by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
Duvach left them at the entrance to the laboratory. Kithri followed the two men into the eerily shadowed room, blinking as her eyes adapted to the light. Chunks of jagged underlying rock punctuated the splintered walls and therine instruments lay jumbled everywhere. It reminded her of Brianna=s laboratory after the pirates ransacked it. Brushwacker sat in an undamaged area by the far corner. Sealed incisions crossed its hull like ridges of scar tissue.
Kithri pushed Eril aside and darted for the scrubjet, leaping piles of debris. Heart pounding, she yanked the cockpit door open. The duoapparatus looked intact, the headsets stored in their holders as neatly as if she=d done it herself. Eril=s force whip lay on a stack of folded clothing. She recognized her own overalls, Lennart=s space suit and Brianna=s jumpsuit. Four pairs of boots sat in a tidy row.
Eril and Lennart came up beside her, but Kithri couldn=t move. She stared at the force whip. Less than a week ago, they=d speculated whether it could jar open the hidden door to their quarters. Brianna had protested using her precious recording films to help locate the crystal fractures, as if anyone would ever read them.
Kithri took a step backwards, suddenly revolted by the scrubjet. It was nothing but a piece of metalloceramic alloy and circuitry, its surface pitted like a gnat-bitten fruit. Yet she had once abandoned three people to the space pirates in order to keep the damned thing for herself. And Brianna, who she hadn=t liked but had come to respect, Brianna had suffered the most for it. There was nothing she could do for Brianna now to make it right, nothing she would ever be able to say...
Lennart picked up the force whip. His fingers curled around the handle and his thumb settled over the firing stud. "How does this thing work?"
"Never mind, you won=t be using it," Eril said.
Shock waves rippled through the ruined laboratory. Kithri jumped reflexively, her heart rate soaring. Sheets of therine broke from the wall behind her with an incongruous tinkling sound.
"We=ve run out of time!" Eril held his hand out to Lennart. "Give me the whip, then both of you get inside."
Kithri hesitated, eyeing the 'jet.
"Captain." Lennart spoke gently, his voice a velvet counterpoint to the staccato rumbling of the mountain. "What you=re planning won=t work."
"The hell it won=t! It=s how we got here, isn=t it? And..." Eril=s voice wavered, "we can=t leave you here. Raerquel said to replicate the exact conditions."
Exact conditions? Kithri repeated to herself. The 'jet, the whip, the three of us...
"We got here together from Brianna=s world," she said to Lennart. "Why won=t it work now to send us back together?"
Lennart shook his head. The illumination was better here than and Kithri could see his eyes. The irises seemed only a thin film covering the emptiness of space.
"When you dumped me out of that interdimensional whatsis, you displaced a whole lot of spacetime energy," Lennart said. "The same energy it took to put me there in the first place. I don=t know why it took me so long to see it. Wishful thinking, I guess...not wanting to lose you."
First Brianna=s gone, then Raerquel and now Lennart, too. There=s got to be some other way! If I can just get the whip away from him--
"So we zap to some new place," Eril said. "We=ll still be alive."
The room shivered and swayed, as if the whole mountain range had suddenly shaken itself. There was a moment=s stillness and then everything slid sideways. Lennart slipped and fell. Kithri lost her balance, twisted and bounced off the side of the scrubjet. The base of one stubby wing caught her in the short ribs.
Rolling, Kithri spotted the handle of the force whip where Lennart had dropped it. She grabbed for it. The next moment she was sprawled on her back, Lennart=s weight pinning her down and his breath hissing in her ears.
"Give it back to me!"
She kicked out, searching for enough leverage to squirm free. Her fingers touched the control studs.
A spray of light spurted from the whip=s barrel, illuminating the ruined laboratory in stark brilliance. Chips of therine crackled and exploded as the beam lashed across the chamber. Kithri glimpsed the deep crack that ran through the floor, and the twisted bedrock underneath. More thunder rattled the room, and powdered rock showered down through the ceiling crevices.
Whatever happened, she must not let Lennart get the whip again.
The intense, white light of the whip shot out again, arcing over the humans towards the nearby scrubjet. It touched the edge of one wing. Sparks erupted in all directions.
Kithri blinked, her vision swimming. Suddenly the whip handle was torn from her grasp. She fumbled for it, but she couldn=t see a thing, just featureless afterimages.
"What the hell?" Eril muttered from somewhere behind her.
"Where are we?" Kithri asked. "Did we--Did it work? Are we back home?"
