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.
An audio version is available for this chapter. Listen online →
Slatey gray stones lay tumbled around the tunnel entrance, partly blocking it. About fifty feet inside, the passageway widened and curved, then straightened for another twenty or thirty feet and turned again. In the diffuse illumination of the scrubjet's running lights, the walls alternated between matte and highly reflective gloss. Sometimes the rock surfaces looked as smooth as melted glass, sometimes so rough and jagged that slivers of it could double as knives.
The tunnel twisted into the heart of the mountain for a half mile. Then it divided, one branch leading up and back towards the surface and the other downward at a steep angle.
Eril, watching Kithri maneuver the scrubjet through the tangle of intersections, considered how easily singlo flight could lead to disaster unless the 'jet were kept at little better than a crawl. The craft itself was maneuverable enough to fly two or three times their present rate. It was the slowness of their unaided human reflexes that would send them crashing into a curving tunnel wall.
Thinking analytically about the difficulties of tunnel flight was pure evasion, and Eril knew it. Duoflight required teamwork, although during he'd rarely flown secondary. When they'd sorted housekeeping, he'd agreed to let Kithri handle the controls. So why had he fought her like some rookie, too green not to panic the moment they hit the storm? Had this mission robbed him of all common sense?
Instinct. Blind instinct, he told himself. Whenever there's trouble, you never let anyone else make decisions for you. You live--or die--by your own mistakes.
But was that any way to inspire Kithri's trust, by trying to take her ship away from her?
Weiram, his squadron chief, had berated him more than once for being a loner.
"You're a fine pilot, none better," the old man had said. They'd been sitting in the disordered cavern that passed for his office, aboard the flagship that was his last command. His silver-white hair had looked sallow in the ancient jaydium light.
"But once the lazer fire starts, you forget everything you've learned about teamwork. You go on as if you're a one-man squadron and can take all the risks yourself. That's not a disaster when all you're responsible for is a stinger, but you can't run a battleship that way."
Later, much later, speaking from his coldly efficient administrative suite in the Federation Control Complex, First Councillor Eades had echoed that judgment.
"The new Corps needs people with initiative and self control, not glory-hungry troublemakers."
Eril kept his face blank and his eyes on the uniform of unadorned black that was Eades's trademark. He didn't know what it was that drove him to one scrape after another, but it wasn't glory-hunger.
"Even with your war record, that last stunt you pulled in New Paris can't be ignored," Eades had said. "Five civilians injured and a star-class navigator out of commission for months. What are you, some kind of thrill addict? I should shunt you straight into Exploration, as far away from civilized space as I can put you."
Eril held his tongue. The New Paris riot had started innocently enough, a few friendly drag-sprints down the back alleys. By the time the crowd mushroomed into a frustrated, war-sickened mob, he'd been long gone. But people recognized his face from all the news tri-vids. They remembered him as the instigator--Colonel Eril Trionan, the war hero.
"Your father was in Exploration, wasn't he?" said Eades, as if that explained all of Eril's transgressions.
"My father," Eril said through clenched teeth, "disappeared when I was five. And yes, he was in Exploration. But I'd rather stay where the action is. Sir."
"Weiram put some rather glowing words about you in his last report," Eades said, "so I'm willing to forgo my better judgment. For the record, I do so reluctantly. Still, I suppose some allowance might be made for the fact that until three years ago, you were a source of pride rather than embarrassment to the Service."
Eril had tried to look trustworthy as he waited for Eades's decision.
"If you want a shot at the Courier Corps so much, Colonel Trionan, you go find your own duo partner. If you can convince anyone to fly with you--someone who qualifies for the Corps in his own right--then I'll believe you really mean it."
Easy, Eril had thought. But the other veterans, even his squadron mates, shuffled around as they found one polite excuse after another to say no. They respected him, true, but none would trust him that far. Held been too much the hothead, the hero, the loner.
Luck finally turned his way again when Hank, who wanted nothing more to do with the Federation, suggested his old jaydium running partner. "Flies like a space devil," he'd said, "and hungry, real hungry to get off Stayman. Assuming she's still there, you two might suit. That is, if you don't kill each other first."
