On The Wings of Dreams
Brian W. Antoine
June 25, 1993
July 12, 1996
©Brian W. Antoine 1992-2004
All Rights Reserved
It had been a long week and I was taking advantage of a momentary lull in the chaos that is my life to relax a little. I just wanted to let my brain idle for a while, so I hunkered down in the comfortable old chair I kept in the lab and faced it towards the sunset that was in progress. While Terran sunsets may be beautiful, the brilliant golds and greens of the Velan sunset that spilled through the worldgate still had the power to mesmerize me, as they wove their magic in a sky no other human had ever seen. As I sat quietly watching, my mind refused to be contented with mere observation, and began to wander. It drifted and skipped from one thing to another, each thought pausing to be noticed and then scurrying away as if afraid to be seen. This was the way to enjoy life in those all too rare times when it wasn't out to see what new problems it could throw at me; each moment taken and relished for the joyful emotions it could call forth. I wasn't the only person enjoying the sunset, however. From somewhere behind me, I heard the whisper soft purr of the drive unit in one of Penny's remotes, as it drifted over to hover beside my chair.
"It is kind of pretty, isn't it?"
I sat for a moment, thinking, before answering her. There had been a time when she wouldn't have appreciated the view, and as that thought skipped through my mind, it pulled others along behind it that had lain half forgotten for much too long. "Yeah, you might say that. Do you remember the first time we saw it?"
"Yes, do you?"
"Ummm hummm... It’s been just about eight years now, give or take a few days. Those were some wild times back then. Trying to figure out whether I was going mad, and being sure that I was when the gate activated for the first time." Ever so faintly, I could hear the quiet laughter coming from the remote behind me.
"Yes, those were some wild times ..."
--- June 21, 1985 ---
Usually it takes a major explosion of some sort to wake me up when I'm asleep, but tonight I'd been tossing and turning, completely unable to get comfortable. Perhaps it was because I was aware, at some level, of the changes in my life that were about to happen. Whatever the reason, it took me almost three hours of tossing and turning to finally fall into a troubled sleep.
I fell into an odd sort of dream, even for me. In it, I floated, disoriented, in a featureless gray mist. In the distance I sometimes got a shadowy glimpse of someone or something moving, but it always disappeared as I turned to get a closer look. The dream ended as I heard a single cry echo through my mind. So sharp was that cry that I instantly came wide awake, and found myself sitting up in my bed, my heart racing like mad, the cry still echoing in my mind.
There was a click from the speaker next to my bed, as Penny, the Artificial Intelligence I’d accidentally created, noticed I was awake. "Are you ok? I heard you cry out in your sleep."
It was several moments before I was able to pull myself together. As my heart slowed its wild race, I fumbled around in the dark trying to turn on a light, while at the same time trying to collect my thoughts. I'd had my share of nightmares before, but this went far beyond anything I'd ever experienced.
"I think so. I just had the wildest dream. I think someone was trying to get my attention, but when they finally spoke I couldn't understand what they said. I'd swear, though, that it was a cry for help."
"Could it have been Kimi?"
"No, I don't think so. I understand enough Japanese from my lessons with her to have understood the cry. Besides, it didn't feel like her mental signature." Searching the nightstand beside my bed, I grabbed my glasses and looked over at the clock. Its buzzing display told me it was just a little after 1 AM. "Hummm... It's still early evening in Tokyo, this warrants checking out tonight."
While my lessons in the use and manipulation of magic were coming along fine, my telepathic skills were sadly lacking, a fact that my teacher, Kimi, took every chance she got to point out to me in embarrassing detail. With this in mind, I took as much care as I could in my preparations to call her. The last couple of times I had contacted her, the fragile link had wavered so badly that she had been forced to strengthen it from her end. When I finally felt ready, I focused my mind on her unique signature, and called out across the ocean that separated us.
I wasn't sure, but it felt as if I had made contact, so I waited for her reply. It took several minutes before I heard her familiar voice answer my call, so I had the uncomfortable feeling that she must have been involved with something that she couldn't break away from quickly.
*Yes my apprentice?*
*Please excuse my intrusion. I have just been awakened by what I believe to be a cry for help. I could not understand the language being spoken, and was worried that it may have been from you. I wanted to check to see what assistance I could render.*
*Interesting, however, the request was not from me. I am presently occupied with guests, and cannot discuss this with you at this time. Please contact me tomorrow evening, and we can go over this in more detail.*
*As you wish, I am sorry to have disturbed you.*
*A wish to render assistance to a distress call is not a disturbance. We will discuss this tomorrow evening, as planned.*
With that, I felt the link dissolve as Kimi severed it without effort from her end. "Well, it wasn't Kimi at least. The question is then, just who the hell was it?"
"I do not know. I have insufficient information upon which to compute an answer for you."
I looked over at the hardware sitting in the corner, and had to grin. "That was a rhetorical question. You weren't supposed to try to answer it."
"Sorry," came the contrite sounding reply.
"That's ok, you're learning." I chuckled to myself and after removing my glasses, and placing them where I'd be able to find them, turned off the light beside my bed. The lights from Penny's chassis still provided a little illumination in the dark, and I laid there watching the changing patterns as she thought to herself. "At least you don't try to answer me when I'm talking to myself anymore." Whatever I had felt earlier had now passed, or at least faded to a point where I was no longer aware of it. With a wide yawn, I said good night to Penny, and this time fell quickly asleep. Little did I know, then, just how much my life was going to change because of that one little dream, or of the events that followed it.
The following evening I once again contacted Kimi, as instructed, and together we spent almost an hour talking about my dream. Most of my memory of it had faded by then, but the cry itself was as clear as ever. In fact, try as I might, I was unable to get it out of my mind. It kept replaying itself over and over again. Like a moth attracted to a light, it kept bouncing around, looking for a place to land. Neither Kimi or I were able to make any sense of the cry itself. The language was nothing either of us was familiar with, or could even cross-reference.
In the end, the only thing we could do was wait to see if it occurred again. It was obviously not a normal dream and we only hoped that I would be contacted again. In the mean time, Kimi began a search of her own using her more extensive resources. One possibility was that a new Mage had appeared in some corner of the world and was attempting to contact others like herself. One thing we were reasonably sure of was that the caller was female. Other than that, we were both at a loss.
As night settled into my part of the world, I tried to force myself to relax as I listened for the call. As I waited, I once again felt something stirring in the back of my mind. However, although I tried, I couldn't get it to resolve into anything I could define. It was just a constant itch at the threshold of my senses. It was there when I tried to ignore it, but vanished whenever I tried to examine it. Finally, long after 1 AM, I gave up and went to bed
I didn't, however, get much sleep. At a little before four in the morning I once again began to dream. This time I felt myself ready for it, or so I thought. As I once again floated about at random in the mist I frantically searched my surroundings. This time I wanted to try to reply to the voice crying out to me. But as hard as I tried, I never got more than a glimpse of a form hovering at the edge of my vision in the mist around me. As I sighted something and rushed in that direction, I pulled up short as I saw something in a completely different direction, and this continued for what seemed like hours.
Finally, once again I heard the cry in my mind and it was the same thing, repeated over and over again. At last, exhausted from my attempts to get close to the source, I stopped, and put everything I had into a call of my own. With all of the strength I could muster, I unleashed a telepathic reply into the mist around me.
*I hear you! How can I help?*
Unfortunately, the force of my attempt was more than my subconscious mind was willing to put up with and I once again found myself wide awake. However, as the dream faded from my memory I heard one final cry form in the darkness that surrounded me. This one was different from before and something deep in my mind, at more of an emotional than intellectual level, translated it simply as; 'Hello?'.
"Damnit! Of all the miserable luck. I almost had it!"
"Almost had what?"
I looked over at Penny sitting in the corner as I realized I'd spoken aloud. "I tried to answer her, and I think she heard me. God only knows if she understood me though. She was still speaking in the crazy language of hers, and I had to answer in English."
"Still, if she heard you answer she knows someone heard her."
"I guess that will have to do for now." I leaned over close enough to read the clock glowing at the head of my bed. "Hummm, almost 4 o'clock. I wonder what made her late tonight?"
"Why do you expect her to call at the same time every night?"
"I'm not sure. It's what I would do if I was trying to make contact with someone I suppose. I'd try to keep to a schedule so that anyone listening would know when to be ready for my call."
"Maybe she is moving around, or could not find a safe place from which to call until now?"
"Could be, I just don't know." I glanced again at my clock and started trying to relax. The itch that had been present in the back of my mind all evening was gone. Whatever was going to happen tonight, it had played itself to completion. "I think that's it for tonight. I'm going to try to get back to sleep."
"'Night ..." As I lay there in the dark I found myself unable to relax enough to fall asleep, so I wove my hands together behind my head and stared into the darkness. As my mind raced, I thought of things to try the next time I was contacted. Dozens of things came to mind, but for every idea that occurred to me, a flaw would follow in its wake. Finally after almost an hour, I thought of an idea that seemed solid. I looked at it from every angle I could think of and could see nothing wrong. That done, I was finally able to relax enough to fall asleep.
The next day, I contacted Kimi to fill her in on the events of the previous night. She in turn informed me that her own search had come up empty so far. She would continue, but did not hold any great hope. Then I asked her for help with the idea I had developed.
*This is what I would like to do. The next time I'm contacted, I would like to trace the source of the contact. I remember you mentioning once that it was possible and I would like you to teach me the method.*
*Yes, such a thing is possible. It will require you to refine your telepathic ability to allow you to perform such a trace.*
Oh shit. That was the last thing I had wanted to hear. My telepathic skills were probably my weakest, and I had little hope that I would ever be as adept as my teacher. *Is there no other way?*
*None that I am aware of. What you wish to do is not something that can be assisted with magic. Skill with the mind will alone suffice.*
*Well, if that's all that's available, I would like to be taught the method. I may not succeed, but I at least want to try.*
*That is the first step, and always the most difficult. Listen and remember what I say.*
For the next hour I listened as Kimi described the technique for tracing a telepathic contact. When she was satisfied that I understood the method, she told me to begin to practice what I had learned. To that end she immediately began moving around and contacting me at odd times of the day. At every contact I attempted to trace her location. When I succeeded, I wrote down the location and she verified the list at the end of the day.
Four times as I worked that day I felt the feather light touch of her contact in my mind. Each time it happened I attempted to trace the call at I had been taught and each time I failed. By the end of the day I was thoroughly exhausted, both mentally and physically. If my mysterious friend tried to contact me that night, I didn't think I'd even hear her. As it turned out, I must have been right. While I once again felt the itch in the back of my mind as I went to bed that night, I slept the entire night without dreaming.
As that night went, so went each of the next five nights. Each day Kimi contacted me at random times and I attempted to trace her location. Each night I relaxed, and tried to ready myself for the expected call that never came. By the evening of the sixth day I was beginning to believe that I was never going to hear from my friend again. I had, however, begun to have some small success with my lessons. Once the previous day and twice that day I had managed to trace Kimi as she tickled my mind.
As I sat around that evening at home, I began to wonder just what kind of trouble my friend might be in. As the evening wore on, the wondering turned to a kind of nagging worry that something was wrong. At that point I realized that the itch was back, and was growing in intensity. Finally, a little before ten o'clock, it peaked, and I felt as if I was listening for a sound that was just too soft to make out. As I glanced at my clock, someplace in the back of my mind the random bits of information began to come together and make sense.
"Do you have the times of my previous contacts?"
"Mark the time, and tell me how far apart the three events have been. I have a sneaky feeling I know why my friend has been silent the last few days."
Over in the corner the lights on her chassis blinked to themselves for a second or two. "The mean time between contacts has been twenty seven hours. This includes interpolation of data points for the days you did not hear anything."
I collapsed back into the chair I had been sitting in with a sigh. Everything was starting to come together in my mind in a pattern that made a strange kind of sense. The trouble was that the end result was something that made no sense at all.
"Jesus, this can't be right. There has to be another explanation. Either that or I'm going nuts."
"Do not worry. If you believe you are nuts, you can not be."
I gave a kind of weak chuckle, and poked my head around the edge of the chair to stare at her. "You got that from tapping into some database didn't you."
"Yes, but as a general rule it seems to hold true for humans. Someone who is truly unstable will not admit it to themselves or anyone else. Therefore, you are not nuts."
"Then would you kindly explain what the hell is going on? Follow my line of thinking for a moment, and see if you can come up with an explanation. I'm hearing someone cry out telepathically for help roughly every twenty seven hours. I'm reasonably sure that the reason I didn't hear from her the last few days is because I was awake. I must be more sensitive to the call when I'm asleep or something. The call is in a language that neither Kimi or I can recognize and her own search has also come up empty."
"I am unable to explain the facts you have listed. Do you have an explanation that you believe fits them?"
"Remember what I said about calling at the same time so that anyone who heard you would know when to expect your call? How many places do you know of that have a twenty seven hour day?"
"Nothing in my memory fits that criteria. So, do you have an explanation?"
"Ok, let me rephrase that last statement, and see if it clears things up a little. How many places on Earth do you know of that have a twenty seven hour cycle?"
"The answer does not change. Nothing on Earth is based on a twenty seven hour cycle. Based on the facts given me, I would have to conclude that the call is not originating from a terrestrial source."
"Right, so please ignore my blathering while I sit here and not so quietly go nuts." Sitting there in that chair I kept running the facts as we knew them around and around in my mind, and every time I put them together I kept coming up with the same crazy answer. It just didn't make any sense! At some point I must have begun to mutter to myself, and that caught Penny's attention. The next thing I knew, Kimi was yelling at full volume in my mind.
*Apprentice, you will answer!*
That yell broke me out of the vicious cycle my thoughts had become, and I struggled to keep from falling back into the vortex that lay before me. *Huh, how?*
*Your artificial assistant phoned me and informed me that you were trying to shut yourself down. From what I just saw, her choice of words might be a little odd, but her assessment was essentially correct. I have not spent the last few years training you to see you discard it in this fashion. Now, you will explain what has occurred.*
Somehow, the formal tone of her voice in my mind got my attention. The logical part of my mind took hold, and clamped down on the emotions that had been running wild. Think, listen, learn, remember and above all else, discipline. These were the things that a Mage required to function, and they had been drilled into me from the beginning. Now they served to bring that part of my mind that wanted to run wild, back under control.
*Better. No apprentice of mine should have ever let that happen, and you are going to have to explain to me why I should continue with your instruction now that it has.*
I cleared my mind, using the discipline I had been taught. At some level I still had the urge to giggle, but somehow that didn't seem to be a good idea at the moment. *Sensai, I think I understand where the call I have been hearing may have been coming from. If I am correct, I will hear it again about 1 AM tomorrow night.*
*And what has this revelation to do with your behavior?*
*Let me explain what else I have deduced ...* and I began to recite the facts as I understood them along with my conclusions. I just hoped when I was done that both of us weren't going to be giggling a duet.
It took me quite a while to explain to Kimi just what I thought had been going on the last week. While I was explaining it to her, I took it slow enough so that I could also think it through again in my own mind. When I was done, I still came to the same ridiculous conclusion I had before. The call I was hearing was almost certainly originating from someplace other than the planet I'd been born on. When I finished, I sat back in my chair, and waited for her reply. She hadn't made any comments to me after the first few minutes of my explanation, and I hoped it was because she had a better theory. Such was not the case.
*Apprentice, I believe I owe you an apology. Given what you have just told me, I now believe you had sufficient reason to become upset. I myself am having trouble dealing with the possibility that you may have made contact with someone from another world.*
That was not what I wanted to hear just then. The past few years I had come to think of Kimi as the foundation of my new world. She had been the person who had contacted me after my discovery that magic was much more then I'd grown up believing. Since that time, she had been both my guide and teacher in things magical, and had even became my friend. No matter what the problem was, if it was related to magic, she had either known the answer or had known how to find it. If this had her worried, what chance did I have of dealing with it?
