Friday, November 30, 2012

Jaydium - Chapter 22


by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler

Chapter 22

The room shook as if Raerquel had slammed the door behind itself. Then came more rumbling, wave after wave, eventually dying into silence.

Kithri stared at the blank wall and the water that had splashed around the lip of the shallow pool where only a few minutes ago, Raerquel and Eril had performed that strangely moving ritual. Now her heart pounded and her hands clenched unconsciously into fists. Her mouth tasted metallic, as if she=d bitten her lip. Brianna might have turned inward on herself, shutting out the world, but what Kithri wanted to do--needed to do--was to run, strike out, hit something. Adrenalin, shock, conditioning--that=s all it was. Not enough to save any of them now.

Brianna and Lennart had not moved. Neither had Eril. He=d been standing with his back to Kithri, taut and poised for action. He turned and his eyes locked with hers, burning as they had in the shattered crystal garden. She felt him reach out an imaginary hand to her and felt herself grasp it. Fire and hope surged through her.

She took one slow breath and then another. Her heartbeat quieted and she realized the quaking had stopped. The room was silent except for Brianna=s sobbing.

"It=s all right," Lennart murmured, stroking Brianna=s hair. "It=s all over now."

Kithri and Eril sat down at the table again. Kithri felt even more useless than she had at the camp. There was nothing she could do for Brianna that Lennart wasn=t already doing. He kept talking to her, gentle soothing nonsense about how they=d be fine now and everything was going to be all right.

It worked better than the truth would have. Brianna stopped crying. By gradual degrees she unlocked her arms, straightened her back and lifted her head. Her hair hung around her face in damp curls and her cheeks were flushed, dark lashes beaded with tears. She dipped her hands in the table fountain and rinsed her face.

"You all right now?" Kithri asked.

Brianna turned reddened eyes toward her. "As much as any of you are."

"I meant--about the way you reacted--"

"I know what you meant!"

"I know when something=s none of my business," Kithri said.

Brianna pulled away from the circle of Lennart=s arms. "I=m sorry. You=re right. I owe you--all of you--an explanation."

"You don=t owe us anything," said Lennart. 

Brianna looked up at the ceiling, blinking back fresh tears. "We=re locked in here," she said, each word a visible struggle. "There=s nothing we can do. But if it had been some other circumstance... If some action on our part had been required and I had 'reacted= like that..." Her gaze was steady and level now, her voice surer. "I could have cost us all our lives. I owe you that."

"All right," Eril said quietly. "What happened to you?"

And, Kithri thought, will you do it again, the next time something deadly dumps on us?

Brianna took a gulp of air and pushed her hair back from her face. "You have to understand, nothing bad ever happens--happened--to me. The security routines, even the infraprotection, they were just an exciting game. I even did my doctoral field work on Ytervi, with all those active volcanoes. But they went dormant the whole year I was there. I almost thought--no, I did think--I had a magic touch.

"Anyway, we=d been here about a half-year when it happened. We were mapping the underground chambers, working late because it was such a long climb back up and--"

"Wait a second," Kithri broke in. "Who=s this 'we=?"

"The others. There were four of us--Fabrice, the senior scientist who got us the grant to study the city, myself and two graduate students."

"So where are they? I thought you were alone--"

"Please!" Brianna held up her hands, eyes wide and white-rimmed. "I=ll get to that! Just let me...tell the story..."

Kithri heard the grief and terror ringing through Brianna=s words. She held her tongue and waited. 

A few heartbeats later, Brianna took up the story again. "I=ll never know if we got careless and didn=t check the seismic predictors or if it was freak chance. We were below, as I told you. There was a quake--a big one--and a slide. Crystalline wall material, rock, dust. Everything. We were trapped. It might have been better if we=d all died then. But we didn=t. It took three days. And the last day I was alone."

She placed her hands, palms down, on the narrow strip of table surface. The scar tissue stood out, livid and shiny. Her fingers, with their blackened, broken nails, curled into claws. "The last day...I dug. And dug...

"I suppose...I=ve been a little crazy since then. I don=t even remember how I got back up. I remember climbing out of the resuscitation unit..."

The sobs had left Brianna=s voice, replaced by a dispassionate calm. Only her phrasing, clusters of words parenthesized by almost inaudible breaths, betrayed her.

"The computer=s psychiatry module kept me on medication therapy for weeks. I could even go below for short times. To map the slide area. There wasn=t much burial I could...needed to do. The Institute said I was well enough to continue on alone until they sent the regular re-supply ship."

