From the author: This is another early story, my second (after "The Minstrel") to be published in JAM Magazine. All of my early stories were aimed at teen readers, because I was barely out of that age group myself!
THEY WERE CRASHING AGAIN. Alicia knew with sick certainty everything that was about to happen, but that did not lessen the terror.
She could hear the braking rockets thundering and the atmosphere screaming around the falling lifecraft, she could feel the terrible heat, and she knew that something was wrong, that it wasn’t supposed to be like this...
Then the pilot screamed over the intercom, “I can’t hold her! Brace for impact!” and the lifecraft rang as though struck by a mighty hammer. The hull split open. Cold water burst into the passenger compartment, and for frantic seconds Alicia struggled with the safety belts, dazed by the impact, feeling the craft sinking under her. Then she was bobbing on the surface in her life jacket, the ghostly fingers of a current tugging at her, and she screamed as she slipped away from the outstretched hand of her father.
“Alicia!” her mother cried, over and over, so that she heard it long after the wretched survivors clinging to the still-floating forward half of the lifecraft disappeared into the mist. But finally even her mother’s voice faded away, and she drifted, alone and helpless, in an endless ocean on an alien world.
Alicia gasped and jerked awake, then shivered, unable for a moment to remember where she was or why she was so cold. Slowly her eyes focused on a dimly lit wall of rough stone only a few inches from her face. She rolled over, and memory flooded back.
She lay in the cave where she had crawled after being washed ashore on the rocky beach. From her shelter she could see down to the ocean, rolling in slow, sullen swells onto the red stones. The grey, watery light, filtered through a thin mist, turned the sea the colour of old pewter.
Somewhere out there drifted her parents and the other survivors of the colony ship Appalachia; somewhere above circled the ship itself, an airless tomb for 142 other colonists, killed by the explosion that had ripped open the ship’s hull as it entered orbit around Azgar.
Unless Alicia could find help for the survivors at sea, they would join their comrades as casualties. She had to get moving.
She crawled out onto the beach, stood, and winced, every muscle bruised from the crash and stiffened by her night in the cold, dank cavern. Her stomach cramped with hunger, and she longed for a drink of water.
But none of that mattered. She glanced at her left wrist; a tiny red light pulsed there in the centre of a black disk. Every survivor wore one of the homing devices, part of the emergency equipment on board the lifecraft. As long as that red light burned, she could find the floating wreckage again. But she needed help to reach it.
Help. She looked up and down the stony shoreline. Somewhere on Azgar was an Aaln colony, the colony the humans had come to join. It was to be the first joint venture for two races which had often competed, sometimes bloodily, for real estate.
The Aaln would help, if she could find them. They must be searching for survivors already; they would have heard the distress calls from the Appalachia.
But a planet was an awfully big place to search—for the Aaln, and for a young girl on her own. “Who never wanted to come in the first place,” Alicia muttered, then flushed, ashamed. It sounded too much like “I told you so.” She was here; there had been a disaster. She had to do what she could.
She turned left and started walking. One direction is as good as another, she thought. But the flashing red light on her wrist reminded her constantly of the penalty for failure.
Several hours later she stopped to rest where a stream flowed into the sea. Stunted bushes grew nearby, laden with berries she thought the colonists’ training tapes had said were edible. The bushes were the first life she had seen, apart from some brown, grass-like tufts among the rocks and stringy green strands in the ocean shallows. And the mist had never lifted. Azgar was altogether a dismal world.
She drank thirstily from the stream, then picked as many berries as she could, sat on a large rock, and started eating. They tasted so bitter that despite her hunger she wanted to spit them out, but instead she forced them down and then picked more. She had no way of knowing when she would find more food.
She had yet to see any sign of the Aaln, and her spirits were low. Her feet hurt from her journey along the beach; the loose, flat rocks that covered it threatened her with a sprained ankle at every step. But high cliffs barred the way inland, and anyway, she knew the colony was fairly close to the ocean. If she kept following the shore, she would eventually find it.
Except she didn’t have time to walk all the way around the continent.