*So, what can I do? I could probably ignore the call if I wanted to, but somehow that doesn't feel right. Whoever it is needs, or at least believes she needs, help. If we were in that kind of trouble, I'd like to think that someone would offer to help.*
*No, we cannot ignore the call, that much is certain. We must find a way to answer it, and even to help if possible.*
*But how? Even if I manage to trace her the next time she calls, how do we get there to help? On a good day I can teleport myself from one side of the planet to the other, but that's my maximum range. How do we get from here to what may be another planet?*
For several minutes the two of us sat there and thought to ourselves. I had no idea how to proceed beyond tracing the call back to its source. Once that was done, we were left with the even bigger problem, and our willingness to help might be worthless. However, Kimi had been at this much longer than I had and now that experience paid off.
*I may have an idea, however I need your opinion concerning its feasibility, since it concerns something only you retain information about. Please listen, and point out any flaws you may discover.*
*As always, I will do my best.*
*I expected no less. Now, as I recall, you and K'tka managed to complete your research concerning the creation of what the two of you called a gate?*
*Yes, before his death we worked out the details of the spell, and even constructed one.*
*Is it also true that this gate did not require the detailed knowledge of the destination that a teleport spell requires?*
*Yes. You needed a way to identify the destination, but it does not need to be a visual reference. The test gate we created was opened using geographical coordinates given to me by K'tka.*
*Could you use something else as the destination reference?*
I thought about it for a moment. The gate spell had been designed to allow use of rough coordinates. All you really needed was a way to specify the destination in terms of distance and direction from the starting point. ,,*Yes, I would need some way to define the destination relative to myself, but it should be possible.*
It was Kimi's turn to think, and I still didn't see where she was headed. *Could you use a telepathic trace to define the destination?*
At first I didn't realize what she had meant. Then everything came together, and I felt like a low grade idiot for not thinking of it myself. Here I'd been learning how to trace the location of someone I'd never seen, and it had never occurred to me to use the trace as she had suggested. Now we had at least a slim chance of being able to reach whomever I'd been hearing call to me.
*Yes, it might be possible. I'd have to have a way to visualize the trace so I could follow it back to the source. Given that I could do so, I should be able to open a gate to the same location. One other problem is that I don't know the maximum range of the gate spell. That was something we never had time to work out.*
*I suggest, then, that you attempt to determine the maximum range, and that we step up your practice schedule. You have not yet demonstrated the proficiency I believe necessary for the task ahead of you. Whoever is originating the call, may not continue to do so unless she believes someone has heard it.*
*Well, we have about twenty-five hours before the next call is due.*
*Then we had best begin now.*
For the next few hours, Kimi teleported around the planet making me trace her location after every jump. More often then not I failed to locate her, but when I did it revealed parts of her past I had not been aware of. You have to have actually been to a spot you wish to teleport to, or have been in close telepathic contact with someone who could give you the necessary visual references. Nothing else works to give you the sensory clues needed to memorize that spot so you can later return to it. Some of the places I managed to trace her to were more than a little out of the way. I about had heart failure when one trace lead me straight to the North Pole. Besides wondering how she had ever gotten there in the first place, I was afraid she would get hurt being there now. She was by no means a young woman any more.
Finally, about three in the morning, I was falling asleep on my feet, and she decided to quit while I was still awake. She returned home, and told me to be ready to continue my practice after getting a few hours sleep. With a final goodnight, I stumbled over to my bed and crashed. Less then six hours later, and feeling like something the cat had refused to touch, we were at it again.
I was getting a little better at it, and almost felt ready for what I suspected lay ahead me. I was now able to trace a telepathic contact almost fifty percent of the time, and I hoped that would suffice. As evening began to creep up on my part of the planet, Kimi called off our practice, and told me to try to relax.
Relax, she'd said., Hah! As the sun was setting outside, I was well on the way to working myself into a real frenzy. Even while doing my damnedest to follow Kimi around the planet, I was thinking about just what I was trying to do. Someplace in the universe around us, there existed someone with the strength of mind to generate a call that I could hear. Throughout the day, I kept glancing at my collection of science fiction books, and wondering if the call I thought was a call for help, might not be a call to dinner instead.
"Boss, would you please stop pacing around the room."
"I'm not pacing, am I?"
"Yes you are. Go read a book, or find something else to relax yourself. If you continue this way, you will be unable to get to sleep, and you will miss the call when it comes."
I chuckled to myself, but grabbed a book from my collection and sat down. Given what had been on my mind all day, I made sure I grabbed one that had friendly aliens in it. "Yes mother. I'll be a good little boy and go to bed on time." As it turned out, the book I had grabbed was one I hadn't read in a couple of years, and I got so involved in it that Penny had to remind me about the time. The book had done its work, and I was relaxed enough that I had little trouble falling asleep as I nestled myself into my bed. As I started to drift off, I once again felt the itch in the back of my mind, and about one o'clock in the morning I began to dream again.
Whether it was really a dream was academic, it sure felt like one, as I once again found myself searching through the mist around me. I could hear the call echoing around me and now that I was listening for it I heard the odd tones to the language, which just reconfirmed my belief that it was nothing ever spoken on Earth. I should have spent less time listening, and more time remembering my task, I guess. Whatever part of my mind was in control during this dream, it didn't remember to try to trace the call until after the call had ended. When I woke up the next morning, I remembered just enough of the dream to realize just how badly I'd screwed up. Having to explain to Kimi what I'd done didn't make it any better.
All day long I beat my head against the wall. "Idiot! All that practice, and you get so involved listening to her voice you forget everything." I felt like a complete fool, and nothing either Kimi or Penny said could change my mind. Finally, they both gave up trying, after deciding to let me work it out for myself.
"Well at least you will be asleep on time tonight. The wall does not seem to be worried about your head impacting it. Is it making you feel any better?"
A couple of times I had actually walked up the wall, and slammed my head against it. "No, but it does take my mind off of how stupid I was."
"Ok, I was just asking."
By the time evening rolled around again I had resolved to myself that I was not going to screw up tonight. Tonight's call was supposed to be about four in the morning, so I stayed up a little late trying to drill into my subconscious that it needed to behave itself. When I finally felt myself getting tired, I muttered a silent prayer that I'd get it right this time, and sacked out. Right on schedule, I found myself back in the dream again. Maybe my little discussion with myself had made a difference. As soon as I was aware of the dream and could hear the call, I began the trace, or at least I tried to.
It felt as if the trace was working, but it never showed me anything. Three times I tried to trace the call I was hearing, and three times I failed. Finally, as I recognized the part of the call that signaled its approaching end, I called back. I might not be able to locate whoever was calling to me, but I could let her know I had heard. This was going to be an all or nothing attempt. The last time I had tried this, it awakened me from my slumber almost immediately afterwards.
With everything I could muster I called back to the voice in the mist. *Here! I'm over here! Don't give up, I want to help if I can!* Sure enough, the jolt was enough to force me back to consciousness. As the dream began to fade away, and in that phantom existence between being asleep and awake, I heard the call change. She could not have understood what I had yelled with my mind, I could only hope that she caught the emotions behind it, and realized what had happened. Whatever she had made of my shout, she must have decided to reply to it. In that last moment before I came awake I heard her reply echo in my mind. I still couldn't understand the language, but some part of me registered the emotional content and translated.
Once again I found myself sitting up in my bed, but this time I had a smile on my face as I fumbled for the lights. As I explained to Penny what had happened, I could still feel the faint echoes from that last message, and I knew that there was no stopping me now. Whoever she was, she had definitely been surprised at hearing my call, but the rest seemed to be a feeling of joy at hearing a new voice.
"So that settles it. I don't know who she is, but anyone with that kind of spirit is going to have my help, no matter what it takes."
"You sound a little different, are you ok?"
"Don't worry, I'm feeling fine." I smiled to myself, and snuggled down in my bed to go back to sleep. I wasn't feeling particularly tired anymore, and that probably meant I would not hear from my distant friend again tonight. I was as sure as I could be, though, that I would indeed be hearing from her again. This was not over by any means.
The next morning I contacted Kimi as soon as she was awake, and told her what had occurred. As soon as she was ready, we continued our practice, after I listened to her comment on my sudden eagerness. I had failed to complete the trace the night before, and did not intend to fail tonight. One other thing that stood in the way was my lack of communications skills. I had managed to pick up a small part of what my friend had said, but only because she had transmitting at an emotional level also. I simply didn't have the skill to translate the telepathic channel, hell even Kimi had problems with that. So, added to our practice sessions was what she knew of non-verbal communication. It wasn't much, but it might be all we had, until I got a chance to try to learn her language.
If she held to her schedule, I would be hearing from her again about seven in the morning. With that in mind, I made a point of staying up late that night so as to make sure I would still be asleep when morning arrived. Since I usually sleep somewhere between six and seven hours each night, I waited until almost two in the morning before I went to bed. To my surprise, I found myself back in the dream almost immediately.
As before, I found myself drifting in a mist with vague shadows floating around just at the limit of my sight. This time, even before I heard the call, I started a call of my own. It wasn't verbal, instead though I tried to generate a feeling of hope, and my willingness to help. When I did hear the call, my subconscious decided to obey me, and I could feel the trace begin. To my dreaming mind the trace looked like a softly glowing silver cord. One end was attached to me, and the other was flying off into the mist. To my despair, the trace once again went nowhere.
In my mind's eye, the cord flew around in random directions, refusing to obey my will, even though I could still plainly hear the call in the distance. I was not, however, going to give up without a fight. I altered the emotional message I was trying to broadcast into a request for help of my own. To that, I added what I hoped was a mental image of two people, with each figure holding one end of a rope. I had no idea what she would make of it. I could only hope that she would try to make things easier for me to trace her.
She must have received something of my message, because her verbal call died. I could still sense her presence, as the by now familiar itch was still nagging at the back of my mind. Once again, I started the trace, and once again the cord flew off into the mist. As it began its search, I split my concentration between the trace, and the itch in my mind. Maybe I could let the trace use the emotional link to assist it.
As the trace scanned back and forth in its search pattern, I could tell that something was different this time. It almost acted as if it was confused about the direction of the signal. Finally, the free floating end of the cord began to spiral in on itself, and a few seconds later I felt a shiver ripple back up it as it made contact with something. At almost the same time I felt my friend react first with surprise, then with amused curiosity.
It was my turn to be surprised when I noticed a ripple traveling back up the cord. It looked almost as if someone had taken the other end and shaken it. For a moment I just stood there in a kind of shock, whoever she was, she could sense the trace! The shock also turned out to be enough to disrupt the dream and I found myself waking up. As the mist began to fade, I felt another tug ripple its way up the cord, and just before I woke up I could swear I heard a giggle echo within my mind.
"I've got it! Damn, it really worked!" Closing my eyes, I visualized the trace with my mind. It was still spiraling in on itself, which made absolutely no sense, but it was there. Then I sprang into action. "Shit, where are my glasses," I yelled, as I fumbled around in the dark looking for them. "What time is it?"
"The current time is seventeen minutes after four. How can you have the trace? The next contact is not suppose to be for another three hours."
"Whoever she is, she must have changed her schedule after hearing from me last night." While talking to Penny, I found my glasses, and turned on the lights. Then grabbing my clothes, I started to get dressed, as I thought about what I was going to do next.
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm headed to the lab. Please get the lights and heat turned on for me."
"Might it not be better to get some rest? You have only been asleep for a little over two hours."
I was running around the room grabbing stuff I might need, even as I answered her. "No! I can't take a chance on losing this trace. I've got to go through with this before it fades." I didn't say it out loud, but I also wanted to go through with getting the gate open before I chickened out. Some part of my mind kept whispering to me that this whole idea was insane. Christ, I was trying to visit what I was pretty sure was another world!
With my arms full of books and random notes, I got ready to teleport to my lab. A while back, Kimi had recommended that I find a quiet place to construct a workroom. She had one herself, and found it to be a good place to practice her magic, and to get away from things when life got too hectic. On the basis of her recommendation, I had picked out a nearby mountain and hollowed out an area in the center for what would become a lab of my own. The only access to it was via either a gate or teleportation, so the list of people who would ever get a chance to visit it was small. Before I went, I had one last thing to take care of.
"Penny, I'm going to be at this now until its finished, one way or another. I need you to cover for me while I'm busy, and the first thing I need you to do is contact work, and tell them I'm going to be out sick for awhile."
"Ok, I will call them in the morning for you," and she said it in a perfect imitation of my voice.
The small camera on the top of her chassis swiveled around to look at me. "Take care of yourself. I do not yet have full access to the lab, and will not be able to watch over you."
"I will," and, with the image of the lab in my mind, I jumped.
The lab itself was still pretty crude. I had not put a lot of time into its construction so far, so the walls were still rough hewn stone. All of them, that is, except for the one wall where I created the first and only gate that K'tka and I had worked on before his death. Carved into the north wall of the lab was a stone archway. For safety's sake, the gate spell had been designed to work best when anchored to something at each end. For my end of the gate I had chosen to anchor it to a true doorway. Now, that same doorway was going to save me a lot of setup time.
Scattered around the rest of the lab were boxes full of stuff that I had never gotten around to unpacking. Now I had to search through them, trying to find the components I needed for the gate spell. "Damnit, where did I leave my focus stone?" Kimi had been trying for quite awhile to get me to discipline my work habits along with my mind. As I found myself wasting time, searching for stuff that should have been at my fingertips, I discovered the hard way just what she been talking about. It took me almost two hours to gather everything together, and by the time I was done I was well along on the road to being royally pissed.
That was no mood to be in when I started to create the gate. With my supplies laid out within easy reach, I sat down in front of the archway, and ran through the exercises I'd been taught. From time to time, as I tried to relax, I closed my eyes and called the trace into the open, just to make sure it was still there. Each time, I followed the cord with my mind as it spiraled into itself. When I was rid of my anger, I got ready to start the spell. I just hoped that it was going to work.
I set my focus stone down in its holder in front of me, and began to coerce and bend space-time to my will. Because of the energy and time required to create the gate, the spell had been designed with points where the caster could stop and rest. The first time I had done this it had taken me almost six hours to complete and it didn't look as if I was going to be any faster this time, no matter how anxious I was. At each break point, I stopped, and checked to see if the trace was still active. During one of these checks I gave an experimental tug on the cord that shimmered in my mind. I'm not sure why, maybe I thought that my friend was still waiting at the other end, and would feel the tug. Whatever the reason, nothing resulted from my actions, and I got back to work with the next sequence.
Finally, I was down to the final sequence of the spell. This was the point where I defined the exit point, and activated the spell as whole. After a few moments rest, I got as comfortable as I could while sitting on a stone floor, and focused my mind on the trace once again. What I saw scared me shitless. The cord that defined the path was beginning to fray at the edges. As I watched it in horror, the whole coil shivered along its length. The damned thing was starting to fade! I still had no idea if this was going to work, and I was running out of time. As quickly as I could, I started through the final sequence. Every second counted now if I wanted to avoid starting all over again.
As I came to the part of the sequence that keyed the spell to the exit point, I closed my eyes, and began to traverse the cord. Around and around I ran in my mind as I followed the spiral. Twice during that run the cord began to fade from my sight. The first time I gathered what energy I could spare at the moment, and managed to strengthen the trace. The second time I had nothing left and could only watch in horror as it faded.
I don't know whether it came back of its own accord, or if my friend at the other end was helping me. Whatever the case, just before the cord faded out completely, it flared with light, and began to pulse and ripple. Before it changed its mind I took off at a dead run following the trail in my mind. At some point in that race against myself I found I no longer had to run. My trip down the spiral had taken on momentum of its own, and I began to pick up speed. By this time I was only vaguely aware of the lab around me. In my mind I could see the end of the cord as it passed through a brilliant light at the heart of the spiral, and as I approached it I reached out and keyed the final part of the spell. That done, I passed out.
