Friday, October 12, 2012

Jaydium, Chapter 15


by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler

Chapter 15


Red-hair gripped Kithri's elbow as she led them past archways of splintered topaz and amber. Sunlight fractured against the ruined lacework and spilled ribbons of color over the pirates' pale skins. They made no comment as they marched along, grinding the shards under their heavy space boots.

She guided them around another corner, three turns and then back down the long avenue where free-standing walls made a maze of light and shadow. The tension in Red-hair's hands increased as they went along, the group bunching closer together. Spacebred, they relied heavily on their navigational instruments, while Kithri's years in the brush had developed both her directional sense and a keen memory for landmarks. Now she prayed to all the powers of luck and space they were truly as disoriented as they seemed.

I must pretend I've been here before.

Kithri kept her features impassive as she identified her goal, a truncated green pyramid located diagonally across a plaza bordered by hedges of intricate braided crystals. She squelched any temptation to pause and stare at its perfect balance and grace.

She stepped through the doorway and into the spacious central chamber. The opaque, mint-colored threshold muffled the tread of the men's boots.

The interior was surprisingly bright, considering the thickness of the deep-hued emerald walls and the absence of windows. A shallow, unrailed balcony ringed the central chamber. Kithri's eyes raced across the shadowed doorways as she searched for the entrance Brianna had described.

I've been here before, I know where I'm going...

As she drew closer to the far wall, Kithri noticed the intricate patterns that alternated with narrow openings. She wished she had the time to examine them more closely. The entrance could be any one of them, but which? She couldn't afford to show any hesitation, not with Red-hair's hands on her. He'd catch the smallest lapse in her concentration. There was a limit to what she could improvise, and so far she'd already used up more than her share of bloody luck.

The first slit was narrower than the others, barely wide enough for her shoulders, let alone the men's bulk. Brianna would have been able to slip though it without too much trouble, but would she have described it as a passageway? Kithri felt a gust of cool air on her face. It was nothing more than an air vent. She went on to the next one.

She had narrowed her choices to three possibilities when Red-hair pulled her around to face Teeg.


She hesitated, not understanding.

"Building empty. Where jaydium?"

Kithri seized the small pulse of anger that flared up at his demand. "Not here, you dustbug. You don't find jaydium in buildings." She pointed vaguely in the direction of the remaining three openings. "Below."

"Under building?"

"That's the story. Now are you going to let me get on with it, or are we going to stand here all day jabbering?" She jerked her elbow away from Red-hair and put both hands on her hips in an aggressive stance.

"You go first," growled Teeg.

Kithri sniffed with as much arrogance as she could muster and headed for the farthest doorway, the one closest to the corner. To her surprise, the indirect lighting in the corridor beyond was as good as in the central chamber. The faint green cast did little to improve the pirates' space-bleached complexions.

At the end of the short corridor was a broad ramp, spiraling downwards. There were no handrails, but Kithri plunged down it with determination. Past the first spacious landing with its tributary corridors, she kept to the central ramp and picked up the pace, flexing her knees to shorten her stride. One of the pirates stumbled as he misjudged the ramp angle. Kithri hoped that, with their bulkier bodies and weaker thigh muscles, they'd tire sooner than she would. She should have an even greater advantage climbing back up -- if she was still alive to try it.

Past the third landing, the light grew noticeably dimmer, turning yellow and then reddish. Kithri silently blessed Brianna for her precise, detailed maps of the subterranean system. She'd have to steer clear of the large area Brianna had blocked off with cross-hatching. Brianna had offered no explanation but only replied, tight-faced, that those particular tunnels were impassable.

At the fourth landing, Kithri headed along the westerly corridor instead of continuing down. The passage ran straight, then curved unexpectedly into a downward ramp. Now came the really difficult part, a series of branches and spirals as complex as any she'd ever flown. It must have taken Brianna a solid year to map them all in the subdued light, and she'd only done the arterials.

The pirates said nothing but Kithri felt their tension level rise again. The underground must be unnerving after so much time in the freedom of space. She hoped they were thoroughly and miserably confused by the constant switchbacks. As the walls narrowed into low-ceiling, branching tunnels, the mazework felt surprisingly comfortable to her, as familiar as Manitou tunnels. Her confidence began to rise.

