by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
For the next few days, Eril watched and waited for a chance to try wedging the door open. He kept the stylus with him, tucked in the folds of his cloth belt. The gastropoids who brought their meals were alert and careful, or maybe it was only his own rising tension that made them seem so. Each time one left, it would pause in the corridor outside before sealing the door, watching him with its expressionless head discs. He would turn away, hoping no hint of his impatience showed.
They passed the rest of the time exercising, eating and watching various programs on the broadcast unit. It had been installed with specially 'fixed= speakers in addition to the standard light panels. The only program that held any interest for Eril was the news, but Brianna took copious notes on other telecasts. Lennart and Kithri took shifts helping her, although they were seriously limited by the lack of a common written language. Everything had to be dictated and transcribed again.
One night, after everyone else had gone to bed, Eril found Kithri staring at the screen, studying a war report. She sat cross-legged on the floor, a sheet of seaweed film and stylus on her lap. As Eril knelt beside her, she bent and scrawled another note.
"Good news or bad?"
"It=s hard to tell," she said, putting down the stylus. "I guess good, since they=re still talking." She ran her hands over her face, looking bleaker than he=d ever seen her. "You know what=s the worst of this whole mess? If I knew some good had come out of what Raerquel=s trying, it would make losing 'Wacker a whole lot easier. I don=t know why else I bother watching this stuff. It=s just a bunch of propaganda. But I keep hoping I=ll see something--some news about Raerquel, some breakthrough..."
Eril woke with a start to find Kithri=s hand on his shoulder and her voice whispering his name.
"Eril! Eril, wake up! There=s something you=ve got to see..."
He sat bolt upright. His thoughts and vision seemed preternaturally clear, as if some celestial micrographer had cranked up the focus. Kithri sat beside him on his cot, leaning towards him.
"A cruiser blew up a NewHome ship just outside the solar system boundaries. From the size of the explosion, the NewHome ship was pretty heavily armed."
"Let=s take a look," he said.
Lennart rolled out of bed, alert and grim, but Brianna grumbled until Eril made it clear to her this was no trivial annoyance. They gathered around the broadcast screen, where the light from the panels played across their faces like a bizarre, moving camouflage.
"...polar-orbiting intelligence satellites," droned the announcer=s deep, expressionless voice.
"...untranslatable are now making confirmation of unprovoked invasion of peaceful system territories...valiantly defended by our heroic forces..."
"And I thought you were a pompous ass at the Council hearing," Kithri murmured to Eril.
"That makes two of us."
"This stuff sounds like it=s been censored," Lennart commented. "But is the real situation better...or worse?"
"Statement issued by Planet-of-Home High Council Defense Coordinator is following...
'We are not violating the sacred responsibility of Flesh-Before-Naming in this confrontation with the degenerate inhabitants of planet NewHome. Instead, we are fulfilling our obligation in meeting any escalation with an even more definitive countermeasure. Our first priority must be the continuation of the true race, which cannot be accomplished by either appeasement or rabid peace-mongering.="
"Now that," said Lennart, "sounds bad in anyone=s language."
">We will not shirk from our duty and we will not weaken in our resolve. We will strive without reservation, to the utmost of our powers, until this pernicious influence has been permanently neutralized from the face of the universe!="
"That," said Kithri, "sounds even worse."
The next day there was neither breakfast nor lunch. When dinner came, the gastropoid that brought it was one Eril didn=t recognize. It did not attempt to speak to any of them as it dropped the leaf-wrapped bundles of food. Duvach or even Bhevon would have exchanged a few words or perhaps waited while they began to eat. This one slithered back to the wall as quickly as possible.
As the gastropoid passed the threshold, Eril drew the stylus from his cloth belt. Flattening himself against the wall beside the door, he watched the opening grow narrower. He caught a glimpse of the corridor outside and the gastropoid as it crawled away. Slowly he bent down, concealing the stylus in his hand.
The gastropoid kept going.
Quickly Eril slipped the stylus into the opening. For a moment, the therine door flowed around it. Then it stopped before sealing completely. There was still a slender gap, barely enough to accommodate his fingertips. He tugged gently at it. The door slid open stiffly. He let go and it rebounded to its former position. To his relief, the stylus continued to hold it ajar.