When I awoke sometime later, my first action was to check for the trace, and found it had ceased to exist. Something had worked, apparently, because in front of me the gate was now quietly humming with the power I'd endowed it. Except that what it showed me made no sense. "What the hell is this?"
When I completed the first gate I'd created, it immediately showed me a view of the exit point. This one was acting as if it was alive, but all I could see was the rock wall inside the archway. Pulling myself to my feet, I slowly stepped closer for a better look, as I excercised the pain from legs that ached with the cold from the stone floor I'd been sitting on. As I stood there looking at it, I got my answer. From the top of the archway I spotted a flicker of light. "Jesus, it opened up underground!"
I had no fixed anchor for the exit point. Apparently the gate had opened with all but the upper edge below ground level. Linking my mind to the gate, I began to shift the exit point upwards. As I did so, I got my first good look at the results of my effort. As the exit portal shifted, I found myself looking at a view of a forest, and I felt my exhaustion start to catch up with me.
"Oh Christ, I must have missed completely. I've come out in a national park, or something..."
Then something caught my eye, and I took a closer look. As the lower edge of the exit portal cleared the ground, I got my first good look at the entire scene. It might well have been a park of some kind, but no park I knew of on Earth had a sky that was quite that shade of green. Where ever I had pushed this gate through to, it certainly wasn't any part of my home planet! While I was standing there letting the realization of what I had done sink in, I spotted a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye. When I glanced down, I found the head of an animal of some kind peering up at me from the lower edge of the gate.
"Hummm, what have we got here?" Still linked with the gate, I got ready to close it if my little visitor tried to come through. It looked more curious than hungry, so I tried to just shoo it away. "Go on, go away before you hurt yourself." Whatever it was, and it looked like some kind of fox, although the fur was longer than anything I'd ever seen before, it wasn't startled by the sound of my voice. While I was staring at it, the gate shivered slightly, and shifted further upwards. "Damn, I've got to get this thing anchored to something."
When the gate had shivered, my curious little friend had vanished. Now the head peeked back above the lower edge of the gate to look first at me, then scan around the rest of the lab. "Go on, shoo! Can't you see this thing isn't real stable?"
What happened next started a chain reaction. At the sound of my voice, my curious friend stepped back from the bottom of the gate, and I got my first good look at her.
The last time I checked, animals didn't wear clothes. The one standing below the exit portal didn't seem to have heard about that little rule though. While I was standing there with my mouth hanging open, I heard a voice whisper in my mind.
*Well then, why don't you fix it?*
That did it. The events of the last week, my exhaustion from the tension and effort of creating the gate, and everything I was feeling, caught up with me the same time. I had just enough time to mutter an 'oh shit', and I fainted.
I couldn't have been out for more than a moment or two. When I woke up, I just lay there for a few minutes and tried not to think about what I'd just been through. Had she been there, Kimi would have muttered something about that being one of my more well-developed skills, and she might even have been right. This time it didn't work real well. I had thought I was going to be ready for whatever I might find on the other side of the gate. Too many years of reading science fiction had gotten me all ready to confront the hideous bug-eyed monsters I'd expected to find. A smart-ass fox that could communicate telepathically hadn't even been on the list.
Grabbing the edge of a nearby workbench, I slowly pulled myself back to my feet, and looked around to see what had happened to the gate when I'd fainted. Sure enough, I'd lost control of its position as I'd fallen unconscious and it had drifted from its previous position. Looking through it now, I found myself staring at the tree tops of the forest that had surrounded the exit portal, and I could just barely detect a slight upwards motion as it continued to drift. Getting down on my hands and knees, I slowly crawled up to it, poked my head through, and look down. About two hundred feet below me, my friend was still standing calmly about where the gate had been. Every once in a while she glanced upwards as if checking its position, or verifying that it was still there. When she caught sight of me staring down at her, she simply stood there watching me, as if to see whether I was going to vanish completely. I'll admit that the thought had indeed crossed my mind, to just close the damn gate, and pretend it had never happened. I buried that thought quickly, though, as I remembered why I'd come this far, and instead I linked with the gate again.
"Sorry about that. I'll be down in a moment," and I guided the gate back to the ground. When it once again hovered just about the surface of the meadow, I got a better look at my new friend. She was roughly human shaped, or at least she had the right number of arms and legs, but she also had a tail, fur and a face that continued to remind me of a fox. Of course no earthly fox I knew of stood quite that tall, nor even stood upright. She looked to be about five feet tall, with the ears sticking an inch or two higher. Those same ears were also tracking my every movement as we now both took the chance to look each other over. She was dressed in a loose fitting blouse of some kind, and a skirt that was covered with dozens of tiny pockets. Around her shoulders was a cloak made from what looked to be a lightweight silk like material that was the same deep red color as her fur. Given that her pelt looked fairly thick, the light cloak made an odd kind of sense, and the coloring was why I'd missed seeing it when she'd first poked her head around the edge of the gate.
While I was getting a good look at her, she of course was returning the favor. I was still trying to figure out how she was standing erect if her legs were built the way a foxes would be, when I heard her make a noise. When I looked up into her eyes I could see that her expression had changed, but Lord only knew what it meant.
*Something about my legs interests you?*
I must have turned about six shades of red, at least it felt that way. She couldn't have been any better at reading human facial expressions than I was at reading hers, but my emotional outburst had to have made my embarrassment plain. I guess she must have found my reaction funny, as she made a small ‘huff’ and then said something aloud. Whatever she said, I didn't catch any of it, and she must have guessed that from the emotional storm that still swirled around me.
*Oh, you don't know how to translate and listen at the same time.*
I was still hearing her in my mind, so I tried to answer her the same way. *Actually, I don't know how to translate at all. I just hope you are understanding enough of what I'm thinking to know what I mean.*
*I believe I understand most of it. I'm sorry to have embarrassed you.*
I started to smile because something in the undercurrents of her thoughts said that she wasn't as sorry as she wanted me to believe, and caught myself just in time. Shit, I wondered what she would think of a smile? It sure looked as if her muzzle could hide a healthy set of teeth, and I'd read more than a few stories where the show of teeth was a prelude to an attack. I finally just grinned, without showing my teeth, and hoped she caught the meaning from my mind.
*I believe I can survive being embarrassed,* I 'pathed in reply, but there was less conviction than normal to back that thought up. Then to lower my mood further, the gate took advantage of my distraction, and made a small hop upwards. "Shit! Goddamned stupid spell." Once again I pulled my concentration together, and lowered it back to the ground. "Look, before I do much else I need to anchor your end of this thing, or it's going to drift all over the place." It was just dawning on me that I'd spoken out loud, when she answered me anyway.
*What do you need to anchor it?*
Ok, so she was translating as I spoke somehow. That would make things easier for me at least. "I need a doorway of some kind. Stone, or wood from one of these trees would work fine. It just needs something solid in the shape of a doorway to act as an anchor for the portal."
She closed her eyes part way for a moment, and stared right through me. *How big would it need to be?*
I'll never be sure why, but I trusted her at that point, which was probably an insane thing to do given the circumstances. Maybe things were easier because she resembled something I could at least relate to, I just don't know. What ever the case, it was time to commit myself, and hope I didn't lose both the gate and my only way home. With a stray thought about 'Thousand Light-Year Boots', I stepped through the gate, and into the meadow where I could look around. It didn't occur to me until after I taken that step, to wonder whether the atmosphere was even breathable on the other side, or what kind of meal I'd make for the local fauna.
My friend just stood there watching me as I got my bearings, and examined my surroundings. When I still felt fine after a few minutes, or at least not any different then I had before stepping through the gate, I checked on the size of the exit portal, and tried to figure out the rough size of the anchor it would need. When I turned to face her, I found her staring up at me with her eyes opened wide.
*Are all the people of your world as tall as you?*
"Yes, at least the males average about my height. The females average about so tall" and I indicated it with my hand. "As for the gate, I think I'm going to need something about like this." Kneeling down, I cleared a small space on the ground, and sketched out an archway that would be about eight feet wide and nine tall, using my height as a reference. "I would really prefer stone over wood;, the anchor point must be stable. If it flexes any it can cause problems I'd rather not think about." As I had sketched the archway, she had stepped beside me to watch. Now as I turned to face her, I caught her looking at my face with what appeared to be curiosity.
*That should not be a problem* she said with a glance at my sketch in the dirt. *Can I ask you a question?*
"I think that's going to be a common occurrence for quite awhile. Go ahead, I'll answer as best I can."
*What are those things you are wearing in front of your eyes?*
I took off my glasses and handed them to her. As she took them from my outstretched hand I startled slightly at the feel of her fur brushing my palm, but she managed to avoid dropping them. "They are called 'glasses', and I wear them so I can see. My eyesight is pretty bad, and I need them to correct for the defects my parents stuck me with."
*How odd, why do you not just correct your sight with a small healing spell, or find a good healer?*
That question, and the fact she had not reacted with any noticeable kind of fear to the gate told me a little about her. I didn't know whether she was a Mage or not, but she obviously knew something about magic. It also implied that someone on her world could heal using magic, a trick that neither Kimi or I was capable of. "A couple of reasons I think. First, I don't know how. Second, I'm not sure I like the idea of someone playing around with something as important as my eyes using something as fallible as magic."
She seemed to consider that for a moment, then handed my glasses back to me so I could put them back on. Then she turned, and looked at my sketch in the dirt again. *Do you need any particular location?*
"Anywhere will be fine. It's your world, where do you want to put it?" Then a thought occurred to me. "Or, for that matter, do you even want it anchored here, and do you want my help? I have been assuming you were the one I heard calling for help. This feels like the correct place, but I could have ended up almost anyplace following that silly trace."
*It was I that called, and any help you can render will be most appreciated.* She looked around for a few moments, then stepped over to a spot a short ways away from the edge of the forest. *Would this do?*
"That would be fine. Also, I have a question of my own."
"I suppose it's a little stupid, but do you have a name?"
She gave a small huff again, and I'd have been willing to bet at that point that it was her way of laughing. *Yes, I am called Kalindra.*
"Well Kalindra," and I made a valiant attempt at pronouncing her name the way it had sounded in my mind, "I am called Brian. I'm pleased to meet you." As I said it, I gave a little bow in her direction.
She just huffed again, and I caught just a hint of embarrassment from her as she stepped over to where something lay in the grass. What she picked up was a staff that was just slightly taller than she was, and looked like it was made out of some kind of wood. With a glance my direction to see where I was standing, she turned to face the place she had indicated. My jaw almost hit the ground when the staff flared to life with a blaze of light.
Quickly shielding my eyes, I tried to see what she was doing, but the glare obscured most of her actions. Then the ground in front of her came alive, and began to rise up. As I watched, an archway of living rock took shape before my eyes. In less than a minute, the light flared for one final time, and I found myself looking at an archway that virtually grew from the ground beneath it.
*Will that suffice?*
I just stood there staring at it for a moment, and muttering to myself under my breath. "Well, that answers that question." I looked at her and nodded. "Yes, that will be fine."
*One final step, what is the name of your world?*
"Huh, why do you need the name?" I thought about it for a moment, but decided it couldn't hurt anything. "It's usually referred to as Earth, Terra or maybe Sol-3 depending upon why you need the name. I also expect that the first two names translate something like the word 'dirt'."
*Do you have one you prefer?*
I thought for a moment. "Yeah, I've always been fond of Terra."
*That will do,* She turned to face the archway, and I heard her whisper something. Then her staff flared to life again, and I watched as she carved something in the lintel of the archway. *There, now you may use it as an anchor for your gate.*
I nodded, and turned to face the exit portal that was still shimmering dangerously around the edges. Carefully, I drew on its link with its creator, and began to shift it towards the archway. When the two were roughly overlapping, I ran through the sequence that would anchor it to the stone. Stepping to where I could see my focus stone sitting in its holder on the other side of the gate, I concentrated and began. As I sang the first part of the sequence, first the gate and then the archway, began to glow with a soft golden light. As the spell completed, the archway shivered once and emitted a low bass tone, then fell silent and I released my control of the gate. Until I decided otherwise, it wasn't going anywhere unless someone put a great deal of energy into its destruction. I then turned back to Kalindra, and was just starting to ask her what I could do to help now that I was here, when I sneezed.
*What was that? Are you going to explode?* she asked, with an expression that might have been anything from panic to curiosity.
I took off my glasses, and sneezed again after rubbing my eyes. As I was putting my glasses back on though I noticed some of the hairs from Kalindra's hands had gotten caught in the hinges, and that my own hand had a couple of hairs sticking to it. Then a horrible thought occurred to me about why I had sneezed, just as I noticed my eyes beginning to water. "Oh shit ..."
*What is wrong?*
"No, this can't be." I looked over at Kalindra. "You're not even from my world. How the hell can I be allergic to you?"
*Allergic? What is that?*
"I have a small problem with animal hair. I can't even be in the same room with a cat and dogs are almost as bad." I was starting to sneeze every five to ten seconds now, and after long experience I knew it was only going to get worse.
*Cat? Dog? What kind of creatures are those?*
I looked up, and gave her a weak grin between sneezes. "They are small animals from my world that also have a great deal of fur. I have no idea why, but my sinuses are reacting to you the same way they would to them."
*Is it dangerous? What can you do for it?*
"Not really, just incredibly annoying." I walked over to the gate, and stepped back into my own world. "Look, I have something I can take to help me deal with this. Can you give me a few minutes?, I'll be right back."
*You will not be long? We have much to talk about.*
"You’re telling me. I still need to find out just what kind of trouble you're in, and if I can help. That, and a few thousand other questions I have will get me back here in just a few minutes."
*Minutes?* she asked, with a hint of puzzlement.
Shit, she was good, but there were obviously some abstract things that were harder to translate into her language. "Ok, I won't be gone for more than the same amount of time I have already been here."
She thought about for a moment. *Ok, I will wait for you to return. Then I will take you to meet the rest of the group.*
"I'll be right back," and I sneezed again.
*You are sure that is not dangerous?* and I think I caught just a hint of worry echoing from her.
"The only thing that hurts is my pride," and I struck a silly dramatic pose as I stood in the center of the arch. "The mighty Mage crosses the universe to rescue the damsel in distress, and what happens? He sneezes on her and has to run away. This really hasn't been one of my better days."
As I got ready to teleport to my home, and grab a bottle of antihistamines, I could have sworn I heard Kalindra laughing behind me.
It took me about ten minutes to get home, and grab a bottle of antihistamines out of the medicine cabinet. Usually I just avoided going places that had animals, but that obviously wasn't an option this time. I swallowed two from the bottle, and threw the rest in a bag, then tried my best to rinse out my eyes with water to keep them from swelling. It was just my damn luck that I'd rubbed them before realizing what was going on. On my way back, I grabbed the bag with the pills, and threw some odds and ends into it. There was no way to tell what I might be needing, or how long I'd be gone. The last thing I added to the bag was my focus stone, and the small tripod that it rested in, after I returned to the lab. Then I ducked back through the gate, hoping I was really ready for what lay ahead.
As I stepped into the meadow, I stopped, and looked around trying to locate Kalindra. "Hello? Are you still here?" I was still searching for her, when I felt something brush against my ear, and I heard a low growl reverberating in the air from behind me. My reaction was to scream, leap straight up, and invoke a levitation spell before I had even had time to think about what I'd felt. Then I slowed, and came to a stop about thirty-five feet above the ground. When I looked down, I saw the cause of my panic jump.
Laying on top of the archway, Kalindra was holding the end of her tail in one hand, and doing a fair imitation of laughing herself silly. She had tickled my ear with her tail, when I hadn't spotted her resting on top of the arch. It must have been real funny to her, but my heart was still doing triple time in my chest. "Jesus Christ! Don't ever do that again!"
