Friday, September 14, 2012

Jaydium, Chapter 11


by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler

Chapter 11

Kithri followed Eril and Brianna through the shadowed parkland, Lennart at her side. The short grass cushioned her step and gave off a tangy smell. She glanced up at the stars but they were blotted out across half the sky. In the other direction, one moon burned stark and white through a rift in the clouds. The first cool drops of rain spattered her face.

Rain! Memories flooded up in her that last evening on Albion, walking in the pastel twilight through a field of tall, waving skyflowers. She=d stayed out until the rain had washed away her tears and she was soaked to the skin. Her father hadn=t said a word.

"Hurry!" called Brianna. She=d been heading toward the city, but now she veered off into a clump of low trees. Dense foliage blocked all but a gentle mist and the faintest dappling of moonlight. Low branches pressed in on both sides, forcing them to go single file.

Kithri walked slowly, feeling her way through the near darkness. Her moment of astonished joy at the rainfall had vanished. It was difficult to hurry and think at the same time, especially when a chorus of contradictory voices took up residence in her skull. 

How do I know this Dominion isn=t just as bad as the Fifth Fed? one part of her said. I=ll probably end up stranded on some backdust world that=s even worse than Stayman.
I should=ve insisted on staying behind with 'Wacker, another part grumbled. Who knows what might happen to it out there?

And yet, to see the Dominion woman=s camp, to ride in her ships, maybe to reach those stars that were so like the ones she=d dreamed of...

Kithri tripped on a knotted tree root, caught herself and swore under her breath. Lennart, who was walking behind her, hooked one hand under her elbow to steady her.

"Th-thank you."

"My pleasure."


She wasn=t sure what to say to Lennart, caught between a flood of questions about his world and an irrational fear of revealing to Brianna how little they knew each other, as if that were a fatal weakness. Miserably, she turned back to her deliberations.

Everyone else is so pleased by what=s happening, and all I think about is the things that can go wrong.

She ought to be excited or at least pleased. This was what she dreamed about, wasn=t it--a whole new world to explore? And, as Eril had pointed out, she was off Stayman. Then what the hell was wrong with her?
Brianna=s voice floated back to her. "I can=t handle the security for a jaydium find by myself," she was saying to Eril. Her speech sounded as natural as if she were speaking their own language without any mechanical intermediary. The echo effect had completely disappeared.

"If it=s really there, we can=t risk someone else discovering it before we get to it and either mining the stuff for themselves or holding it for ransom."

"We=ll cooperate in any way we can," Eril said.

Kithri scowled again, her saliva turning acid. "Why should you trust us, anyway?" she asked Brianna. "How do you know we aren=t pirates ourselves? We could=ve lied about the jaydium."

"My scientific training enables me to understand cultures from their physical remains," Brianna replied over her shoulder. "You couldn=t fool me even if you tried. I instructed the translator to analyze your language for aggressive concepts, and it would have picked up a mercenary=s specialized jargon. Your naivete is one of the most convincing arguments for the truth of your story."

Kithri shut her mouth and vowed not to put her feet anywhere near it again. 

At the center of Brianna=s camp stood a wide-based dome tent ringed with smaller storage bubbles. The mottled green and ivory structure blended with the grove as if an artist had designed the ideal marriage of tree and human dwelling. Brianna swung open the translucent door and led them inside.

Lights flashed on automatically at their entrance. Kithri glanced around, trying not to look impressed. Inside the spacious central laboratory, instruments and specimen containers covered the rows of freestanding shelving and tables. She recognized spectrophotometers, miniaturized nucleomagnetic resonators, qualitative analysis gear and a computer for analysis and data storage. She knew enough about scientific apparatus to realize the sophistication--and cost--of Brianna=s equipment.

Yet the laboratory seemed subtly wrong--too big, too spread out, as if it had been designed for more than a single researcher. Kithri had only her memories of her father=s tiny laboratory to compare it to. It had been compact from efficiency, not necessity. On Stayman, space had hardly been at a premium, but it made no sense to walk halfway across the room to take a sample from one instrument to another. Here, the areas that looked well-used were scattered, interspersed with others that seemed to be mere storage.

