Friday, November 23, 2012

Jaydium - Chapter 21


by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler

Chapter 21

What are they doing to her? She=s been in there longer than all the rest of us put together. It can=t be more than a bunch of stupid light tests... Raerquel might be willing to stop with a headache, but what about this Council committee?

Eril found himself pacing again. It had been several hours--three or four at least, it was hard to tell--since Kithri had been taken away. One moment he was sitting at the table with Lennart and Brianna, sipping table water from the cups they=d convinced Possiv to sculpt for them. Pretending to listen to their few attempts at conversation, going over the same speculations and words of encouragement. Trying not to feel how slowly time passed, as unbroken as the blank gray walls. The next thing Eril knew, he was on his feet, his body moving of its own accord through the common room.

He skirted the shallow pond, resisting the urge to jump in and kick up some waves, the way he had as a boy at the summer lake on Terillium, waves that left only a temporary mark on the surface of the water. It would do no good and space only knew how the gastropoids would react. The water was important, he could feel it even if he didn=t understand why.

Damn! What was taking them so long?

Was that any reason for him to fall apart? Whatever happened next, he=d need all his wits where they belonged, not scattered halfway to Hyades, which was where they were heading at the moment.

He stopped right where he was and took a deep breath. Where was that cool, level head that had gotten him through so many squeaks? How could he expect to handle the gastropoids--or anything else--if he couldn=t even sit still?

Slowly the room came back into focus. Lennart was watching him, eyes shadowed and brows in a single straight knot, and Brianna was tracing patterns in water on the table top. Eril walked back to the table, every step smooth and controlled.

He never made it. A door formed in the wall, first a hair-wide outline, then a narrow opening. Kithri stumbled through, gasping and ashen-faced.

Eril was beside her before she=d taken two steps into the room. He caught her in his arms. For a moment, she sagged against him as if her legs could no longer hold her. She trembled and her skin felt clammy against his.

Then she pushed him away and sprinted for the back of her cubicle, one hand over her mouth. She threw herself on the floor beside the sanitary facility, retching. It took Eril a moment to realize that she was neither badly injured nor in shock, and by that time Lennart was kneeling at her side, one arm across her shoulders.

"Go away," she snapped at him. "I don=t need any help to puke." 

Lennart returned to the table where Brianna still sat. He glanced at Eril with a wry expression. "She insists on doing everything herself, heyh?"

Kithri emerged a few minutes later, still pale but steadier on her feet. She=d used one of her socks for a washcloth, and her face and hair were sopping wet. She sat down on one of the two empty benches and Eril took the other. Lennart solemnly dipped some water into a cup and handed it to her.

"Well," she said after she=d downed the water, "that=s over with."

She glanced at their expectant faces and cleared her throat. "I guess you want to hear about it, huh? Mmmm... There were four or five tests with different kinds of lights, just like you told me, a couple of drills with small objects, and then a thousand questions, most of which Raerquel had already asked."

As she talked, her color returned and her voice began to sound normal again. "I don=t know how much good any of it did. They must have asked me twenty times how we got here, and even then they didn=t believe me."

"You did the best you could," said Lennart.

Kithri didn=t respond, not even a flicker of her gaze in his direction. Eril understood. Maybe things were different where Lennart came from, but here you didn=t get any credit for trying. What you got was dead.

"Any idea how long before they make up their minds about us?" he said.

Kithri shook her head. 

"If the gastropoids work anything like Dominion funding committees, it could be months," Brianna sighed. "They delight in keeping grant applicants as anxiety-ridden as possible."

Kithri managed a brief smile. "My father always said it was a foregone conclusion. The grant people only took their time when the answer was no and they were obliged to go through the formalities anyway. But he said you already knew it. Of course, none of this may apply to the sl--gastropoids. Who knows what they=re looking for? I sure didn=t."

The door slid open with the faintest of whispers and Raerquel undulated into the room.
Eril got to his feet. News, this must be some kind of news. He held his breath, wishing that the gastropoid=s metallic-tinted head discs were either more like eyes or less. He kept expecting to be able to read some expression in them and feeling frustrated when he couldn=t.

Raerquel paused beside the shallow pool. It lowered its head section and uncurled several feathery upper tentacles until they touched the rippling water. For several moments, it held them extended and dripping.