At the sound of my voice, she started looking around to see where I was. She'd been laughing so hard she hadn't seen where my jump had taken me. "I'm up here. What were you trying to do, scare me to death?" Now she followed the sound of my voice, and looked up to see me hovering in the air above her. It startled her, and she almost fell off the archway as she tried to twist around to get a good look at me.
*How ... How can you do that?*
Slowly, I released the energy I'd gathered, and started to float back down to the ground. I was pretty tired after the events of the last few hours, and the effort to hold myself in the air was more than I wanted to put forth. "It's pretty simple actually, I can probably teach you if you want."
I could see her shudder even from where I still floated. *No! I mean how can you stand to be that far off the ground. Are you ?????*
"Huh? I didn't understand that last word." and I landed on the ground about ten feet from her.
*You are not afraid of heights?*
"Not really" I answered. I'd gotten over that a long time ago. Flying from ground to LEO(Low Earth Orbit) tended to make a fear of heights either enough to kill you outright, or completely irrelevant for the rest of your life. Given my fascination with space, I'd devoted no small amount of effort into getting there, once Kimi had taken me on as her apprentice. "It bothers you?" I asked in return.
*Yes, and most of my race as well. Less than a handful of my people are born without the fear, and they are highly honored for the tasks that only they can perform.*
"Then how did you get on top of the arch?"
*That height is not enough to bother me.*
While we had talked, I had landed and walked over to the gate. Linking with it once again, I commanded it to close down to its idle state. I didn't know what kind of wildlife roamed these woods, and I didn't want something wandering through it while I was gone. When I was done, I set my bag on the ground, and sat down on top of it while leaning back against the stone of the gate. "Ok, time for more important things. Now that I'm here, what was so important that you generated a call for help I could hear even on my world?"
With a kind of fluid grace, Kalindra folded her legs beneath her, and sat down in the grass in front of me. *Well, it was not really a call for help. It was more of a call to gathering for my own people. How you heard it where you come from I am not sure, but now that you are here we can use your help, if you are willing*
"That's why I'm here. If one freshman Mage can be of any help, just tell me what you need."
"Apprentice, beginner, whatever the translation is. I'm still new at a lot of this, so I'm not sure how useful I'll be. Kimi keeps telling me that I'm not living up to my potential though, so all I can say is that I'll try my best to help."
Kalindra listened to me talk about myself, then glanced from me to the gray fog of the quiescent gate behind me. *Any help you can provide will be welcome. Who is Kimi?*
"She is my teacher," and I stopped to think for a moment. "She is also the ArchMage of my world."
*Then I would like to meet her someday. If contact between our worlds is maintained, it would be fitting for the two of us to greet one another as leaders, and hopefully friends.*
Oh, oh. "Leader? Do I understand correctly? You are this worlds ArchMage?"
*If I translate the term correctly, yes. I am the leader of people who understand magic on this world.*
I muttered something under my breath about not being able to go anywhere without stumbling over someone better than I was. I don't think she heard me, but she must have caught the emotional outburst.
*That is something we will discover together* and she looked at the gate behind me again. *Now though, we have a ways to walk before the star goes down. You need to meet with the rest of the people who answered my call. Together we need to find an answer to the danger that threatens my people.* Unfolding those legs of hers, she stood up again and picked up her staff. *Come with me, please.*
I braced myself against the arch and stood up, then slung my bag over my shoulder and got ready to follow her. "Danger? Just what's the problem anyway?"
*All in good time, just follow me, and I will take you to the meeting place.*
As I followed her through the woods, I could see what looked like a road of some kind ahead of us as we walked along a rough cut path. As we walked, I kept quietly muttering to myself, even as I looked around in wonder at the trees. I also couldn't help wondering just what I had gotten myself into this time, and tried to deal with the nagging worry that I'd forgotten something important.
As we walked, we each started talking about our respective worlds. Each of us was trying to get a feel for the culture of the other, or at least that was my motive. At the same time I was also looking around at the scenery we were passing. We seemed to be traveling along a well-used road, but we had yet to meet anyone else. We kept passing what looked like farms as we walked, and I was quickly getting the impression that Kalindra's world was not real high on the industrial scale.
We talked about almost anything that came to mind. Flitting from one subject to another, and comparing how each world handled it. Kalindra was surprised as she listened to me describe the wars that were still fought on Earth. She knew what I was talking about, but the last war on her world was only remembered as an old legend in the history books. I on the other hand was floored when she told me that magic was well known on Velar, which I'd discovered was the name of the world I now walked on. Probably close to one percent of the population had at least a minor talent of some kind, though the numbers dropped quickly as ability grew though. There were less than a dozen people that would qualify as a Mage, no matter which of us was the judge.
One thing that definitely didn't cheer her up was my telling her just how rare magic was on Earth. She had asked whether others would be available to help, now that I had created the gate. I tried to explain that there were only three qualified Mage's on Earth and that I was going to be the only one available. I'm not sure she believed me. I was real sure she didn't believe that the three of us had to keep our knowledge of magic secret from the rest of the planet. Mage's on Velar were highly regarded, and she just could not conceive of people going out of their way to kill anyone who showed the least talent for magic. I tried to explain about religion, and the fanatical belief that some people had for a certain obscure passage, but her race had never developed anything like the religions of Earth, and she had no reference to compare my story to.
As we crested a small hill, I could see lights in the distance for the first time. It looked as if we were reaching the edge of town, but I wasn't sure just where the forest ended and the town began. As we got closer, I discovered that there really wasn't a way to tell them apart. The trees thinned out a little to make way for occasional house, and every once in a while we would pass a post with a light on it. I started to see signs of what I would consider modern civilization. The lights were similar to our street lights, though not nearly as bright. They provided illumination enough to let you see where you were going, but did not try to turn night into day, the way we prefer.
"So, how are they powered? I don't see any wiring."
*The base of each pole contains a small deuterium fusion power source that is replaced as needed. Each light comes on at sunset and shuts itself off later at night if nobody is around.*
"No wires from one to the next?"
*No, that would require tearing up the ground to replace them when they grew defective or new lights needed to be added. This may take more effort to maintain, but it is more aesthetically pleasing.*
I'm not sure just what caused it, but a faint alarm began to go off in the back of my mind. Listening to Kalindra talk as we'd walked towards town, a nagging worry had built in intensity. Something wasn't right and I could not put my finger on it.
"So your people have figured out how to make fusion work? That little trick is something my race is still working on."
In response, Kalindra began to describe the mechanical structure of the tiny fusion cell that was commonly available on her world, and in listening to her I realized what was causing me to feel uneasy. She was using terminology that was pretty exotic, yet did not exceed my vocabulary. The more I listened, the more uneasy I felt. She had mentioned earlier that she knew how to translate languages using magic, yet I sensed no magic in use as I extended my senses into our surroundings. Then something clicked in my mind and I felt a shiver run down my spine as I stopped in mid stride. Kalindra continued for a few steps, then stopped and turned to look at me. With a growing feeling of horror, I slammed my mental shields closed, and saw Kal wince in response.
"You goddamned fuzzy monstrosity! Translation spell my ass, you've been picking my mind like a dictionary! What the hell else besides language have you been sifting through?" With my shields closed that tight, there was no way she could tap my language centers to understand what I was saying. Even so, the rage I was broadcasting had to be making it plain that I wasn't real happy. I'd had more than my share of problems with privacy over the years, and Kimi and I had argued more than once over the matter, when she'd helped me develop what telepathic talents I possessed. Now, as I paced back and forth yelling, Kalindra just stood there watching me. It wasn't until I turned back the way we had come, and started walking away, that she moved.
"Fuck this whole lousy planet! Bunch of damned animals digging through my mind. You can all go to hell, I'm leaving!" The next thing I knew, Kalindra was standing in front of me. She was jabbering away in her own language, trying to tell me something, but I wasn't in a mood to listen, and I sure as hell wasn't going to let her into my mind so she could speak to me in English. "Get the hell out of my way. War may only be something out of a history book to you, but its a current event on my world. If you want a lesson, just keep getting in my way." I started to walk around her, and she grabbed my arm to stop me.
The next few seconds were a blur, as I proceeded to do something insanely stupid, even for me. She still had a hold on my arm, and I took a swing at her with the other to get her to release me. I don't know whether my swing hurt her, but it managed to make her mad when I hit her muzzle with a glancing blow. I remember hearing a snarl, and then looking down at my chest to see where the pain was coming from. I had to have been in shock by that point. Nothing else can explain why I stood there, staring at the blood spilling from four neat gashes across my chest. When I looked up at Kalindra, she was crouching a few feet away, looking at my blood as it dripped from her claws, and radiating a sense of horror that would have made Steven King proud. My shields must have dropped, because I could hear her in my mind again. I don't remember what she said to me though, because I was fading fast at that point. The last thing I remember is trying to focus on the gate to teleport myself home, and then thinking that the ground that was rushing up at me sure looked hard.
* * *
I'm not sure how long I was out. My next memory was of being curled up in a soft bed, and hearing someone speaking in quiet tones in the background. When I began to wake up, I was so comfortable in the bed I was resting in that it took a few minutes before I remembered what had happened. With a start, I sat up in the bed, and looked around to see where I was, while at the same time wondering why I was even alive. Jerking erect like that turned out to be a terrible idea. I just about blacked out before I fell back into the bed with a moan. When the stars quit swimming before my eyes, I noticed that the light blanket that had been covering me had fallen away, and I looked down at my chest. Where I expected to see bandages, I instead found four faint scar lines that were all that remained to show me where Kalindra had sliced me open.
"Well, I'll be damned ..."
At the sound of my voice, I heard a quiet exclamation on the other side of the room. When I looked up, I saw another Velan staring back at me. It didn't look like Kalindra, but I didn't have my glasses on, and had trouble telling. What ever was going on, I needed to see it clearly, and a quick search of the area by the bed turned up my glasses sitting on a small table next to me. As I put them on, I also noticed that my clothes were laying folded on the table also. "Huh?" With a quick lift of the blanket, I found that I was stark naked underneath it.
"Jesus Christ," and I pulled the blanket down quickly. That got me another huff from the other side of the room. When I looked up this time, I could tell it wasn't Kalindra sitting there. The fur contained a fair amount of gray, especially around the muzzle. I almost started to ask how I had gotten here, when I realized that whomever it was sitting there would not understand. The thought that followed that one brought all my anger flooding back.
Without moving or saying anything, I checked my mental shields and found they were down. They must have failed completely when I fallen unconscious, and now I snapped them back into place. I didn't know what had gone on while I was out, and I was sure I didn't want to stick around to ask. The person watching me had not shown any signs of noticing my shields going up, so I hoped I had a few minutes to get myself together before making a break for it.
I started looking around the room in what I hoped was taken as simple curiosity. While I looked, I figured my chances of being able to grab my clothes before I left. From the way I was being watched though, taking the time to move and grab them didn't feel safe. The speed that Kalindra had shown in attacking me wasn't something I wanted to see demonstrated a second time.
"Humph" Ok, so I'd spend a moment or two standing naked in front of the gate while I got it open. I'd rather my pride was wounded than my hide. My curiosity though had not gone unobserved. With a quiet groan, my jailer slowly stood up and walked over to the one door in the room. With one eye on me, whoever it was opened the door just enough to poke her head through, and call out to someone outside.
Ok, this looked like my only chance. I lay back in the bed with what I hoped was taken for exhaustion, but the whole time my mind was focusing on the image of the gate. I had to get out of here, get back home, and destroy the damned thing. I wasn't sure what was going on here, and I didn't want to know at this point. The belief that my mind had probably been sifted through while I was unconscious, and that Kalindra was both a Mage and violent enough to open me up like a ripe tomato, made it imperative that I seal Earth away from further contact. Try as I might though, I could not get a clear image of the meadow and the gate focused in my mind. I had taken too long anyway. As I felt a nudge against my shields, I looked up, and found Kalindra staring back at me from the doorway.
With my shields up I knew she couldn't understand me, but I wasn't going to give up without a fight this time. "So, I suppose I have you to thank for this?" I slowly sat up in the bed, and ran my hand across my chest, fingering the scars that I would have for the rest of my life. "What's next on the agenda, vivisection?" and I felt one more nudge against my shields. When I felt it, I looked her right in the eyes, and smiled with my teeth visible. I really hoped to hell that the stories I'd read had been right. I wanted her to know she was in for a fight this time. The reaction I got was nothing like what I expected. The pressure against my shields vanished, and she turned and said something to my jailer, who left the room and closed the door. Then she folded her legs beneath her, and sat down on the floor facing my bed.
"Listen please before leave."
Huh? It had been slurred, and the accent was all wrong, but I'd understood the words. When I didn't reply, and as I watched, she took what looked like a small notebook out of a pocket, and looked at something written on it.
"Please listen explain?"
As I continued to watch, she replaced the notebook, and then bowed her head, and sat there in front of me. I didn't know what to do now, and my confusion just pushed my anxiety higher. I couldn't get a clear image of the gate to teleport myself out of here, I hadn't taken the time to memorize the area. That meant that the only way home was through the door behind her. Whether I'd be able to find my way back to the meadow after that was another question. A bigger question was just what the hell was going on here? First she had tried to kill me, then had apparently healed me. Now Kalindra was doing a fine job of confusing the hell out of me.
For the rest of my life I'll never be sure why I did what I did next. I had no reason to trust her, and even less for staying around. She obviously wanted to explain something to me, but I was going to dictate the method. This time I extended the probe, and ran head on into her shields. I didn't push, I just made her aware that I wanted in. The look on her face as she felt my probe was unreadable, and I just waited. She made one more feather light attempt at my shields, then shivered lightly as she lowered hers.
What I found shocked the hell out of me. Kalindra was scared silly. Scared that I'd leave, scared that I might try to kill her in revenge, scared of what she'd done to me, scared for her people, scared because she was the best hope for them in spite of her age ... And at the heart of all that fear I found a young women doing her best with what was available, even as she felt like hiding in a corner until things were over and done with.
It was the strangest moment of my life. I was angry about everything that had happened, and at the same time felt like holding Kalindra in my arms, while protecting her from her problems. Confusing didn't even begin to describe the feeling. Instead, I dropped my shields a little, and spoke aloud. "Ok, I'm listening." Because my shields were still part way up, I could feel her test them, as she once again began to use me as a living translation machine.
"I am sorry for attacking you, I am unable to explain how it was even possible. You came here to help us, and my actions have brought dishonor to my name, and to my world. All I ask is that you listen to my explanation, before you leave to return to your own world."
She still wasn’t looking at me. She just sat there with her head down, and stumbled over the words she was speaking. I had to give her credit, she was going to a lot of effort to avoid using telepathy. Whatever it cost her, she seemed to understand that I would not tolerate her digging around in my mind. "Go ahead." Now she looked up at me, and it looked to me like she was trying to keep from crying.
"When you first arrived here, I touched your mind to find out what you meant to do. When it became clear that you did not have the skill to translate my speech, I felt I had no other choice than to translate yours. I did not mean to frighten you, and am ashamed at my actions when you wanted to leave."
I fingered the scars on my chest. "Yeah, you sure found a good way of keeping me from going anyplace."
"Please understand! When I saw that gate open, and you step through, I felt, for the first time, that I really had a chance of saving my people. I believed that anyone who could do such a thing would have the power to save our world from destruction. When you tried to leave, I panicked! Even that, though, does not excuse my actions. Attacking another being is almost unknown on my world. That I could do so makes me doubt my own sanity."
Now there was no doubt she was crying, and I sat there and watched. I'm not sure why, but someplace in my heart I started to forgive her, and wonder just what I had stumbled upon. I was just starting to get out of the bed, when I remembered what I wasn't wearing at the moment. She may not have been human, but she was female as far as my mind was concerned, and I felt myself blushing. "Ok, I accept your explanation. Could you please leave while I get dressed?"
"Very well, I will arrange for someone to show you the way back to where your gate is. I am sorry for everything that has happened. If I get the chance, I will try to find a way to correct my mistake."