Now for all he knew Eril had already managed to alienate her. Fighting her for control of her own ship was not an auspicious beginning. Maybe Eades was right and he'd be better off with the Explorers, going years between touchdowns on settled worlds. At least the only hell to pay there would be his own.
But maybe he still had a chance. Eril remembered the silken heat of Kithri's mind in his. That hadn't been an illusion on his part, had it? He'd made a bad start, but she hadn't dumped him at the earliest opportunity or headed right back to the 'port. She must feel something of the same attraction, no matter what she said. It was too soon to give up. Somehow he'd find a way to win her over.
Kithri slowed the scrubjet, levelling off in a still narrower branch, and Eril turned his attention back to the tunnel walls. They were passing through a particularly reflective section, but the passage seemed more closed-in, not less so.
"It feels like the tunnel's swallowed us up," he said aloud.
"Hank had the same reaction," Kithri said. "It drove him to jitters sometimes. He kept looking over his shoulder to see what was watching."
Eril had trouble imagining Hank Austin subject to "jitters" of any sort. Despite his looks, he'd been an able co-pilot, or neither he nor Eril would have made it out of the war alive. Eril didn't want to waste his breath defending him to Kithri. He changed the subject. "Where's the jaydium?"
"Hold on, we still have to get past the old workings--see, there." Kithri pointed to a section of wall that looked to Eril exactly like the rock around it, except that it was perfectly smooth from floor to ceiling.
"Tell me something about the stuff," he said conversationally. "Something I wouldn't learn from the technical tapes."
"Hank's probably told you more miners' tales than you ever wanted to hear." After a pause, she added hesitantly, "Did you know that when jaydium was first discovered, they thought it might be an organic residue?"
"I thought it was quasi-crystalline."
"There's no identifiable cellular structure, I didn't mean that. But it doesn't behave like an ordinary mineral."
Eril remembered his Academy physics instructor insisting that if jaydium existed anywhere else besides remote Stayman, it would have been discovered hundreds of years earlier and drastically altered the course of human spaceflight. Even now, its nature was still poorly understood. Get any three experts from the Jaydium Institute together, and you'd have five different theories as to why it acted the way it did.
Jaydium gave off light indefinitely in the absence of oxygen, but more than that, its light was tunable, generating a faster-than-light field around anything it enclosed. Before its discovery, Terran scientists had already developed a fabulously expensive fusion-powered drive. Jaydium's light-field effect slashed the cost of spaceflight and sent humankind into the stars in hordes instead of trickles.
Jaydium's primary drawback was its perishability when exposed to air. Properly sealed, it would last longer than the vessel itself, so the replacement demand was small, except when ships were regularly getting smashed to powder. Eril had piloted some antiquated fighters late in the war, but their jaydium panels still shone bright and clear. Sometimes the jaydium was the only thing on those ships that still worked right.
They brought 'Wacker to a halt where three convoluted branches joined in a miniature cavern, far more spacious than the tunnels they'd been travelling. Eril drew in a tentative lungful as she unsealed the door. The air felt thick, as if it had sat undisturbed for centuries. He detected a peculiar, almost metallic odor. "Are you sure this stuff's safe to breathe?"
"Jaydium does have a distinctive smell, doesn't it?" Kithri answered. "Hank always said I was imagining it."
"He also swore his nose was fine-tuned only to Centurion brandy."
"Well, you're not Hank, are you?"
"I'm glad you noticed the difference," he said, and caught her startled reaction.
Their boots rang as they stepped out on the rock floor. 'Wacker stood on a patch of roughened surface, and the traction was good. Kithri opened an external storage drawer and took out canisters of sealant and pouches of storage containers. Upon contact with oxygen, these would foam up into solid, insulated boxes, capable of accommodating a range of cargo shapes and virtually impervious to mechanical assault.
"As soon as we chip a piece, we seal it in slickoil and spray epoxy, then the insulation," she told Eril. "That'll give us about six hours before degeneration starts. We should have plenty of time to duo it back to Port Ludlow."
"That'd hold me until the next glacial age."
