Friday, March 14, 2014

Chapter 3, 46, The Door

Thanks to M. A. Foster and James H. Schmitz for the image of a spaceship flying under a mountain.
Spoilers, I guess.

Chapter 3, 46, The Door

The August night was humid and dark. Charlotte could feel its prickling heat on her skin. There was a cooling wind from Tellus’s upwards rush, but not enough to overcome the summer air. 

Though the mighty yellow stallion was doing his best. Charlotte had never ridden a motorbike half so fast up the gravel roads and trails of a mountainside as Tellus ran. It was bizarre, and dangerous, and exhilarating. The sure, steel hooves ate the paths that threaded the mountain slopes opposite Geithner’s Strike. No sooner did they go over some lip and down into a hollow than the horse’s muscular forelegs would take the rising slope beyond, and in no time his surging head would lead them back up into the light shining distantly from the town so far below and across the lake.

He was so fast, in fact, that Charlotte’s eyes were watering as she tried to keep watch around. Ahead and above was the fiery light of Sovereign, rushing through the air back towards his lair, whatever it might be. (Although as Bruce and Rose said, it would be pretty dumb if it wasn’t a stranded spaceship from long ago, left over from the days when the Drindrish terraformed this planet.) Behind her, Charlotte still hoped to see the golden, kinder light that meant that her friends, Dora and Bruce and –and the Dark Ninja, let’s leave it at that, for Rose’s sake—were on their way. 

Beside her, making her own far-too-fast path through the woods, was the mysterious, antagonistic Eve. Charlotte still didn’t know what to make of her. The immortal, ancient cave girl shaman (and superhuman) daughter of the mysterious Fang had been a member of her brother’s Tatammy class last year until she had betrayed them. But she had betrayed them for a reason, retaliating for being manipulated by one of the Savannahs –which was confusing, because Savannah was one girl who could split into three identical forms. So if they were identical, how could two of them be nice, and one of them a stone-cold bitch? You wondered, Charlotte thought, about how a person became the person they were, and that went double for Eve. Had she been redeemed by her relationship with Ken, or would there be another betrayal, and a spear in the back over this? 

Whatever, the passion of the frenzied energy that was throwing Eve’s long, rangy, bare legs across the slopes was unnerving. It reminded Charlotte a little too much of how she felt when she was really laying down her kung fu. Power and fury and too much caffeine, if that was a thing that could be. 

Still, to keep up with Tellus, Eve had had to hold onto the stallion’s tail. For speed and fury and energy was in front of Charlotte, too. White foam and sweat soaked Tellus’s side, right to wear Charlotte’s thighs gripped his side below her saddle. Yet in spite of all the effort, of the burdens of two girls, one gripping his side with strong legs, the other, devastatingly undignified, holding onto his tail, Tellus showed no signs of strain or struggle. The muscles of the taught barrel of his powerful body bunched and loosened in Charlotte’s grip, evenly, firmly and strongly, and Charlotte was one with her mount, feeling his equine powe, and only that. For her Tatammy Universal Fatigues were miraculous in their way, allowing her to feel the slick wetness of Tellus’s perspiration without allowing it to penetrate

It really was too bad, Charlotte thought, that they only came in one design. The white and black colour was okay, if not what she would choose, but the fit and shape was as bland as could be imagined, like some guy had read an ancient number of Uncanny X-Men and decided that that was the perfect look for student superheroes. A man, no doubt, who expected Charlotte to swoon and faint and wait for Cyclops to save her.

Not, Charlotte thought, as Tellus’s shoes struck sudden sparks out of the jumbled rocks in the bed of the creek where they had fought the Paradigm-Bot, that she would mind running into Scout again, here abouts.

Then, ahead of them, looming out of the darkness, Charlotte saw the cliff-face where they had actually met the Paradigm-Bot that day. In the late summer heat, the creek had dried up entirely, and there was no waterfall plunging off its black lip far above, and in the darkness Charlotte could not see the flecks of gold in the stone of the cliff that she knew were there.