The room swayed nauseatingly for a moment before her sight cleared. She saw Lennart getting to his feet. Behind him, the ruined laboratory looked exactly as before. He staggered as the mountain rumbled again, but his hands were firmly wrapped around the barrel of the force whip.
"Don=t move. Either of you." He stepped back, too far for a quick grab.
"You don=t know how to use that," Eril said.
"Want to bet I can=t give a pretty good imitation?"
"Listen to me!"
"The only way for you folks to get out of here is to put me back where I was before," Lennart said bleakly. "If you were right, we wouldn=t still be here now.
"Look," he continued, half-pleading, "it isn=t so bad. I wasn=t waiting out there for someone to find me. It happened in an instant--one moment I was in the light storm and then poof! into your tunnel. The next thing I know, somebody else will zap me out again."
But it won=t be us... Kithri shivered.
"That won=t happen, and you know it," Eril said, getting to his feet. He moved slowly, his hands carefully away from his sides. "It was ratshit luck you went visible when you did and there was somebody crazy enough to use a force whip on you. You tell me the odds of that happening again. Nobody=s going to rescue you a second time--you=ll drift on and on until time itself winds down."
"Couldn=t we try--again--" Kithri stammered.
"Stop it!" Lennart=s voice was practically a sob. "Do you think I want this? Do you think I want to float around some godforsaken void, that I wouldn=t jump for it if there were any other way? I=m only one man, I can=t stop the goddamned war. I don=t know how! But I do know how to save two people that I love!"
Kithri stood up and walked slowly towards him. The rumbling had died down, so the only sound was the rasp of Lennart=s breathing. She went on, one slow step after another, until the barrel of the force whip brushed her chest.
Lennart transferred the whip to one hand and put the other around her. She leaned forward, her breasts flattening against him. His face felt dry under her fingertips, as if a process of mummification had already begun. She curved her shoulders forward, cupping her body around his.
Kithri felt him drinking her in, imprinting her in his flesh so that his body would remember what his mind could not. She trembled, for a moment afraid he=d take so much that she=d be left a brittle husk. She knew that some part of her would float forever in the void with him.
He lowered the force whip. She could grab it, wrest it from him. It would be so easy. Standing here, saying goodbye, that was the hard part.
Lennart=s lips parted from hers and his breath stirred the tangle of her hair. His heartbeat rippled through her body. Her hands rested on his chest, warm beneath the silken alien fabric. She would also carry a piece of him back to Stayman. She could never go back to the person she was before she met him.
A shadow moved beside her shoulder--Eril, holding Lennart=s space suit, bulky but light, and helmet. "I thought..." His voice cracked a little. "I thought you might need these...wherever you=re going."
Lennart grabbed Eril in a back-pounding hug, almost knocking the helmet from his hands. Kithri took the gear and stepped back, her eyes stinging.
It=s getting to be a habit, going soft like this.
Together Kithri and Eril fastened the catches on Lennart=s suit. It was an eerie replay of how they=d helped him out of it under the umbrella tree on Brianna=s world.
Reluctantly, Kithri flipped the last catch on the helmet. The thick rounded glass distorted Lennart=s face. Eril placed the force whip in one of Lennart=s gloved hands. Lennart backed up, fumbling for the controls.
"Come on." Eril touched Kithri=s shoulder. "You=ve already said goodbye."
Kithri ran her hands over the battered pseudo-suede of her pilot=s seat and sat down. The padding no longer fit her body perfectly. She=d lost weight and muscle since she last flew the Manitou tunnels.
"Len--" She meant it as a whisper, but no sound came from her throat. As she began to turn towards him, the brilliance of the force whip tore away her vision.
When she could breathe again, the first thing Kithri noticed was Eril=s hands on her shoulders. She couldn=t tell if he was comforting her or holding on to her for his own sanity.
"Eril, I can=t see anything."
"Me either." He lowered his hands. "It=s just like the first time."
Did we make it? She didn=t dare ask aloud.
She swung her legs out the cockpit door and felt for the ground. It was solid enough, but irregular. Cautiously she sniffed the slightly dank air. A familiar acrid tang flooded her nostrils.
Jaydium. Not therine, jaydium.
"Damned slugs--blew themselves up--after all..."
Without any warning, sobs welled up in her, hot and dry like a Cerrano coriolis. They tore at her throat and ripped through her body, pouring out of her, one wave of wordless anguish after another.
Kithri crumpled to the ground beside 'Wacker=s landing pads. Eril slid out of the cockpit and crouched at her side. He put his arms around her, rocking both of them back and forth. Through the shock and pain, she felt him tremble and silently gulp for breath.