"You mean they=d send a special ship for the jaydium but not for you," Kithri said bleakly. She thought of the weeks and months, waiting for the lithicycline shipments that never came, watching her father grow weaker and weaker, of the terrible moment when she realized there would be no more. 

"None of it matters now," Brianna said. Her hands moved like drunken moths, taking in the room, the shallow pool and the city outside, "Here is a whole new civilization--a living alien civilization--all mine to study! It makes everything that=s come before it insignificant--the quake, the recovery--yes, even the pirates! Can you understand that?"

"Yes," said Lennart, "I think we=ve all felt that way about something. I did about getting into space."

Eril=s eyes were grim, his expression cryptic. "We may have stumbled into more than any of us imagined."

Brianna smiled, taking his words for agreement, but Kithri suppressed an instinctive shudder, hearing the warning in them.


An unfamiliar gastropoid brought them food, which they ate more for something to do than out of any real appetite. They were sitting around the table, picking at the last bits of seaweed and going over Possiv=s message, when Raerquel came back. It paused again beside the shallow pool and repeated the ritual dipping into the water. Eril got up and did the same.
"I honor the light of your water."

"And we honor the light of yours."

Something in Raerquel=s eerie silence as it settled itself on the floor nearby prevented them from deluging it with questions. They waited.

Raerquel=s upper appendages curled and uncurled repeatedly. It reminded Kithri unexpectedly of an old jaydium miner coerced into giving a public speech. Dowdell had once looked like that, when his drinking buddies at the Thirsty Miner found out it was his birthday, and made him stand up and tell a joke or else buy a drink for every man there. She could see him, face flushed, shoulders hunched, pulling at his overall pockets and looking around for some place to spit. She almost smiled at the memory, but then the old feelings--the pain and the desperate loneliness--rose up in her to wipe away any hint of nostalgia. Did she really want to go back to that?

Raerquel began speaking. "Everything I have learned of you is convincing me that you are an intelligent and conscience-gifted species. You are my honored guests, not research animals to be kept ignorant for the sake of experimental protocol."

"Ignorant? Of what, exactly?" Eril asked as he sat down again. As he spoke, Kithri watched his face. A few minutes ago, going through the water ritual, he=d looked so calm, like a tri-vid hero. Now he seemed more human.

"The quaking we experienced was not a natural phenomenon," said Raerquel.

"But if it was artificial," Kithri said, puzzled, "it must have been enormous."

"The detonation of interplanetary missile at uninhabited northern polar region was indeed enormous," replied Raerquel. "Fortunately, the NewHome leaders were not intending the destruction of life, only a warning."

"Oh my god," Lennart said, running his hands over his flushed face. "Not here, too."

"What kind of warning?" Eril asked. 

"It is as I feared," Raerquel said after a brief hesitation. "Offspring planets NewHome and Tomorrow reacted to our arrogance with even greater belligerence, which must breed only more hostility. A trade embargo they could abide, but not the seizure of assets and expulsion of their diplomatic staff. As long as we continued discussions, there was hope that irrevocable action could be avoided. Now the first blow has been struck--a warning only, as I told you, but enough to frighten our own leaders into more desperate measures."

Kithri=s chin jutted upward as if it had a will of its own. "I=ve heard this kind of talk before," she said. "'Desperate measures=. 'Irrevocable actions=. Nothing but excuses to do what they damned well pleased--and we were already in the midst of an interplanetary war."

She narrowed her eyes. "How do we know this story isn=t just another of your tests to see how we=ll react?"

"Excellent questioning," said Raerquel, continuing the graceful, rhythmic motion of its tentacles, "but you must inform me what proof you will accept. News broadcasts, which could be prerecorded in a dramatic manner? Verification from other clan superiors, who could be likewise deceitful? Personal observation of the blast site, which could be falsified?"

"How about the simple truth?" Lennart looked up, eyes shadowed. "Like they say, that=s the best place to begin."

"Is there such a thing, my human friend, as a simple truth? Not in this world, I am assuring you. Perhaps they are correct who believe that, by our own ambition in colonizing the stars, we have split our race into irreconcilable opponents. If so, does not each faction offer its own simple truth? 

"Once," the gastropoid continued, "in our dimmest past, we were only one clan. We all shared the same Flesh-Before-Naming. Such dissension as we now face would have been unimaginable. Then many clans arose, still sharing the same birthing place. Ocean-of-Home grew more and more crowded, until finally we were forced to emigrate, first to the land and then the heavens. We found and settled two ocean worlds, NewHome and Tomorrow."

Brianna leaned forward, her voice steadier. "Since an aquatic environment is necessary for reproduction of your species, you chose compatible ecosystems. You must still share common experiences...a sense of shared origin..."