"Your ways are not ours, your...water is not ours," it said. "Yet I honor the light within your water. I invite you, if you are so...moved, to be reciprocating."

Without thinking clearly what that meant, Eril dipped his fingers into the pond and held them out, watching the drops fall into the water. One body, he thought, and then separate, and then one again. A profound gesture, he realized in retrospect. His impulse to act for all of them had been sound. 

Raerquel slithered up to the table and halted, unfurling more appendages. "My mammalian friends, without yet knowing how much we have achieved together, still I thank you for your cooperativeness. Especially you, Kithri-human. I am aware of the pain you suffered for the advancement of scientific truth. To my thinking, your ability to transcend the discomforts of the body for a higher goal is itself proof of your personness."

Kithri reddened and ducked her head.

"Any of us would have done the same," Eril said. "It=s important to establish a relationship between our species and yours. If we=ve got to satisfy your superiors as to our intelligence, or whatever they=re looking for in us, then we=ll do whatever we can."

"We would have much to learn from your kind," Raerquel began. "We--"

Whatever the gastropoid scientist was going to say was cut off as a rumble like faint thunder filled the air. It started low, barely more than a vibration. It felt to Eril like a starship taking off from a nearby field. Kithri and the others scrambled to their feet. The shaking escalated sharply. The room shivered, slid sideways with a stomach-twisting jerk, and shivered again.


"Let=s get out of here!" Eril shouted. "Fast!" He yelled at Raerquel to open the door. 

But the gastropoid scientist sat as if glued to the floor. Its thick head section wavered back and forth as it spoke. "Be calming yourselves until this activity has subsided and further information is forthcoming."

Eril did not feel in the least calm as the room rocked again, rolling and swaying. Legs braced and apart, he rode the next wave. His skin felt cold and prickly. He tasted a familiar tang like the thrill before a battle broke loose.

"Our dwelling constructions are possessing considerable elastic properties." Raerquel continued in its expressionless voice. "Only detachable external ornamentations present any immediate danger. Whatever the cause of this disturbance, the greatest protection lies within these walls.

"Elastic properties"--that was so much comet dust! Eril knew glass when it saw it and he=d been through the Academy=s survival drills. Even the doorways--if they could find them--wouldn=t provide decent protection in an earthquake. Any moment now, the walls would crack and shatter under the strain. They=d be buried under tons of splintered crystal. And, despite its infuriating calm, Raerquel would be buried along with them. The slug wasn=t going to do a damned thing to save them!

At times like this, Eril knew he couldn=t count on anyone but himself. If there was any way out, he=d have to find it himself. But what? Where? Knowing he had to act now, he took a step towards where the door had been.

A muffled cry broke through the low rumble. He spun around to see Brianna hunched over the bench she=d been sitting on, her head buried between her knees. Her ribs, visible through the supple alien cloth, heaved in shuddering, soundless sobs, one after the other. Lennart wrapped her in his arms and rocked her back and forth, murmuring syllables of comfort.

Kithri stood behind Brianna, knees flexed, looking frightened but alert, ready for anything. She glanced down at the other woman and a puzzled expression flickered across her face.

Eril stared at them, momentarily baffled by Brianna=s reaction. What the hell was going on with her? She=d been through a bad time with the pirates and then the lights, but he couldn=t see her panicking like this, going half catatonic. Not from something like an earthquake. She had her limits--so did they all--but she was tough and self-reliant too. She=d have to be to work alone on a site like Stayman. Now she curled into a helpless ball, trembling violently.

Eril took a step toward her, not quite sure what he was going to do--drag her to her feet, slap her to break the shock? Throw her across his shoulders and carry her? Carry her where?

Suddenly Possiv burst through the doorway, propelling itself across the smooth floor in a flurry of leaps.

"Clan-superior Raerquel! We are receiving confirmation from City-of-Light headquarters. NewHome has carried through with the threatened detonation in the Northern Arctic Desert. The emergency negotiation committees are disbanding--"

Raerquel slithered to the doorway with unexpected speed. It paused, head discs gleaming kaleidoscopically, and turned back to the astonished humans.

"Urgent matters require my presence elsewhere," it said. "Wait here, where you will be safe!"


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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