by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
The little village by the seashore was gone, along with its fairyland pier. Shattered therine lay everywhere, most of it in glittery splinters. Motionless gray bodies were heaped around the beach, clustered around the last remaining structure. A circle of quiet surrounded them, but off in the distance, towards the north, came muted, unintelligible hooting.
"Is this what=s left of your underground station?" Eril said.
Raerquel answered as they slowly circled the debris. "I had been hoping, without any degree of reasonableness, that this entrance would not be inundated with refugees."
"What do we do now?"
"There are several other entrances that we might reach."
"Won=t the same thing have happened there, too?" Lennart asked. "Mobs of frightened people trying to get to a safe place before all hell falls on them?"
"Very likely," Raerquel said. It guided the transport around the therine ruins and over the gently lapping water. "However, there is another entrance below the Council meeting platform, not known to the public."
"Your own private bolt hole," Kithri said, her voice bitter. "So the Council can get to safety while they let the brushies be blown to bits?"
"It is for the work we have yet to do," Raerquel replied, "not our individual survival--"
Its comment was cut short by a searingly loud whine above their heads.
"Duck!" Eril shouted. But there was no place to duck to and no shelter to duck under.
Without thinking, he pulled Kithri on to his lap and covered her with his body.
An instant of whiteness shot through him and then raw, blaring sound, and then no sound. Kithri=s fingers drilled into the flesh of his thighs. He held his breath as the platform rocked wildly. Something hot and wet drenched his exposed arms and legs. Blood--or water heated by the blast?
Behind his closed eyes, Eril=s head reverberated like an echo chamber, quivering with soundless vibration. The residue of the blast went on and on. A howl of pain burst from the hidden creases of his memory like a genie freed from a bottle and condensed into a sound, a
He saw himself sitting in his stinger, watching the scintillating particles that had once been a flagship and the man who commanded it.
The name broke into fragments, each syllable a sob. The sobs echoed and multiplied, rolling through his body and spilling out into of the cabin of the stinger. Each fresh wave hammered him thinner and thinner until he blew away like the darkening dust.
Eril had never admitted how close Weiram came to the father he needed, the father he=d lost when his own disappeared into the reaches of space. He couldn=t admit it now. But he remembered the unexpected touch on his shoulder, the kindly eyes, the ready smile. The words of encouragement given just as he=d reached his limit. Remembered the man who=d weaseled past the defenses of a rebellious young cadet, taught him, cajoled him, disciplined him. Loved him. And in the end, saved his life.
I should have died at Albion. Or New Paris, or any one of a dozen places, trying to hide from what I=d lost.
No. I should have lived. I should not have forgotten.
Eril opened his eyes and blinked. His ears brought him nothing but a dense silence. He struggled upright.
Beside him, Brianna sat with her mouth open, her fingers tearing at her hair and ears. Eril knew she was screaming, but he heard nothing. Kithri had collapsed ashen-faced against the rails. Lennart=s head was down between his knees with his hands clasped over the back of his neck. Raerquel had retreated into a featureless lump of silver flesh.
Eril grabbed Brianna by the shoulders and shouted for her to get a hold on herself. He couldn=t hear his own voice nor, judging from her reaction, could she. He forced her to meet his eyes, mouthing, Are you all right?, forgetting that the implanted translator couldn=t interpret it.
Brianna=s eyes came back into focus and she pointed to her ears. Me, too, he mimed and then turned back to the others. Lennart gripped the edge of the platform, retching. Kithri crawled to Raerquel=s side and hesitantly lay one hand on the gastropoid=s hide.
Grimly Eril considered their course of action if the gastropoid was dead or couldn=t be roused. Raerquel had rescued them because it still had hope, because it thought that together they could still make a difference. It had gotten enough from Kithri=s mind to convince it the experiment could still work. He=d be damned if he was going to let that go to waste because of freak bad luck. They=d have to make it to the Mountains-of-Darkness on their own, even if it meant paddling the transport like a raft. Skies only knew what they=d find there--maybe Duvach, who=d always been friendly, or one of the saner Council members. Someone who could carry on the project. But first they had to get there.
Eril was wondering how he could communicate this to the others when he noticed the faint,
"Can you hear that?" Lennart=s mouth opened and his throat moved as if he were shouting. Eril could barely make out the words. A few minutes later, his hearing had returned enough to activate the implanted translator.
Suddenly Raerquel=s head section extended upwards, popping up like a child=s box-toy. "Sufficient time is having passed for recovery of all?" it inquired, and began uncoiling its appendages.
"Raerquel!" Kithri cried. "We thought you were--"
"I placed myself into a state of protective estivation," it said, quickly regaining its usual pear shape and sending the platform forward at top speed. "I could not be risking damage to my sensory structures, so I timed the duration of my estivation to my best estimate of your recovery time."
