Friday, March 1, 2013

Jaydium - Chapter 35


by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler

Chapter 35

The domed foyer lead to a spacious chamber, equally deserted and lined with therine. The air was cold but surprisingly fresh. The colorless light reminded Eril of times during the war when he=d gone without sleep for days, running on stimulants and adrenalin. His mouth tasted stale and metallic.

They followed the rail westward as it disappeared down a narrowing tunnel. Their footsteps, muffled by the tube socks, made faint, rustling echoes. After a short distance, Raerquel paused to run its sturdy lower tentacles along the therine-coated walls.

"What are you looking for?" Eril asked.

"Transport vehicle," the gastropoid replied. "Even shielded from above, we are not going to crawl all the way to Mountains-of-Darkness."

An oval door, truncated at floor level, slid open under Raerquel=s manipulations. A long, narrow platform glided out on to the rail. Unlike the flat transport they had used before, this one was walled on three sides and had a bullet-nosed front and a gently arching roof. 

At Raerquel=s urging, the humans climbed on board, crouching under the roof. The platform was too narrow for them to sit side by side, so they nestled in a row like spoons. It took a few minutes for everyone to get settled, first the two women, then Lennart behind them.

Eril started to climb in back, but Kithri pulled him down between her and Brianna. He lowered himself into place, his slightly bent legs on either side of hers. Her damp curls smelled of the sea. He realized he was cradling her between his knees as a co-pilot would. The dark, curving tunnel loomed in front of them.

Raerquel crawled aboard, flattening itself to fit in the compressed space. They began to slide along the underground rail, rapidly gaining momentum. Their movement was smooth and almost silent, except for the air streaming past. Any resemblance to Eril=s first duoflight down a Manitou tunnel vanished at once. This was much more like slipping through the greased tubes in the Academy scramble course. The nose piece sheltered them from the worst of the wind, but from time to time the chill air tugged at Eril=s damp hair.

After a short distance, a second rail appeared on the tunnel ceiling. It dipped down until the carrier was anchored at both top and bottom. Once they were underway in earnest, the diffuse lighting disappeared. Occasional isolated spots passed so quickly they seemed no more than flickers in the darkness.

"Eril?" Kithri turned and spoke over her shoulder, her voice a reedy whisper against the hiss of their passage. "Do you think we=ve still got a chance?"

"Raerquel must think so, or it wouldn=t have come halfway across the continent for us." The gastropoid couldn=t see their translator panels, but Eril kept his voice low. 

"But couldn=t it have...just to save us? To take us to a safer place..." Eril heard the undertones of anguish in her voice. He didn=t understand what it was, only that it had nothing to do with Raerquel.

"After the way it skipped out on us when we were no longer any use?" Lennart said from in back of them. "Not likely."

"Raerquel=s just as dedicated to peace as it always was," Brianna said. "We just don=t understand its motives very well. I was wrong...about a lot of things. I confused personal affiliation with goal-alliances. What matters now is that Raerquel succeed, even though the odds are dismal. What=s the good of refraining from cultural interference when the result is no culture at all? How can I justify sitting back like some damned observer when there=s even the remotest chance?"

She flinched as if a bomb had just exploded nearby. There was no sound except the hiss of the air streaming by. "I=ve been so sheltered, so--spoiled all my life. Golden girl, golden career, what could go wrong? Oh, I studied all the sociocultural ramifications of war, but I never..." She flinched again. "I thought the cave-in was the worst thing that could happen to me."

Eril turned his head to look at her. "Are you all right?"

"All right? Will any of us ever be all right?"

I can=t change what happened to her, he thought, can=t give her back the person she was before those three days in the dark. She was, he realized, damaged in a way that could never be healed, just as Kithri was.

Just as he was. 


"I survived, then and now," Brianna went on. "By all rights, I shouldn=t have lived through either disaster, but I did. Just as we will now. Maybe there=s a reason, maybe we were meant to succeed..."

"Maybe," said Kithri, "we can make that happen, whether it was meant to or not."

By all the powers of luck and space, Eril thought, I hope she=s right.


Eril=s muscles ached from sitting still. He=d been half-hypnotized by the rocking movement of the transport and the monotonous whoo-oosh of their passage through the tunnel. He hadn=t noticed when the lighted ceiling strips reappeared. The vehicle slowed, then came to a stop in a large rectangular room with generously wide exit ledges.

"City-of-Darkness," Raerquel said in as quiet a voice as Eril heard any gastropoid produce.

"We made it," Brianna said. Her voice was light, almost breathless, her eyes fever-bright.

The climb to the inhabited levels grated on Eril=s nerves. The angles of the ramps were all wrong for human legs, but Raerquel undulated up them at a rapid pace. After a sustained climb, long enough for Eril=s muscles to become cramped and burning, they emerged into a rounded intersection of therine lined tunnels. The few gastropoids they met hurried about on their own business. 

Suddenly one of them called out. "Raerquel! Clan-superior Raerquel!"

