, hazy line. From this height, the expanse of green resembled a felt-topped gaming board. He=d seen forests before, on Terillium where he was born and the two worlds where he saw ground action, but compared to this one they were nothing but pale, manicured gardens. He imagined tigers prowling the depths, hunted by spear-wielding woodmen who guarded the ruins of once fabulous cities, the last remains of a race of galaxy-spanning telepathic tyrants...
Argh! I must have seen too many bad tri-vids as a kid. But his nerves hummed with a familiar tingle and his confidence soared. If it wasn=t woodmen out there, it was something else...something wild and wonderful...just waiting for him...
"Wh-where are we?" Kithri grabbed his sleeve. "We can=t be still on Stayman, can we? Then how did we--What the hell is going on?"
Eril put one arm around her shoulders and grinned. "One colossal adventure."
She jerked away from him, scowling. "Be serious."
"I am serious!"
"Then where are we?"
"Looking at it logically, we must still be on Stayman," Eril said. "No insult intended, but your little >jet isn=t exactly spaceworthy. For another thing, look out there and imagine this place without all the trees. You=ve got the mountains here," he pointed, "the Plain out there, just the way it was before. Come nightfall, I=ll bet we even see the same constellations. So what d=you think, have we fallen down a one colossal time-travel hole, or what?"
"It=s-- That=s just not possible. All we did was fly down a tunnel and back out again, the same as always." She still sounded confused, but less panic-stricken than a moment ago. "That spacer=s suit is so old... You think we=ve somehow gone back to his time?" She hugged her arms to her body and shivered. "No! Things like this just don=t happen!"
He grabbed her elbow and pulled her towards the scrubjet. "C=mon, let=s take a closer look."
Kithri=s voice suddenly regained its usual edge. "Not a chance, fly-boy. I=ve got a half load of jaydium that=s decaying by the minute. Not to mention what we=re going to do with our friend in the suit."
Eril clambered into the scrubjet and folded himself into the co-pilot=s seat. Kithri might have a point about getting back, but he refused to worry. In five years of dog-fights and sabotage missions, he=d always found a way out of the tightest corners. Now he figured his luck hadn=t deserted him, it had presented him with a plum.
He looked back at her and said, as reassuringly as he could, "Trust me, I=ll think of something. But later, after we=ve had a chance to look around. We can=t just turn around and go back, not with a whole new world waiting for us out there." He added, seeing the stubborn set of her chin, "You can have my half of the haul, if that=s what=s bothering you."
The corners of Kithri=s mouth twitched in something that might have been a smile. It was more than Eril expected. She climbed into the pilot=s seat. "You owe me."
"I got you off Stayman, didn=t I?"
She laughed, a little nervously. Activating shipbrain=s automatic radio frequency search, she began their descent from the ledge. Eril, thinking of his woodmen, added infrared and motion scans. Neither of them were much surprised when the first sweep turned up nothing more than small birds and insects.
As they passed below the treeline, the first hardy conifers multiplied into a dense, exuberant mass, their needles almost blue-black. Down a little further, bright green deciduous species infiltrated the evergreens. Eril could almost smell the profusion of scents through >Wacker=s air seals. He marveled at how many shades of green there were, more than he=d ever imagined possible.
The forest canopy no longer presented an unbroken appearance. Here and there the flinty, leafless trunks stood vigil over blackened patches, encircled by vigorous younger growth. Sometimes the forest thinned around patches of brush and grass.
"Eril, look! Three o=clock! See it?"
Eril caught a glimpse of something blue and orange, shaped like a giant butterfly, darting from one leafy shelter to the next. Kithri swung the >jet to follow but it vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
Later they saw reflections of water running like silver veins along the forest floor, and once the infrared scanners picked up the distant, smoldering remains of a fire. Suddenly a huge meadow, frosted with yellow, crimson, and lavender, opened out below them.
"Flowers!" Kithri cried out. "Fields of flowers! Look at them!"