She picked up the lazer cutting tool and handed it to him. "You chip first and I'll pack. When you've had enough, we'll switch. You can cut for only so long before your shoulders get the jangles."
Eril glanced from the precision light generator to the cleft Kithri indicated as their chipping site. "Jangles? From what? These cutters can go through titanium steel without a shiver."
"Jaydium's different. Jaydium's always different."
Kithri showed Eril how to make shallow vertical cuts in the tunnel wall. "Don't burrow, no matter how tempting it seems," she advised. "The bedrock's stable. It won't collapse on you. But once you start chipping into a cavity, you get weird vibrational resonances. We wouldn't be fit to fly again for hours, and that's if we're lucky."
Eril swept the focused light along the exposed tunnel surface. A layer of dark stone fell away, shattering as it hit the floor. The lazer felt familiar enough, although its size was better suited to Kithri's smaller hands. He'd used a similar tool for emergency repairs.
Kithri stood at his shoulder as he worked. "Don't push the cutter through, stroke it through," she murmured. "Follow the way the stuff wants to be cut. Give it a chance to open up in front of the lazer, and ease up when you finish the stroke."
He tried his best to follow her instructions. After a few passes, an insidious vibration began to creep up his forearms. His wrists and elbows felt as if tiny mallet-wielding devils had taken up residence there. Any sudden maneuver intensified the sensation. Only the smoothest movement kept the tickling under control.
"Okay," she said, still watching, "you're almost there. Just keep on like you've been, nice and easy..."
Eril managed not to break his rhythm when, a few minutes later, the light of raw jaydium burst through the slivers of dark rock. Sealed jaydium tended to be yellowish or orange, green when it deteriorated, but this was rose-tinted, so subtle it was only a hint of color. Fist-sized slabs of it glimmered from the surrounding stone, illuminating the entire tunnel.
Kithri took a fragment from his hands and began swabbing it with slickoil. She looked very young in the pink light, almost pretty with her huge, dark-lashed eyes and ruddy cheeks. The dent in her nose was barely noticeable.
"Keep going and don't wait for me," she said without looking up. "I can seal just as fast as you can chip."
As Eril went back to work, his confidence returned. He knew he was doing a creditable job, even for a rank beginner. There was nothing like hard labor for taking your mind off past indiscretions. Kithri was clearly willing to work with him, for the time being anyway. Sooner or later they'd stop and he find another opening.
They worked on, cut and seal, until the passage of time muted in the monotony of repetitive action. Eril's hands and arms began trembling. Prickles shot through his upper body with each sweep across the jaydium face. He switched off the lazer tool and arched his back. His muscles shrieked in protest. He stepped away from the rock face.
"Is it‑‑all right‑‑to leave that?" He gestured toward the facet of glowing, exposed jaydium.
Kithri nodded as she placed the last sealed chip in the insulated storage container. "After a few hours, a layer of ash will re‑seal the face."
She took the lazer tool from him. "Your turn to pack. First the oil‑‑remember, be generous--and then the spray epoxy. Keep the stuff off your fingers if you can, because I don't have much solvent. Stop me if I get ahead of you."
The sealants proved tricky to handle and the oil had an unpleasantly bitter odor that masked the tang of the jaydium. Kithri cut for roughly twice as long as Eril had, but she looked tired when she finally put down the lazer tool.
"Let's stow what we've cut," she said. "We've got enough time for a bite to eat and another round apiece."
They hunkered down the far side tunnel wall with slabs of hard-bread smeared with canned cheese from Kithri's supplies. "Why are you here?" she asked. "And don't give me that line about the money again. Any guy who can fly like you can doesn't need to run jaydium, not unless he's made himself downright unwelcome everywhere else."
Eril took a gulp of stale water from the flask. "Why are you still here on Stayman?" he countered. "You're young, obviously educated, and you've got your whole life ahead of you. Is this all you've ever wanted?"
Kithri snorted in derision. "Before the war I'd have killed for a chance to get off this rock. To University...to anywhere. My father‑‑he was a chemical geologist--he tutored me for the entrance exams when he wasn't studying everything he could get his hands on about jaydium. But then...we had some expenses. Now with the Federation hanging on by its toenails, even running jaydium won't buy me a passage to someplace better. Not flying singlo, anyway."
