by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
Eril unfolded Kithri's micropore emergency blanket and spread out their meager supplies while she went in search of dead wood for a fire. He added the contents of his own pack to the pile and sat back to contemplate the situation. The food supply was meager, just the lunch leftovers and emergency rations, his and Kithri's. They could find water in the forest but they had no purification unit or anything to hunt with, except the force whip and stungun. Prudently, they should return to their own Stayman tomorrow. Given that he didn't know exactly how to get there, they ought to be trying right now instead of preparing for a camp-out.
Just one night won't hurt anything, Eril told himself, knowing full well that he was rationalizing. The truth was that he wanted the city to himself for a little longer, before it swarmed with Federation scientists.
Lennart hunkered down beside him, looked over the assembled gear and said something incomprehensible. Eril pointed to the variable-insulation fabric. "Blanket."
"Bee-ann." Lennart nodded and grinned.
"No, no, you're saying it all wrong. The word has an L and a K. Blan-ket. Say it, Blan-ket."
Kithri dropped a double armful of fallen wood next to them. It rattled like dry bones as it hit a patch of bare earth. She scowled. "Don't patronize him."
"I was just--"
"He's not an idiot. He knows what you mean." She brushed off her hands and set them on her hips.
"We've got to understand each other better," Eril said. "Since there's two of us and one of him, it makes more sense for him to learn our dialect."
"Sokay, pal," said Lennart. "Doanfi vermee. Telps f'yoo tak slow, buh nawso bad. I gih the gennel driff."
Kithri turned her back on both of them and began making the campfire.
Eril pointed to the force whip. "Do you know what this is?"
Lennart shook his head. He looked troubled when Eril explained that it was a weapon. "Yoofol kep, yoofol yooz," he said, shaking his head. "No thin, no tall, no damm guh! Nessep--whar! Unnerstan?"
After a moment's uncomfortable silence, Eril went through the assembled items, naming each one and watching the spaceman's response, either recognition or puzzlement. As he did so, he sorted them into items better stored away for safekeeping and those needed at hand. The water in particular would have to be rationed until they could find a safe source.
Lennart pointed towards the place where Kithri had set the guardsafe-field. "Is wazz?"
"A device," Eril answered, "for hiding something valuable, keeping it from being stolen. You understand?"
"Hies reel weh, yoono. I can see a thin. Whuzzo valla? Hoo'd stee sumthin tauheer?"
"Sorry, I don't understand."
Lennart took a deep breath. "Whuh--arr--yoofol--hie?"
"Nothing much, only a half-load of jaydium."
"Eril!" Kithri whirled around from the newly lit fire. She'd used her stungun to ignite the tinder and now she waved it in his direction. "That's my jaydium!"
"What is he going to do, walk off with it? Out here in the middle of nowhere? When he doesn't even know what a 'safe field is? A moment ago you were charring me for treating him like an idiot!"
Kithri pressed her lips together. "It's not your haul, not even half. So it's not your decision to make. Where I come from, letting strangers know you're carrying jaydium is damned dangerous."
Lennart took advantage of the pause in their argument to ask, "Waz this jhaydiuh?"
"Jaydium. How can you not know about jaydium?" Kithri asked. "You're a spacer, aren't you?"
He stared back at her with a bewildered expression and started speaking rapidly and incomprehensibly.
"Jaydium--a mineral used in spaceflight," Eril managed to interject. "Faster-than-light, do you understand?"
"Fazzer thah lie? Snaw possuh. Yoo can seed Einstein's limm forwhy mass sponenshul incree as the Niverss Nuhcertent Prinz varz wih thinver of--"
"Hold it! Slow down, I can't follow you. Kithri, did you get any of that?"
She shook her head. "Just that he seems to have all sorts of reasons why faster-than-light travel isn't possible."
"I'd already gathered that. I wonder how long ago... Lennart, what was the year? The date? When do you come from?"
"Day? Yoofol doano day? I coobe owtaheer few mozz maybe, shibee arawn fie-fhay."
By scrawling numbers on a patch of dirt next to the fire, they were able to establish the length of the year and fix Lennart's time somewhere around 3058 Common Era. Common Era, that unimaginably ancient time from the Lost Eras before the First Federation. Almost nothing was known of that time, beyond its mere existence.
"You're from our far, far past," Eril said. "So long ago we don=t use that dating system, not even in history texts."
Lennart looked bleak and nodded. "I thaw nivver see the few. Spay the close I get, buzz kine lone, heyh? Can exa befrenn theyfol can unnerstan the say lang." He combed back his hair with one hand. "So whenz weefol now?"
"It's 107-Five," Eril answered, "counting from the founding of the current Federation."
"That's assuming," Kithri added, "that he's come forward into our time instead of us going back into his."
"We'll have to check the stars tonight to be sure."
Eril gazed at the parkland, where the weirdly elongated shadows of the umbrella trees striped the lawn and shivered inwardly. Kithri could well be right, much as he hated to admit it. But what kind of disaster could turn such a dense, exuberant forest into the desolate Cerrano Plain? And the city... Surely some trace of that should remain...
