Friday, September 21, 2012

Jaydium, Chapter 12


by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler

Chapter 12

Three days after she=d left Brianna=s camp, Kithri sat alone on a hillside at the western border of the forest, watching color slowly saturate the sky. Without dust to burnish it to eye-searing gold, the dawn glowed with a gentle, lingering light. Below her, the bushes covering the scrubjet looked soft, like brushed velvet.

She could not stay hidden long, she knew. Brianna would have metal detection scanners and any search would pick up the scrubjet. But first they=d have to know what area to fly over and she was a long way from the Manitous. She had time before they came after her...if they did. Time to think, time to decide. Time, but not much food or water.

Kithri jerked her hand away from her mouth before she could chew off another fingernail. It=s time to make up your mind. Do you want to be on your own again, maybe forever alone, or are you going back to deal with Eril?

No, the problem wasn=t Eril, although thinking about him sometimes left her feeling she=d gotten caught in a coriolis storm. He hadn=t dumped her on Stayman to rot. In fact, he=d offered her a decent way out and she=d been too ratshit scared to take it. What did she expect, that he wouldn=t be thrilled by the discoveries they=d made?
The problem isn=t Eril, Kithri repeated to herself. It=s me. Here I am with the same wonders in front of me, but all I can see is dust.

She brushed away a tear with the back of one hand, remembering the first joyous shock of the flower field and how quickly its sweetness had gone rancid. It had been easy to cry these last few days, without anyone to judge her weakness. Her eyelids burned as if they=d been scoured raw.

Albion is dead. I can never go back, and I=ve let that poison everything I touch.


She set the scrubjet down near the site of their original camp beneath a clump of umbrella trees that crowded between the crystalline city and the spaceport. The city looked exactly as she=d left it, but the vast cream-colored field was no longer vacant.

A bullet-shaped ship sat on the pavement, flat black where it wasn=t pocked by space damage. Kithri guessed it could hold a crew of six and it looked spaceworthy if unglamorous. It must be from Brianna=s superiors, come to investigate the jaydium story.

They got here fast enough.

Something about the brooding, bloated shape set her skin crawling. If this is what the Dominion is like, I don=t want anything to do with it. Nobody nice designed that ship.

Kithri sighed at herself. If she was going to try to fit in, she ought to do it in earnest, with good will, and not create more excuses to turn back. She=d have enough problems explaining why she=d run away that night.
She touched the stungun tucked securely under her belt. The tiny weapon didn=t give her much comfort.

 She caught a glimpse of Brianna=s camp through the surrounding bushes and then, moving as quietly as she could, circled around for a closer look. The door to the central dome hung wide open, but there was no sign of anybody present at the campsite. Something rust colored was smeared on the outside control panel.

It could be blood. At this distance she couldn=t tell. As she slipped the stungun from her belt, she thought that either Eril was the biggest sham she=d ever run into or else there wasn=t much he couldn=t handle.

Maybe everything was fine, maybe they=d just had a minor accident and gone back to their ship for bandages.

Maybe not.

Seeing no further sign of life, Kithri left her cover and went in for a closer look. Inside the main dome, Brianna=s instruments lay scattered on the floor, most broken past repair. The communications device had been thoroughly smashed.

Kithri bent her head to the rusty stain on the door frame and sniffed. The tang of blood filled her nostrils. Then she remembered why the Dominion agents would have come, what they=d be looking for. 

The jaydium. 

She bolted for the hidden cache. After so long, with only the temporary sealing designed for short transit times, it must have deteriorated past any hope of salvage. But would the others know that?
The tiny guardsafe-field generator lay in splinters on the turf, and only a few bent blades of grass indicated where the insulated storage containers had lain.

Had Eril led them to the cache and shown them how to open the 'safe-field? That was difficult but not impossible, and he knew the underlying principles. A glory-boy like him would think nothing of a little casual theft for his own good cause. But was he a prisoner or an ally of Brianna=s Dominion? And Lennart--had the blood been his?

One thing was clear--she wasn=t going to get any more answers either here or in Brianna=s deserted camp. She=d have to look for them in that lump of metal out on the landing field. She drew a deep breath, tightened her hold on the stungun and started across the deserted spaceport.


The landing gear was familiar in concept if not in specifics, six flat pods on hydraulic extension wedges, capable of being drawn flat into the sides of the ship during flight. The exhaust of the ship=s descent left no marks on the cream-colored field. It could have come and gone without a trace, and Kithri would never have known it had been there at all. Luck had been with her this time.