Occupied with her aching arches and her gloomy thoughts, Alicia failed to notice the Aaln aircar approaching along her path until it swept overhead, the blast of its jets flattening the ocean and tearing at her clothes. She jumped to her feet, but before she could wave or shout, a soft blue light enveloped her.
Unconscious, she dropped to the rocks.
Alicia slumped on her bed in the small cell where the Aaln had locked her. She knew the aliens had only been on Azgar for six months, but the cell looked centuries old. Its walls of grey stone were broken only by a small, steel-barred window and a heavy iron door, and green slime grew in the corners. The pervasive cold and damp made it even more inhospitable.
Very soon now, she knew, the Aaln would come and demand that she lead them to the surviving humans. They knew the mechanism on her wrist was a homing device, but they didn’t know how to operate it; for that they needed her.
Alicia had set out along the beach hoping to find the Aaln and lead them to her friends and family, but she was no longer eager to do so. She wasn’t sure what was going on in the colony, but from the way they had treated her so far she didn’t think the Aaln exactly planned to rescue the survivors.
She closed her eyes and summoned what she knew about the Aaln. They were reasonably humanoid in shape, but they weren’t mammals: they were warm-blooded, scaled amphibians. Not reptiles, she reminded herself, but it didn’t help. They looked like lizards to her, and she hated snakes and lizards and things like that. It was one reason she hadn’t wanted to come to this colony...but for her parents the opportunity had been a dream come true, so what could she do?
Beyond the physical appearance of the Aaln, humans knew little about them. The two races could communicate, with an artificial language called Galactic (rather ambitiously, Alicia thought), but both were cautious about what they said.
However, some of that caution had recently eased on the part of the Aaln. The aliens had initiated the negotiations which led to the creation of the joint colony. The humans had learned during those talks that the Aaln had a semi-feudal culture based on a network of clans, each of which sent representatives to a Clan Council. A complex system of honour and privilege, combined with a measure of democracy, determined which clan held power and thus initiated and implemented policy.
For many years the governing clan had been a powerful and conservative one that feared and distrusted humans, but recently it had been replaced by a new clan, the Or’Karr, which wanted to increase the contact between the two cultures.
The humans had been eager to take advantage of the change. No one knew how stable the Aaln political system was; another clan could displace the Or’Karr at any time, and there were some clans that were very anti-human, especially one called the Ak’Lann.
Alicia opened her eyes very wide and sat up slowly. The name had only now surfaced in her conscious mind from her memory, but she had already heard it once that day. When she had revived from the stun blast she had been taken before the colony’s governor for questioning—and the governor’s name had been Arniss Ilkar Ak’Lann.
She shuddered as she remembered. Two powerful guards had held her before him. She still felt slimy where their hands had gripped her arms, though their scaly skin had been perfectly dry. But perhaps that feeling had been as much from the gaze of the governor as the touch of his guards; her first thought had been of a hungry snake eyeing a frog. Yet at the time she had still hoped he might help her.
“So one, at least, survives,” the governor said in Galactic. “Are there others?”
“They’re holding on to what’s left of the lifecraft, out at sea,” Alicia told him. “Please, you have to rescue them!”
The governor leaned forward. “How do we find them?”
“I can lead you. But we have to hurry. I don’t know how much longer they can hang on.”
“In good time, you shall indeed lead us. I am most eager to personally ‘greet’ all the humans.” He motioned to the guards. “Akkarsin, risskh!”
They had dragged her away and dumped her in this cell, where she had since had plenty of time to regret telling the governor she could lead him to the others. She wriggled her shoulders uncomfortably; a spot on her back itched where a guard had slapped her as he shoved her through the door. “Lizards,” she muttered.
“Sssssss.” A snake-like hiss echoed in the room. Alicia snatched her feet off the floor and pressed her back to the wall, anxiously searching the cell’s dim corners for the source.
“Ssssssssssss!” Longer and louder—and it wasn’t in the room, it was outside. She got up from the bed and turned to look at the window high above it.