That had been one of the mysteries about the town of Geithner’s Strike. Gold nuggets are heavy, and do not roll very far, so finding a gold rush worth in the sandbars and gravel spills at the bottom of this mountain ought to have meant that somewhere far above there was a creek or something like it cutting through a gold-bearing vein, the kind of thing that prospector’s called a “mother lode.” 

None had ever been found. This cliff showed that there was gold up here in the rock, to be mined out one day when easier deposits were used up, but it was also a fault boundary. There was no way that the the same kind of rock had once continued below the cliff to be eroded away. Although, of course, it could have been another kind of rock also with gold in it, which had been entirely eroded, but that was only one possibility. Charlotte suspected another explanation. She knew that there was a “hyperspace anomaly” in the roots of this mountain below, quite possibly a spaceship actually flying in hyperspace within the planet, and a vision had come to her, of a cavity in the rock –the cavity where the gold-bearing gravel had come from.

Well, she was about to find out. Incredibly, Tellus’s ground-pounding stride had brought them here ahead of Sovereign. As they watched, the fiery bubble that contained the Mandaarian psionic master villain crested the dark forests that lined the edge of the gorge high above. At this distance, Charlotte’s Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu-enhanced senses could even make out the limp forms of her friend, Rose, and Sovereign’s quarry, Brian Ferguson, both trailing behind the Planner of a Thousand Years, helpless in his mental domination and telekinetic grip. As though by pure instinct, Charlotte’s hand touched the pommel of her sword, the Pearl Harmony blade, and an unbidden prayer to Saint Elizabeth, patron of those left behind, and the Holy Sangha of monks who meditated on the eightfold Dharma path of the Boddhisvatas came to Charlotte’s mind. 

Stop that, she thought. I’m not religious. And yet the power of the prayer, and of the ancient sword, reassured Charlotte that her mind was still her own, as she remembered her mother and her grandfather praying for the strength to live good lives. 

Which was for the best, because she was about to need all her courage, she realised, as Sovereign flew right up to the cliff, and right through it, exactly like a ghost in some cheap movie. Just like that, the light of his bubble winked out and the rushing teens were left in darkness, heading straight at the stark, orange-grey-white wall of stone where the darkness gathered at the foot of converging gorge and cliff. 

Underneath of her, Charlotte could feel Tellus, at last, hesitate. Not because he was running out of wind, she knew. The son of the Lion Stallion was an exceptional horse, like his sire before him. Somehow, he had managed to travel through time and space to be here on the planet of Landing, waiting for her. His speed and his strength were as much beyond that of a normal horse’s as, say, her cousin Jason or her old crush Jameel’s were beyond that of a normal human. 

But he was still just a horse, and his rider was urging him to run full tilt into a wall, and he had . . . concerns. 

Charlotte, lightly, touched the spurs to his sides. It had no effect. She went to touch them again, and then checked herself. The good horsewoman, she reminded herself, remembered to ask what she was contributing. Charlotte took as much of the calming breath as she had time for in the rushing moments as they closed the wall. Her mount, of course, was picking up on her anxiety, her ---on her distraction, Charlotte realised.

Mindful serenity, Charlotte thought. That was what she needed. And although some small part of her mind cried out that she wasn’t, really wasn’t religious, Charlotte reached for mindfulness and touched a comforting hand to the side of her horse’s neck, and let that sureness pass through the skin-to-skin bond of rider and horse. We are on the Dharma path, she thought to her horse. We will pass this door.

Then they were at the wall, and Charlotte had to fight with all her will to keep her mind focussed on nothing, on the empty openness to the world through which one apprehends the noble truths. 

With that, for good or for ill, it was too late. Tellus’ nose touched the cliffside. And passed through it. Before Charlotte had a moment to realise that she had been right, she followed. The dark, humid warmth of the summer night of the Long Lake Country vanished around her. Instead, they were in a gloomy, grey world, almost like a fog lit by distant sunlight, but also like solid rock, attenuated thinner than water so that they could ride through it. 

Wondering, Charlotte saw a fleck of gold within grey, coming at her at eye level. Instinctively, she ducked, too little and too late, but the fleck simply passed through her like the grey. 