Brianna seated herself at a desk and removed the protective cover of a small instrument that seemed to be mostly mirrors and a square keypad. "You=re familiar with the principle of the neo-ansible?"

"Something like that," Eril answered.

Brianna settled the threadwork headset over her ears and activated the device. She tapped a complex pattern on the keypad. After a few moments, the triangular screen flashed yellow. 
Kithri noticed the lines of Brianna=s profile and how the folds of her jumpsuit hugged her full breasts and hips. She rubbed her nose where it had been broken and remembered Avery=s pristine beauty. Then she saw the half-healed scars, pink and raised, covering Brianna=s hands. The nails were short and misshapen, some of them blackened as if they=d grown out after being smashed.
Kithri stroke to the far side of the laboratory. Lennart followed her at a more leisurely pace.

"Do you recognize any of this stuff?"

"Not the specifics, no," she said. "But it all looks familiar." She ran one finger along a small lensed instrument, noticing the film of dust. "This looks like a hologrammatic camera, but I=ve only seen them in textbooks. Nobody on Stayman could afford one."

"Then what was all that business with the force-field? I thought from the way you protected it that your jaydium was valuable."

"Yes, but we miners weren=t the ones making the fortunes. I don=t know who did, maybe the processors. Then there was the cost of shipping anything--anything at all--to Stayman once the war started."

"War..." Lennart took a deep breath and his cheeks paled. "I thought I=d never hear that word refer to something outside the history books. We thought we=d ended armed conflict once and forever, back in the 2500s. All those slogans about war being a contagion and we=d found the final vaccine. Guess we were wrong on that score, heyh? F-T-L travel coexisting with warfare--civilization sure went forward and backward at the same time."

Lennart jerked his chin in Eril=s direction. "He=s carrying around more than a few scars from it."

"How would you know that?"
"The way he throws around orders, the way he snuck us into the city. Suddenly all that paranoia makes sense. What a world I=ve fallen into."

Brianna disconnected the neo-ansible. "I=ve made my report," she said, "but they want me to check out your find before they investigate. The regular Institute ship isn=t due to make its rounds here for months. It would take a verified discovery to merit a special probe."

"We=ve got a half‑load of jaydium back at our camp," he said. "It was all we cut before Lennart made his appearance. Would that be proof enough?"

Something inside Kithri exploded. "In case you forgot, the jaydium is mine!" She rushed toward them, barely avoiding slamming one hip into a table laden with equipment. "It won=t do you a damned bit of good to look at it. The stuff=s completely sealed with ash by now."

"I have the equipment to expose a slice for examination," Brianna said calmly. "I=d have to rely on spectrographic analysis for a positive identification anyway. Even then I couldn=t be sure the source was local and not an imported sample. It would be better if I could inspect the site itself to prove your specimen isn=t a plant. There would be details you couldn=t fake."

"Fine, we can--" Eril began.

"Just how do you propose to get her out there?" Kithri broke in. She halted in front of Eril and put both hands on her hips. "Walk?"

"In the scrubjet, of course."

"Brushwacker seats two, no passengers, and besides--"

"We carried Lennart back in the hold."

Kithri jabbed one thumb in Brianna=s direction. "She=d end up like a corkscrew after five hours!"

"I wasn=t planning on flying her there singlo," Eril retorted.

"Are you crazy? Fly duo with her in the hold? With her? Have you forgotten what happened the first time?"

Eril set his lips together. For the first time, his voice took on an edge to match hers. "Have you forgotten what didn=t happen?"

"What=s duo?" Brianna asked in a puzzled voice.

"Eril, don=t even think about telling her!" Kithri snarled.

"Kithri, what is wrong with you?" he said. "Why are you acting like this?"

"What=s the matter with me? How about what=s the matter with you?" Kithri knew she was making a fool of herself, but she couldn=t stop. The words kept pouring from her mouth, faster and hotter than ever. Her hands moved of their own accord, gesturing wildly.

"This Brianna seems harmless enough, but what about her Dominion or those space pirates she keeps talking about? We=re the outsiders here. Who knows what 'nasty surprises= are waiting for us? And you=re greeting them all with open arms, giving away everything I=ve got! Our lives won=t be worth a thing! We=ll have nothing left to bargain with--nothing!" 