Eril held on to her with fiercely, almost desperately, as if she were the one comforting him, as if she wept for both of them. It filled her with a strange and inexpressible solace, a sense that she was not alone as she=d been through the hours and days of grieving for her father. She would never be alone. Even if they were half a galaxy apart, they would still be a part of one other.
After a time they both grew quiet. Kithri scrubbed the tears out of her eyes with the back of one hand and blinked, willing her vision to clear. She thought they were in a dimly lit, enclosed place, but couldn=t be sure.
Eril pulled away from her. A moment later, he shoved a hard cylinder in her hands.
"The force whip," she murmured. "It came with us."
Brianna and Raerquel were long dead, thousands of years maybe. Lennart was lost someplace time didn=t even exist. Grief--for them, for everything else she=d lost--welled up in her again. She=d learn to live with it, she knew, but not to forget. With time, pain would fade. Pain, but not memory. Every time she flew a tunnel or chipped a piece of jaydium, she=d remember.
Kithri looked up, making out the shape of the scrubjet against the faint, rosy light of the partly chipped jaydium face. The tunnels pressed in on her like a prison, the mountain above her an unbearable weight. Her muscles ached, out of long habit, to run.
"Let=s see if this old 'jet will get us out of here," she said, startled to hear how calm she sounded.
Brushwacker came to life under her hands, as if it had never been tinkered with. They started off slowly westward.
The Cerrano Plain looked just like the Cerrano Plain. The radio static sounded just like radio static. The voice crackling above the static sounded just like the Port Ludlow tower operator.
"Bloodyluck! You better scramble if you want to get a haul down to the Fed Freighter."
She coughed, then remembered her hold was empty.
"They might not take off on sched," the tower operator continued. "They=re missing an officer--"
"This is Colonel Eril Trionan of the Federation Star Service," Eril cut in. "Convey my respects to Captain Tracey and tell him I=ll board soonest possible."
After they signed off, Eril asked Kithri to land the scrubjet. "Anywhere," he said. Puzzled, she bumped to a halt on the uneven ground, disengaged the engines and pushed the cockpit door open. She slid out, revelling in the dry, alkali breeze. The ground was level but uneven, here in the shadow of the jutting, snow-capped Manitous. To the west, the Cerrano Plain stretched flat as far as the horizon.
"Skies, I never thought I=d be glad to smell that again." She held out her arms to the wind, then turned back to him. "Why did you stop? Aren=t you in a hurry--to get back to your ship?"
Off this chip of dust, to some place where there are no tunnels and the only jaydium is sealed into star drives so you=ll never see or smell it again?
"They=ll wait for us." Eril grinned as he climbed out. "I=m not reporting back wearing the latest in slug nightgowns."
Kithri watched him pull the gray tunic over his head. One shoulder was dark with clotted blood and gray rock dust caked his face. The skin on his body gleamed like old ivory, except for his arms, where it was the color of honey. Like her, he=d lost weight since they last stood on Stayman=s desert plain.
He bent over to pull on his pants and she saw the angry, abraded bruise on his back. His muscles tightened suddenly. He gasped and froze, then slowly straightened up. The spasm passed. When his gaze turned outward again, shesaw herself reflected in the liquid dark of his eyes.
I can never forget this moment, never take you out of me.
A vision came to her, that they were standing at either end of an intricate web, joined by strands so sensitive that if either of them twitched, the other would quiver. This thread was Lennart, this one Brianna, this one a field of rancid flowers, this one the dying embers of a once idyllic planet.
Take some part of me with you, she pleaded silently as she stepped into his open arms. Up there, to the stars.
He folded her close. His hair smelled of a dozen things--sweat, seawater, jaydium dust, his own masculine scent.
She thought of the people and places she=d lost. Brianna and Raerquel. Lennart. My father. Albion. A planet of light and water.
A new thought came to her, a thought that brought both peace and exhilaration. My father ran and Raerquel stayed to fight, yet I owe my life to both of them.
Compassion flooded through her. I never understood why you took me away from Albion, she whispered to her father=s ghost. Or what it cost you to do it. I won=t waste what you=ve given me.
And you, Eril, I have to let you go, too. I have to make my dreams come true, instead of just holding on while they=re taken from me.
Eril wrapped her in his arms and held her tight, almost too tight to breathe. Kithri began to kiss him tenderly, hungrily. She felt a stirring in him and sensed again the things he couldn=t say aloud. They each carried their separate grief, like a private darkness, but what they gave each other in this moment turned it from a burden into a source of strength. The dust of Stayman lay beneath her feet, while above her swept the high clear skies and beyond them, the stars.
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