Shit, I was starting to feel guilty, and I was the one who had almost been killed! "Just let me get dressed, and we can talk some more about this. I think I can wait a little while before leaving. After all, I still have someone to thank for saving my life." I sure hoped that this wasn't all an act on her part. If it was, she knew all the right strings to pull. As I waited for her to leave, she looked at me, and I could see a change in her eyes. Then as I lay there watching, her ears rose up and began to quiver, and her whole body seemed to unwind, like a coiled spring that had been released. I would not have been the least surprised if she had begun to glow.
"You will stay?"
"For awhile at least. Now will you kindly get out of here so I can get dressed! It's bad enough that someone undressed me. I don't need the whole world watching me put my clothes back on."
Kalindra got a sheepish look on her face and now it was her turn to be embarrassed again. "We had to remove them while we were healing you. They also needed to be cleaned. You did bleed all over them, and I'm afraid I ruined your shirt."
"That's ok, I've got plenty more where that one came from."
"I did replace it with one I hope will fit you. It is there with the rest of your clothes, and I hope you like it!" If anyone had asked me, I'd have sworn she really did hope I liked her gift. Though I had no clue why she found it so important.
"Well if you don't get out of here, I'm never going to get a chance to find out!" With a quick glance my direction, Kalindra leapt to her feet, and ducked out the door, closing it behind her. As it turned out, the shirt did indeed fit. I just wasn't sure I wanted to be seen in public wearing it. Its maker had to have been insane, as it put the loudest Hawaiian shirt I had ever seen to shame. The damned thing was almost fluorescent!
When I was ready, I opened the door enough to peek out into the hallway. Standing a few feet away, I could see both Kalindra, and the person I had assumed was my jailer. As soon as they spotted me watching them, they both came over to the doorway.
"You said you wanted to thank the person who had saved your life. I would like to introduce you to the healer who did the job. Her name is Wythdantis, and she is the best healer on the planet."
At the sound of her name, Wythdantis said something to Kalindra, and I heard my name in the reply. "She wants me to warn you to take it easy for a few days. She was able to heal the damage I did, but dared not attempt to try to restore the blood you lost."
"Please tell her for me that I am thankful for her aid, and hope not to need her services in the future."
Kalindra turned and passed on my message. I heard Wythdantis reply with the huff that I believed was Velan laughter, and then mutter something. "She says you are welcome and hopes that you learn how to deal with easily excitable children in the future. She might not always be available to clean up after them."
I couldn't help snickering to myself, while Kalindra was bowing her head to avoid looking at either of us. "Tell, her I'll try and ask her if she thinks a good spanking would help teach that child better manners." I sure hoped that translated, and I chuckled at the expression on Kalindra's face as she passed my message on. With another laugh, Wythdantis turned and left us standing there. Kalindra looked fit to be tied, and I started laughing out loud myself. "Don't bother to translate her reply, I think I understood just fine."
Wythdantis returned a few moments later with a large glass of some kind of juice, and stood there glaring at me until I drank every last drop. She believed it was safe enough for me to drink, and it was supposed to help restore the blood volume I'd lost. If I started feeling worse though, I was to see her immediately. Before she left, she made a point of telling Kalindra something that had to do with me, and I figured Kal had just been told what would happen to her if I came down 'sick' again. The emotional feedback I was feeling said that it was far from an idle threat, which just brought up another question that had been bothering me. While I had at least some small telepathic ability, I was about as empathic as your average rock. The fact that I kept receiving flashes of what Kalindra was feeling had me at least mildly worried, but it was a ways down the list of the things on my mind at the moment.
"Are all healers that, uh, feisty?" I asked, as I watched Wythdantis leave.
"The good ones, yes," whispered Kalindra. "The very best are those who can channel the feelings we have about our children, towards their patients. You do nothing that might make a healer angry with you, if you value your pelt."
Something about watching Wythdantis walking caught my interest, as she glided down the hallway towards what looked like a stairwell at the far end. Then it hit me, and I made a low "Hummm..." to myself, as I bounced on my toes, and compared my feet to hers.
"Why do you find our legs so interesting?" Kalindra asked me, when I looked up, and saw her watching me.
"Curiosity," I told her, as I tried standing on my toes for a moment. "Your people don't bounce when they walk, they glide."
"Yeah, watch the top of my head as I walk," and I took about ten steps down the hallway. "Did you see my head bounce up and down as I walked? It's because of the way my legs work. Yours allow for more extension, and you don't bounce, you glide."
She thought about it, and watched as I walked back to stand beside her. "Do you often notice things like this about the world around you?"
"Sometimes, it's the engineer in me that likes knowing how things work. It drives Kimi crazy when I keep asking her why, when she's trying to teach me something."
"I will try to remember that. Now though, we have something important to do, so please follow me," and she headed towards the stairwell, where Wythdantis had disappeared. I followed Kalindra, as we, began ascending a wide spiral walkway that gently sloped upwards. Maybe Velan's felt more comfortable about heights if they were below ground instead of above it, because it quickly became obvious that we were underground. Looking behind me at the walkway, I also noticed that it was designed to never allow a direct view downward of more than about ten feet.
"How many levels are there to this place?" I asked, as I tried to look upward through the core of the walkway.
"Three below ground" answered Kalindra , guessing at what I was trying to do. "The rooms we use for meetings are on the second. Do you have a problem with being underground?"
"No, I'm fine. Just curious about where we were headed."
We stepped off the walkway at the second level, and after Kalindra stopped in front of one of the doors, she turned to face me. "I'm going to introduce you to the other three people who are helping me. I have to warn you that they might be a little more excitable than I am."
The scars on my chest were beginning to itch, and I started to scratch them through my new glow-in-the-dark shirt. "Yeah, right." I looked down at my chest. "Just what do you mean by excitable, and should I be ready to defend myself this time?" The expression she gave me didn't do much to ease my growing anxiety. "Look, if there are things about your customs or social relations that I might violate without knowing, you better tell me about them now. However sorry you might be about it now, you did attack me, and I don't intend to be caught off guard a second time."
I could sense her confusion, as she tried to make sense of what I'd said. I was talking about some fairly vague concepts, and restricting her to only reading the parts of my mind that dealt with language was hampering things. "Could you explain that to me better?"
"Ok, try this. If I say something wrong without knowing it, or stare at them when I'm not supposed to, and they take offense, I'm not going to sit there, and get sliced open again. Are you willing to take that chance, do you want to be responsible for keeping me alive if something goes wrong, what do you want to do?" I hoped she understood me, as I watched her work through it, and then I felt her confusion change to resolve.
"I believe you should be safe, but I am forced to admit that I might be wrong. If you are attacked, you may respond as you feel necessary." Then she looked me over once from top to bottom. "Although I believe though that you would not do well against my race if actually attacked. You do not seem to have very effective natural defenses."
"You let me worry about that. Never underestimate the abilities of an engineer or a Mage. If something happens again, I will help you clean the walls when I'm finished."
"Clean the walls?"
"Of the remains of the person who attacks me."
I don't think she believed me, but that was her problem, not mine. As she turned and opened the door, I could hear several people inside the room talking. When we entered the room, the conversation died. As we took our places at the table, one of them called out what I thought was a greeting. Since everyone except Kalindra was now watching me with great interest, I of course took the opportunity to make my first mistake. I'd tried to pull one of the chairs out from the table and then wait to help Kalindra into her seat. What I got instead was a quick lesson in just how strong the average Velan was. "What the hell is this thing made of?" I asked, trying to slide it instead of lifting it.
"Stone, of course," answered Kalindra, and she lifted the chair with ease.
"So much for being a gentleman around you" I muttered to myself.
Looking foolish turned out to be the least of my worries. The conversation started up again, or rather, an argument resumed. I was fairly sure it concerned me, because I kept hearing Kalindra mention my name, and I could clearly feel her frustration returning. Great, that was just what I needed now, a whole room full of angry Velan's with nice sharp claws. Given the tone of the conversation I was hearing, and the glances that one of the more vocal ones kept giving me, I was seriously considering leaving, when Kalindra snarled something that silenced the lot of them.
The five of us sat there in the suddenly silent room, and stared at each other. I felt like a bug under a microscope. Finally, Kalindra turned to me as if nothing was wrong, even though she was broadcasting her frustration like a small blast furnace, and started introducing me to the people we were sitting with. The first one she introduced me to had been quiet during the argument, and I detected more than a little respect in her voice as she told me his name. If age generated respect amongst Velans, this guy probably got anything he wanted, as his pelt was almost solid gray. The other two were a little harder to figure out though. They looked to be a little older then Kalindra, but I didn't have much to base my guess on. One thing that I was sure of was that neither of them were happy about my being there, with the way their ears were laying flat against their skulls. Of course, it was just a guess, but it seemed a pretty safe bet., If they had been smiling, I suspect I'd have turned and bolted right then and there.
"Excuse me, are these people part of your family?" I asked when the introductions were over.
"Why do you ask?"
"You all have names that sound alike. I mean Kalindra, Falindra ne Ven, Benindra and Masindra. It sounds like a family relation to me."
"I'm sorry, I should have explained. One of the things that I found odd about your own name is that you had two, yet were un-mated" How she knew that, I didn't want to think about at the moment. "My people only have one personal name, and the last part of that name is gained when that person chooses what they will do with their life. The suffix 'indra' means Mage in our language. Only when we are mated do we acquire our second name."
"Ok, that explains the names. I assume that 'dantis' means healer, then?" It also meant that only one of the four people sitting with me had a family. If nothing else, it was one thing that Terran and Velan Mages had in common. We all usually ended up living out our lives being alone and lonely.
"Yes, that is correct."
"Hummmm.... No, I don't think Brianindra works as a name." As I had toyed with the ending of my name, one of the two younger Velan's looked up at me, and I heard a soft growl.
"Uh, no. That won't work, and it is also part of the problem. Benindra does not believe that you really are a Mage, and thinks that you may be an artificial construct of mine instead. They are afraid that I am just trying to give them something to believe in, in order to distract them.
"Is that what the argument I heard was about? So what was decided?"
Kalindra turned to face the group, and snarled a short sentence in their direction. If anything, their ears lay flatter afterwards. "They want proof that you are indeed a Mage. They refuse to take my word for it."
Oh great, this just kept getting better all the time. "Ok, just how do they expect me to prove it?" Kalindra didn't answer me, so I just sat there looking stupid, and feeling just a tad pissed about her word being questioned. I wasn't sure why I felt that way either, which just added to my discomfort. The whole matter became academic when Kal said something to Ben, which caused him to jump to his feet, and snarl something in reply. With everything that had been running through my mind, including Kal's comment about my not looking very formidable, I reacted without even thinking about what I was doing.
The first time I'd shown this trick to Kimi, she'd had a fit about my perverting her teachings, and creating weapons. Hell, I'd thought it was just another tool, but she'd been right about the weapon part. It took a few seconds to start the spell in motion, and Ben was still yelling at Kal, when the Magelight I'd created flared into life next to my head. He had just noticed something was going on, when I managed to focus my concentration enough to warp the normally spherical light into a cylinder, and began to pump energy into it. About the time he turned to look at me, the energy density reached the flash point, and with a loud <crack>, the laser hovering beside me ignited.
I had no intention of hurting him, I'd meant it as a demonstration, and a warning. The rock chips that exploded from the wall behind him, though, hadn't been listening, and I saw him wince, as he yelled, and ducked below the edge of the table. From the sounds I heard around me, everyone else at the table reacted about the same. It took about five seconds for the smoke cloud created by the vaporized rock to clear enough to let me see him crouching below the other side of the table. While I'd let the energy level decrease to just below the lasing point, my little toy still pulsed brilliant blue, as I let my anger take over.
"Who the hell are you to question either me, or your ArchMage?" I yelled, even though he was completely unable to understand me. "Let's get something straight right now. I answered Kalindra's call because it is part of my nature to help people in trouble. In fact, it's a big reason for my being what I am on the world I come from. Since I've gotten here I've been attacked, confined, humiliated, and now made fun of by the people I came here to help." As Kalindra started to translate, I began to see reactions around me. Falindra got what seemed to be a look of curiosity on his face, as he kept looking from me, to the hole I'd put in the wall, then to the laser floating beside me. On the other hand, Benindra began to growl softly again.
"Before we go any further I'm going to make something real clear. I'm a Mage! Not a clown, a construct, or a fucking target! I may not have the natural weapons that your race is born with, but I'm am more than capable of defending myself." Releasing control of laser, I let it vanish, and tried not to show how much the effort to create it had cost me. About the time Ben and Mas were peeking back above the edge of the table, I fell back into my chair, and dared them to argue with me. "You started this by demanding proof of who and what I was. Next time, I suggest you believe Kalindra when she tells you something."
Falindra had sat through the whole scene, almost without flinching a whisker. "So tell me, are all your meetings this much fun?" Kalindra didn't translate, but I think he caught the feeling behind my words. With a soft laugh, he looked over at Benindra scrambling back into his chair, and said something I didn't understand. I wasn't sure just what I had proved, but I somehow felt better about being here.
I was starting to shake lightly, as I strained to slide my chair back so I could rest my feet on the table. I'd pushed myself way to hard with that little demonstration, and exhaustion, combined with my reaction to doing something that insane, was setting in. "So, will somebody PLEASE tell me just what the hell the problem is?" I asked, trying to stop shaking.
Falindra watched me for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision, and began talking. After a few seconds of staring at me herself, Kalindra began to translate for me. Or at least she tried to, but it quickly became obvious that she was having trouble finding the right words again.
"How much do you know about things that fall from the clouds?"
Ok, they wanted to get serious. I dropped my feet from the table, and pulled my chair up close where I could rest my head on my arm. Benindra was still watching me like he was trying to decide whether to join the conversation, or take a swipe at me. Whether or not I had just made an enemy, only time would tell. For now, I was going to assume that he would place the welfare of his race above any desire he might have for my head. All things considered though, I'd deal with that when, and if, he tried anything. Until then, I looked over at Falindra, and tried to figure out what he meant.
"What do you mean by 'things'? Are you talking about rain, birds, meteors, thread, or something else?" Kalindra was trying her best to translate for me, but she was working under a handicap. I had blocked off all access to my memory, and she was forced to guess at what word stood for what concept. Without my memory to match the two together, she could handle simple conversation, and make a good guess at things that generated an emotional response, but everything else was beyond her. As much as I hated the idea, I was going to have to let her work her talent unimpaired, if we were to get anywhere.
Right in the middle of a sentence, I held up my hand and cut off Falindra. I looked over at Kal, and making sure she detected it, I dropped my mental shields. *Ok, I don't see any other way. Scan for what you need, and I would appreciate it if you would please try to keep your friends out of my mind.*
I hoped she knew just what this was costing me. Kalindra had not been the first to invite herself into my mind unasked. Kimi had also found out the hard way that I was more than a little afraid of somebody screwing around in the heart of what made me unique. With a familiar tickle in the back of my mind, I felt Kalindra extend her probes so that she could match concept to word. After a short exchange with Falindra, we began again.
"How familiar are you with asteroids?"
"Our solar system has a belt of them that orbit between the fourth and fifth planets of our system. Why?"
"Has your planet ever been hit by one?"
I felt a chill run down my back. I had a horrible feeling I knew now what the problem was. "Yes, though there has not been a confirmed impact within our recorded history. There are quite a number of geologic features on my world that could only have produced by impact craters. Also," and I was watching for their reaction as Kalindra translated, "one of the reasons that there have been no impacts in more recent times is because it is the duty of the Mages of my world to prevent such things." Bingo, as Kalindra translated that last bit, the ears of all four of them stood straight up, and they stared at me as if I'd just grown an extra head or something. Now Kalindra herself interrupted, and began to question me.