The portal lay on the far side, angled towards the rear. Kithri kept close to the bulk of the ship as she circled it, expecting to be challenged at any moment. The stairwalk looked flimsy with neglect, its pleated railing splintered completely away on one side. She bent over to look up through the opening, one hand resting gingerly on the rough skin. She heard no sound, neither voices nor the thrum of engines. The metal beneath her fingertips carried no hint of vibration. Cautiously she set one foot on the stairwalk, then another.

By the time she got to the portal itself, she was sure that sophisticated sensors had already detected the beating of her heart and were even now waiting for the order to attack. Any moment now neurotoxin-bearing slivers would pierce her skin or the pain of sonic-disrupted organs bring her to her knees. Her imagination roiled with alternatives, each more horrible than the last. Her breath came in a papery slither, the tread of her boots scarcely louder. But there was no response, no alarm, no sign of outraged Dominion agents.

Kithri stepped through the arch of the portal and swung herself along the catbars, past the gaping airlocks and along a capillary ledge towards the bridge. She eased open the partly-telescoped iris leading to the control center of the ship and slipped through it. The room, placed just behind the blunted nose, was tiny and round, its floor and control banks mounted on gimbels to adapt to varying gravitational vectors. In a corner lay the crumpled remains of her jaydium storage containers.

She held her breath, again waiting for the alarm. Again, none came. She crouched down and ran one hand over the fragmented container. The tough material was scored from rough handling and the jaydium was missing.

Her eyes flew to the control banks. In addition to whatever jaydium-dependent stardrive they=d developed, these people used it lavishly. Every crucial system she could identify was laced with the stuff.

This ship=s jaydium was in sorry state. Under Federation conditions, instrumentation panel jaydium was nearly as immortal as the ship itself. Kithri had seen meticulously maintained Federation jaydium installations, still glowing white-gold even after a generation of pilots had come and gone. The light from these banks was harsh and tinny, greenish where it wasn=t flecked with areas of gray.

Reading them in a hurry must be maddening. No wonder this Dominion is desperate for fresh jaydium.

She left the bridge and began a systematic search of the rest of the ship. Life support and power units appeared to be completely self-contained except for coded repair accesses. There was a tiny multi-function chamber that included a galley, records, and what she guessed was personal storage, each compartment individually sealed.

At last she found the entrance to what must be living quarters for off-duty crew, a narrow room in the insulated heart of the ship, gimbel-mounted as the bridge had been. The door was secured from the outside, but not locked. The wheel-screw turned freely under her hands.

Kithri pulled the door slightly ajar and peered inside. The tiny room was dimly illuminated by a few strips of jaydium, flanked by others obviously deteriorated past the point of usefulness. Strap-down bunks lined the walls. An inert body lay facing away from her on the lowest, furthest bed.

For a moment, she hesitated, her fingers tightening around her stungun. Could one of the crew be here, asleep? How had she been able to penetrate the ship this deeply without arousing him?


As her eyes adapted to the dark, she realized from the generously curved outlines that the body must be female. Force-cuffs bound the slender wrists and looped through a heavy chain anchored to the metal cabin wall. Frothy golden hair draped forward across the face.

Brianna? That doesn=t make sense. Why would she be a prisoner of her own Dominion?

Brianna=s ribs moved slowly and evenly, but she gave no sign she=d heard the door open.  

Drugged or stunned? Kithri wondered.

She stepped into the room, moving silently toward the bunk. Just as she cleared the party-opened door, she caught a flash of movement from the side. She couldn=t see it clearly, only an instant of looming shadow before the man-shaped figure burst from the corner and lunged at her. Without thinking, she whirled and brought her stungun up. A booted foot lashed out and collided with her forearm. It was a glancing blow, jerked short, enough to break her aim but not make her loosen her grip entirely. Her arm muscles went numb; she grabbed the stungun with the other hand--

Before she could fire, her assailant fell heavily to the floor beside a bunk that had been concealed by the door. If she=d opened it all the way, she would have seen him plainly. "Kithri?" The voice was slurred but recognizable.


He grinned crookedly up at her and said in a harsh whisper, "You are a welcome sight!"