He let out his breath, hardly daring to speak. The others clustered around him, touching the opening, touching him. Lennart mouthed something but the translator wouldn=t pick it up.
Eril took a deep breath. "We=re getting out of here. Now!"
Beyond the abandoned courtyard, they spotted a few gastropoids moving at their usual undulating gait, murmuring to one another. None of them took any notice of the humans. It was past dusk. The shadows made it easier to move unobtrusively, but they dared not talk, not even in a whisper, least their translator panels become beacons of brightness. For a short distance they travelled along the side streets behind a pair of gastropoids and overheard their conversation.
"This city is an easy target from space," rumbled one of them. "The Council are untranslatable if they think..."
"The only safe place is in the mountains," replied its companion. "Has your transfer come through yet?" Then the two gastropoids turned a corner and their voices were lost.
Towards the periphery of the city there was less traffic and more dark in the open spaces between the buildings. Between the clumps of parkland trees, shadows gathered like clotted blood.
The spaceport itself blazed like the heart of a brilliant-cut gemstone. Artificial light reflected off the ships, control buildings and scaffolding, splintering into minute rainbows. The four humans paused, squinting, at the edge of the field.
Eril lead them quickly across the periphery of the landing pads, skirting areas where there was a concentration of workers. Groups of gastropoids formed and then dispersed in a frenzy of activity. There was no immediate outcry and he began to breathe easier.
They=re all so frantic, they haven=t time to notice us. We must act like we have every right to be here.
Suddenly a gastropoid appeared directly in front of them. Its head section swung back and forth, exposing all four of its yellow-toned eye discs.
"Humans be halting! Be explaining your presence!"
They obeyed, clustering together more by reflex than design. "We are the guests of the scientist Raerquel Hath=djan," Eril said. "And we have permission to travel within the city boundaries."
"The space field is forbidden to all nonessential personnel."
A small crowd gathered around them, as quickly and silently as if it had been waiting in ambush. Eril recoiled, remembering the web restraints from the Council meeting.
"We were going to visit a friend--" Eril broke off as he recognized a gastropoid near the edge of the group--Araf=ex, the engineer Lennart had befriended.
"Planet-of-Home is on war alert status," the guard said. "Fraternizing with sub-sapient vertebrates is inappropriate behavior for a crisis. Human specimens are to remain motionless to be avoiding restraint enforcement! Sub-assistant, check their status."
"Look," Eril said in his most conciliatory tones, "we aren=t trying to cause any trouble, and we don=t want to interfere with your war effort. We didn=t realize there was anything wrong with our being here. Let=s not make a big deal out of a simple misunderstanding."
"Brigade-leader," said one of the lesser gastropoids, "Central Station reports that no permission has been granted for humans to be on the space field. They remind us that any such license, if given, would be automatically revoked during the war alert."
"What is the name of this friend you claim to be visiting?" the commander gastropoid demanded.
"Now that we know we=re not supposed to be out here," said Eril, "we=ll find our way back to our quarters on our own. Thanks, but we don=t need any help. Sorry for the disturbance, folks." He raised one hand to wave goodbye, then realized the light panel couldn=t translate the gesture.
The ring of silvery bodies closed in, now four or five deep with very little space between them. Only Araf=ex held back, watching...waiting. Eril=s eyes darted around the circle, searching for the weakest point. He hesitated, unwilling to commit himself to a useless charge.
We=ll never break through. Not unless we can sprout wings or jump like sand fleas.
The threat in the deep-toned alien voice was unmistakable. It sent Eril=s imagination reeling into the past, when he stood not in an alien spaceport but in a ruined, jewel-hued courtyard. And the voice that echoed through his skull demanded not a name but a location.
"Jaydium? Where is jaydium?"
Brianna screamed suddenly and pushed her way towards the ship. She stumbled over the first silver body, clawing and scrambling back to her feet. Eril leapt after her as the gastropoids turned, tendrils uncurling with ominous slowness.
Jets of colorless liquid shot from their tentacles, lacing Brianna with a network of gleaming strands. Even before she was frozen into immobility, the net settled on the remaining three humans.
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