"Yoofol fly awtie fazzer than lie?" Lennart asked suddenly.
"We've always had superlight speed, that's what's made the Federations possible. During the First Fed, roboships brought back the first samples of jaydium." Eril had only the vaguest impression of the bulky sublight barges of pre-First Federation spaceflight. It was jaydium that reduced the prohibitive cost of the fusion-driven faster-than-light drive and made possible the exodus of humanity into space that marked that golden era.
"Yoofly fazzer thah lie in thah shih?" Lennart asked, pointing at Brushwacker. There was only a faint lemony light remaining in the western sky, and twilight softened the tiny ship=s scars. "Doan luh lie muzz, buh can telmuh fruh th'ex. Yoofol gaw allsore noo gadges, whomy t'say whuh theyshuh loo lie? Eril, yoogaw one pritt spiff shiheer, heyh?"
"It's mine, not his," Kithri said, biting off the words.
Lennart looked from one to the other, his expression unreadable in the gloom. "Hot damm."
Exactly my sentiments, thought Eril.
"Yoofol show me insie?"
Kithri hesitated so long that Eril was sure she'd refuse, but in the end she didn't. Lennart was so eager to see all the new aircraft developments over the years, his enthusiasm was irresistible. Finally, exasperated with the limitations of language, Kithri shoved him bodily into the co-pilot's seat. Eril stood at the opened cockpit door and watched, trying to keep a straight face as she ran through the equipment and explained everything again in words of one syllable. From the look on Lennart's face, composed of equal parts of delight, concentration and bewilderment, Eril couldn't tell how much he really understood. But one thing was sure, the ancient spaceman was crazy over anything that flew.
The second run-through exhausted Kithri's patience. She ordered Lennart out, turned off the ship's lights and closed the door firmly behind them.
The fire had died to a heap of embers and the damp breeze felt even colder. Kithri put the last of the wood on the fire and rolled up in one of the emergency blankets, her back to Eril. Lennart crawled back into his spacesuit and wished them both the equivalent of a good night.
As he lay looking up at the stars and waiting for sleep, Eril's thoughts drifted to the burst of radio noise and the infrared trace that had vanished so mysteriously. They couldn't have been natural. Somewhere in that seemingly deserted city there was something alive, something that used machinery...
Eril knew that Kithri was gone even before he came fully awake, as if some part of his mind, even sleeping, was aware of her. He raised his head and looked around. A few feet away, Lennart lay stretched on his back in his space suit, snoring gently. From the overhanging branches came the occasional twitter of night creatures.
Silently Eril got to his feet and stepped out from the shelter of the umbrella tree. Above his head, stars swam in a profusion of milky light, dense and luminous. One small moon wore a faint blue halo as it rose on the far side of the city, flanked by two steady points of planetary brilliance.
Anybody out there? He waited there for several minutes, just beyond the perimeter of the tiny camp, head thrown back, staring at the celestial display. Then he spotted a dark figure against the paleness of the spacefield.
Kithri stood hugging her arms to her body as he walked up to her. After a pause, she said, "We've got the answer to one question, at least. That's our night sky up there. Ours today, not thousands of years either way. I've looked up at those stars a million times, dreaming of the day I'd be out there, too. See that one?" She pointed. "The miners call it The Dewdrop. When we first came, I used to wish on it."
Eril shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He cleared his throat. "What do you think of our spacer?"
"I know exactly how he feels."
"Don't talk scut!" Kithri snapped. "All you had to do was get back on your ship and take off! You could jet over to Terillium or Nouveau-France whenever you wanted to! You have no idea what it's like to be buried alive down here--no cities, no trees, n-no flowers. Nothing but dust." Her words came out in a flood, hot and wild like tears. "Oh, sure, there are choices, even for someone like me--whoring insystem or marrying some farmer who might say two words in a year. Or chipping jaydium. All those years of running and hoping... What a fool I was to think I'd ever make it!"
Eril's tongue wouldn't move. A wave of unexpected empathy surged through him--what would it have been like for him, stranded on such a desolate world, looking up at the sky night after night? Knowing that the jaydium he sweated for would see the stars before he would? He'd end up even more bitter than she was.
They stood in silence, looking up at the stars. After a while, he said, "So we're on Stayman, but it's not our Stayman. If this can happen to us, anything can. Out of all that glory up there, what do you want, really want?"
She shuddered and whispered something he couldn't hear. He tried to put his arm around her and she shied away like a frightened deer. "I made you an offer in the mountains," he said, "and I meant it. But until we get back--I don't want things to stay this way between us‑‑all prickly, as if we had nothing‑‑"
"One trip down a wormhole is hardly enough to make us lifemates."
"Kithri, let's not throw away what happened to us in duo. It's still there, I know you can feel it too. We need time to know each other better, to learn to trust one another..." There was much more he wanted to tell her, far beyond these stumbling words. He let them trail off.