Brianna leapt to her feet, knocking over the low padded stool she=d been sitting on. Her white face stood out in stark contrast to the glowing red of her lips. Even angry, she was lovely. 

"Bargaining--for lives, for knowledge? What kind of monsters do you think we are? The Dominion is a union of civilized worlds and I am a scientist‑‑"

"Kithri, you=ve gone too far," Eril said. "What do you think is going on here? Some hole-in-the-rock bazaar? We=re talking about an alliance with Brianna and her people. It could be the greatest thing that=s happened to us since...since space-flight itself! And I won=t let you ruin it with these petty, provincial hysterics. If the Dominion needs more information about the jaydium site, it=s a small price for what we=ll get back. I=m taking Brianna out there if I have to fly her singlo."

Kithri set her lips together, her face burning as if suddenly scalded. Her eyes went from his honey-gold skin to Brianna=s delicately flushed cheeks. Whatever was waiting for them on this new world, she wouldn=t be a part of it. She might have been trapped on Stayman, the stars beyond her reach, but at least she had Brushwacker. At least she had what little hope she could wrest from running jaydium. Now all she wanted was to run as far and as fast as possible.

Lennart touched her arm gently. She flinched as if he had struck her. "Come outside with me for a moment, would you?"

Outside, the dome=s artificial lights clashed with the brilliant apricot dawn now drenching the eastern sky, and the night squawkers had grown quiet. The rain had stopped, but the moist, chilly air made Kithri shiver. Lennart put his hands on her shoulders and turned her around to face him. She didn=t protest.

"You got to calm down, lady, or you and the boss there are gonna start World War Four."

"What the hell do you--" Kithri stopped herself. Lennart, after all, hardly qualified as an enemy. She couldn=t think straight, not with her heart making such a racket between her ears. "But those two, they=re going to..."

"You=re feeling pissed and left out, but that=s not the end of things," Lennart said. "You=re not alone, you know."

She took a deep breath, searching for words. Eril=s enthusiasm for the crystal city, with its mysterious, desolate beauty, was one thing. The city wasn=t stealing her scrubjet as well as her jaydium. But ever since they=d woken up in the clutches of that Brianna woman...

"Now that we know this world is part of a space-faring Dominion, Eril won=t listen to sense," she stumbled. "It=s never occurred to him to ask what I--what either of us wants."

 "Eril and that Brianna, I=ve seen their type before," Lennart nodded. "They=re always so excited about what they=re doing, they never look to see who=s bringing up the rear."

"And that=s us?"

"In a matter of speaking. I don=t know what your story is, but I always figured that being a loner was the price of space flight. It never seemed like too much to pay before. Most other people couldn=t understand what I wanted, anyway. But maybe it was the opposite, that I never got close to them because I knew I=d only have to leave."

"So you pushed them away... Are you telling me I do the same thing?"

Lennart shrugged. "I=m not saying it=s bad to do that. You make your choice and you live by it."

"But I didn=t choose this!" Kithri=s nerves sizzled. "I had nothing to say about any of it! First I get dragged off Albion, then the goddamned war strands us in the dustpit of the universe, and now this crazy place--"

"And you=re pissed at Eril because he sees it as a chance instead of a dead end?"

Something hot and red welled up inside Kithri until she could hardly see. "Why should you care what I feel?"

"Because you could use a friend."

For a moment Kithri saw herself reflected in his eyes, saw beauty in the taut, muscled grace of her body, the ragged curls. He stood before her, his big hands at his sides. The sky was light enough to reveal the startling red-brown of his eyes.

"A...friend," she repeated, heart pounding.

He smiled, one corner of his mouth turned down. "And so could I. Whether we stay here or make it back to your Fifth Fed, nobody=s going to run me through a weekend refresher course and zap me back into space. I=ll be lucky to get a job pushing a broom."

Kithri didn=t understand the exact reference, but she caught his meaning clear enough. "Not you. With your luck, you=ll end up someone=s prized museum specimen. I=m the one who=ll end up...pushing the broom." 

But not if I have anything to say about it! Not while 'Wacker is mine!

"I don=t believe in luck," he said. "Only, like they say, the luck we make for ourselves."