"What news, Duvach?" Raerquel called back. "You are unharmed? Any major damage to the city here?"

"We are safe for the moment. But after you left, Ru-elliven halted all work on the project. The other Council members were forced to agree. Even if the mind linkage can work, it is now too late."

"And you, Duvach? Are you thinking it is too late for understanding instead of destroying?"

"You are my clan-superior and have taught me otherwise. It is never the time to be giving up hope."

As they talked, the two gastropoids slithered up the corridor at a brisk pace, leaving the humans to follow. Kithri stumbled and had to run a few steps to keep up. She stared at the tunnel walls with a peculiar, almost mesmerized expression on her face.

Eril caught her as she tripped again. "You=d better watch where you=re going."

"Eril, these are jaydium tunnels." Her face had gone chalky, her eyes dark and haunted. "And this stuff on the walls--this therine--it will become our jaydium."

"But there isn=t any jaydium on this world," Brianna said in a puzzled voice.

"They=re jaydium tunnels, all right," Kithri answered in a deadly calm voice. "How could I fly them as I did--and hate them as I did--and not know them now?" 

A thought snaked through Eril=s mind, If we somehow manage to stop this war, how will that change things in our own world? If there=s no jaydium, will there still be a Stayman, an Albion, a Fifth Fed? Will our world die if this one lives? And even if we knew that it did, would we have any choice in what we do now?


They came quickly to a smaller, downscaled version of the railway depot. The vehicles here were the familiar land transport platforms without any siding or nose cones. Raerquel and Duvach boarded the nearest, followed by the four humans.

They started off slowly. Eril studied the branching passages and tried to imagine them as the Stayman tunnels after some cataclysm had wrenched them into corkscrews. He didn=t want to think what would happen to all of them, should they be inside the tunnels when that happened. If it happened, he reminded himself.

They traveled deeper into the mountain, though there was no discernible change in the lighting or freshness of the air. Eril wondered how many tons of rock hung above them or how much firepower it would take to penetrate this far. Being underground couldn=t be easy for Brianna, that was sure. She was sitting behind him and Lennart had one arm around her shoulders. She stared ahead, her features set, as if she were mentally working navigational problems -- or whatever tedious and demanding calculations she did in her field. Her fingers laced together, knuckles white like bare bones. 

Raerquel brought the platform to a halt at the side of a narrow tributary tunnel. They all climbed off. "The laboratory is now only a short distance."

At first the sound was so low Eril felt it only as a vibration. Before his mind could grasp what was happening, it escalated, rumble upon intensifying rumble. Pieces of therine tumbled from the walls and smashed into powder. Behind him, Brianna screamed, but her voice was soon lost.

Eril=s senses went painfully acute. Each shard of therine, each mote of dust, each quiver of the rock beneath his feet, each sound--even the harsh breathing of the others--all etched indelibly on his mind. For an awful moment, his body wouldn=t move. Therine fragments, sharp as knives, came tumbling off the wall in jagged sheets. They crashed on the exact spot where he would have been if he hadn=t paused. He jumped backward, sweating cold.

Every instinct urged Eril to get away, back down the tunnel. Brianna and Raerquel were nearest the platform. He gestured to them to go back, then reached for Kithri, who was standing right beside him--

Suddenly a giant fist of air slammed into him. Curling and rolling, he came smack against something hard and cold. Fist-sized rocks, dust and pieces of therine showered over him. He laced his hands protectively over the base of his skull.

A rain of stones struck him with bruising force. One hit his spine directly. A bolt of searing pain lanced through him. For a moment he couldn=t breathe, couldn=t move, couldn=t feel his legs. Fire filled his head. He choked, hardly feeling a therine sliver from the ceiling slash through his outer arm. Luck was with him and it was only a superficial cut.
More rock cracked, toppling, adding dust to the splintered therine. At his back, Eril felt the curve of another warm body.
Let it be Kithri. Let her be all right. Then a thought shivered through him. Maybe it would be better if she were killed right away, rather than have to dig her way out and slowly die here in the dark, maybe alone. He thought of the scars on Brianna=s hands.
The noise decreased suddenly, then rose again with more falling rock. Eril pulled himself into a tighter ball, his eyes squeezed shut. Then, suddenly, there was silence.
Eril waited for ten heartbeats, then ten more. Finally he dared to open his eyes. His lashes were wet and sticky. He dabbed at them with the back of one hand, but only made his eyes water worse. He sat up, blinking and waiting for his tears to wash the debris from his eyes. The light was dim and uneven, a fraction of its former brightness.
"Kithri? Kithri! Lennart--Brianna?" With every syllable, the light panel on his chest leapt to brightness, casting eerie shadows. "Raerquel, are you all right?" It hurt to swallow, to force the muscles of his throat into the pattern of speech.
Someone touched his shoulder--Kithri, her skin ghosty with dust except for one blood-dark cheek. Dust caked her damp curls. He grabbed her and buried his face against her neck. Her muscles tightened as she held on to him.