 "They are our offspring worlds. Why should we mistrust them because their waters are different from ours? One clanmate does not take another hostage." 

"So what are you fighting about?" Lennart asked.

"I am not fighting, I am committed to preventing that most terrible disaster. Council-of-Ocean and other governing bodies fight because they fear their own blindness. They have given surrender to the illusion that light is divisible, that the light of NewHome--or Tomorrow--or even the strange world that saw your hatching--is in some fundamental way separate from the true light."

The alien paused, then continued in its expressionless voice, "Hope for reconciliation has been advanced by only a few, such as myself, but even that small chance is now fading quickly. Last untranslatable-four, the leader of our peace faction was arrested for treason, and is now facing execution. Yet better the death of one individual than that of three living planets." 

"I still don=t understand what you=re fighting about," Lennart said. His voice sounded harsher than Kithri had ever heard it. She=d always thought of him as gentle.

"Does it matter?" Eril said. "As you pointed out, we found plenty to fight about. And a lot of good people died trying to keep the Fifth Fed from falling apart."

Listening to them, Kithri shivered involuntarily and hugged her arms tight to her body. This can=t be happening, Not like Stayman, And Albion... Skies, I don=t want to think about it! I just want to get out of here!

"As to destructive capability," Raerquel said with an incongruently airy wave of one tentacle, "it is a small matter of utilizing the atomic constituents of water, slightly modified."

"You mean you=re using hydrogen-fusion bombs?" Lennart asked. His face paled visibly.

"What=s that?" Eril turned to him.

A flicker of something dark and unreadable passed across the ancient spaceman=s eyes. "So your historians lost that particular achievement, heyh? Forgot your worst mistakes so you could make them all over again."

"How could my people not know water and its deadly secrets?" Raerquel said. "It is our beginning, our ending. Our nourishment and our life."

Raerquel swung its head section in Lennart=s direction. "You have come from a world without armed conflict. Therefore it must be possible to achieve. You can tell us how it was accomplished, guide us, lend us the wisdom of your success. You will do this for us?"

Lennart lowered his eyes. "I...I don=t know how much help I can be. We didn=t make the peace, we only inherited it. It all happened hundreds of years ago! What good would it do now to hand you a bunch of slogans? Like they say, this and like they say, that? Oh, we studied all the historical speeches, the treaties, the Great Preamble. We had aggression-release and compromise training drilled into us from the time we could talk. Those that didn=t--or wouldn=t--pass the screener got mindwiped or sent to the asteroid mining camps where their so-called violent tendencies would at least be functional."

"You exiled all the wolves and turned yourselves into a nation of...sheep," Eril said. "The price of peace?"

"The price of war is a whole lot higher, captain," Lennart said grimly.

"How dare you say no, now when these people ask you for help!" Kithri flared. "After all you=ve said about Brianna=s Dominion and the pirates, about the Fed, about how we threw away your age of peace. It was all bullshit, wasn=t it, all empty words--"

"Words, yes!" Lennart cried. "That=s how we made peace--empty words, repeated over and over in every conceivable combination until one day they weren=t empty any more!"

He turned back to Raerquel. "I could tell you everything I remember--where the negotiations were held, which nations signed which accords, which leader gave which famous speech. But would any of it make sense to you? Would our human solution work here?"

"It must work," said Raerquel. "Something must."

After a long moment of silence, Brianna spoke up. "I don=t understand your references to the aquatic origin of your species. Isn=t this city--"

"Only an adaptation. I will be sharing with you the waters that are the true source of our life, not these houses of dust. Soon, when Council-of-Ocean questions you. And once again you will tell us of your world, Eril-human-leader, and how you came here."

Kithri=s stomach gave a sudden lurch. "Does he have to go through that again? Your committee=s already heard everything we have to say. One more time isn=t going to make them believe us."

Raerquel swung its tapered head section around so that all four discs gleamed in the laboratory=s indirect lighting. The thing was studying her again.

She swallowed hard and went on, "And what do we have to do with your war? We sure as hell didn=t start it, and Lennart=s right, there=s not a thing we can do to stop it."

"If I can be providing proof of your personness," Raerquel answered slowly, "then I can be showing that beings not of oneness with Flesh-Before-Naming are deserving of personness. Surely if consideration can be extended to something so alien as a mammal, then the inhabitants of our offspring planets, who are otherwise so like us, also merit it. Are you not receiving the translation of my words? Do you not understand why you humans are so important to me, aside from mere scientific curiosity? You are my key to ending this war."


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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