by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
Eril jerked awake and scrambled to his feet, ready to suit up and sprint for the launching port. His needle jet would be tuned to go, Hank already sliding into the co-pilot=s seat. Heart pounding, he paused and looked around, his eyes searching the dimness. He could see only the blank walls of his own narrow cubicle, not barracks teeming with awakening pilots. No alarms shrilled through his ears. All he could hear were the normal sounds made by three sleeping people. From Lennart=s cubicle came gentle rhythmic snoring. Whatever had woken him must have been a dream, nothing more.
Eril lay back and tried to relax. Late in the war he=d snatched hours and minutes of sleep whenever he could. He=d learned to simply not think about the problems he couldn=t do anything about. Raerquel=s condition would wait until the morning--the matter was entirely out of his hands. What had happened with Brianna was a different matter. He went over the conversation in his mind, wondering if there was anything else he could have said or done. Since then, Brianna had made no overtures toward Kithri, although she was no longer openly hostile. Not that Kithri cared what Brianna thought of her.
The thought came to him how alike they were, as if they each had their own poisoned memories. He thought of Kithri watching her father die by inches and of all his own years of growing up, desperately hoping there had been some mistake and his father had been found, that any day he=d walk through the door...and the moment on his tenth birthday when he realized, finally and absolutely, that would never happen.
Well, there wasn=t anything he could do about those things, either.
In the end, Eril resorted to working out textbook navigational problems in his head until he drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, no word had yet come of Raerquel=s condition. Brianna spread her notes over a section of floor, sorting and indexing. She said there was no point in sitting around worrying when there was work to be done. Kithri began pacing from her cubicle to the common room, biting her fingernails. Eril decided the situation was ripe for another confrontation between the two of them. He=d better get some action organized fast.
"Bri, you know the city best," he said. "You and Lennart check Raerquel=s laboratory, the Clan courtyards, anywhere and anyone who might be able to tell you what=s going on. Kithri and I will go back to the lab and re-check the equipment. Maybe we can find something we overlooked yesterday. We=ll meet you back here, if one of you doesn=t find us first."
He was a little surprised when the others did as he suggested without protest. Even Kithri went along with him.
"Do you think we=ll find anything, I mean some mistake that caused--what happened yesterday?" she asked as they passed the mazework of free-standing walls.
Eril shook his head. "If we had any idea there was something wrong, we wouldn=t have gone ahead. Maybe we were too tired. Brianna might be right that it was a stupid thing to try under those conditions. But it was my stupid idea," he added, "not yours."
"Suppose we=d done all the things she said and the war started because it took us too long? Whose fault would it be then? You can=t be responsible for everything." Kithri paused, her expression thoughtful. Her eyes blurred, as if seeing some other time, some other place. "You can=t know how things are going to turn out."
They went around to the far side of the laboratory dome, where a mechanically operated, >fixed= door had been installed to allow them access. The entire wall had been removed, leaving the building completely open...and empty.
No scrubjet, no tools and no trace they=d ever been there.
"No!" Kithri dashed into the middle of the room. She halted where Brushwacker had stood, her hands extended in a gesture of utter bewilderment. Her breathing came quick and light.
"They--they took it--"
Eril walked up and touched her shoulder. She dropped her arms and turned towards him.
"Yes, but why?" he said. "I can see them calling a halt to the experiment, but not this. Where would they take it?"
"It doesn=t make any sense!" Her voice sounded strained, as if a giant fist were clenched around her throat.
"Unless something more has happened to Raerquel and someone else is making the decisions, unless..." He paused, seeing her horrified expression. "Let=s get back," he said firmly. "Maybe Bri and Lennart have discovered what=s going on."
Eril and Kithri burst into the common room, faces flushed, to find Brianna and Lennart seated at the central table, facing a gastropoid. It turned toward them, showing yellow-tinted head discs. Eril identified it as Raerquel=s assistant, Bhevon. Bhevon, he reminded himself, had been unfriendly, almost hostile toward them.
