Art by Vincent Di Fate.
From the author: Far in the future, an interplanetary civil conflict has ground to an uneasy halt. Kithri, abandoned on a desolate mining planet, meets Eril, shell-shocked pilot. A freak accident sends them back to a time when their desert world was lush and green, when an alien civilization stands on the brink of a war of total destruction. They must choose to remain outside the conflict or to stand up for what they believe.
Relieved to still be alive, Kithri signaled shipbrain to begin the disengagement from duoflight. She resolved not to say anything about Eril's brief mutiny. They were still alive, she'd never see him again after today, and perhaps the storm itself had taught him better than to try it again. This wasn't space, where he knew all the dangers and how to deal with them. Yet she couldn't help thinking that in the end, when it mattered, he'd come through better than she expected. With him as a partner, she could duo her way through a black hole.
She knew she was rationalizing, making excuses. If she had any sense she'd turn around and fly back to Port Ludlow right now. But if she did, she=d be throwing away her last real chance to get off Stayman...
It's just one run. I can survive anything for just one run.
With the end of duolinkage, Kithri's vision returned to normal. She slowed the scrubjet to subsonic. To the north, just inside the boundary of the Plain, lay a pile of partially completed permacrete structures, the abandoned first colony site. Fine white dust rose from the disturbed soil where the slow-growing scrub had not yet, after centuries, re-established its dominion. The merest breeze blew it aloft, an eloquent reminder of the fragility of Stayman's ecology and the dismal failure of the first spaceport. The Federation had long since moved its base to the current location, where water was more readily available. It had never tried to revive the first site, a costly and difficult project. There was no reason to, as long as the miners were willing to haul the jaydium across the Plain.
Kithri lifted her eyes to the vast, whitened Manitou range, rising high above a line of brownish dust haze. Peak after purple peak surged skyward, hard-edged against the dark blue horizon. The drifted snow on the summits glimmered in the sunlight.
Behind her, Eril drew a quick, hissing breath. She was still in such rapport with him that she experienced his awe as if it were her own. The pleasure she felt at his mental touch built into a preorgasmic thrill. She caught her breath, her heart pounding in her chest.
Kithri drew the scrubjet to a halt at the rocky edge of the Plain. Her fingers flew across the buckles of the restraining straps. She yanked the door open and scrambled, breathless, to the ground. Eril tumbled out after her and caught her in his arms.
She held him tightly, fiercely, as if she could press her flesh through the layers of clothing and into his. His mouth on hers felt like velvet and then like steel. He cupped her head with his hands, his fingers stroking the smooth skin behind her ears. She slid her lips over his cheek, down the line of his jaw to the soft hollow of his throat, tasting him, inhaling his scent like perfume.
It's like making love to myself, she thought in amazement. The male self that is my perfect complement.
Kithri drew away, eyes closed as she drew his hands over her breasts. She swayed, almost overcome with the intensity of her feelings, and sank to her knees.
She put one hand to the barren ground for balance. A sharp-edged stone cut deep into her palm, drawing blood. The pain shocked her halfway back to rationality. The pounding in her ears faltered as she stared at the red droplets staining the grit on her hand.
That's my life draining away into the dust. Her stomach twisted into a knot of ice.
She drew herself upright, her sensual rapport with Eril shattered. "That's quite...something...I'd wondered what it was like--the backlash," she murmured, glancing away. "Hank always got randy after a duo flight, but I didn't feel anything."
"The women I trained duo with--we never connected like this." Eril's voice sounded husky and his pupils were so huge, his eyes looked totally black. "If you didn't feel anything for each other to begin with--there was nothing. Sometimes Hank and I would make bad jokes about it when we weren't in a scramble." His fingers sank into her shoulders and he pulled her closer, caressing her mouth and cheek. "Who cares what it was like then?"
Kithri pushed him away, wiped her eyes with the back of one hand and clambered to her feet. "This isn't getting us any jaydium."
Eril lunged upright, his breath coming in huge gulps. "That's all there is to it, then? We go on as if nothing had happened‑‑"
"What do you expect?" she snapped. "Instant affinity? Eril, we don't even know each other. Yes, I wanted you ‑‑ I wanted us. A moment ago--if there'd been room in 'Wacker or grass instead of this cursed rock ‑‑ well, there wasn't. Life's like that. It's over now. It's time to get back to work."