"That's exactly what I'm doing here."
"It's true that Hank married my sister," Eril said slowly, not wanting to rush things. "But he was also one of the best duopilots in my squadron‑‑"
"Your squadron?" Her gray eyes widened.
"The war's officially over," he went on, "but we're still scrambling to keep order in the settled worlds. You've been lucky here on Stayman‑‑not like Pandora or Albion or half a dozen other worlds that somebody considered easy pickings. The Fed protected you better than most because of the jaydium."
Eril paused. Stayman could barely feed herself as it was, and it had been nothing short of criminal to abandon the scientists and their families here. He didn't want to appear to be defending the Fed. "I'm not on a pleasure trip, I=m recruiting."
"Recruiting?" Her eyes got even bigger.
He smiled. "Hank told me about this brushie he'd run jaydium with. He said she could fly circles around him in her sleep. I had to see for myself."
"Hank said that? About me?"
"You got any other candidates? I didn't come five parsecs across space to fly duo with that old sourbug in the tavern."
Kithri choked down the last of her bread, lowering her eyes so he could no longer read in them. "Entrance," she repeated. "To what, exactly?"
She shook her head. "Never heard of it."
"It never existed before, it's the brainchild of First Councillor Eades. The Council's too isolated and settled space too spread out. They need agents who can be their eyes and arms out there so their resources get put where they do the most good. There are lots of situations when speed and inspiration are needed more than brute force. At least, that's the theory."
"And you're recruiting for this thing?"
She took a deep breath and looked away. "I can fly surface, yes, but space--that's something else. I don't have any formal training, my astrophysics is ten years out of date‑‑"
"Never mind the rest," he said, trying to keep his voice smooth. "You've got what it takes, all right. Compared to a coriolis, space is a vacuum, remember? You kept your head in that storm, so I know you can think straight." It was a risky thing to say, but if she was going to hold what happened against him, he might as well know now.
Kithri scowled, her face flushing. "Why me? There must be more than enough out-of-work veterans begging for the job."
"Can you picture Hank on a diplomatic mission?"
"Skies, no!" The scowl vanished into a fleeting grin.
"Actually, that's not the real problem," he said. "The training sessions will teach you whatever you need to know. The problem is finding the right people, and it's even harder when you're looking for pairs who can fly duo. Yes, we can recruit from within the Service, but too many of those pilots are like Hank, and those that are left are spread even thinner than before, with all our losses and the number of trouble spots to watch. Eades wants new, fresh blood."
He studied her face and saw mostly confusion. But there was something darker behind her eyes. Something he could but not put a name to. He decided to take a chance and push harder.
"What do you say? Or are you so afraid of trying something new that you'd choose a jaydium tunnel over the stars?"
"No! I‑‑I‑‑," Kithri stammered. "I'm not afraid. It's just that I don't like to be pushed into things." She was talking too fast, her words tumbling over one another. "Of course I'd jump at the chance to get off this dust‑chip. Your offer sounds good‑‑too good. There's got to be a hitch somewhere. Like--like, Why should I give a damn about your Federation?" Her voice turned harsh. "They were the ones who left us here to rot, cut off the lithicycline, stuck Port Ludlow there when the jaydium was here because they didn't give a shit about what the miners had to go through to scratch out a living. I just want off this rock, not into someone's Do-Good Club!"
Eril brushed the rest of the bread crumbs from his fingers to give himself time to think. He'd expected her to object to him personally or else to vent some vague resentment against the Fed. He hadn't expected this raw hostility.
No, not hostility, he realized with an echo of their brief duo rapport.
"If that's the way you feel about it," he said quietly, "we'd better get this jaydium back to the Port." The muscles behind his shoulders felt tight, as if the only way to release them was to hit something. He forced gentleness into his voice. "Think about it, would you."
She looked away. "Maybe I will, maybe...when I've got a choice."
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
Note: Curious Fictions may receive a commission if you purchase through Amazon.