"Then please tell us how you prevent such things!" For a moment she paused as if working out something. "Six months ago, one of our astronomers discovered an object that was approaching our world. As it got closer, his measurements showed him that it was going to pass very close to our world. To be safe, he notified me, and I took a closer look. Since that time, it has been determined that instead of very close, it is going to hit my world almost straight on."
I looked around at the people sitting around the table with me, and forgave them almost everything that had happened. I had never had to deal with the threat of death before, but I expected that if the time ever came, I might tend to question everything around me, too. "Ok, how big is this thing, and how much time do you have?"
For an answer, the four of them cleared off the surface of the table, and began to weave some kind of spell. It took me a moment to figure out what they were doing, but it became obvious when the area above the center of the table was replaced with some kind of hologram. What I found myself looking at was a large chunk of rock slowly tumbling in space. "Do you have a way to compare it to something? I have nothing to compare it against to judge its size."
Masindra broke from her trance, and began to chant something. Next to the image of the asteroid, a much smaller image of a Velan appeared, and then began to shrink. As it got smaller, a second figure joined it, then another and another. I was beginning to count to myself, when Masindra made it easier for me. Each group of eight was replaced with a single mark along the bottom of the hologram. When the figures finally stopped appearing, I did a rough calculation, and gave a low whistle. I might be a little off, but that damned thing was at least a mile and a half across.
I looked over at Kalindra, who was now watching me as I thought. "You aren't going to make this easy, are you?" I asked rhetorically, and then, feeling suddenly weary, "How long before it gets here?"
She said something to Falindra, and the image began to shift its point of view. When it stopped, I was looking from above and behind the asteroid at a head on view of a small planet in the distance. "Our best guess puts it about three weeks away."
"I think I've seen enough, you can shut that thing off now." With a silent pop, the hologram dissolved in front of me. "Well, I'm not sure what to tell you. The private history of the Mages of my world makes it clear that one of our tasks it to watch for, and eliminate, threats to our world like this. Call it our charter if you will. Unfortunately, it only contains one record of having to actually deal with something like this. The rest is all theory about how to detect these things so early that a simple nudge is enough to make them miss our world." I thought about the size and distance I'd just been shown, and felt sick in the pit of my stomach. "The problem is that the asteroid in question was nowhere near the size of the one you just showed me."
"How did your people deal with it?"
"Actually, only two people ever knew it was there. Remember what I told you about magic being a secret on my world?" Kalindra signaled that she did. "This happened over a thousand years ago, and the people at the time were even more afraid of magic then they are now. What the ArchMage of that time did was to deflect what turned out to be a small fragment of a comet, using the telekinetic ability of her partner and herself. Since then, the thing has periodically passed by several times, and each time it does the current ArchMage and his or her companions push it a little further out of our way. But this thing coming towards you is way beyond something like that."
The feeling of despair as I finished talking was so overwhelming, I could almost see it hanging in the air. "Then my world is truly doomed. We too have been trying to deflect our asteroid using what you call telekinesis. The call you heard and answered was my nightly attempt at gathering any of the people of my world who have even the least talent for that particular skill. While we have managed to affect its path, it will not be near enough to force it to pass us by. You were my last and best hope."
I reached out, and laid my hand on her arm. It felt as if I was touching a cat, and I started to stroke her arm without realizing it, as she looked up at me. I looked first at her, then at the others around the table. "Don't give up just yet. We have three weeks to figure out how to either deflect or destroy this damned thing. I would have thought that you would at least know enough about me by now to realize that I don't give up without a fight."
The smile behind her reply was almost enough to make me forget how tired I was feeling at the moment. "You will not be leaving? I expected you to go home when I told you what the problem was."
"Not a chance. I came here to help, and help I will. You have a lot to learn about me," and I looked around the table again. "And I expect I have even more to learn from you. But the first and most important lesson is that most humans seldom give up without a fight. I have no idea at the moment what I can do, but count me in for this little battle."
Across the table, Benindra stared my straight in the eyes and made a short comment. "He wants to know if you will be so brave three weeks from now," came Kalindra's translation. I thought about it for a moment, before I answered him. Just how willing was I to place my life on the line for a race that I'd just met?
"Kal, I honestly don't know. I came here to help if I could, but I also have a duty to my own world. From what you've told me, the people sitting around this table are the best Mage's your world has to offer, but they are not the only ones available. I'm one of only three people who could help defend my own world, against what you are facing here, or any of a number of other things that get classified as external threats to my world. I can't say that I'm willing to sacrifice myself, and leave my own world that much less defended." As I talked, Falindra had started to chuckle.
"Please don't call me that," said Kalindra without even trying to mask her embarrassment.
"Huh, what did I say?"
"My name is Kalindra. The form you used in addressing me just now is the form an adult uses in talking to a child."
"Oops, sorry about that. I guess I think of your name as having two parts, and I was calling you by what I though was your first name." As I apologized, something else came to mind. *I think I owe someone else an apology also. Would you please teach me now to say I'm sorry in your own language?*
*I need to apologize to Benindra. I think I over reacted to his doubt about who I was, and his questioning of you. I don't know whether your people hold a grudge, but if we are going to be working together, I'd just as soon not have to be watching over my shoulder all the time.*
*Are you sure about this?*
It was an odd question, and I should have questioned her a little further. *Yes, teach me the words.* The rest of the group around the table talked amongst themselves, while Kal and I were obviously busy. When I could pronounce the words she gave me, without trashing them too badly, we turned back to the group. Kal explained to them that I could not commit my life to their cause, because of the effect my death might have on my own world. Then she told Benindra that I had something to say to him.
I looked him in the eyes, and recited the phrase Kal had taught me. I couldn't feel him the way I could Kalindra, but I got the very strong impression he was shocked. He looked at me for several seconds, and then stood up and walked out of the room, without saying a word. Both Falindra and Masindra just sat in their chairs, and looked at me as if I'd gone nuts. I turned to Kal and said "Did I pronounce it wrong?"
"No, you repeated the ritual correctly, though your accent is terrible."
"Ritual? I thought I was apologizing for my attack on him." Oh shit, what had I just done?
"You did, and he elected not to accept the life you offered."
"Life! What the hell did you teach me to say?" Damn, I thought she acted funny when I'd asked her to teach me the words.
"Let me see if I can explain this." She must have been searching my mind for the concepts she needed, as the tickle in the back of my mind was back in force. "My people do not take personal offense the way you think of it. Your concept of an 'insult' is roughly equivalent to embarrassment for us, and our normal reaction is to return the embarrassment in kind. The art of what you think of as the 'Practical Joke' is highly developed as a means of revenge."
"So what did I just do?"
"Only in the most severe of circumstances do we resort to violence. In most cases, only a direct threat to a child will evoke a deadly response. Only at such times do we practice what you think of as an apology, assuming that the offending party survives the attempts to subdue him. That is the ritual I taught you, because I believed you wished to apologize for your threatening of Benindra's life."
"So where does the offer of a life come into this?"
"The ritual response of a person who believes he has threatened or caused loss of life, is to offer his own to the offended party."
"You mean I just..." and I must have turned white as I thought about what I had just done. Christ, I'd just threatened this guy with a laser at point blank range, then offered him my life. It was a wonder I was still alive. "The next time I ask you to teach me something, tell me to shut up." I don't think she was listening, as all three of them were now looking at something above my head. "What is so interesting?"
I glanced up, and discovered a faint image floating in the air above my head. I stood up and tried to move out from under it, but it followed me everywhere I went. As I stood in the middle of the room, trying to figure out what the hell it was, I heard a noise coming from the table. When I looked, all three of them were making bad attempts at trying not to laugh. "Ok, would someone let me in on the joke. What the hell is this thing" and I pointed at the image above me.
Kal was the only one who could have understood me, but the expression on my face must have told the others that I didn't have a clue. Kalindra lost it completely, and fell off her chair from the force of her laughter. Masindra was pounding on the table, and pointing at the image. Falindra just sat there, daubing his eyes, and wuffing to himself.
I don't mind being the butt of a joke, but I at least like to know what the joke is. I walked over to Kalindra where she lay on the floor and nudged her with my foot. "Ok, will you please explain this."
Between breaths, and what sounded like hiccups, she explained that the image above my head was the Velan equivalent of a target. The writing around the edge's of the image translated roughly as 'Ground Zero'. Once I thought about it, I joined in the laughter, which set the whole crew off again. I guess a good joke gets better if it's appreciated by the victim as well. While we were laughing, Benindra came back into the room carrying a large tray of what looked like sandwich's, and some kind of drink. Placing it on the table, he sat down, and said something to Kalindra.
"He says that we have a lot of work to do, and very little time. He has brought dinner that we might continue our discussion." Then he looked me straight in the eyes again, and spoke a single short phrase.
"Kalindra, did you, or did you not, tell your friends to stay out of my mind?" While she translated and thought about it, I tried to figure out just what my chances of taking on Benindra and surviving were.
"Yes, I made it quite ..." and it finally dawned on her that Benindra had accepted my apology in English. It didn't matter how mad I was at the moment. Hearing her growl like that froze everyone at the table, including myself, in mid motion. When she noticed what I'd been doing as I spoke to her, the growl dropped several octaves to become an angry rumble that vibrated my insides. Before I even had a chance to react, she turned, wrapped her arms around me so I couldn't move, and carried me out of the room.
"Damnit, put me down!" I yelled, after I managed to start thinking again.
"You will stay here while I discuss this abuse of my honor with Benindra," she answered, returning me to my feet in the hallway.
"Not a chance! That furry piece of ..." and I froze once again.Kalindra extended a single claw, and placed it in the middle of my chest.
"Sit down, shut up, and behave yourself," she warned me, as I watched the claw tapping my sternum. "Benindra did not violate your mind, he used me as a tap without my permission, and in violation of my honorable agreement with you. This is my matter to settle!"
I took one more look at the claw, and sat down on the floor outside the door that she proceeded to close behind her. I didn't get a chance to hear what actually was said, not that I would have understood it anyway, but I didn't like being excluded from a conversation that might concern me. However, I took advantage of the fact I could somehow sense the emotions Kalindra was feeling. What surprised me was that she wasn't feeling anything that I could recognize as anger. Instead, what I felt coming from the other side of that door was an odd mixture of indignation and embarrassment.
Whatever they were saying, they were taking their time about it. Sitting with my back propped up against the wall, I was quickly reminded of just how tired I was, and somewhere along the line I managed to fall asleep as I sat there. I have some vague memory of being carried to my bed, but the strongest memory was the light musky scent of the person who carried me, and how soft the fur I was rubbing against was.
When I woke up sometime later I found myself back in the same room as before, but I felt considerably better this time. I also felt hungry enough to start gnawing on the first thing that looked edible, and proceeded to prove it by decimating the contents of my backpack, after I managed to locate it.
I was about halfway through the third sandwich before I started wondering what had made me so ravenous. I suspected that it had something to do with however Wythdantis had healed me, but I found a better explanation when I pulled out my watch to see what time it was. I had apparently been lying here half dead for the better part of three days. It was while I was wondering how Penny was coping, and digging around in the bottom of my pack looking for another mustard packet, when I found something that re-lit my anger with a vengeance.
Anyone who missed hearing that wideband scream had to have been brain deaf. In something under twenty seconds, she came racing down the stairway at the end of the corridor, with Kalindra about five feet behind her. When she saw me standing in the bedroom doorway she slowed slightly, but was still moving at a pretty good pace as she ducked through the doorway. Kalindra had slowed a little also, but it wasn't enough to keep her from running into the door that I slammed as soon as Wythdantis was inside.
"What the hell did you do to me?" I screamed as I felt the door vibrating under my hand from the force of Kalindra's collision. "Doesn't anyone on this damn planet understand the concept of asking first?" I was so pissed as I stood there waving my bottle of antihistamines under her nose, that I never even thought to remember she couldn't understand a thing I was saying.
I'd been on Velar something like three days now. I'd already found out that my allergies were screwy enough to react to Velan's. I knew exactly how long those damn pills lasted, and it sure wasn't three days. And I was less than a foot from the one I was shaking the bottle at, but not reacting in the slightest fashion. "Just how much of my biochemistry did you screw with?" The only response I got was that she grabbed my arm as it was waving around, pulled the bottle from it, then walked over to the door that was still vibrating slightly from the force of Kalindra's blows. While she may not have known why I was so mad, she did have sense enough to stand out of the way when I released the magical seal that had been holding the door closed.
Kalindra's next blow shattered the lock, and the door flew open, with her right behind it. I didn't say a word. Instead, I stood there and waited, while Wythdantis shoved the bottle under Kalindra's muzzle, and said something. After a few minutes of talking, and the occasional glance in my direction, the two of them turned to face me. "What do you want her to do?" asked Kalindra.
"I want her to reverse whatever tampering she did to my immune system."
"But, you will start exploding again."
"That's my problem. Reverse it!"
It only took a few short phrases to explain things to Wythdantis, who proceeded do a credible job of snorting in disgust as she took the bottle from Kal, and tossed it back to me. "She suggests you take one of your pills, then, because reversing the changes will take effect almost at once." I barely noticed whatever she did. The only visible effect was a slight glow that surrounded her, that I spotted out of the corner of my eye, as I opened the bottle and grabbed a pill.
The moment I swallowed it, I replace the bottle in my pack, shoved both of them through the door even while Kalindra was asking "What is wrong?", then sealed it again. Then I sat down on the bed, and tried to get my thoughts straight in my own mind. I had a simple decision to make, but the ramifications were huge, for both myself, and the planet I stood on. Good intentions not withstanding, the short time I'd been on Velar I'd either been mad enough to put a hole in somebody, or having one put in me by someone else, for much of the time.
If I stayed and tried to help, I couldn't be spending my time trying to keep from killing someone every time they violated my privacy. Thinking about it, I had to admit that Wythdantis had probably believed she was doing me a favor, when she'd tinkered with my immune system to get it to duplicate the effects of the antihistamines. The fact that it seemed to have worked, at least in the short term, just made things more complicated.
It was catching a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye again that brought me out of my self reflection. When I looked over at the door, I found a familiar face looking back at me through the hole the shattering of the lock had created. Maybe she wasn’t able to get through the door, but Kalindra was going keep an eye on me anyway. The smile I got when I stuck my tongue out at her just confirmed what I'd already decided. Velans don't get mad, they get even through their sense of humor. Ok, when on Velar, do as they do. Given my own opinion of my sense of humor, I wondered who would cry 'uncle' first. Picking up what looked like a small pillow from the bed, I threw it at the hole in the door to get Kal to back away. Then I pulled a couple more sandwiches from my pack, my thermos bottle, and some snacks, and popped the seal on the door.
"Ok, let's get to work," I told her, doing my best to tower over her. Kalindra gave me the once over, as if to try and figure out what I was feeling, then huffed to herself as she turned to lead the way back to the conference room. The moment she had her back turned, I grabbed the end of her tail and said, "Giddy-up".
Lesson number one, Velans are very self conscious about their tails. Lesson number two, those tails are prehensile to a certain extant. Lesson number three, prehensile or not, their tail can't hurt you if it's had enough static discharged into it to make it look like it had just emerged from a dryer set on 'fluff'. It was like getting swatted by a feather duster, but the other end kept making such funny noises every time she tried to smooth her tail, that I was still laughing as we came through the conference room doorway and grabbed our chairs. "So, did anyone have any brilliant ideas while I was asleep?" Nobody bothered to respond, they were too busy laughing at Kalindra, who was doing a good imitation of a cartoon cat fresh from the dryer. Her attempts to smooth out her tail had just spread the static charge to the rest of her pelt, and anything that wasn't covered by clothing was standing straight out from her body. I just smiled, let a nice spark arc between a couple of my fingers, and made sure she saw me do it.
* * *
I looked at Falindra and shook my head. "You have to be out of your mind. That trick with the laser was just that, a trick! I doubt that hunk of rock would even notice the attempt." His only response was to nod at the hole I'd blown in the wall earlier, after Kalindra finished translating for me. "That wall is not a mile diameter asteroid with your worlds name written all over it" I added in disgust.