The barred opening framed the fanged face of a young Aaln male, the crest on his head erect with excitement. “At last!” he whispered in Galactic. “I am here to rescue you. Watch through the door in case someone comes.”
Sorely puzzled but not about to argue with any rescuer, however strange, Alicia did as he told her. The corridor outside remained empty as faint hissing noises sounded behind her. The smell of ozone bit at her nose, then the Aaln whispered, “All right.”
She turned. The bars in the window were gone, and the young Aaln motioned for her to join him. She hurried across the floor and stood on the bed, but even so could barely get her fingertips over the sill.
The Aaln gripped her wrists and she flinched, though his hands were warm, dry, and strong. He pulled her up easily, and helped her scramble through the window, guiding her feet to the rungs of the ladder he had climbed to her cell. They descended into the dark street below, an alley between two of the few permanent buildings in the colony.
“Who are you?” she demanded then.
“My name is Nnikor Annil Or’Karr,” he said, and she felt some relief at hearing that clan name instead of Ak’Lann... though she wondered if he were telling the truth.
“No more questions. Not now. We must go!”
He answered by setting off, away from the centre of the colony, toward the hills—and the sea, Alicia thought. She followed him as he slipped out from between the buildings and darted across an open space to the bushes beyond. He moved incredibly fast; like any other lizard, Alicia thought, then felt a little ashamed. After all, this lizard was saving her life.
But why? She still didn’t know that, and she wasn’t sure she trusted this sudden display of Aaln generosity. She wished they could stop long enough for her to get answers to a few questions.
Any possibility of that vanished, though, as they neared the crest of the ridge overlooking the colony. A bell rang shrilly behind them, and Nnikor hissed an angry word. “I had hoped they would not miss you for a much longer time,” he said over his shoulder, continuing to climb. “Now we must move as fast as we can, all the way to the sea.”
“And then what?” Alicia asked, panting.
“Then we go to rescue your friends, of course. What else?”
“You’ve never said,” she pointed out. They reached the top and Alicia stopped and glanced back, hearing shouts. Lights moved out from the colony, and somewhere an aircar roared to life. “Why are you rescuing me?” she asked again.
Nnikor pointed down at the colony. “Do you really want to stop here long enough for me to tell you, or do you want to start running?”
Alicia looked down at the hornet’s nest they had stirred. The answer was really quite obvious. “Run!”
Alicia felt trapped again in a nightmare she’d once had. She ran through the ghostly dark, eerily lit by the two mist-shrouded moons rising behind her, pursued by monsters. The only difference between the nightmare and the reality was that in reality one of the monsters was helping her—maybe. She still had doubts about Nnikor, but they didn’t stop her from following him. What choice did she have?
The bushes had needles instead of leaves on their spiny branches, stones covered the ground, and there seemed to be no flat ground between the colony and the sea. Alicia’s breath soon came in aching gasps, and despite the dampness, her mouth dried out until she could hardly swallow, and then only painfully. She heard herself moaning with each breath, but still she plunged after the dark shadow that was the tireless Nnikor.
Mist and sweat soaked her clothing and mingled and ran into her eyes, half-blinding her. She fell twice, banging her knees painfully on the rocks, but each time she struggled back to her feet and ran on.
At last they reached the cliff above the beach. Nnikor seized Alicia’s arms just in time to keep her from plunging over the brink. “There is a way down here,” he said. He was breathing only slightly harder than usual.
Alicia, practically blind, unable to speak, nodded mutely while taking long, shuddering breaths. She followed Nnikor slowly along the cliff edge, grateful for the rest, however temporary. By the time the Aaln found what he was looking for, her breathing, while not back to normal, at least no longer hurt.
“Here,” Nnikor said at last, and halted. “The colony leaders don’t know about this trail; they will look for us much further up the beach.” He turned his pale, slit-pupilled eyes toward her. “Are you a good climber?”
No, she wanted to say, I’ve never done any climbing in my life, but she knew it wouldn’t make any difference. “I’ll have to be, won’t I?”