The next instant, she=d tucked the stungun through her belt and was kneeling at Lennart=s side. A trickle of dried blood ran from his hairline down one cheek. Like Brianna, he was chained to the wall, so that another inch would have moved Kithri entirely out of his range. A quick glance around the room revealed no other hidden prisoners.

"What the hell is going on?" Kithri said in a low voice. "Where=s Eril?"

"Damned pirates took him back to the city."

"Pirates," Kithri muttered as she inspected his wrist cuffs. She didn=t recognize the mechanism, nor could she identify any mechanical hinge closure. "They found my jaydium--I saw."

"They must have been monitoring Brianna=s transmission," Lennart said. "They knew we had a cache, and that there=s a source somewhere in this planet."

Kithri yanked at the chain that bound Lennart=s cuffs to the ship wall. His skin was raw and bleeding where the edges had cut as he was jerked back trying to attack her. "Get back, and I=ll do what I can do about this."

She adjusted the stungun=s simple controls and aimed the heat beam at the loop. Sparks shot outward and ozone stung the air, but the thick dark links were almost severed. Another pass, more sparks, and then Lennart pulled his joined hands free. He leaned against the wall, breathing hard.

Kithri glanced at Brianna, still lying unconcious across the room. "What=s the matter with her?"

"They used some kind of shock device on us. I=m still a little muzzy-headed, but it hit her pretty hard."

Kithri crossed to Brianna=s side and softly called her name. There was no response. She took Brianna by both shoulders and shook with such vigor that Brianna=s limp body slithered to the floor and reached the end of the heavy chain with an emphatic clump!

"Damn you, Brianna, wake up!" she hissed, trying to keep her voice down. "I swear, if you don=t open your eyes this instant, I=ll leave you here and serve you right!"

Still muttering, she hauling Brianna to a sitting position. She did not have the chance to find out if she could really have carried out her threat, for after an instant of head-lolling limpness, Brianna whimpered, "N--no, don=t..."

"Brianna! It=s me, Kithri!"

"You--what are you doing here?" Brianna stared at her, emerald eyes wide and unfocused. "You stole the surface craft--you selfish bitch! Eril was so angry--"

"Save it!" Lennart broke in. "We=ve got to get out of here!"

Kithri burned through Brianna=s chains in a few moments. "I can=t do anything about the cuffs."

"They=re sonic locks," Brianna said in a shaky voice as she followed Lennart from the tiny room. "I=ve got a tuner back at the camp, if it=s still functioning."

Lennart led the way back, swinging agilely along the catwalks and capillary ledges despite his bound hands. Even Brianna was able to manage surprisingly well. Once moving, her body was much steadier than her words. Kithri had to help her around only one difficult corner. They clambered down the battered stairwalk and on to the smooth pavement of the spaceport.

Kithri paused to scan the field and surrounding parkland from the shelter of the ship=s bulk. "It=s probably as safe now as it will ever be." In the daylight, both Brianna and Lennart looked ashen.

"Why=d they take Eril back to the city?" she asked Lennart as they hurried towards the relative cover of the parkland, Brianna trotting to keep up with them.

"To make him show where you got the jaydium," he said. "I guess they figured if any of us knew, he did."

"Where we got the jaydium from? Not from a ruined city! Don=t they know jaydium=s got to be mined?"

"Where--some imaginary site in the mountain range?" Brianna panted, one hand pressed to her side as if to ease a cramp. "Ridiculous! The pirates didn=t believe it either. The city was the only place it could have come from. That=s where it=s found, in ruins."

"Ruins! That=s the most idiotic--" 

"Why do you think my superiors wanted me to see the site for myself?" Brianna cried. "They=d never heard of such an outlandish thing, either! It was the one part of your story that made absolutely no sense."

Kithri brought them to a halt under the first thick clump of bushes. Her heart slammed against her chest. Blind panic wouldn=t get Eril free. She had to think, to plan. "Your superiors--can we call them for help?"

Brianna shook her head. "The first thing those untranslatables did was to disable all my communication devices. When they don=t hear from me, the Institute will send a probe to check." She ran one hand over her reddened, sweating face. "That might take weeks. Without a positive find, they might just wait for the regular re-supply ship."

"Your Dominion isn=t any better than the Fed," Kithri said acidly. "They both dump people in the middle of nowhere and then forget them."

"We=re on our own, then," Lennart said.

Kithri nodded. "Let=s get those cuffs off. We=ve got a rescue to plan!"


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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