They emerged into a small circular chamber, crimson-lit as if from badly sealed jaydium. This was the first of a series of rooms, strung out like interconnected beads. Brianna had not discovered their purpose, nor could Kithri imagine one. South, south-west, and then due east again...

Teeg grabbed Kithri's shoulder with one massive hand and jerked her to a halt. His features, shadowy in the dim red light, twisted with some unnameable emotion. Was it fear, she wondered, or just plain greed?


"We're close now, can't you smell it?" Kithri's voice sounded tinny and unsure to her own ears.

The pirate leader shoved her backwards.

"You going to stop -- now -- when we're almost there?" she asked.

 He pointed one blunt finger towards the last chamber. "Same." Towards the one before them, "Same." And towards the one that lay beyond the slender passageway, "Same, everywhere same. No more stalling. Say where is jaydium."

Teeg knotted his hand into a fist and tapped his knuckles against Kithri's chest, deliberately gouging the bruises Red-hair had given her in the courtyard. "Where?"

Kithri staggered under the sudden pain. "Don't -- rush me!"

He hit her again, harder. She jerked away from him and fell against Red-hair. His hands closed around her left wrist and forearm like silken gloves. In one fluid movement he twisted her arm behind her. The instant agony in her shoulder took her breath away.

"We had deal. Friends for jaydium." Teeg pressed his knuckles on the bruises again until his weight crushed her under waves of charring pain. Red-hair stood behind her, an implacable wall of flesh. The butt of the force whip tucked in his belt dug into the muscles of her back. 

"Deal! Now jaydium!"

"I --"

"No more words! Jaydium!"

For a frantic instant Kithri thought, What does he want me to do? He won't listen to me! Then she realized that cutting her off was only one more intimidation tactic. She let her head hang forward, her curls shadowing her face.

The grinding agony eased. Red-hair loosened the twist on her shoulder, but Kithri did not straighten up. She must give them every reason to think she was beaten into submission...

"Jaydium now." Teeg's words were flat, with no hint of a question.

Please, please let him think he's won.

Kithri nodded, keeping her face hidden. Red-hair released her so quickly that she flailed about for balance. She fell heavily to her knees. Although it went against her every instinct, she grasped his hand to pull herself up, grasped it and pulled down hard and fast. His body yielded slightly, and puzzlement replaced his expression of gloating certainty.

Kithri's free hand shot upwards, her fingers curling around the force whip handle, finding the controls even before she had it fully free. Without pausing for aim, she thumbed the whip into a broad sweeping beam. Someone screamed, and at least one body toppled to the stone floor.

Red-hair grabbed for her, but she was already sprinting past him for the nearest passageway. He lunged and she jumped free and whirled to face him. For an awful moment her nerves froze. Then she brought the force whip up again, snapping the energy beam like a barrier between them. The harsh light of the weapon shone on his face, contorted into a mask of fury. He bellowed at her like a maddened beast and reeled backwards, hands fisting over his eyes.

Kithri wheeled and darted down the nearest exit. A short tunnel brought her to a larger chamber. She counted four entrances, plus the way she had come. Westward would bring her back to the room where the pirates waited, perhaps recovering even now. She plunged into the southwest tunnel.

From the next circular room she had only two choices, due west or north. If memory served her, the same would be true for the next chamber -- yes, it looked identical, only this one allowed her to circle around where she'd left Teeg and his gang.

She raced northward and then northeast. Even with adrenalin fueling her aching muscles, she had to take the ramp slowly. Flight after uneven flight quickly took their toll. Before long, her breath rasped in her ears and the pounding of her heart filled her head. Her body radiated heat like an oven. Sweat drenched her hair and clothing. She strained her ears for any sound of pursuit, found nothing she could recognize, and forced herself upward again.

Kithri held on to the doorway to the pyramid's central chamber for a moment, struggling to catch her breath and force her burning muscles to move. Her legs trembled so badly she could hardly stand. Her head throbbed and she lost all sense of time. She thought of what Teeg might let Red-hair do if they caught her, and somehow found the strength to stumble onward.

Outside, she paused again in the blindingly bright light and rubbed her watering eyes, for a moment unable to believe what she saw. In the exact center of the open space, its landing path a swathe of shattered rainbow glass, sat Brushwacker.