"You timed?" Brianna said. "But estivation is an involuntary suppression of all but the most basic autonomic functions!"
"No time to be discussing!" Raerquel said. "We must move quickly now. We must be underground before the primaries hit."
Where the Council platform had once towered like an elegant dream, there now sprawled an irregular pile of shattered therine, interspersed with chunks of oozing gastropoidal flesh. A lone gastropoid, its skin a flat, yellowish gray, scored with abrasions and burn marks, swam slowly towards them. It halted, wavering as it studied them, and then dove out of sight. Raerquel called after it but it did not respond.
"Can=t blame the thing from running away from us," Lennart commented. "We=re the aliens here."
Raerquel brought the platform to a halt and they climbed out. The remains of a broad, rectangular landing was bordered by the wreckage of delicately fluted columns. Although they were forced to pick their away around the splintered therine, they encountered no unsurmountable obstacles. At the far end of the landing sat an oval-shaped pool.
Raerquel dove into the powder-filmed water and reappeared a few minutes later. They waited, shivering in the warm air.
"The entrance is passable," Raerquel said. "Let us proceed with haste."
"Will it take us that long to get through?" Kithri asked in an unsteady voice.
"Raerquel had to go down and check on everything." Eril tried to sound reassuring. "And come back out again. With full lungs, you won=t have any problem going straight through."
Her stricken expression didn=t waver. "What=s the matter?"
She wet her lips and swallowed hard. "I can=t swim."
Lennart looked at her in astonishment. "How can you not swim?"
"I never needed to learn! Maybe I knew how on Albion, but I can=t remember! There=s barely enough water in Port Ludlow to drink, let alone swim in--"
"It=s all right, I=ll get you through," Eril said.
Kithri glared at him. "Goddamn war-hero, you think you=re so hot, rescuing a lady in distress! And what are you staring at, Lennart? I suppose you consider swimming a basic requirement for civilization?"
"Shut up!" Brianna grabbed her shoulders and shook her. "Get control of yourself! What=s the matter with you?"
"Matter with me? I=m only scared half out of my skin--"
"You think you=re frightened now, you should have been the decoy for those pirates!"
Brianna snapped. Kithri ducked her head and twisted, as if to pull away, but Brianna held her fast. "You listen to me! The one thing--the only thing that kept me going was thinking, >Sooner or later that untranslatable bitch will find something that=s too big for her to handle, and I=ll be around to see it.="
Kithri flushed and met Brianna=s eyes. She stopped shaking. Her chin lifted. "Maybe you will, but it won=t be now."
Brianna let her go with a tentative, almost apologetic gesture, and Eril understood why she=d taunted Kithri like that. It was, in small measure, the repayment of a debt.
"Brianna, you go first," he said. "Then I=ll take Kithri down with me, and you last, Lennart."
Raerquel=s sleek shape disappeared into the water. Brianna slipped beneath the surface in a graceful dive.
"I=ll be right with you," Eril told Kithri. "You don=t have to swim, you just have to let me carry you along. You may feel like you=re running out of air, but you=ll have enough. I promise."
"I don=t have any choice, do I?"
He shook his head.
"Then it doesn=t matter how scared I am, does it? Let=s go."
She took a few quick, deep breaths, filling her lungs as he told her to, and jumped. Eril dove in after her. The water was surprisingly cold, but clear. Kithri was right in front of him, her hair floating around her face like a halo of curly seaweed. Beyond her, Raerquel floated like a metallic teardrop. Kithri grabbed his shoulder as he turned and swam deeper, following the gracefully undulating gastropoid. After a few moments, he could feel the force of her kicking.
Unexpectedly Eril came up bump! against an intact therine wall. He recoiled, hardly able to tell where the water ended and the glass-like wall began. Raerquel swam downwards, blue shadows rippling its silvery skin. With Kithri still clutching his shoulder, Eril dove deeper.
Fire began to creep along his diaphragm. Kithri was still hanging on, her fingers digging into his muscles. What would he do if she panicked at the unfamiliar suffocating sensation? There wouldn=t be much he could do...except to die with her.
The next moment they emerged from a short, wide tunnel into a small chamber. A few feet up, a final convulsive kick, and their heads broke together into a pocket of air.
Eril hauled himself onto a wide ledge in the oval-domed room and pulled Kithri up after him. She lay across the ledge, gulping air. A moment later Lennart=s head popped through the surface. Brianna and Raerquel had already pulled themselves up on the landing.
Eril grinned at Kithri. "That wasn=t so bad, was it?"
"Speak for yourself," she panted, grinning back and pushing her dripping hair back from her eyes. "I can think of easier ways of dying than drowning."
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