by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
Night-faring insects chirped and whirred from the foliage of the umbrella trees, a descant counterpoint to Lennart=s rhythmic snores. Eril wasn=t sure of the exact moment Kithri fell asleep and her muscles went from tense to buttery under his fingertips. Her breathing became soft and regular. Soon he too drifted off, one hand flung across her back. His body grew warm and heavy, so heavy...
So heavy, gravity sucking him down into the denseness of the earth...
Suddenly Eril was no longer lulled three-quarters into sleep. He didn=t know exactly what was wrong, but something...
Lennart snored on, oblivious, but the insects had fallen silent. The instincts that had warned Eril of impending disaster so many times during the war now shrilled in alarm. He got ready to scramble to his feet, force whip in hand and ready for action.
The world froze around him.
He couldn=t move, not even his eyelids. He could barely breathe as an iron band held his ribs like a vice. Something warm and steely clamped tight over his mouth. Prickles of ice flared up all over his body.
Air! screamed his burning lungs.
Calm--he had to stay calm. Just one breath, he swore to himself--one breath, nice and slow. Air in...air out...
Panic receded to a muted roar.
Air in...air out... He could feel a faint, shallow movement in his chest. His heart raced loud and strong in his ears. Cold sweat covered his face.
The next thing Eril felt was a slight stinging on his temples as something was torn loose.
"Ccan yyou unndersstand mme?"
The words reverberated in his ears with a curious, distorted echo. Somehow he managed to open his eyes. His vision whirled, doubled, and finally came to an uneasy fusion. A moment later he made out a slender silhouette backlit by artificial yellow-green light, bending over him. The clamp over his mouth was suddenly released. He felt a gentle touch behind one ear.
"There, the translator should be working better now." The voice was light, flowery and unmistakably feminine. "The sound-duplication effect will fade as your auditory associational cortex filters out the redundant signals. You can understand me, yes?"
"Nn‑unh!" Eril tried to sit up, but his body was still inert as frozen clay. His mouth flooded with metallic-tasting saliva. He swallowed hard.
"The tangle will wear off in a few moments. Don=t worry, it=s a harmless dose. As soon as you=ve recovered sufficiently, I=ll release your companions. I=m sorry to have to restrain you, but under the circumstances the precaution was unavoidable."
The female humanoid‑‑Eril immediately thought of her as a woman‑‑disappeared from his field of view. He took another breath, deeper than before, and found he could move a little if he didn=t do it too fast. Tingles shot down his arms and legs. The sensation of being half-frozen eased. Moving slowly and deliberately, he managed to haul himself upright.
The woman adjusted her portable light source to illuminate the camp circle. Eril=s vision cleared enough so he could make out Lennart, unbound and apparently unharmed, several yards away.
Kithri sat at a point equidistant from both of them. Her huge gray eyes were pools of darkness above her sallow cheeks. She rubbed them with the back of one hand.
"Kithri? Lennart--are you all right?" Eril=s voice came out in a croak.
"What happened to us?" said Kithri, equally hoarse.
"Holy shit," Lennart groaned, shaking his head as if his ears were plugged. "Is this what you folks call a welcoming committee?"
Eril=s mouth jerked open, despite a wave of protest from his still-numb muscles. Surely he=d misheard the spacer--he must be more befuddled than he realized.
"I apologize if the tangle disoriented you," their captor said. "I didn=t know who you were and the only people who could be here without my prior knowledge would be either pirates or illegal amateurs. I had to discover which you were before you damaged the site."
She moved into the circle of light, still talking. Eril got his first good look at her. Unbound shoulder-length hair floated like a golden cloud around her oval face. Full, crimson lips and dark eyebrows contrasted vividly with her flawlessly pale skin. Her chin was softly rounded, her neck long and graceful, her eyes as green as almond-shaped emeralds. She wore a one piece garment like a tightly belted jumpsuit, which accentuated her narrow waist and curving hips.
"I had to use the tangle to keep you safe until I could be sure," she continued. "As soon as I saw your craft, I realized you were neither of these, something unknown, and then I needed to install the translators in your cerebral speech centers. It was just as well you were unconscious. I didn=t have to anesthetize you."
"Tr-translator?" Yes, she had said something about a translator. Something surgically implanted?
"So that=s why you started coming in loud and clear all of a sudden," Lennart commented. "I thought my brains were still on strike."
Kithri scowled at the alien woman. "Who the hell are you?"
"My name is Brianna Jheridian." She turned slowly toward Kithri and answered calmly. "As a licensed xenoarchaeologist, I am legally authorized to be on this planet. Now you tell me who you are, and where you came from."
"Give us one reason why we should trust you!" Kithri said. "You sneak into our camp, knock us senseless with that tangle thing, plant your translator devices in our brains, and now you expect us to just tell you--"
"No, you misunderstand my intention," Brianna interrupted. She sat down beside Kithri, positioning herself so that the light fell full on her face. Kithri stared back, looking drab and rumpled beside her.
Watching the two women, Eril felt his hackles rise.
"Listen to me, No-body out of No-where," Brianna said to Kithri. "I am a scientist, first and foremost. I neither deal in nor condone political manipulations. My goal is the preservation and appreciation of intelligent species diversity. Yes, I had to safeguard this site. But I treated your bodies with the same cautions I would have used on my own colleagues."
Brianna=s tone impressed Eril as much as her words. He realized he=d been unconsciously swayed by her beauty, which was enough to turn the average man to putty. But unfavorably swayed, because he=d grown up scrapping with an older sister who was every bit as gorgeous. Avery wouldn=t have hesitated to use all her allure to get what she wanted, even if it meant playing to the two men, polarizing the group and making Kithri look unattractive--even ugly--by comparison, in order to discredit her. For a dangerous half-second Eril had been tempted to judge Brianna by Avery=s behavior.