"What=s the news? Is Raerquel all right?" Eril=s skin felt hot under its light sheen of sweat, and his blood-pumped muscles demanded action. He gulped air and forced his thoughts to slow down.
"My clan-superior is suffering no prolonged malaises from your endeavor."
"Thank all the powers of luck and space." Eril slid on to an empty bench. Kithri did likewise, visibly holding her tongue. "We just came from the lab. The scrubjet--our surface craft--it=s gone. What=s going on? Have you given up on the experiment?"
"On the contrary, clan-superior Raerquel is determined to persevere. It still holds to the goal of enhanced understanding between one gastropoid mind and another."
The adrenaline pumping through Eril=s body left him feeling jittery and almost preternaturally alert. He didn=t need to study the unhappy expression on Lennart=s face to know something else was at issue.
Lennart met his eyes. "They=re going to try again...without you."
"That=s just plain stupid!" Kithri bit off a curse and turned to Bhevon. "I know Brushwacker better than anyone living. There=s no one--human or not--who stands a better chance of making the linkage than I do. Besides, suppose you did manage a hook up with one of your Council members. Suppose it gets stuck in this estivation state like Raerquel did, how will that get you anywhere? You=ll get charged with attempted murder, we=ll get blasted, and the war will start anyway!"
"De-estivation presents no significant problem. You are even now demonstrating that the differences between your mammalian and our evolved gastropoid brains are too great to be so easily crossed."
Brianna spoke up unexpectedly, "I agree with Kithri. I think entrusting your minds to an alien--that is, human--technology is too dangerous to try on your own. You ought to either keep us on as consultants or else abandon the project entirely."
That was a quick change of opinion, Eril thought. Kithri stared at her in frank astonishment.
"As I said before, if you=re going to do it at all," Brianna added, "you ought to do it right."
Bhevon appeared untouched by any of their arguments. "If we shrink from this experiment because of hypothetical dangers, what will the doubters and followers think--that the cause of peace is to be pursued only when it is easy? That persistence and dedication are virtues only for the war-sayers? No, peace is too important to abandon because of a few initial difficulties."
Kithri turned back to the gastropoid and said between clenched teeth, "While all this is going on, what have you done with my ship?"
"They=ve taken it to their mountain city," Lennart said grimly. "Bhevon was telling us when you came in. The situation=s gotten worse and the planetary leaders have moved there for security."
"You can=t do this! She=s my ship!"
"And Raerquel is my clan-superior, who spawned my Flesh-Before-Naming!" Bhevon drew itself up to its fully erect height. "Raerquel has ordered its removal to facilitate the complete dismantlement that is necessary for full utilization. The ship=s-brain and its connections must be divorced from its housing and amplified by our own equipment."
Kithri leapt to her feet, looking as if she=d like to pick the table up and smash it across the gastropoid=s head section, the way she=d dealt with that miner in Hank=s bar-room story.
"Take it easy!" Eril put his hand on her shoulder and pulled her back down. He felt her resist for an instant and then yield, as if her bravado was only tissue thin.
"Personal alliances and preferences cannot be allowed to interfere with the cause of peace," said Bhevon. "Council-of-Ocean warned us that your co-operation could not be counted on. They said we were foolish to rely on your inconstant mammalian emotions. Raerquel insisted on your full participation in the experimentation, even over my own objections. Clearly, you cannot be trusted. Therefore, to prevent any rash actions on your part, you are now confined to these chambers."
After Bhevon sealed the door behind itself, the echoes of its final words lingered on. Eril stared at the blank wall, rapidly discarding all of the dramatic and completely useless courses of action that sprang to mind.
"What did I tell you?" Brianna said, but without any real malice. "Raerquel was only our ally as long as it suited its own purposes."
"But that purpose was stopping the war," said Lennart. "Like Kithri said, we had to try."
"Meanwhile," Eril added, "we=re trapped here. Even if Raerquel manages to pull off its peace plan, we=ll be no better than where we started. And if it doesn=t..."
