by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
Silence woke him. Eril blinked and struggled to focus on the nearest wall. It was about three feet from his nose and he assumed he was seeing clearly, for it was just as blank and unbroken by window or door seam as the other three. And he was still hanging in the restraint web, alone in his tiny cell.
He tried to stretch and then wished he hadn=t. Even the slightest movement sent ripples of pain through his joints. He took a deep breath to clear his mind. It was no good. The air was stuffy, almost dense.
He could only guess how much of the day had gone by while he=d hung there, for the indirect lighting gave no sign of the sun=s passage. There was no evidence of his hosts or the food and water they=d previously provided. Or the execution squad he expected. Neither was there any news of his companions or the progress of Raerquel=s experiment on the far side of the ocean.
But news of war, that had surely come. Wave after thunderous wave had shaken the prison block while he=d hung there, helpless.
On the periphery of the spaceport, the prison building would be well within the first strike target zone, but Eril guessed the rumbling was caused by the blast of ships taking off under emergency scramble conditions. If the field had been bombed directly, he would not, in all likelihood, still be here to speculate about it.
Now, as he struggled awake from his fitful dozing, he heard none of the previous bone-shaking racket, only sepulchral silence.
They=ve blown themselves up, damn them. We were too late. Or maybe Raerquel tried, and they just wouldn=t listen. Now there=s no one left to come looking for us, even if it would only be for a short march to the euthanasia chamber.
Eril jerked against the restraining web and only succeeded in digging the stands deeper into his pressure-inflamed flesh. He tried to distract himself with thoughts of the others, hanging in their own isolated cells.
Some leader he=d turned out to be, with all his dreams of alien alliances. Or how about that nick-of-time escape plan? If only Kithri had laughed in his face, as he=d so thoroughly deserved, when he first proposed running jaydium with her. If she had, she=d be safe in Port Ludlow now, sipping brew with the other miners. It was all his fault she was here with him, waiting for certain death. No matter that she=d come to trust him, to reach out to him, to look beyond the dust on her fingers... He wished they=d had a chance to make love, because he had no words for what he wanted to say to her.
And Lennart would still be floating in that interdimensional gap. Time would have no meaning for him. He=d never know what happened to his age of peace or face the pirates.
Neither would Brianna, who=d go on dreaming of alien civilizations and never see one...
He was getting maudlin, thinking like this! Wallowing in self-pity, paralyzing himself with guilt. To hell with it!
From behind the seamless door panel came scuffles, so faint that Eril held his breath, listening. Over the sudden pounding of his heart he heard them again. Hairline cracks appeared in the far wall. The door jerked open, stuttered and came to a stop less than a quarter open.
Outside air, laced with acrid dust, swirled into the tiny cell. Eril coughed, his eyes watering.
"Eril-human, you are still alive?"
Eril glimpsed a flash of silver hide through the partial opening, then the curve of coppery eye disc scanning his translator panel. A slender tentacle slipped through the opening.
"Who=s there? Come on, you damned slugs, you=ve tortured me enough--don=t keep me hanging here, tell me what=s going on!"
"It is I, Raerquel--"
"Raerquel! What the hell are you doing here?"
The scrabbling noises escalated into a rhythmic thumping, a pale echo of the previous blasts. Raerquel answered slowly, its normally resonant voice a tinny whistle, as if its vocal slits had been damaged.
"I am here--" thud! "--to rescue--" thud! thud! "--my mammalian friends--" thud! crash! "That is, if I can be opening--" thud! "--this untranslatable door!" thud-thud-thud!
The gastropoid paused, as if drawing breath. "It appears to be stuck."
No shit. "What=s going on out there?"
"Skirmishing at outer planets has been escalating." Raerquel sank into a mound outside the door. Its tentacles drooped like wilted blossoms. "Several armed ships from Tomorrow were not destroyed."
"They got through--"
"Yes, to Planet-of-Home. We do not know if this was the intention of offspring-leaders, or only an accidental opportunity. These missiles were unguided and fell at random targets--some in the deep plains to the far south, some on polar regions."
"Did they--did they all hit uninhabited areas?"
"No. Some fell directly on Ocean-of-Light, destroying the Council chambers. Planet-of-Home has retaliated, sending our entire armed fleet into space."
"And the noise I heard? The ships taking off?"
"Those that were still spaceworthy. When the strike command was given, the offspring planets sent missiles armed with clean-fusion devices that they had based secretly in our asteroid belt. These were aimed at our most vital defense areas."
All those ships... Eril felt sick at heart.
"Is there any way of getting me out of this thing? I=d rather not die hung up like this."
The shadow outside heaved itself upright. "This door is not responding to normal biochemical controls and I am not able to pass through the available passageway."
"But I could slip through there if I were free." He eyed the opening. "Could you reach through and dissolve this thing off me?"
"Certainly. Your restraint web is designed to control vertebrate specimens and should be responsive to my manipulation."
Several slender appendages snaked through the open door. They extended to their full length and stopped, waving uncertainly as the eye discs moved back and forth. A lump of flesh slid along the foremost tentacle, like a bolus of food slipping down an elastic tube. It flattened out as it reached the tip, a wave that had dissipated its force. Eril watched, half in horror and half in fascination, as another swelling travelled the length of the appendage towards him.
"What--are you actually growing that thing?"
"The process is akin to that of protoplasmic streaming in protozoans. You are familiar with the concept?"
"No, but it doesn=t matter. You=re almost there. Now if you can only get this stuff off me--"
Raerquel=s appendage stopped elongating a hand=s length from Eril=s thigh. The waves of added flesh slowed, thickening the tentacle. Feathery branches sprouted from its farthest tip, each delicate strand curling and reaching until it touched the restraint web.
