Friday, October 26, 2012

Jaydium, Chapter 17


by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler

Chapter 17


Even before Kithri stepped through the doorway, she recognized Brianna=s voice.

"--positive evidence it=s the same. I=ve spent a whole year studying this site and--"
Lennart spotted Kithri and jumped to his feet. He and Brianna had been sitting on a low bench in a large, light-filled room. Kithri caught a glimpse of his unbruised face before he enveloped her in a hug.

"They swore that magic ointment would fix you..." Lennart ran one hand over Kithri=s face, touching the lip that had been cut.

If it had been me with Red-hair instead of Brianna, Kithri thought, he would have tried just as hard to stop him. She flinched and took a step backwards.

Brianna stood up. She too wore a belted one-piece tunic with a translator panel across her chest, but on her figure it looked alluringly feminine. There were no traces of the hollows around her eyes or the patchy texture to her skin that had appeared with her first capture by the pirates.

Kithri looked away. She didn=t want to be reminded of how willing she=d been to let Brianna suffer. "You=re all right, too."

"As you can see," Brianna said stiffly.
Kithri=s eyes darted around the room, the low broad bench, the two blank walls and third wall of shallow built-in shelving covered with mysterious-looking glass objects. Raerquel had disappeared, along with any trace of the door. "Where=s Eril?"

"Still recuperating, is my best guess," said Lennart.

Kithri caught the undertones of worry in his voice. Acid filled her mouth and a throb of pain shot through her temples. Even though her physical injuries were healed, some part of her was still back with the pirates, still holding on...

"Did you recognize the city when you were outside?" Brianna asked suddenly.

"It looks just like yours, except for the color," Kithri said.

"Come here, look at this." Brianna grabbed Kithri=s hand and pulled her to the far wall, where rows of clear glass artifacts lined the shallow shelves. She picked up a crystal tube, colorless and unmarked, and handed it to Kithri. It felt warm and very slightly supple, not like ordinary glass.

Kithri wondered if it would shatter it she hurled it against the opposite wall.

"You see?" asked Brianna. Her eyes gleamed with undisguised enthusiasm.

"I have no idea what it is," Kithri said. "Do you?"

Brianna ignored the barbed question. "Watch what happens when you put it back."
Kithri replaced the tube on the shelf. It rolled a little and then halted abruptly, as if held by a magnet. She tried sliding it along with her fingers, but it would not budge until she gave it a sharp upward tug.

"And there=s the malleable quality of the building material," Brianna went on quickly, before Kithri could say anything more. "You=ve seen the gastropoids sculpt the stuff with their appendages? We=ve tried it, but without result. Maybe our body temperature=s wrong, or else it might require a special catalyst. In the Dominion, we have plastics that can be reshaped and set using liquefying agents and fixatives, but nothing this durable."

Kithri ran one fingertip along a chain of fist-sized crystal bubbles on the next shelf. Brianna=s words swept by her like a dust zephyr. Her nerves felt as if they=d been scoured raw.

Lennart stroked a slender frosty-white rod and said, "Bri was just telling me--when you walked in--she thinks we got zapped into another dimensional whatcha-call-it. Only this time we=ve gone back in time and this is an earlier version of the same city."

"I warned you that might happen if we were transported with you along," Brianna told him, as if it were somehow his fault. "I don=t know what created the astonishing colors in my city--or what will happen, rather. They=ve always reminded me of the artificially brilliant hues produced when mediocre gemstones are exposed to ionizing radiation. But that=s clearly not the case here. Ah! There=s so much to learn--such an unparalleled glimpse into the past!" 

"If this is the past and I somehow dragged us back here," Lennart said thoughtfully, glancing upward, "then somewhere out there my people--the United Terran Space Command--are just beginning to settle space. And from here history goes two ways--your Dominion and the rainbow city or the Federation and Kithri=s desert planet."

A shadow flickered across his russet eyes. "My god...what=s going to happen to this city--to this whole world?"

"We don=t know that anything does," Brianna said briskly. "We can=t assume this is the cataclysm point--we can=t assume anything on this time line. That=s why it=s so important to study this civilization, to learn everything we can."

Kithri folded her arms across her chest and turned away from the shelves. This wasn=t some fantastical tri-vid drama they=d stumbled into, despite Brianna=s speeches. And yet, time-travel--or dimension-travel--wasn=t any more improbable than anything else that had happened to her since she=d been fool enough to take Eril Trionan on a jaydium run.