Not fair, he realized. Also not wise, when she was offering a reasonable explanation for her actions. He couldn=t think of any graceful way of saying, So sorry I knocked you out and treated you like criminals, but it was all a misunderstanding, I was just doing my job.
She wasn=t their enemy, and wouldn=t become one if he could help it. But he had to take that risk and trust her first.
"I=m Colonel Eril Trionan," he said, "of the Fifth Federation Star Service. And that=s Kithri Bloodyluck of Stayman and Commander Lennart Pascal of the United Terran Something-or-other."
"Space Command," said Lennart.
Kithri glared at Eril, but said nothing. He thought she looked more miserable than angry.
"I don=t know any Federations, fifth or otherwise," Brianna moved closer to Eril, shaking her head.
He saw, for the first time, the lines of tension around her mouth, the faint trembling of her hands with their shadowy markings. She was every bit as scared as he=d been--and in a much more vulnerable position, one against three. It must have taken courage--or desperation--to let them wake up instead of finishing them off while they lay helpless.
"Unless you=re from outside the Dominion Sphere..." Brianna said, curiosity wrestling with caution on her features. "You clearly aren=t Tribesmen. You=d need a galaxy-class starship to cross those distances, and only a zipper could have landed without my alarms sounding. So how did you get here?"
"We don=t really know," Eril said. "But one thing is sure, we didn=t travel through space. Kithri and I started out on Stayman, a world of great arid plains with only a few marginal settlements, nothing even remotely like the crystal city. We were mining in the Manitous, that mountain range on the eastern side of the forest, and Lennart there fell out of an interdimensional time gap."
"Oh, is that what happened to me?" Lennart said, rubbing the back of his neck.
"An interdimensional time gap?" Brianna raised one eyebrow, although her expression remained perfectly serious.
Praying he wouldn=t sound totally unbelievable, Eril related how Lennart had been caught up in a time-space disturbance and had appeared suddenly in the tunnel.
"Actually," said Lennart, "I was outside the ship, repairing the medial ramscoop struts. We were travelling at a significant fraction of light-speed and if a lightstorm had caught us crooked like that... I=ve seen what was left of the Verne, half the tail blasted into nothing and no sign of the crew. Anyway, one moment everything was going fine, the next I looked up and there was the storm. I was sure I was dead but the next moment these two were welcoming me to the future."
"The...future?" Brianna repeated.
"By all the geological and astronomical evidence, we=re still on the same planet, in the same time," Eril said. "Lennart=s been frozen--suspended you might say--for millenia."
Brianna folded her arms over her chest and pursed her lips. "I see what you=re suggesting. It=s never been proven, of course, but it=s not impossible by the current theory of temporal mechanics. If Lennart were >suspended= in a mass-space-time anomaly, then whatever factor released him would experience an equivalent vectorial displacement."
"Huh?" said Lennart and Eril together.
"When Lennart fell out of the thing, we got knocked sideways," Kithri said. When they all stared at her, she added, "I think."
"Theoretically--and I must stress the hypothetical nature of this line of reasoning," Brianna gestured with her hands as she talked, "time isn=t linear but divergent. At each intersection point, each crucial event, two or more subsidiary time-lines are produced."
"Like the world where the dinosaurs didn=t become extinct and went on to explore space?" said Lennart.
"It=s all speculation at this point," Brianna said. "And if you tried it again with Lennart, since he=s the focal point of the displacement, you might just as easily travel linearly instead of horizontally. Back to his own time, I=d guess. But if you did come from an alternate probability world...and we could find some way to reverse the process...and open a door between our two worlds..."
She raised her shoulders in a little shiver of excitement. "The Institute scientists will be crawling over each other to help you get back, not to mention creating a two-way portal."
"It=s my guess all we have to do to return to our own world is to retrace our steps," Eril said, ignoring Kithri=s snort of derision. "But if that doesn=t work, we=d be grateful for your help."
Brianna=s green eyes narrowed speculatively. "What were you mining here? There were no commercial options when the Institute issued the excavation permits."
For a moment, Eril considered keeping the jaydium a secret. It might make a powerful bargaining tool, yet Kithri had been so damned sensitive about his even mentioning it to Lennart.
That was just conversation, but this is important! To hell with her paranoia.
"We were chipping jaydium, deep in the tunnels," he said.
"I=m sorry, I must have misunderstood you," Brianna blinked. "Did you say...jaydium?"
"Maybe you call it something else and your translator garbled the meaning," Eril suggested.
"I=ve never heard of the stuff before," said Lennart.
"I know what jaydium is." Brianna got to her feet and began to pace. "Everyone knows that faster-than-light spaceflight requires jaydium. The Dominion wouldn=t exist without it. Slow-light generation makes the relativity warp impossible. But how could it be here?"
"Where else?" Eril said, startled. "This is the only place it=s found. That=s why the Federation kept the spacelanes open through the war."
"Only place?" Brianna paused, her eyes widening. "Oh no, our surveys would never have missed it or released this planet for scientific study if there were even the remotest possibility. Don=t you realize how rare--and how essential, how irreplaceable--jaydium is?"
"Where does yours come from?" Lennart asked mildly.
Brianna lowered her eyes.
"And you asked us to trust you," Kithri said.
Brianna looked up, stung. "Not here. It=s restricted to two planets, the most heavily guarded in the Dominion Sphere."
"Oh!" Kithri laughed humorlessly. "That=s not so bad. In our world, it=s found on only one planet. But I bet you don=t pay your miners any better."
Brianna looked puzzled for a moment before saying, "If there=s a new source of jaydium here, we can=t leave it undefended. Come on, I=ll take you back to my camp and call the Institute authorities."
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...