There=s got to be something we can do.
"If Raerquel blows it, then we=re all fried," Lennart said. "A lot of good my space ships will be to us if we can=t get to them, heyh?"
Kithri had folded her arms on the table and buried her face in them. Eril remembered how she=d snatched the force whip from his holster and fired on Lennart=s space ghost when she thought he=d threatened her scrubjet. She=d been furious when Eril suggested using it to ferry Brianna out to the jaydium site. But it hadn=t been the jaydium that sent her off on her own, it had been the 'jet. Now its components were probably scattered all over some gastropoid lab, all its secrets exposed, and whatever the >jet had meant to Kithri, it would never be hers again. There was nothing he could say to her, even if he could have found the right words.
He went to her and hesitantly laid one hand on her shoulder. Her muscles were so hard he couldn=t tell them from bone. At first she didn=t respond. Then a shudder went through her. He felt her relax, as if her body remembered his touch from that night under the stars.
"I=ll be all right..." She raised her head a fraction. Her voice was a ghostly whisper. "I know it=s stupid to think 'Wacker is still mine, or that it matters. Raerquel wouldn=t care what happened to some old scrubjet, not when what=s at stake is a whole world. I know all that, it=s just I need...a little time to get used to it."
Eril let his hand drop from her shoulder and wandered over to the section of wall where the door had been. There was no sign of it now, not even a hairline shadow. The door seemed to have fused with translucent wall material.
The wall felt hard and smooth under his fingers. With a curious calm, as if the chill of the therine had seeped into his marrow, he saw himself hammering on it with his bare fists, clawing at it, hurling himself screaming against it. At first, the wall in his vision remained untouched by his efforts, even as his knuckles cracked open and his blood smeared over the impassive surface. Then he saw his fist pass through the wall, saw the therine splintering into tiny, glittering shards. Shards that blazed against the darkness of space for an instant before dimming.
He blinked, and the image fled, as ephemeral and overpowering as the dream that had awakened him that morning. His right hand ached from how tightly he=d clenched it. His stomach knotted around something hard and hot.
The damned door is here somewhere, and I=m going to find it--find it, and open it--
He began tapping along the wall at chest height. "I am not--going to sit here--like a dust-rat--in a trap," he said aloud. "There=s got to be a way out, something we didn=t think of before. Something we know now that we didn=t know then. There=s no such thing as an escape-proof prison, even one that doesn=t have a door."
Lennart, behind him, said, "I wouldn=t be too sure about there not being a door, captain. Ever since we got here, we=ve been razzled by all the things the slugs can do that we can=t. We may be giving them more credit than they deserve."
Eril glanced back at him. "I don=t follow you."
"Lennart=s right," said Brianna. "There=s so much that=s alien in this civilization, we have a natural tendency to project that sense of the bizarre into areas where it hasn=t been established." She smiled briefly. "It=s a perennial temptation in my field. We call it xeno-resurgence."
Eril turned back to the wall. Maybe finding a door would get them somewhere, maybe it wouldn=t. But working on the problem was a whole lot better than sitting around doing nothing.
Was he assuming the door wasn=t there just because he couldn=t see it? He=d been over the entire wall, rapping at regular intervals. There had been no trace of hollowness that might signal a hidden door. So what was he missing? Either the door was there or it wasn=t. What other alternative could there be?
"Brianna, you=ve been studying these buildings," he said. "You know how they=re put together. Are these walls as solid as they look? Do the slugs sculpt a new door every time they use one? Or does it slide back into the wall? And if there was a sliding door behind the wall, how would I find it?"
"I haven=t examined this one in the closed configuration well enough to be sure," Brianna answered. "But it won=t do us any good to know where the door is if we can=t open it."
"We=ll deal with that later. Tell me about more about therine."
"Crystalline materials weren=t in my area of expertise. My instruments did most of the preliminary scans, and I sent samples and spectroscopy data back to the Institute for analysis. I=m a xenoarchaeologist, not a physical chemist."