Or not quite like the grey, because she could feel a subtle drag to it. A drag that, a moment later, she began to feel from the grey, too. It’s getting solid, Charlotte thought! Her heart leaped in her chest, and she could feel tears starting in her eyes. This isn’t fair!

Reacting to her panic, she felt her horse’s pace slacken beneath her. I don’t even know what he’s running on, Charlotte thought. A voice, familiar but slowed down until the words were like rumblings in the stone at a construction site, came from behind her. 

Charlotte didn’t need to know what the words meant to hear the panic, though. Well, that’s it, she thought. We can’t all panic. Again, Charlotte reached within herself for the serenity she needed. And let her flow through her into her horse. Underneath her, Charlotte felt Tellus relax, his muscles re-entering their easy pattern of motion. In the unseen grey beneath them, the hooves struck again, and the thickening grey began to stream across her face at a quickening pace, like some weird, otherworldly wind.

A few more paces, and Charlotte could feel the grey thickening some more. Now it was viscous, like water. Tellus’s straining pace slowed down to the slow motion of running in water that reminded Charlotte of running from some unseen menace in a nightmare. At the same time, though, she saw a glimmer of light ahead –real light, not the unsettling emanation that came through the grey. 

Charlotte slapped the reins, urging Tellus forward, but the yellow horse needed no urging. Pushing his head down and towards the light, Tellus flattened his ears against his skull and made one final effort, every muscle on the barrel of his frame bunching and releasing.

A blinding light. Or so it seemed, after the weird, subdued light that wasn’t light of the grey. Charlotte squeezed her eyes closed against the flare. From beneath her she could hear the sound of Tellus’s hooves clattering on metal.

Cautiously, Charlotte opened her eyes. The grey was gone. They were in a vast space, brightly lit by sheets of light that roamed over the surface of a vast, gently curving wall in front of them. The light showed a space below them, bridged by the metal catwalk they were riding on. Her eyes raked the space beyond the catwalk for a moment, before she pulled them back in relief. Below them, the gently curving wall seemed to continue forever, and between it and a grey wall there was space. Endless space, space that drew her eyes down like the bottom of a cliff and left her dizzy at just the thought of focussing on its vastness. 

A vast deep where, she could not help feeling, something was staring back.

Tellus knickered, nervously. She patted his neck. As weird as this place was, she suspected that Telus’s line had been in stranger places. Her confidence, as fake as it was, seemed to calm the great horse.

Nervously, Charlotte looked at the catwalk instead. It was weird. Instead of simple metal rails, there were cords of metal, cast as continuous, undulating shapes. She could pick out what looked like snakeheads holding tails, but the creatures the metal casting was based on were no snakes. They reminded Charlotte, of course, of Australian Aborigine art. But they were much, much more sinister than anything on an Australian cave. 

Below them, the metal mesh that would have formed the basis of any sane catwalk in a mill or a factory somewhere was instead a metal-cast version of a trellis, twined with vines and flowers. Weird, deformed, obscene flowers, of course. It didn’t make it any less useful as a catwalk, of course, but it seemed like the Drindrish had gone to a lot of trouble to be creepy. 

She looked back. A girl’s hand was sticking out of the grey wall, already several horse lengths behind them. Oops. Charlotte wheeled Tellus, carefully, in the space allowed by the catwalk, and urged her horse back to the wall. In moments she was in reach of the hand. Charlotte gripped it.

Eve gripped back. Charlotte pulled. Nothing. She pulled her hand free of Eve’s. 

Eve’s hand waved, desperately. 

Charlotte wheeled Tellus again, so that he faced towards the faraway, curving wall. Now she reached within herself for the ch’i of Eight Dragon Spirit Kung Fu, and leaned backwards over her saddle to take Eve’s hand again in her left hand.

It clutched her’s, desperately, like a drowning victim was supposed to grip you. Charlotte mustered her strength, and then kicked gently at Tellus’s side. 

The strain of the effort ran through Charlotte’s arm like a rope picking up slack. She had to grip the pommel and the reins together in her right, which was why she was taking the strain on her offhand. Her thighs scissored Tellus’s side until the stallion nickered gently in protest. I’m sorry, Charlotte thought, I can’t help it. We don’t have time to rig this properly. 