Kithri glanced back towards the makeshift camp, then forced herself to stand still. Lennart was a sharp one. The moment she moved, he=d know what she meant to do. But would he try to stop her? How much of a friend was he?

"You could use a little time think things over." Without another word, Lennart disappeared back inside the dome.

For a moment Kithri hesitated. Maybe she should go after Lennart, ask him to come with her. He wasn=t any more use here than she was, and he=d said he was her friend. But Eril would think--

Damn Eril! Damn him anyone else who tries to tell me what to do with my jet--or my life! Damn Brianna! Damn Lennart! Damn the whole dustbug lot of them!


'Wacker stood waiting in the makeshift camp, cold and familiar. Kithri threw one of the micropore blankets into the hold, along with what was left of her own food and water, and scrambled through a criminally rapid preflight check. She hardly saw the instruments under her flying fingers. A dense, black urgency rose up in her, consuming her until only a paper-thin shell remained. 

She guided the scrubjet through the low hills bordering the Cerrano Plain, but took none of her usual joy in the intricate twists and valleys. The last time she=d flown this route, the hills had been scrub instead of green. She=d ridden between Eril=s thighs, his hands light and sensitive upon the controls, his mind like silk against hers...

She thought belatedly of the jaydium under the 'safe-field. She=d been so crazy desperate to leave, she=d actually forgotten it. But it would have taken too long to reload it and besides, it was probably no good by now. She could always cut more.

The emptiness behind her eyes yammered at her, demanding more speed.

She looked down to find her fingers entangled in the duoapparatus. She shoved the headsets back into their storage slots and wiped her hands on her overalls as if a suggestive film still clung to her fingers. The 'jet shot over the final pass, skimming the forest that now covered the Plain.

Mile after empty mile passed with nothing but unbroken green below and hazy sky above. Ten miles became a hundred, an hour became three, then five. Her body settled into the endurance mode she=d learned running jaydium singlo and her thoughts melted into the rhythm of the tiny ship. The unbroken sky broke into billowy clouds and at last the Manitous came into view.

Kithri signaled shipbrain to run a memory trace on the tunnel they=d left. There it was, high above the treeline where the wind-scoured rock stood out in sharp contrast to the forest. She slowed 'Wacker and dove into the entrance. 

Once she left daylight behind, she almost convinced herself the whole adventure was a wild hallucination. Here she was, as usual, running jaydium all by herself, crazy from so many years of stress and loneliness. She went a little way in and flew back out, fully expecting to see the arid Cerrano Plain stretching beyond the mountains.

Forest. So much of Eril=s idea about retracing our steps to get back home!

Dry-eyed, she stared at the impossibly lush green and remembered the feel of rain on her face.

Kithri flew back down the tunnels until shipbrain indicated she=d returned to the same jaydium site. She brought the 'jet to a halt and climbed out. Her packing equipment lay in a pile, just as she=d left it when she=d made room for Lennart. There was something wrong about the tunnel, the stale moist air, the hollow way her boots rang with each step. But that could just be her shredded nerves.

She pulled out the lazer cutter and chipped through a thick slice. Instead of the sweet, rosy light of raw jaydium, she found only rock.

Dead, dark rock. 

It=s just the thickness of the ash layer, she told herself. She cut again and again, digging savagely into the tunnel wall. But no matter how deep she sliced, she found only rock. She tried one place after another, some on the same side, some opposite, some further down the tunnel, all with the same result. Her hands shook so badly she could barely hold the laser. And not, she knew from the jangles. She might have missed a narrow vein of jaydium, but she=d felt no hint of the disturbing resonances with should accompany undercutting.

Kithri sat back and studied the hollowed tunnel wall, forcing herself to think.

There=s no jaydium here, not even a whiff of it. Not in this tunnel. Maybe not in this whole world.

The tunnel closed in on her, black and dank like a tomb. She could feel the mass of the mountain above her, the unfeeling weight and cold. Heart skittering, she scrambled back into the 'jet and sped away. Only when she=d reached the surface did she draw an easy breath.

Numbly Kithri flew back down the mountainside and found a place to set down under the trees. She disengaged 'Wacker=s engines and let it sit cooling in the greenish shade, while the dense alien quiet seeped into the tiny cabin.


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...

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