After a pause, she said, "Do you think we can get back...to our own Stayman?" Her voice sounded low and tired, as if all the fight had gone out of her.
"I think it's too early to give up."
He reached out again, fully expecting her to jerk away. "You're wound up tighter than a drum. How about I rub your back for you? No--" to her quick flinch, "I meant a back rub, nothing more."
Kithri followed him back to camp and stretched out on her stomach on one of the micropore blankets, her head pillowed on her arms. Eril lay down beside her and pulled the second blanket over both of them. Using his free hand, he began rubbing her back with the gentle, insistent pressure he learned years ago.
Her muscles were stronger and better defined than those of the women he'd trained and flown with. Slowly the tautness seeped away, leaving a supple resilience he found pleasurable to touch.
"Mmm, that's nice," she murmured. "Hank and I sometimes swapped shoulder rubs after a haul, when he was still hoping it would lead somewhere."
"Sounds like Hank. Did he ever give up?"
"Let's say we reached an agreement. If I wouldn't trick for my passage, it didn't make sense to do it for my duo partner and then pay twice to get offplanet."
"Hank wouldn't have seen it as payment. More like a privilege. According to Avery, he was quite a catch, and she's got high standards."
"I tried that--before Hank--for the sake of a warm body the next morning. It didn't help. It only made things worse, like he was in bed with my body and not even me."
"What about--us in duo?"
She sighed so gently he felt the passage of her breath through the air, rather than hearing it.
Eril laid his head down, still stroking her back. His hand brushed her curls. An image leapt to his mind, amplified by the residue of their duo unity--Kithri as a young girl, her hair long and loose, streaming down her back. Kithri dancing through fields of flowers, her bare feet kicking up little sprays of pollen. Then he saw her, curls hacked short and skin choked with dust, clutching a mug of stale brew, sitting alone rather than endure the old lechers in the tavern. He wished he hadn't tried to defend Hank.
Kithri rolled on her side facing him, the blanket draped like a tent between their bodies. Eril let his hand slip from her shoulder. They were so close he could feel the heat of her body on his face. He remembered her mouth on his and the softness of her breasts against his body.
She said, "What was all that recruitment stuff really about? I don't doubt there is such a thing as the Courier Corps and that you have something to do with it, but I don't know what. If they picked you as a spokesman, they're a pack of idiots. You sounded worse than a tri-vid advertisement. And if that's all you are, why is it so damned important that I join? Do you get a bonus for signing me up, or what?"
Eril hesitated, thinking how he'd handle one of Avery's friends. He could tell her how much he wanted her, how beautiful she was in the light of the two moons. He could promise that this time she would really see the stars, that he was her ticket, not the jaydium. She'd fall into his hand like a ripe peach.
"Or did you mean it about learning to trust each other?" Kithri said, and all his schemes fell apart.
"The Corps is real, but I'm no spokesman for it," he said slowly, a little astonished at what popped out of his mouth. "In fact, unless I show up with a qualified duo partner in hand, I'm not in it at all." That is, if we ever get back...
"You, or every applicant?"
"Because I blew it once too often."
There was a moment of silence, during which something seemed to be wrong with Eril's heartbeat--too loud, too fast, rattling the bones behind his eyes.
"I thought you were some kind of war hero, like Hank."
"Oh!" His laugh came out a sharp, bitter bark. "That part's true. I have a drawerful of medals to prove it--Four Sectors, Albion--"
"Albion! You were there?"
Eril nodded, even though she couldn't see him. She said, "And you--you must have been the team that survived..."
"I went where my squadron commander said to. It was ratshit luck. You got away, too."
"That was years ago, before the war," she said. "I was still a kid, I had nothing to say about it. In fact, I was damned pissed when I found out we didn't have to leave."
"I thought people didn't."
"My father volunteered for the Stayman mission. Volunteered! I suppose it was a good thing in the end, or neither of us would've made it."
"I take it he didn't."
Another sigh in the darkness. "He died...after a long illness."
Back in the tunnel she mentioned cutting off the supply of lithicycline... That's the treatment for neurodyscrasia. Eril shuddered. No one deserved to die like that. She must have nursed him through it...
"It never made sense why he'd leave Albion for someplace like Stayman," she continued. "It was years before the Alliance Declaration. Sure, some people must have seen the war coming, but who'd've thought Albion wouldn't be safe? Anyway, the Feds snapped him up. They needed a chemical geologist, so they didn't ask any questions. So we went, and stayed alive." She turned back on her stomach, facing away from him.
As Eril began rubbing Kithri's back again, he was struck by the bland, dispassionate tone in her voice. With duoenhanced awareness, he could feel her desperate homesickness, her anger and confusion at her father's actions, shadows of the things she couldn't tell him. Well, he hadn't been forthcoming with all the unflattering details of his own fall from official grace, his own...shadows.
Time, he had said, they needed time to learn to trust each other. Time...
Still, it was surprisingly pleasant, lying beside her on a star-strewn night, feeling her warmth and the gentle rise and fall of her breathing.
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...