Charlotte’s shoulder was the join of massive forces. The power of Tellus’s mighty legs was pushing against the catwalk. The inanimate, sucking grip of the grey was holding Eve captive in its space between spaces. But Charlotte would not give up, even as her joints began to creak.

Then, with an all mighty pop for all the world like a top coming off a bottle, Eve popped into existence behind them. Her spear and shield clattered to the floor of the catwalk, making a thicker and more solid sound than Tellus’s hooves as they struck. Eve, both hands on the “rails,” let her head hang over the edge as she took one deep, sobbing breath after another.

Charlotte waited.

At last, Eve looked up at Charlotte. “Now I know what a baby feels like. Thanks.”

“No problem. Now I know what a doctor feels like.”

Eve held up her left hand. It was still visibly white, with red marks showing the lines where Charlotte’s fingers had gripped. “I hope not. Be hard on the baby. I, um…” Eve interrupted herself, trailing off. “This is a very weird place.” Then her eyes turned to the rails. “Also, skeevy.”

“I was going with ‘creepy,’ myself. As in the Drindrish national motto: ‘Would it kill you to show some appreciation? We go to a lot of trouble to be creepy. Oh, wait. It will.’”

“That’s cheery. Want to find Sovereign now?”

“What’s your beef with him, anyway?”

“Ken told me that if I didn’t rescue her cousin….”

“Wait. Brian Ferguson is Ken’s cousin?”

“Haven’t you noticed? Everyone’s a cousin around Landing.”

“No, I haven’t. Because they’re not.”

“Well, everyone who’s related to elves is a cousin.”

“Okay, granted. Yeah. See that curving, metallic wall over there? We figure it’s a spaceship.”

“Big spaceship.”

“Very big spaceship. Point is, we think Sovereign’s trying to boost it.”

“So wrong.”

“So very, very wrong. The owners just parked here so that they could take in a movie. Is it there fault that it’s some kind of Oscar bait crap that goes on for an eon?”

“Maybe we should?”

But Charlotte was already squeezing Tellus’s side. The horse needed no more prompting, taking off at a gallop. As frightening as the wall ahead was, you had to admit that anywhere was better than here. 

After a surprisingly long gallop of almost a mile, the girls were at the wall. The catwalk came to an end a few feet from the wall, but there was a gap in the wall. A black, opaque gap of the kind that the Roadrunner would run through but which would pancake the Coyote, but a gap, nonetheless, and nowhere else to go.

Charlotte didn’t even hesitate, urging Tellus into the jump, reins in her left hand so that she could wield the Pearl Harmony Sword with her right. Who knew what was on the other side?

They took the black wall in mid-leap. It was weird, like the grey, but only for a moment, and they popped through into another great space, this time metallic and lit by ordinary lights on an ordinary ceiling, if one far, far above. Charlotte’s eye took in a shadowy space full of beams and pipes, and a metal floor painted with lines and squares and traced with runs of rivets. 

Oh, and Sovereign, complete with space armour, was standing at the far side of the space, his back to her.

Oh my God, Charlotte thought. This can’t be this easy. It would be a backstab, but it was not like she was a match for Sovereign in a fair fight. 

Time for the sneak option, she thought, once again urging Tellus into motion, holding the Pearl Harmony in charge position, as Father Asplin had once shown her. Sovereign had just enough time to look around in surprise at the ringing sound of Tellus’s hooves striking the floor before the point of the Pearl Harmony blade struck his shoulder and slid right through the armour. Red, human looking blood welled out of the wound.

For a moment, Charlotte felt a blinding, overwhelming pain, the kind that you just couldn’t think around, that made you flinch and twist and anything to get away from the pain. But only for a moment, until she realised that it wasn’t pain, but something that filled your head just like pain. It was the sound—

The sound of Sovereign screaming in her head. 

And then it cut off. The Mandaarian took a little step, and suddenly he was standing, in mid-air, forty feet above her. The hilt of the Pearl Harmony Sword stood out from his shoulder, and agony was obvious on his face. But when he looked down and spoke, there was not a trace of it in his voice.

“I’m going to destroy you for that, girl.”

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