Eril jumped from the cockpit and sprinted towards her. "Kithri! Brianna said you'd be here!"

"I told you to get the hell out of here!" She meant to scream, but her voice came out as a reedy whisper.

Eril gave her one swift, unreadable look. The bruises on his face and chest glowered like a patchwork of livid purple. He set one shoulder against her waist and threw her across his back.

"Put me down! What do you think you're doing?"

"Rescuing you -- you ungrateful dustbug! What did you think?" He heaved her through the opened door and threw her in.

Kithri's surge of anger evaporated. Her whole body was a solid mass of pain, but what hurt most was the sudden lump in her throat.

"You didn't think I'd leave you in the hands of those monsters, did you?" Eril said.

For an instant she couldn't answer. Then she said, "Where's Brianna -- and Lennart?"

"In the hold. Now to duo it out of here --"

Kithri blinked as his words sank in. At duoflight speeds, they'd be thousands of miles away before the pirates realized they'd gone. The pirates would have to tear the planet apart before they'd find them.

Suddenly the lacework of pink opal to her right shattered into dust grains. "Move not!" bellowed a sickeningly familiar voice. "Or same to ship!"

Teeg! How could he get up the ramp so fast? 

Eril was still kneeling beside Kithri, his shoulders blocking her view of the emerald pyramid. She couldn't see exactly where the pirates were, but judging by the sound of Teeg's voice, they were some distance away. Maybe she still had a chance.

Kithri glanced down at the force whip tucked inside her belt. Praying that Teeg wouldn't see the movement, she reached for the handle. Her fingers settled on the controls. Eril's black eyes flickered in agreement. She took a deep breath.

"You comet-brained burned-out crop of dustbugs! You want us so bad, you come and get us!"

"Too gentle blaster -- little sniveling pieces of you will be telling us where is jaydium!" Teeg shouted back, and Kithri got a fix on his location.

In one fluid movement, Eril ducked and Kithri thumbed the force whip into life. The pirates were more than half-way from the pyramid to the scrubjet -- Teeg, Quick and another she did not know. But not Red-hair.

The leading edge of the whip caught Teeg glancingly across the chest. He screamed and jumped back. She glimpsed the raw burns across his cheeks.

Kithri could not hold the whip handle steady in her trembling fingers. She grabbed it with her free hand, but it was no use. The tip of the beam splayed backwards and touched the scrubjet for an instant. There was a horrendous clap of sound and then light seared her eyes into blindness.

Suddenly Kithri no longer sprawled across the scrubjet pilot's seat, she floated in a frigid, spinning void. She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out. Whatever the force whip was doing to them this time, it was very different from the jump that had brought them to Brianna's world.

Unknown forces plucked at her, drawing her out like taffy, stretching her body thinner and thinner until she thought if it went on for another moment she'd snap like an elasticized band. Instantly the pull vanished, along with all sense of direction, and she went hurling through the darkness.


Her next awareness was of the warmth of Eril's arms around her legs and the coiled tension in the muscles of his back. His head lay in her lap and her upper body had fallen forward on top of him. She didn't remember dropping the force whip but her hands were empty. Her vision was all one gray blur.

"Eril," she whispered, "Eril, can you -- see anything?" Where are the pirates? Why don't they attack again, now while we're helpless?

"No, only shadows. Wait, it's clearing a little."

Kithri strained to make sense out of the roiling gray shapes. They bore no resemblance to the brilliant crystal garden, but that was all she could tell. Even as she stared, squinting her watering eyes, she caught the ripple of something moving towards them, something like an elongated silvery pearl.

"Are you thinking they are intelligent, clan-superior Raerquel?" The voice was deep, hovering at the lower end of what human vocal apparatus could produce.

"Behold! Indwelling artifact is indicating complex technology!"

Kithri's vision cleared a little more. The pearl now tapered upwards into a headless neck. It slithered rapidly towards her. She thought of giant amoebas, of fat, slimy worms and the boneless jelly things she'd seen in tri-vids. Tentacles began to unfold from the neck section and reach out for her.

Then she felt herself slipping sideways and the entire world went black. The basso tones rang in her fading consciousness.

"Rest they need, rest and healing."


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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