"Would it be possible to scale up the size of your laser, to make it an effective weapon?"
I glanced at Masindra, who, while staying silent for the most part, tended to ask the most direct questions whenever she did choose to speak. "I can scale it up, sure. If I pushed it I could probably generate a beam about six feet in diameter. Against that thing," and I pointed towards the ceiling, "it would be worthless."
"What if we help?" asked Kalindra after she finished translating again. "You admit you use magic to create and control your laser. Why couldn't we help you generate and control a larger version?"
I looked at her and almost started to laugh, before I stopped myself. No matter which of them I looked at, I couldn't see anything that even hinted they were joking. "You're serious?" She nodded and waited while I tried to imagine the size and power you'd need to affect something the size of the monster hurtling towards us.
"Ok, say I manage to teach you how to create a larger version of my portable welding tool. Just how do you intend to power it? Something like that is going to require the gathering of so much power, you'd blackout half the planet just trying to bring it to standby."
"We would not use our planets power sources, that is what our star is for."
It took a second for that to register. "Your s-s-star?" I stuttered in shock.
"Of course" she answered with a hint of puzzlement in her tone. "Isn't that where you get the power for those spells that require raw energy?"
"You're serious! You tap your damn sun for power?" She nodded, and I still didn't want to believe what I'd just heard. "Holy shit ..." I looked around the table, and found the rest of them signaling their agreement as Kalindra translated both her proposal and my reaction.
I needed a good stiff drink, but all I had was soda pop in the thermos, so I groaned quietly to myself, and tried to think of something better. What they wanted to do was insane, almost as dangerous as the threat they faced, and just might be possible, if I ignored the warning voice in the back of my mind that was yelling at me to run for it. I'd played with my small laser enough to know some of the problems inherent in the design. Scaling them up to something that might work against that asteroid made my hands start to shake slightly, while I poured myself something to drink.
"Assuming you manage to create the thing, where would you fire it from?" I asked, after I brought my emotions under a little better control.
They talked amongst themselves for a moment, then Kalindra said, "There is a desert in the northern reaches of this continent that would be far enough from any nearby cities or towns to be safe."
"No. With the kind of power you're going to try to control, you have to be outside your atmosphere, or you'll cause more damage then the asteroid will." It only took a moment to realize they didn't understand the problem. "Ok, watch this" and I brought my laser back to life in standby, and shielded it with my hands. Ben flinched as it flared to life, but other than a look I couldn't interpret, didn't say a thing. "This is a tiny version of what you want to use. One of you place your hand near it, and tell me what you feel."
They all looked from each other, to the brilliant blue cylinder floating between my outstretched hands, and didn't move. "Now look," I said getting slightly irritated. "You're the ones who want to use this thing to save your hides. If you can't bring yourself to explore this tiny version, how are you going to handle it's larger brother?" It was Falindra who finally reached out his hand, and passed it over the length of the cylinder.
"It's warm," came the translation from Kal, as he withdrew his hand and looked at me.
"Not much, but it does generate heat as well as light. The process is not one hundred percent efficient, so you get waste heat and light off the sides of the containment field. Create a version large enough to be effective against that rock, and you'll create a hurricane around it because of the convection currents it will create in your atmosphere." Another thought followed that one as I started to think of some of the other things that might happen. "Another problem will be aiming the thing, and keeping the beam coherent. The beam will not only waver because of the air currents that form around it, but will also either ionize your atmosphere, poison it, or probably both."
I aimed my laser at the wall, and brought it to the lasing point. "You can't see it at this distance, but the beam is shifting on its own as the light hits atoms in the air." I nodded at Falindra, "Place your nose up close and see if you smell anything odd." His eyes made it clear what he thought of the idea, but the old guy had guts to spare. When he stuck his muzzle within about two inches of the beam, I saw him react to what I knew had to be present. "You're smelling ozone. It's a byproduct of the beam hitting both water vapor and oxygen in the air and splitting the molecules. I don't know how your race might react to it, but it's a poison to mine in any quantity. You fire that laser you want to create within your atmosphere, and the winds it creates will blow that stuff all over your world."
"Then the idea is unusable," came the translation of what I think was the same comment all the way around the table.
"No, I'm only saying you can't fire it from within your atmosphere." While they thought about that for a moment, I grabbed a bag of candy from the stash I'd brought, and poured myself another drink.
"I'm afraid we do not understand what you mean."
I ripped open the bag of candy, and grabbed a couple of lemon drops before I smiled and answered. "It would probably be safe to use that thing from orbit around your world. Just how afraid of heights are you people?" It took Kal a second before she started translating.I popped a lemon drop into my mouth, and waited for the shit to hit the fan. Ben came unglued first, and started yelling something. Fal just sat there with an expression I couldn't read. The one person who didn't say anything was Kalindra, and the fact that she wasn't translating finally caught my attention. "Uh, would you like to tell me just what ..." and it became obvious she wasn't listening to me either. What she was doing instead was staring real intently at the bag of candy I was holding, and the way her nostrils were flaring had me wondering what the hell I'd done this time.
"Uh, Kalindra?" I waved my hand in front of her face in an attempt to get her attention. It worked, I think. At least she stopped staring at the bag, and began to stare at me instead.
"What is in that bag?" she asked, as everyone else realized something was going on, and fell silent.
"Huh?" I turned the bag over, and read the ingredient's list. "Sugar, lemon flavoring, coloring, some more sugar., Why?" Instead of answering, she held out her hand, and waited. I thought about it for a moment, shrugged my shoulders, and dropped a lemon candy in her palm. It vanished into her mouth so fast, it was probably warm from the friction caused by the surrounding air. Then I got treated to the most outrageous emotional storm I'd felt since I'd listened to her explaining things to Falindra. "Jesus," I muttered as I tried to damp down the mental cacophony she was radiating. "Is sugar some kind of Velan Aphrodisiac, or something?" Fur or no fur, I learned right then and there that Kalindra could blush, after all. The reactions of her friends to her discomfort just made it funnier, and I was sure that her revenge was something I didn't want to even think about.
"Would it help if I said I was sorry?" I asked, when she looked like she was going to survive the comments of her friends. The glare I got confirmed how hopeless my cause was. She didn't say a word to me, she just grabbed the entire bag of candy I was holding, and dared me to say anything. "I'm doomed ..." was the only thing that came out.
My life was spared, at least temporarily, by Falindra, when he touched Kalindra on the arm, and asked her something. She listened, blushed again, then turned and passed on his question. "How high in our atmosphere would you have to be to safely use a laser?"
"At least twice its thickness," I told her. "We'll have to be outside your atmosphere."
"You know how to do such a thing?"
"Yes," I said cautiously, "but I'd need help. That's why I asked how afraid of heights you were." Kalindra translated, and everyone turned to look at Falindra, who was showing signs of being nervous for the first time since I'd been introduced to him. "Am I to understand that Falindra is one of the rare members of your race who isn't afraid of heights?" Kalindra nodded in a purely human gesture. I turned to look at Falindra and asked, "Do you still think this is such a good idea?"
"No, but I have little choice in the matter," came his translated reply.
"Then let me take a moment, and ruin your day even more than I have already. So far, I've told you the problems I can think of with using something like my laser inside your atmosphere. But I don't want you to get the idea though that using it from space is going to be much safer." I paused for a moment, and refilled my cup, while Kal translated.
"Ok, what else do we need to worry about?"
"Well, how about blinding everyone who happens to be on the same side of the planet we are when we fire the thing. Most of the energy emerges as coherent light from the front, but there is a fair amount of scattered light off the sides. At the power level I think we're talking about, we're going to have to think of a way to shield the planet from the leakage." I thought about that for a moment, and had a flash of a silly image raise its head in my minds eye. "Hell, we're going to have to brace the thing somehow also. Falindra and I are going to be free floating in orbit, and the light pressure from that thing is going to kick like a sonofabitch. The moment we fire it, we're going to get thrown backwards across your solar system."
"What has the male child of a female dog have to do a laser?"
I looked at Kal and read the puzzlement she was feeling, then realized what I'd said. "Uh, never mind" I said with a laugh. "I'll try and remember not to cuss quite so much. Curses don't translate very well between languages. Kimi usually frowns and hits me when she catches me doing it." <ouch!>
Kalindra thought about that for a moment, then leaned over and hit me on the arm. "If it is acceptable for your worlds ArchMage to discipline you in that manner, I will do the same."
I glared at her as I rubbed my arm. "What if I hit back? You aren't my master."
"I can hit harder than you, remember?"
I thought about how much trouble I'd had just moving the chair I was sitting on and decided to change subjects while I was only slightly behind. "Just for that, I'll give you some more bad news." I filed the expression she gave me under the mental heading of 'oh no, not again' and continued. "All I've been telling you is the problems I can think of with firing the laser. Another problem is that it might not have any effect on that asteroid."
"Is this something we really want to hear?" muttered Kalindra, as I watched the reaction from her friends.
"I don't know, do you?" She thought about it for a moment, then sighed and nodded again. "Ok, do you remember the smoke cloud that formed when I fired at the wall? If something like that happens when we fire at the asteroid, we'll only be able to get one shot at it. The following shots would dissipate in the cloud of debris that was ejected by the first shot, and we'd never get a clean shot at the asteroid itself. Then there's the problem of whether the first shot will even have any effect." I paused and took a drink while Kal translated, and filed the thought that occurred to me away for the moment. "If that thing is just a hunk of rock, we might be able to do something against it. If it's a chunk of nickel-iron ore, all that laser is going to do is heat it up a little. I doubt that we get lucky enough that the silly thing is just a slow moving cometary fragment. If it is, we'd shatter it as the energy from the laser caused the pockets of water to vaporize and explode."
I was sure I hadn't thought of everything, but what I had thought of was more than enough to drive everyone at the table into a depression. "Do you have anything else you want to warn us about?" asked Kal out loud, while the feedback I was getting from her told me she hoped I'd just shut up.
"One last thing. We're going to have to wait until it's almost on top of us before we take our shot at it. I can't remember if it's the Square/Cubed law, or something else that effects laser energy density, but laser's lose effectiveness with distance. We're going to have to pour everything you can generate into that beam, shield the planet as best we can, and wait until it's almost here before we take our best shot at it." With that, I leaned back in my chair and listened to the four of them discuss everything I'd just said. It took the better part of an hour, with only a couple of questions about some detail they wanted more information on, before they fell silent and Kalindra turned to talk to me again.
"You do not give us much hope, but you give us more than we had before you set foot on our world. We have three weeks to prepare, and I believe we will need every moment of them."
"And the first thing on the list is language lessons for your alien visitor." I told her as I remembered the note I'd made for myself earlier.
"I'm going to be working with some terribly dangerous spells, and trying to teach them to you and your friends. If anything goes wrong, I'd hate to be the only one who didn't duck in time because I didn't understand the warning that someone shouted out. Besides, you can't be with me every moment from now till zero hour, and you sure won't be up there in orbit with me and Falindra."
It only took her a second to realize I was right, then she smiled, and said something that sent all of her friends into hysterical laughter.
"What did you say?"
"Your first lesson will be to find out," she answered with a snicker. Then she reached into the bag of candy she'd stolen from me, and popped another lemon drop into her mouth.
"I'll have to remember to never to give you a green M&M" I muttered to myself, as I felt her reaction to the candy tickle my mind again. I also made another note to myself to hide the other bag that still remained in my backpack.
Then, while Kalindra tuned out the world to enjoy her sugar high, Falindra picked up the cup from my thermos, and said a single word.
He pointed at the cup, and repeated the word again.
"Ok, lesson one then," and I started to learn a new language for the third time in my life.
"And I thought Japanese was a pain ..." I kept telling myself as I tried to get to sleep later that night. This was not going to be fun, and embarrassment wasn't even a factor. A mistake this time could well prove fatal.
Even if I'd tried to anticipate Kimi's reaction to what I had to tell her, I'd never have believed I'd have seen her react with fear.
I'd needed information, I'd needed it fast, and the only place to get it was on my home planet. With Kalindra busy at her end, I'd put Penny to work at mine gathering every scrap of information that might relate to our problem. She actually sounded pleased, somehow, as I connected her to the phone lines that were usually off limits, and gave her access to what few computer resources I had. With her working full time, I'd teleported to Japan to see Kimi, and tell her what I'd found. That was when the problems had started.
I'd given her the rough background of how I'd gotten to Velar, and what the problem was, but when I'd started to actually describe Kalindra, she'd turned pale. I found out why when she pulled a very old looking book from her private library, and turned to a dogeared, well worn page.
"Is this what Kalindra looks like?" she asked quietly, holding the book out to me.
I'd looked at it for a moment or two, thought about it, and nodded. "Something like this, yes. Though she doesn’t dress in robes, and she only has one tail."
"Kitsune ...", she whispered. She sat down and stared right through me in shock. When I'd finally gotten her to explain, it hadn't taken long for us to end up yelling at each other.
"You can't be serious, you want me to abandon them?" I'd asked. "I've got a good idea of what they are up against, and this idiot idea of theirs is about the only hope they've got left!"
"Mortals and Kitsune do not mix! It could be a trick, it could be an elaborate joke, it could be almost anything they imagine might entertain them for a time. Return to your lab, destroy that gate, and do not try to talk to them again!"
I didn't believe in spirits, I sure didn't believe in fox spirits, and Kalindra and her friends were anything but spiritual. As much as I argued that I'd pushed a gate into another dimension or something, Kimi argued that I'd contacted something far stranger.
In the end, I disobeyed my own ArchMage for the first time since I’d met her. That had been two days ago, two very busy and very lonely days ago ...
* * *
"You’re sure of these numbers?" I asked in a subdued voice.
"Yes," came the familiar voice from the corner with a crackle. "At the power levels you have described to me, firing that laser inside Velar’s atmosphere would simply do the asteroids job for it."
"Falindra is going to hate me."
"Only if you make him look down," said Penny in what I swear sounded like a joke.
I almost said something to her about it. It was becoming obvious that she was changing somehow, but I simply didn’t have the time to sit and try to figure out how a collection of electronics and magic could develop a personality. It was something I’d leave until later, assuming I survived. Gathering up the piles of printouts she’d generated, I stuffed them into a backpack, and got ready to return to Velar. "Are you going to be all right until I get back?"
"As long as you do in fact return, I will be fine."
"Well at least try to stay out of trouble while I’m gone," I muttered under my breath as I tossed a few last minute things into the pack. She didn’t answer and I was almost glad she didn’t. I’d seen some of the references listed on the printouts she’d generated and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to know where she’d gotten some of the information from. That was just another thing I would get to worry about later.
It was mid-afternoon when I stepped into my mountain lab, it was still a few hours before dawn as I stepped through the gate and looked up at the night sky above me. It wasn’t a sight I enjoyed, because hanging between the twin moons of Velar was a new source of light. A source that showed virtually no tail because we were seeing it almost head on as it approached.
"It almost looks like I could reach up and swat it aside," came the quiet voice of Kalindra from behind me as I felt her brush against my mind. "It does not look that dangerous, now."
"Give it time," I replied as I felt her tail brush against my legs. "Give it time ..."
"Did you get the information you needed?"
"Yes, and it confirmed a lot of what I believed, though there were a few surprises in the information Penny retrieved. We have to do it from orbit, and the closer we let it come before we fire at it, the better our chances."
"Then it would be better if we began as soon as possible, yes?"
"Lead the way then" I said as I created a small magelight to light the path in front of us. "We have a lot to do, and very little time to do it in" I told her as we worked our way through the woods to the road. Neither of us said much the entire trip. I because I wasn’t sure what to say, Kalindra because she was busy thinking, or at least that was the impression I got. When we found ourselves within sight of her home though, I was glad of the silence. Standing there by the door to her home were all three of her fellow mages. In one continuous series of motions I was handed something to eat, led to the small clearing in the back of her house, and inundated with questions concerning the spells that would be needed.