Her thoughts jumped around like sand-fleas. "What about the--slugs? It=s hard to imagine them building this place."

"Gastropoids," Brianna said, as if explaining basic facts to a slightly retarded delinquent. "Intelligent, civilized gastropoids. And yes, capable of creating this city. From what I=ve already observed of their ability to manipulate the building material, I=m certain of it." 

"In my time we=d never met an alien race, intelligent or otherwise," Lennart, still sounding shaken. "We sent out probes, searched the night sky and analyzed every blip on the radio waves, but we never found anything. For centuries, our writers imagined what they might be like, everything from bug-eyed monsters to telepathic crystals."

"In all my people know of present-day space, we too are alone," Brianna said. She walked over to the bench and sat down again, clasping her hands around her knees as if to forcefully keep them still. "Maybe there are still alien races out there in the stars, waiting for us to discover them, but I--" she hugged her knees hard to her body. Her voice was low and vibrant. "I could only dream of them as I sifted through their ruins. All my life I=d been trying to make dead cultures come alive...and here one is, just waiting for me."

"That=s assuming they=ll let you." Kithri couldn=t bear to stand still any longer. She began to pace up and down. "What do they want us for, anyway?"

"Given how different we are," Lennart said, "you can=t blame them for wanting to know something about us." He seemed to be regaining his usual equanimity.

"So we=re more like scientific specimens than prisoners," Kithri said.

"It doesn=t matter!" Brianna exclaimed. "None of this matters except they=re real and I=m here. And every moment I learn something new." 

Kithri kept on pacing. There was no place to run. Let her study the slugs all she likes, and I wish her joy of them. "So what are the rest of us supposed to do while you find out all this stuff?" she said under her breath, not expecting an answer.

And Eril--what would Eril be doing now if he were awake? Playing wonder boy diplomat, scheming to pioneer gastropoid-human relations? Mankind=s first ambassador to the slugs?

Kithri smiled humorlessly at the thought of Eril in a tux-suit, sipping cocktails and making small talk with a giant snail. Unlike him, she had not dreamt of discovering alien races or exploring strange new worlds. She had only dreamt of escaping Stayman=s everlasting dust. What she would find to replace it had never been more than a nebulous memory of flowery fields and cloud-dotted skies.

She stood still. Lennart, how right you were about us both being outsiders. Exiles is more like it.

Eril=s words came back to her, "Out of all that glory up there, what do you really want?" And again she had no answer.

"What about the door?" she asked, turning her thoughts in a more practical direction.

Brianna shook her head. "We spent a long time trying to find it, but we can=t determine its position. The seam melts right back into the wall." She shrugged. "It=s beyond any technology the Dominion has."

"Where was it, about here?" Kithri asked, running her hands over a section of uniformly smooth wall. She rapped on it, listening for the hollowness that might mark the slot for a sliding door. Her knuckles jarred against the unyielding surface.

"What exactly do you think you=re doing?" Brianna asked, scowling.

"I don=t like the idea of being anyone=s prisoner," Kithri said. "I=ve had enough of that, thank you."

"But we aren=t--" said Brianna.

"Let Kithri try if she wants to," Lennart said in his gentle, easy voice. "Who knows what she might find? She=s got the best survival instincts of any of us."

Survival? Kithri wanted to laugh in his face. Jaydium running could be hazardous, but being beaten up by space pirates or marooned on a world of talking slugs wasn=t her idea of an improvement. Her bloody luck had saved her skin, but that was about 
all. She might need a good deal more than luck for whatever came next.


The door slid open suddenly, almost in front of Kithri=s nose. She jumped back as a giant gastropoid slithered into the room. In its lower tentacles, it carried packages wrapped in the same silky fabric as their garments. At the sight of it, a rush of adrenalin surged through her, setting her heart pounding and her muscles aching to run.

"Greetings to you, our guest-humans," the gastropoid intoned.

Lennart walked over to the silvery alien, close enough to reach out and put an arm around it. "Hello, yourself. Pardon my asking, but which one are you?"

"Personal name being Duvach, assistant to clan-superior Raerquel. You are being reassured as to the well-being of your companions?" 

"All except the last one," Lennart said. "How=s he doing?"