"But Kithri=s father was," Eril said. "Or close enough." She looked up at him, her face waxy pale and her gray eyes opaque. "You said he studied jaydium. You said he taught you."
For a moment, Eril thought Kithri would tell him to stuff it. Instead, she slowly got to her feet. "I don=t know what I could tell you that Brianna couldn=t."
She touched the wall with her fingertips, as if comparing it to the jaydium she knew so well. For a moment Eril saw her stroking a living thing, testing its sensitivity, imagining it respond to her caress.
Brianna watched her for a moment. "If there=s even a thin layer of air surrounding the hidden door, it should conduct sound at a faster frequency, so we could hear the difference in pitch it if we tapped on it with something hard enough."
"It sounded the same when I rapped on it," Eril said.
Kithri shook her head. "You couldn=t tell just by knocking. This is more like glass than wood. You=d have to use something much harder than your knuckles. Metal would be better, a belt buckle if we had one."
Brianna disappeared into her room and came back with one of the styluses she used for her notes. Like everything else the gastropoids had furnished for them, it was made of therine. Kithri took it and tapped one end on the wall.
"That doesn=t sound hollow to me," Brianna said.
"Me either," said Eril. "Kithri?"
"It could be a sort of partial seal, like a fracture line through a crystal," she said. "Solid enough to maintain the strength of the wall, yet easy to split apart."
"An intact crystal lattice would transmit sound faster than one with a break, but the difference won=t be as great as solid versus gas," Brianna said.
Kithri nodded. "Then we=ll need a separation between where we tap and where we listen. If we=re too close, the sounds=ll be too similar."
She handed the stylus to Eril. "You tap over there and I=ll listen here," she said, pointing. She put her ear to the wall about three feet away. "Tap there, and then an inch at a time this way. We=ll work across and pray like hell that I can hear a break at some point."
As Eril began tapping with the stylus, he remembered how Kithri taught him to chip raw jaydium. Stroke it, she=d said, the way it wants to be cut.
"Damn." Kithri straightened up. "It=s too muddy. If I had a tube to listen through..."
"Something to amplify the higher frequencies?" Brianna said.
"Like a rolled-up film?" asked Eril.
"Not my notes!" Brianna groaned, but Lennart already snatched one from the table and handed it to Kithri. Brianna sighed and said, "I suppose we ought to be getting some practical use from them."
It was an exasperating process, progressing by inches across the wall, back and forth and then over again. Half the time Eril was sure any results they got would be purely hallucinatory, but he didn=t care. It took their minds away from their present problem and gave them the sense they were doing something.
They changed pairs, Lennart tapping and Brianna listening because the women were able to hear the higher frequencies better. After three or four passes, both of them agreed they could hear a change in pitch over the same area. Brianna=s marking fluid wouldn=t stick to the slick therine surface, but they cradled a drop of it in the angle between the wall and floor.
"Okay, we=ve found the damned thing," Kithri said, stretching her neck and rubbing the tight muscles. "What do we do now?"
"If the break is like a flaw in a crystal, perhaps we could cleave it there," Brianna said.
Kithri shook her head. "I don=t think so, not with any tool we=ve got. It took a lazer cutter to slice through jaydium."
"Too bad we don=t have that force whip of yours," Lennart said. "It packs a pretty good wallop."
"The last time I saw it was back with the pirates," Eril said, shaking his head. "I don=t know if it even made it here with us. The next time a gastropoid brings us a meal, we could jam the door open. Maybe with the stylus."
"Worth trying, heyh?" Lennart nodded. "And then what?"
Eril stared at the wall, thinking hard. Kithri and Brianna also watched him, as if waiting for his signal. Then what? he asked himself. Do we make a run for it as soon as the slug=s out of sight? Do we wait until we hear from Raerquel--or until the bombs start falling?
He knew, without having to ask, that he would be the one to decide. He was, for better or worse, their captain.
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