He caught her arm as she started back to the 'jet. "Have it your own way. But the next time we duo it'll happen again. Maybe worse. Do you think you'll be able to walk away from me then?"
Kithri turned from him, unable to reply, and jumped back into Brushwacker.
They flew slowly along the rapidly climbing slopes, past the altitude boundary of the meager vegetation. The familiar rhythm of the scrubjet soothed Kithri's jangled nerves. Her awareness of Eril's touch on the controls lingered as if they were still joined in duo, and that disturbed her. His parting challenge would not dissipate as simply as a few ephemeral hormones. She would have to find a rebuttal for him, for her own peace as well.
I always seem to want what I can't have. Why can't I take what little comfort life has to offer?
She had no answers. Not for him, not for herself.
As they climbed, the automatic pressurization came on, compensating for the thinner air. Kithri spotted the first few tunnels, some half-blocked with fallen rock. She pointed them out to Eril. The early settlers had thought them volcanic because of their superficial resemblance to lava tubes, but more detailed studies revealed that they ran through, rather than along, the crustal plates. The conventional opinion was they couldn't be natural and they couldn't be anything else.
Kithri's father had been particularly intrigued by the traces of odd organic acids in the slag. He hoped they might lead to understanding why jaydium was not found anywhere else in settled space. Pearls, amber, coral--each planet had its own distinctive varieties. Jaydium was unique, found only on Stayman.
Although it had not been his primary assignment, jaydium and everything associated with it had been Raddison Sunnai's abiding passion. He was a chemical geologist, one of the last scientists the Federation sent to Stayman as dwindling resources and escalating internal chaos forced a reordering of priorities. Then there was the war and no more Federation ships, only demands for more jaydium.
Kithri helped him with what research he could continue, chipping jaydium to pay the bills and buy enough books to pass her University admissions equivalency. After the war began, however, there were no more scholarships. Jaydium mining itself could not pay for interstellar transport and off‑planet tuition, not after supplies of the space-crystallized drug, lithicycline, had wiped out their small savings. Lithicycline was the only treatment known for neurodyscrasia, and it was palliative at best.
It had taken Raddison Sunnai three years to die. The lithicycline shipments had stopped after one.
Left with nothing but memories, Kithri flew frantically, going without sleep and often without meals during the brief visits of the Federation freighters, only to find that half or more of each haul had deteriorated past recovery in the slow singlo flight back. Then Hank came along and she made more on the first two duo flights than she had in the whole year before. Almost the entire haul had been good, and for the first time she began to think that she might stand a chance of buying her way off Stayman. Then Hank enlisted in the Federation forces, and her savings slowly trickled away, along with her hope for the future.
If her father hadn't taught her to fly duo she wouldn't have had even that. For a brief, heart-wringing moment she remembered the shock as her mind first blended with his. And then...
The memory hit her smack in the solar plexus--the tumult of her awakening adolescent sexuality and her father's ashen face, his trembling hands carefully avoiding even the most casual touch.
She remembered thinking, This isn't happening, oh please let this not be happening! I will just close my eyes and still my heart and all will be well...
In desperation she'd made that one run with Dowdell. The duotouch of his mind had been like a creeping itch, and the light in his eyes as he reached for her had given her nightmares for a solid month. She could still taste the metallic tang of adrenalin and blood. She'd thrown him against the dusty rock hard enough to break his collarbone. After that she refused to share Brushwacker with anyone except Hank, who had never reached past her barriers...as Eril had.
I just have to get through one trip, she told herself. Eril will never come back to this chip of rock, and that'll be the end of it. One thing's for sure, I won't be following him into space, so it's better--for both of us--that we leave it this way.
For a moment, she almost believed it.
Hungry for "a wild and woolly journey through time and space," some really cool aliens, and a touch of romance? “Beautifully executed . . . marks [Ross} as a stellar new talent.”— Catherine Asaro in MINDSPARKS “There is an emphasis on the quest for peace that is unusual when so many novels focus on the quest for dominance and victory.”— Tom Easton in ANALOG
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