"Oh my god..." Behind them, Lennart had struggled to a sitting position. He gestured in the direction of the transport platform.
Rock and splintered therine completely blocked the tunnel and spilled out along the landing. Brianna=s foot, still in its sock of gray fabric, shone weakly in the light. The slender ankle disappeared beneath tons of wreckage.
"Bri!" Kithri struggled to her feet.
Eril grabbed her elbow, twisting her around. "It=s too late!"
Kithri jerked away from him, scrambled through the debris, and knelt beside the rockfall. She pulled a few of the smaller chunks of stone and therine and threw them aside. A piece of rock the size of her head came hurling down, narrowly missing her.
"There=s nothing you could have done," said Eril.
She sat back and took a deep, sobbing breath. "It=s not fair, to have come so far and to end like this."
"Raerquel! Clan-superior, speak!" That was Duvach. Dust and gashes made a harlequin pattern of its skin. Raerquel had been at the extreme edge of the rock slide, while Brianna, standing behind it, had suffered its full force. Frantically Duvach hauled debris off its fallen leader, using all its appendages, even the fragile upper tendrils.
Brianna may be beyond our help, but Raerquel...maybe there=s still a chance! 

Eril raced to Duvach=s side and grabbed whatever he could, rock, therine shards, handfuls of pebbles. Kithri and Lennart worked beside him with equal fervor. Eril=s back cramped, threatening spasm, but he hardly felt it. Fury, red and hot, surged through him, masking his body=s pain. He tore into the rock fall as if it were a tangible enemy, something he could rip apart with his bare hands.

In a few minutes, they were able to clear away a space around Raerquel=s body. Eril felt a renewed surge of hope. Raerquel=s hide was cool and sleek under his hands. Its head had sunk mostly into its body, its appendages tightly coiled but still visible. Duvach kept calling its name.

"Not dead--it can=t be dead, too!" Kithri whimpered. "Do you hear me, you stupid slug? You can=t die, too!"

"Don=t waste your breath," Lennart said wearily. "It can=t hear you."

"Don=t tell me what I can=t do!" she rounded on him. "We depend on this damned thing, it gets us all the way across the ocean--and then it dies on us--"

She punched the unresponsive gray lump with both fists. Her voice was half a sob and half a scream of raw pain. "You can=t die and leave me here!"

Eril put his arms around her. He felt her loss as if it were his own and knew it was not only 
Raerquel she was crying out to. It was everyone who=d ever left her with nothing but a desolate chip of rock--her father, Hank, space only knew who else. And in a strange way, she cried out for him, too, for the fatherless boy he had been, and the young pilot...

She bent her head to his shoulder, weeping openly. Her body, usually so taut and muscular, felt all bones, as if she would shatter at the slightest blow. 

"My friends," came a familiar deep voice. Eril=s head shot up. Raerquel=s head was barely discernible above the battered mass of its body. The light glinted weakly off its silvery hide.

Kithri raised her tear-streaked face. "You=re alive..."

"But wounded," Duvach said, running its delicate sensory tendrils over Raerquel=s head section.

Raerquel curled one slender upper tentacle with its old, characteristic grace. "Listen to me, my human-friends. We have lost the struggle here, but you must not. You must your own world... You must replicate...all the conditions..."

"Beloved clan-superior, do not be wasting your life energies with these mammalians," pleaded Duvach. It wrapped its muscular lower tentacles around Raerquel=s body, the flesh of one pressing into the other. "I will go for help."

"The...estivation too strong." Raerquel=s voice was fainter now. Its neck slits fluttered in between each hesitant word. "Duvach..."

"I am here."

"Take the the clan--my clan-inferior... Remember all I have taught you, the dream that is your true inheritance..."

Raerquel=s voice trailed off. Slowly its head disappeared entirely into the rounded silvery bulk of its body.

A wave of sudden insight shook Eril. All this stuff about "clan-superior" and "clan-inferior" has nothing to do with social status! It means parents and offspring! Duvach and Bhevon are Raerquel=s children... 

"Dead?" Lennart whispered.

"Estivating," replied Duvach.

Not for long, Eril realized. It was saying goodbye.

"It is not for me to question the actions of Raerquel Hath=djan. I only hope this task, and the extra time it take me before I can bring help, will not--will not--"

"Duvach," Eril said, laying one hand on the gastropoid=s hide. "We would not be the cause of Raerquel=s death. We owe it too much, and we--admire it. We respect what it was trying to do." His voice almost failed him. Let=s go now, as it wished..."

For a long moment, Duvach sat immobile and Eril feared it was too lost in its own alien emotions to help them. Then it extended a feathery tendril and brushed Kithri=s cheek. A droplet glistened on the silvery strand.

"Water . . . salt water. The water of life."

Behind Duvach=s heavy, inflectionless voice, Eril sensed its wonderment. Kithri, beside him, gulped and blinked, more tears streaming down her face.

"My Clan-superior Raerquel was right all along," Duvach murmured. "The light is in each of us, however strange our outer forms. Beneath all differentness, our waters flow as one."


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...

No comments:

Post a Comment