Nnikor took something from the pouch-covered belt that was his only clothing. “Here,” he said, and startled her by reaching his hands around her. When he drew back a loop of very thin rope hung around her waist. He tied another loop around his own narrow hips. “Go first. I’ll follow. If you fall, I may be able to hold on.”
That didn’t encourage Alicia very much; it sounded like Nnikor expected her to fall. But then, she expected it herself. She took a deep breath and lowered herself over the edge.
She realized at once why this spot had been chosen. Instead of a sheer, perpendicular cliff, here there was a bit of an outward slope, broken and terraced so that in daylight she thought she would have had little trouble climbing up or down.
At night it was different. The mist-dimmed moonlight did little but cast confusing shadows on the cliff-face. She couldn’t see where she put her feet or hands, and never knew when the rock she had chosen to trust might crumble away instead. When that finally happened for real, she did not fall—quite—but for a long time after she couldn’t bring herself to move. Instead she clung to the rock, trembling, until Nnikor’s urging from above finally persuaded her to take the next tentative step.
When at last she stepped down and felt firm, rocky ground beneath her feet, her shaky legs folded under her and she sat down hard. A moment later Nnikor joined her. “Can you walk?”
Alicia took a deep breath and tried standing again. Though her knees still trembled, they held her. “Yes.”
“Then let’s do so.” Nnikor unfastened the rope from both of them, coiled it and stored it in its pouch again. “We are still being pursued.” He strode away, and Alicia stumbled after him.
The walk to the water was blessedly short. They were right where they were supposed to be: above a small cove, where a fifty-foot boat rode at anchor. A small powered dinghy was beached on the shore. Alicia climbed into it and enjoyed the sensation of sitting still while Nnikor pushed off, splashing in the shallows, then clambered in himself.
They boarded the larger boat without incident. A simple craft, it had a cabin above-decks and enough cargo space below to hold all the humans. In the cabin were the controls, some equipment lockers, and two cots. Alicia sat on one of the latter while Nnikor started the engines and headed out onto the dark sea.
She had a hundred questions to ask, but somehow she never got them out; almost instantly she fell fast asleep.
Alicia woke, and gasped to see Nnikor’s scaled, fanged face just centimetres from her face. He straightened at once. “It is almost dawn. You must guide me now.”
“Dawn?” Alicia wiped sleep from her eyes, then swung her feet over the edge of the cot. “But we must have been travelling for hours. Why didn’t you wake me sooner?”
“I only moved us far enough out so that we could not be seen from shore,” Nnikor said. “We have held position since then. We must have daylight to make the rescue, and it is fast approaching. So if you will guide...”
Alicia shook her head. “No. Not yet.”
“Can wait a few minutes longer. As long as this thing on my wrist is flashing I can find them. But I want to know what’s going on before I lead you or anyone else to them.”
Nnikor hissed softly, then said, “All right. I have told you my name. If you know anything of the Aaln, you know my clan holds power, and that we support increased contact with humans.
“But in order to get Council approval for this colony, we had to award the governorship to the Ak’Lann Clan. We required them to first swear to follow our orders and set aside their anti-human feelings. That oath seemed to bind them—until now.
“They may not have had anything to do with the explosion on your ship—but then again, they may. They were certainly quick to take advantage of it. They began searching for survivors at once, and found you. They wanted you to lead them to the others so they could kill you all at once.”
“Kill us?” Alicia swallowed. She’d suspected as much, but—
“Of course, kill you. They have already summoned one of their clan ships to remove your vessel from orbit. With no proof you ever arrived at Azgar, they can claim you humans broke the treaty and the planet is ours by default.” His eyes narrowed to glittering slits. “There may even be more to the plan. They may deliberately leak the truth to the humans. Our two peoples have skirmished before. This could lead to all-out war—and war would please the Ak’Lann.”
“But if the colony is governed by the Ak’Lann, how did you—”
Nnikor made a coughing sound that alarmed Alicia, until she recognized Aaln laughter. “There are many among the colonists who are of my clan or our supporting clans, but the Ak’Lann do not know it. My father saw to it they would not have the free hand they sought. They think we are all from clans that support them.”