She sent Brushwacker in a ragged dive. Eril=s teeth rattled as she dropped the scrubjet on the field. She scrambled out in a time that would have earned her an Academy record and bolted through the waving knee-high meadow. She fell to her knees and stretched her arms wide, gathering sweeps of flowers to her breast.
The field sizzled with midday heat and the insistent whine of insects. Eril took a few steps and was quickly inundated by color and head-spinning scent. He stopped to snap off one long-stemmed lavender blossom and run his fingertips over the wedge-shaped petals. They were surprisingly rigid and gave off a faint vanilla scent. The pollen grains that clung to his hand were deep blue. Scattering whirring creatures, he waded through the tall stalks to where Kithri knelt.
She lifted her face to him as she accepted the flower. Her cheeks were flushed and wet. "I thought I=d never see fields like this again," she said in a husky voice. "It=s just like when I was a kid."
"Oh. Where was that?"
"Albion," she murmured, dropping her eyes.
Eril had heard of Albion=s flower fields and how the planet was so beautiful that no one emigrated. He wondered why Kithri had. "I=m sorry."
She glanced up again, and this time he had to look away. There was something behind her eyes, some shadow that threatened to rise up and engulf him. He hurried back to the scrubjet and lounged against the opened door.
Albion. By all the powers of space, no wonder she=s so wary of anything remotely military.
Eril had seen Albion only once, from space, a cloud-laced blue-and-green pearl, but he=d had no chance to appreciate it. He and Hank were in the team Weiram had dispatched behind the far moon, holding them in reserve against the impending stalemate. It was a sensible tactical move that took everything into account, everything except the desperation of the Alliance raiders. Eril had seethed with frustration at being ordered away from the center of the action.
Battle-fever scoring his nerves, he=d watched on the scanners as the fight turned in favor of the Federation. Behind him, in the co-pilot=s seat, Hank wondered aloud how soon the surrender would come. Then, without a shred of warning, a blanket of electromagnetic noise paralyzed the stinger=s scanners. The static deafened his ears for a terrifying moment.
As soon as he could move his hands on the controls, Eril sent his ship darting out from the moon=s protective shadow. The struggle was all but over, so what had happened? Where was the battle? Where were the Federation ships, poised for the kill?
A snowstorm of tiny fragments glittered momentarily in the holocaust that had once been a planet. Eril slowed, unable to believe his eyes. Numbly he thought, That mote of fire was once the flagship, that one a stinger, that one a medic unit, that one a living human...
Then he could see nothing at all.
When Eril=s light-seared vision cleared, the sparkling cloud was gone. The fireball had already begun to dim. As he and Hank drifted and waited, their communications equipment damaged past repair, he heard someone weeping--dry, heart-shredding sobs.
Now, three years later, leaning against a tenth-rate scrubjet on an unknown planet, Eril shied away from the memory.
It must have been Hank sobbing in the darkness. It must have been. He was fine, just fine. The medics had cleared him of any radiation damage. He=d made it out of the war alive and with a bucket of medals, hadn=t he?
In the middle of the field, Kithri jerked upright, and the movement caught his eye. The flowers in her arms had darkened, wilting. She brushed them from her, letting them drop as she got to her feet. The broken flowers lay in a little heap.
As she came toward him, Eril saw she still held the one he=d given her. Its inky petals drooped like the tentacles of an octopus. When she reached the scrubjet, he could smell its rankness. She paused, her eyes flickering to the mangled blossom, and dropped it.
Eril took a deep breath and wished he hadn=t. The whole field reeked with decay. Even his saliva tasted bitter. Silently he climbed into the co-pilot=s seat and slid his hands over the controls. They felt familiar and solid.
Kithri scrubbed her face with the back of her hand, slipped in front of him, and pulled the door shut. "So much for flower fields," she said in a voice tight with secrets. "Let=s see what else this place has to offer."
Neither of them said anything about going back.
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