The gastropoid said, "Now let you be partaking of food. Since the sustaining effects of the rejuvenation matrix are time-limited, nourishment is required to continue your healing process."

"What about Eril?" said Kithri, surprised to hear how strong her voice sounded. "Why didn=t you answer us?"

"You are already in possession of most recent information regarding the status of your fourth companion," the silvery alien said. Its voice sounded flat and bland, almost mechanical. "There is nothing I can be telling you which you do not already know."

Kithri exchanged an astonished glance with Lennart, but neither of them said anything. The hard things in life, she reflected, weren=t tangling with pirates or duoing through a coriolis storm--they were things like waiting. Waiting and guessing.

The gastropoid Duvach laid down its packages and, using its sturdy lower appendages, stroked the material of the floor in front of the low bench. The translucent glass grew up and outward under the alien=s touch, at first resembling an amorphous lump, then expanding to a huge fat mushroom, and, finally, a low but serviceable table.

Kithri watched the procedure, her uneasiness melting temporarily into fascination. Where did the material for the table come from? There was no trace of a depression in the floor, nor could she detect any mechanism by which more mass could have been carried to the surface. Superficially it looked like the slug was stretching the floor up and outward, the way Albionese children pulled stretchy-candy. Kithri glimpsed a flash of light, like a reflection on a liquid surface, where the tentacles touched the metamorphosing table--an illusion, a coupling agent, or--or was the slug secreting the stuff out of its own body?

The alien proceeded to create a second bench adjacent to the first. It placed the packages in the center of the table and settled itself in the opposite corner.

"Appropriate environment for human partaking of nourishment, as described to us, this is correct?"

After a pause and another exchange of glances, the three humans took their places at the table and began opening the packages. The first two intricately folded fabric packages contained thick-stalked leaves.

Kithri took a tentative nibble of purple-hued stuff. She didn=t recognize it, but she=d eaten stranger-looking things in the brush. It was salty and slightly rubbery, with a surprisingly pleasant tang. As she swallowed, she realized how long it had been since she=d eaten anything solid. Her stomach growled appreciatively, and she took another mouthful.

Brianna licked her fingers delicately. "This is seaweed, isn=t it?"

"Is this not adequate mammalian human food?" Duvach asked. "Our biochemical studies verified digestibility and suitableness of nutrients--" 

"It=s not what we usually call lunch," Lennart said good-naturedly. "But I guess it=s the best you could do. I don=t suppose you could come up with something like a steak?"

"We=re fine as vegetarians," Brianna interjected. She added as she scooped up fingerful of pale green strands, "Many molluscan genera are strict herbivores. We don=t know what cultural taboos we might violate by even asking for animal flesh."

"That=s all right by me," Lennart said. "I=m happy eating just about anything that doesn=t bite back. I just hope there=s a pile more of this seaweed stuff around, or we=re all going to end up a lot hungrier."

Kithri opened the next package, which proved to contain cubes of something pale and lemon-scented, and offered them around. She bit into one, surprised at the smooth texture and pleasantly tart taste. Whatever it was, was a more concentrated food source than the greens. With food in her stomach, she found herself thinking more clearly. The slugs--gastropoids, she reminded herself--had shown them nothing but good will so far. They=d escaped Brianna=s pirates. Eril would be all right. And wherever this place was--whenever this place was, it sure wasn=t Stayman. Her spirits began to recover.

Brianna meanwhile had finished the last of her pale-green strands. "Is this the sort of food your people eat, too?" she asked the gastropoid. 

Duvach sat motionless for a moment before answering, "Your pardoning, friend-human, but I have been instructed by clan-superior Raerquel not to be answering any questions. The intention is not to be impolite, but to avoid the appearance of cultural contamination."

Kithri didn=t know exactly what the gastropoid was referring to, but she had a feeling that it wasn=t good.

"We, contaminating your culture?" Brianna asked. "I don=t understand." She did not, in Kithri=s opinion, look in the least puzzled. Avid would be a better word.

"You=ve given us the freedom of this laboratory--it is a laboratory, isn=t it?" Brianna turned and gestured toward the shelves. "Surely you meant for us to study these artifacts?"

But Duvach was already undulating rapidly towards the door. It paid her no discernible notice as it sealed the opening behind itself.

"I have the feeling we=ve gone and done it," Lennart said somberly, "but what it is anyone=s guess."

Kithri found she had to agree with him.

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...

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