Nnikor drew himself up proudly, crest erect. “My father is Tyssak Llin Or’Karr.”
For a moment the name meant nothing to Alicia; then it registered from the briefing tapes. “Clan leader!”
“Yes. This colony was his idea.”
“But what happens when we rescue the others? The colony is the only place we can take them. They’ll need food, medical attention...if the Ak’Lann are still in control there—”
“My orders were to rescue you and the others,” Nnikor said. “Others have received different orders. I cannot tell you more. You must trust me.”
Alicia gazed at him reflectively; he looked squarely back at her. The story could have been an elaborate lie, but she didn’t want to believe that. And even if it was, the odds were still better than they would have been if she’d led the governor and all his guards out there.
“All right,” she said, standing. “Let’s quit wasting time.”
The sun came up shortly afterward. Alicia gnawed on a nutritive bar that tasted like dried seaweed (and probably was), and watched the mist turn from black to grey and suddenly to gold. For a few moments the sea was almost beautiful; then the colour faded away until only the familiar white mist and lead-coloured ocean remained.
“Doesn’t the sun ever shine?” Alicia asked Nnikor.
“This is mid-winter,” he said. “In the summer it is sometimes clear.”
“I’ll have to see it to believe it,” Alicia said, but hoped silently she wouldn’t be there to see it.
When her homing device indicated they were very close to the lifecraft, she had Nnikor slow the boat. They slipped forward until she could no longer indicate any direction at all, and Nnikor cut the engines.
Alicia peered anxiously into the silent mist. “Where are they?” she demanded, gripping the rail so tightly her fingers ached.
“Listen!” Nnikor whispered. Alicia looked at him, then dashed to the other side of the boat as she heard it, too—low voices. Human voices. “There!” Nnikor cried, triumphant. Alicia followed his pointing claw, and as he started the engines again spotted the dark bulk of the lifecraft through a thin place in the mist—
—and at the same time heard the throbbing of other engines, deeper and more powerful than their own.
She spun, and to her horror saw a ship much larger than theirs nosing through the fog. Armed Aaln lined the railings, and the governor himself stood on the glassed-in bridge above the deckhouse.
“Traitor!” Alicia screamed at Nnikor.
He ignored her. He pushed the throttle forward and started for the lifecraft, but then killed the engines instantly as a bright red beam slashed across the bow, raising blisters on the tough plastic. Momentum carried the boat close to the lifecraft, though, and the pale, frightened survivors. Nnikor stormed out of the cabin and onto the deck, glaring at the governor’s ship.
The governor’s amplified voice roared across the water. “He is not the traitor, young human. In a way, you are. We had planned for you to escape anyway; we planted a microtransmitter on you.” Alicia gasped, remembering the odd itching between her shoulders. “Your Aaln accomplice only forced us to act earlier than we intended.” The governor’s ship loomed very close to them now, turned broadside so they were looking into the barrels of the powerful beam rifles of the Aaln on its deck.
Alicia looked over her shoulder at the lifecraft, hidden from the governor’s ship by their own, and saw three of the survivors easing hand-beamers out of holsters.
“Enough of this foolishness!” Nnikor shouted suddenly. He faced the governor, his webbed, clawed hands planted firmly on the railing. “Do you know me, governor?”
“Of course I know you.” The governor sounded annoyed. “You are Nnikor Allin Yn’Tikk, and I will have you flayed for your part in this.”
“Wrong!” Nnikor’s lips drew back from his teeth—and it wasn’t in a smile. “The clan is Or’Karr, governor. Not Yn’tikk—Or’Karr!”
The governor hissed.
“I am the son of Tyssak Llin Or’Karr! Will you shoot me, governor? Because if you plan to kill the humans behind me, you must kill me, too. How will you explain the murder of a rival’s son to the Council? Political intrigue is expected, but the old methods of terror are no longer lawful.” He gestured at the mist-enshrouded sea. “Perhaps the Council will give you this planet you seem to love so much, Ak’Lann—all to yourself, as your place of permanent exile!”