Eril felt a sudden increase in pressure as Raerquel=s appendage-tips slipped beneath the therine webbing. With an effort he kept still. What was the gastropoid scientist doing? Was it going to rip the stuff off him?
The restraint web continued to tighten, further constricting his breathing and digging painfully into his skin. "Raer--"
"Please be patient, Eril-friend," the alien said in its deep, toneless voice. "Even as water is expanding slightly as it is freezing into ice, this therine is partaking of minor volumetric changes."
The web clenched down harder and little black spots rose before Eril=s eyes. His vision grayed around the edges. "I=m--having--trouble--breathing."
Suddenly the pressure dropped away. His knees buckled under him and he fell to the floor.
"Eril-friend, are you harmed?"
Eril pushed himself up on his hands, his ribs heaving with deep gulps of air. "I need a moment to catch my breath."
"My friend, can you do that as we proceed? We have only a little time before the retaliation is arriving."
"Go? Where is there to go?" Eril clambered upright and slipped sideways through the door opening. "I just wanted to die on my own two feet."
"To the mountains, to continue our struggle for peace. Yes, bombs are already falling, therefore we must be utmostly exerting ourselves. There is no longer any time for other concerns."
The corridor walls, once glassy smooth, were crazed and splintered. Towards one end, a mound of silvery bodies lay in a pool of colorless body fluids. One of them looked hauntingly like Araf=ex, but its distinctive neck slits were partly covered by rolls of limp flesh and he couldn=t be sure.
Eril ran his hands over the ridges of swollen flesh criss-crossing his arms. The web had saved his life by cushioning the worst of the blast concussions.
"We must be rescuing your comrades without delay!" said Raerquel, undulating in the opposite direction at top speed. "Only human prisoners were retained during the crisis. All of our own people under confinement were summoned into military service or released to survive as best they can. Here is a cell with a living being inside!"
Raerquel came to an abrupt halt and ran its lower appendages over the wall.
"How are you going to open that thing? I thought the prison doors wouldn=t answer to your signal."
"Prison structures are manipulable like any other therine," Raerquel explained, continuing its scanning motion. "From the exterior surface, since only the inside is >fixed=. We encountered a problem--" the door slid smoothly aside, "--because your door was mechanically stuck. Ah, it is the societies-scientist!"
Brianna turned a pale, swollen-eyed face towards them. She looked like a bedraggled butterfly caught in a spider=s web. Raerquel dissolved the restraints and she staggered into Eril=s arms.
"Time to get out of here, Bri," he said, hoping that she=d respond to the firmness in his voice. "This place is about to eat dust."
She didn=t speak, yet Eril could see the fire in her green eyes as she drew herself upright. He=d thought her a fragile butterfly, but she was more like an ancient rapier, slender tempered steel. She followed Raerquel out the door, unsteady for only the first steps.
They found Lennart in the next cell, looking a little dazed. Raerquel disappeared down the hallway, where it began hooting that it had found Kithri.
Kithri blinked and scrubbed her eyes with the back of one hand as the gastropoid dissolved her restraint web. The strands left flaming welts on her bare arms. Eril remembered how she=d looked outside that rundown tavern in Port Ludlow, too proud to admit she=d been crying. Suddenly he hoped, with all the hoping left in him, that by some impossible chance they still had a chance to stop the war.
"You came back for us," she said to Raerquel. Her voice was scratchy but wondering. "I thought your peace movement was more important than anything. I thought we were nothing but tools--something to throw away as soon as we were no use to you any more."
Raerquel brushed a feathery tentacle against her bruised face. "We may not have shared Flesh-Before-Naming, but we have shared other things...a field of flowers, sunlit waters...and so many things I cannot yet be understanding. The fear, the rushing darkness, the loneliness. How can you humans live, so separate, so alone?"
"If we don=t get out of here now, said Brianna, "how we live will be an entirely moot point." She stood in the corridor with Lennart, beckoning them to hurry.
Sometimes, Eril thought, we live by leaving before those we love can leave us.
Kithri stumbled as she crossed the threshold. Eril caught her and wrapped an arm around her.
Sometimes we spend the rest of our lives afraid it=ll happen again. Sometimes we get a chance to change things.
The elegant spaceport towers lay in ruins, and those ships that had not already taken off had been reduced to splinters. The cream-colored pavement, designed to withstand the exhaust of the massive freighters, was peppered with blast craters. A few gastropoids moved slowly about the wreckage, pausing at the larger piles of debris. Above it all, the sky that had once been as clear as Ocean-of-Light glowered a deep, murky red.
"Atmosphere-pollution weapon to blind our forces by distorting light patterns," Raerquel commented as it led them in an eastward circuit.
"Ah!" Lennart said, as if he=d been punched in the solar plexus.
At the edge of the parkland, they discovered an abandoned transport platform. Raerquel slithered on board, followed by the humans. The platform rose slowly, as if in some demented mechanical way it mourned its fallen comrades. Raerquel kept it low, following the contours of the ground.
The city was less of a shock after the spaceport, which had sustained the worst of the attacks. Here and there buildings still stood, some of them apparently intact. From the distance, they could see a ripple of gray-toned bodies moving between the ravaged lacework towers. They were all very quiet as they skirted the city and began to wind through the hills.
Finally Kithri stirred. She=d been sitting, gripping the edge of the platform with white-knuckled fingers. "Are we going to ride this thing all the way across the ocean?"
Eril read her thought. They=d have no protection at all against another round of bombing.
"For the next part of our journey," Raerquel said, "we will be going underground, not over the water."
"Indeed. Swimming though waters of light may be exquisite pleasure but hardly an efficient means of transportation. Do you think because you mammalians can dart about on your stilt-like appendages that we gastropoids have no need to get places quickly?"
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