A long silence ensued, broken only by the lap of water against the hulls of the ships and the lifecraft. Alicia could see an agitated conference underway on the other ship’s bridge. Nnikor stood stolidly.
“Alicia!” someone whispered urgently behind her. She turned and looked down. One of the survivors on the highest part of the wreckage was aiming his hand beamer straight at her. “Get down!” he said in Terran. “I have a clear shot at that monster over there if you’ll only get out of the way!”
She started to duck, but suddenly realized what such a shot would mean. “No! Father, stop him!”
“Alicia!” the man said, shocked.
“Why?” her father called up.
“Haven’t you been listening? Nnikor is saving your skins right now by risking his own! But if you shoot the governor or any other Aaln, nothing can save you or me or him—and you’ll start the very war that Ak’Lann governor over there is hoping for!”
“You’d trust that snake friend of yours to save us?” the man with the gun said angrily. “Get down, girl! I can still do it!”
“No!” Alicia cried. “Father—”
Her father struggled across the slippery lifecraft to the other man’s side. “She’s right, Hawkins. Don’t—”
Hawkins swore and squeezed the firing stud, but at the same instant Alicia’s father slammed the weapon against the lifecraft hull. The beam shot harmlessly into the water, raising a cloud of steam, then cut off as it slid from its owner’s numbed hand, splashed into the sea and vanished. “I should throw you in after it!” Alicia’s father growled.
His daughter didn’t hear him; her ears were full of the sound of her own pounding heart. It had skipped when the gun fired, but at least it still beat. She took a deep, shaking breath, and gripped the railing to steady herself.
None of the Aaln had noticed the incident; the humans had spoken only in their own language and the beam had been hidden by the boat. Nnikor still glared at the governor’s ship.
The loudspeaker finally crackled to life again. “Asskirr, nnikorriss gan’slin...”
“Speak Galactic, Ak’Lann,” Nnikor broke in. “I will have nothing hidden from our fellow colonists!”
“All right, Nnikor, you win,” the governor snarled. “For now. But you cannot stop me from doing what I want when I get you back on shore. You can’t defeat me alone and you can’t hide from me—and you can’t support yourself and all those humans without the resources of the colony. The final victory will still be Ak’Lann’s!”
Nnikor grinned, showing his impressive teeth. “I suggest you call the colony right now and see about that, governor.” He reached back inside the cabin and turned on the boat’s communicator. “I think I’ll listen in.”
“Galactic, remember, governor? Though that particular phrase would be hard to translate...”
The communicator crackled. Alicia saw her father staring up at her, and tried to give him a reassuring smile. She must have failed; he continued to look worried. She gave up and instead turned to listen to the conversation.
“This is governor Arniss Ilka Ak’Lann, calling colony communications central,” the governor said.
“Governor who?” a voice replied.
Nnikor laughed and Alicia stared at him. “What—”
He hushed her. “Listen.”
“Governor Ak’Lann, ur hisskan garrin—” The governor dropped out of Galactic again.
“I think perhaps you have the wrong colony, sir, whoever you are,” the voice interrupted him. “There are no Ak’Lann in charge here. This is the joint human-Aaln colony, and as of half an hour ago, all the Aaln—all the ones who are still free, of course—seem to have turned into Or’Karr supporters. Well-armed supporters.”
Nnikor switched off the communicator, but Alicia could still hear the string of Aaln curses coming from the bridge of the other boat. “I think we will find everything as it should be when we get your friends back to shore,” Nnikor said to her, with an expression remarkably less bloodthirsty than the one he had shown the governor. “Shall we start loading?”
Alicia mutely stepped forward and held out her hand. Nnikor looked puzzled, not understanding the custom, but took it. “Thank you,” Alicia said simply, and for the first time, felt no revulsion at the touch of an Aaln.
Twenty-two tales of fantasy, science fiction, and horror from Aurora Award-winning author Edward Willett.
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