And the next week was more of the same ...
I truly learned to hate 27 hour days. It didn’t take long before I felt dead tired every moment I was awake, and then I cursed everything in sight as I lay awake at night unable to get to sleep. We ended up splitting the days roughly into two parts. Each morning I was taken aside and given language lessons, while Kalindra was available to translate for me. Each afternoon I tried my best to teach the Velans the spells we would need, while Kalindra gathered every telekinetic she could find, and taught them how to act together in a meld.
And to top it all off my privacy was the first thing to vanish. There was no way I was going to learn enough of their language to allow me to teach them what they needed to know, and Kalindra was only available for half the day. I had no choice but to let them follow along by trying to scan my thoughts as I taught them what they were going to need to know. The fact that Kalindra was the only one of them that really could read me with any reliability, just added to the problem. In the end, the only thing that saved my life was the fact that Falindra was listening to my thoughts. He read my confusion and realized I hadn’t understand the yells from behind me when Benindra’s first solo attempt at creating a laser detonated in the air above us.
"What the ..." was all I managed to say before I was tackled around the waist and shielded by Falindra. When my ears stopped ringing, and I managed to look around to see what had happened, it turned into a race to see whether Falindra could scramble off me faster then I could throw him off. While he cowered there where he’d landed, and tried to damp out what he was picking up from my thoughts, I proceeded to lay into Ben without thinking.
"What in the hell did you think you were doing, you Goddamned idiot!" The fact that Masindra was stamping out a few grass fires, and that Benindra was attempting to pat out a few places where his pelt was smoldering didn’t even slow me down as I reached over and grabbed him by the ear. "If you so much as blink I’m going to skin you alive while we hover a mile off the ground!" I doubt he knew what I’d said, but the idea came though clearly as I glared at him. When I finally started to cool down, I released him and stomped off into the forest behind us. I was sitting under a tree, trying to stop shaking, when Kalindra found me about thirty minutes later.
"Did you know that Benindra is still standing where he was when you released him?" came Kalindra’s soft comment from beside me as she sat down next to me. "It took him a moment to figure out what you were saying, but he decided that it might not be worth finding out if you were serious."
"How long to you intend to leave him standing there?"
"Until he learns to listen to me when I say something important. Ever since he managed to duplicate my laser, he’s been asking when he could try it using a larger source of power. Given your comment about using your star for a power source, I told him to forget the idea until I told him it was OK. The idiot couldn’t wait, and he damn near killed all of us. If the containment field had held longer, and he’d put more energy into it, we’d all be dead, and there would be a nice crater in your back yard."
"Then he is indeed lucky. It is easy to tell where a Mage has made a mistake, you just look for the crater as you call it. It is one of the first lessons most Mages are taught by their Masters, but it would seem Benindra forgot it."
I turned and looked at Kalindra, only to find her staring back at me. "And what else is he going to forget that might get us all killed?" The look on Kalindra’s face as she thought about what I’d asked made me glad I wasn’t Benindra. Her race might not get mad, but they could come close to it in other ways.
"One thing he will not forget again, is who the ArchMage of this world is," and she vanished back into the forest beside me, radiating a sense of certainty and outrage, that allowed me to sense her presence even after she was out of sight.
When I finally returned to the house about an hour later, neither Kal nor Ben were around. In fact they still weren’t back at dinner time, when we usually discussed how things had gone and what needed to be done next. The looks I got from Fal and Masindra made it fairly clear that I’d be a lot happier if I didn’t go prying into what was going on either. The only thing I was sure of was that Kal was still in the area. I could still feel her presence somehow, but the flashes of emotion I’d gotten from her off and on were gone. It wasn’t until after Falindra and I had spent a few dull hours on language lessons, and fitting his communications gear to him, that they finally returned.
I started to say hello, but never got the chance. Falindra touched my arm to get my attention, and held my gaze with his, as Kalindra headed straight to her workroom, and Benindra slunk down the staircase towards the sleeping levels. When I started to get to my feet, he held me tighter, and said "No" with the odd accent I was slowly getting used to. Whatever had happened, whatever had been said, I was being told in the only way he knew that I should stay out of it. It was his world and his friends, so I sat back down, and went back to trying to explain to him what an Environment Field was, and why he was going to need it even more than the Flight Field he’d managed to finally figure out.
"No, there isn’t any air in orbit. Nor is their heat, a way to cool down, a way to shade yourself from the direct light of your star, or any of a dozen other things you take for granted on the surface here. The Environment Field creates a bubble around you that generates things you need to stay alive, and balances everything by how you physically react. It reads you, and adjusts to keep you alive and healthy." It was going to take him a moment to figure that out, and I could feel the familiar tickle in the back of my mind as he used me as a translator.
"Then I need this." he said after a few minutes.
"Yes you do" I said with a chuckle, and I began explaining how I went about creating the field that I’d developed to keep me alive, during my experiments underwater and in space. As always, the explanation was the start of a long series of what were almost arguments over method.
Velan mages might utilize magic to create a desired result the same way I did, but the way we each used the magic was very different. I had spent almost a year working on figuring out all the various things an Environment Field would need to do, then designing a spell that actually built such a field. I’d come real close to killing myself the first couple of times as I’d realized I’d left out something important. The spell I’d finally settled on was layer on layer of interwoven threads, which combined to form the desired result. To actually remember all the steps, I’d created a mnemonic song that I sang every time as I created the field.
Velans didn’t do things that way.
I was still confused every time I watched Kalindra or one of her friends cast a spell. Except on rare occasions, they didn’t say or do a thing while working. They simply seemed to go into a light trance, think about it, and smile when everything suddenly happened. It was maddening to watch, and it made things that much harder for me. I had to explain how I did things, then try and explain how everything as a whole worked, because the whole picture was what a Velan needed to work with.
Falindra and I spent half the night sitting in Kalindra’s kitchen, talking, drinking anything that would keep us going, and occasionally stepping outside so he could try something to see if it was right. It was only a few hours before dawn when he finally hovered about a foot off the ground in Kalindra’s backyard, and told me he couldn’t hear me, smell the noxious cloud I’d created around him, or feel the cold I’d created. Whatever he’d managed to create, it was at least protecting him from obvious things. We’d find out just how well it really worked after we both got a few hours sleep, because we both agreed he should make his first test flight as soon as possible.
As soon as possible was scheduled to be the next morning.
We had a nice crowd watching us as I helped Fal slip the jury rigged headset over his ears. For the first time in more than a thousand years, a Velan was going to fly in one form or another. We’d talked about it during his lessons, and I still wasn’t sure I’d understood the explanation. Someplace in their history, the Velan race had discovered flight, even though they couldn’t normally make use of it themselves. The combination of a Velan who wasn’t afraid of heights, who had the time and means to build one of the crude gliders that were documented in their central library, and who had the desire to actually use it was pretty rare. A Mage flying under his own power, based on the teachings of an alien, had drawn every news service in the area. I’m not sure which of us was actually more unhappy about that, either ...
"Can you hear me OK?" I asked as I spoke into the mic I was adjusting. A second later I heard Falindra answer "OK," and then he began to shimmer slightly as his ENV field sprang into existence around him. "Follow me then," I told him, and together we dove into the pale green sky above us. Or at least I dove. Falindra stopped about twenty feet off the ground, and I could see him looking around when I stopped to find out what the problem was. "Afraid?" I asked him. His reply was to start slowly accelerating towards me again, so I left him to his thoughts.
For the next two hours the two of us flitted around the sky over Kalindra’s house. Falindra was discovering how to merge the various things I’d taught him into a complete package that he could utilize without having to concentrate on. It was also a test of how well we could work together and communicate. After we’d both climbed about half way out of the atmosphere, and we were both satisfied that his spells were working as intended, we turned and headed home. The slightly ragged breathing that I could hear through my headset told me that at least one of us was going to sleep soundly tonight, no matter how late the news services tried to keep him up.
The news crews never got a chance to bother him as things turned out. Wythdantis was waiting for us as we returned, and the snarl she gave the news people as she hustled Falindra off to examine him froze them in their tracks. "I believe you said she tended to be a bit defensive about her patients?" I muttered under my breath as Kalindra chuckled to herself.
"This is not the first time she has dealt with things like this."
"As long as she’s on our side, she can snarl all she wants."
"I’ll let her know that you gave her permission to snarl then," came the laughter filled reply as Kalindra followed the two of them into her house. When I realized that the news crews were starting to look my direction, I ran after her.
It was just after lunch that the next surprise of the day got sprung on me. When we separated, Kalindra followed me, and Ben was the one that headed off to help train the group of telekinetics. Kal either read my confusion, or she was learning how to read my facial expressions, because she spoke up before I had a chance to.
"There will be no more experiments that might harm someone. The training of those who will clear our path will be done by Benindra now, I will be Masindra’s partner in providing the power for our weapon."
I thought about it for a minute, nodded my head, and turned to continue on to the area we’d set aside for the lessons. As I walked, I had to admit that I felt just a bit better about having Ben doing something else. Some part of me was actually glad to have Kalindra around more often, also, I just made sure I told myself it was because she would give us better odds of succeeding.
* * *
The next couple of days actually managed to be semi-enjoyable. Each day Falindra and I practiced working together in the sky above, Kal and Mas practiced creating and controlling small versions of the laser we planned to create, and Ben worked with the telekenetics that would be trying to sweep the area in front of the asteroid clean as we fired at it. When both Kal and I felt we couldn’t afford to wait any longer, we brought the groups together and began working as one team. It was like starting all over again ...
The operation as a whole was going to require all three groups working in almost perfect sync, if it was going to succeed. Falindra and I would be locked in a fixed position relative to the planet. We couldn’t afford to worry about trying to adjust our aim as we orbited, so we simply weren’t going to orbit. Our job was to create and aim the containment field for the laser. The job of powering the damn thing, and making it pulse, was now up to Kalindra and Masindra, they would be the ones that channeled the raw power and transformed it. Cleanup duty was left to Ben, and the telekinetic group.
Every time that laser pulsed, unless that asteroid was made of metal instead of rock, a large portion of it would be vaporized. That rock vapor had to be cleared out of the way, before the next pulse, or the energy would be wasted against the cloud instead of the asteroid. The cleanup crew’s job was to sweep the area between shots, and they had spent the last week herding clouds, and anything else we could think of that would simulate the real event.
The first time we tried everything as a group, all hell broke loose ...
Falindra and I were hovering at rest about five miles above the surface, waiting for the word from below that they were ready to begin.
*What is the delay this time?* I ‘pathed to Kalindra as I listened to Fal muttering something over my headset.
*When we started to channel the power for the test, we created a field of static electricity around us that startled a small number of the helpers. Benindra is now explaining what happened, and telling them it was not harmful.*
I’m afraid the thought that swept through my mind right then didn’t help things much. *Issue them combs, and grounding straps, and tell them to shut the hell up and do their job. If they lose concentration like this next week, we’re probably all going to die, and it won’t matter what their damn fur looks like.*
I wasn’t sure, but I got the strong impression that Kalindra passed on my message almost verbatim. It was only a few minutes later that Kal told me we were ready to try again.
*Please link, and form the containment field*
After a short message to Falindra, I felt the feather light link in the back of my mind strengthen, and together we built up a small laser about a meter in diameter.
*We have our aimpoint, you are clear to charge,* and together Fal and I swung the invisible field around, and took aim at a mountain top in the distance.
I didn’t need confirmation of the charging, the energy that began to build inside the field didn’t like being restrained. Focusing my concentration, I began to adjust the field. What I didn’t do was adjust it the same way Falindra was doing. Even as I figured out I’d screwed up, the entire thing vanished in a burst of heat and light as the field fell apart under the conflicting controls. "Oh shi........ <FLASH>"
The next three attempts did the same thing, before I finally let down my barriers enough for Falindra to read me, and work in sync with me instead of against me. Kalindra, to my great relief, never said a thing, even though she had to have known exactly what was happening. On the fifth attempt the field held steady, and when the energy level hit the firing point, I felt Kalindra give it the extra nudge that it needed to lase.
We barely managed to scorch the trees ...
*That didn’t work very well, did it* came the dry voice in my mind.
*You have the same problem Falindra and I do. You are used to controlling both parts so that the efficiency is as high as you can make it. I could see the beam spread as an afterimage in the air. That shot was about as coherent as a flashlight.*
We spent the rest of the day working at it, and our success rate was terrible. After four hours of hovering in the air, and dozens of test shots, we’d only managed one decent test and that was at less then half what we figured the power level should have been. Instead of blowing holes in the mountain in the distance, all we’d managed to do was start a few forest fires.
*Well, at least the helpers got to herd a few smoke clouds around* I said, trying to be cheerful, as Falindra and I returned to the ground. Kalindra didn’t even bother to reply.
* * *
We eventually began to work as a team, we really didn’t have any other choice. As all of us continued to practice our parts, I doubt there was a single one of us that didn’t keep stealing glances at the night sky. When we were two days from the planned attack date, Kalindra took a look around at everyone, and declared a holiday.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" I asked her, rubbing at my eyes, and trying to focus on Falindra, as he talked to someone on the other side of the clearing.
"We need to be at our best, not our worst. Everyone is tired, and I think your pills are failing you. Your eyes are the color of my pelt."
I half considered trying to deny it, and realized I was too tired to care. "Yes, my antihistamines are failing. They were never intended to work for this long on a daily basis, and my system is tired of being screwed with." Kalindra didn’t understand quite what I’d meant, but she got the general idea. She told me to stay where I was for a moment while she did something, and when she returned it was with my pack, and what looked like a picnic basket.
"Get away from us and rest. I will make sure you are not disturbed while you sleep, and let your body recover a little." That said, she handed me the stuff, swung me around, and gave me a shove towards the forest to get me started. She was right too. I needed to get away from her, her house, all that fur and those pills before I dropped over.
I think I slept for thirty hours straight and true to her word, I wasn’t bothered the entire time. When I finally did wake up and my sinuses reminded me that food actually did have a smell, I probably scared away everything for a mile around me as I destroyed what was left of my food supplies in my pack. My stomach happy, I sat back against a nearby tree and started running through the events of the last few weeks, trying to sort through the flood of feelings and thoughts that I’d been pushing aside, as we’d worked against the clock.
From the moment this had started, I’d been riding an emotional rollercoaster. A ride that had only gotten worse once I’d stepped through the Gate. I’d bounced wildly between my own desire to help, the terror of being in surroundings that I simply wasn’t prepared to deal with, and people who radiated a desperation that I couldn’t ignore, even when they’d tried to kill me. I was an emotional mess, and even as I sat there, and tried to sort through what I’d been feeling, I knew deep inside that I’d already made my final choice. For better or worse, I knew I would be seeing this through, no matter how it ended. I was also sure that I couldn’t explain why.
And all too soon I looked at my watch and realized that the time had come ...
"Hello, would you like to buy some magazine subscriptions?" I yelled, while knocking on the back door of Kalindra’s house. "I have some good deals on Magic Monthly, Wizards Weekly, and Better Labs and Spells." The look on Kalindra’s face when she opened the door was actually funny, and I failed miserably in an attempt to not giggle.
"Are you OK?"
"Nope," I answered between giggles. "I’m on a planet that is too stupid to get out of the way of traffic, I’m talking to something that looks like a fox and I had to take another damn pill an hour ago."
Kalindra took a good look at me, and I felt a familiar tickle in the back of my mind. "Well as long as it is nothing serious ..."
I lost it completely, and ended up leaning against the house holding my sides. She knew exactly what she’d done, too. When I finally calmed down, and it appeared that I would survive, she held out her paw to take my pack from me, and handed me the small kit of gear that Falindra and I had worked out between us. The memories of those conversations caused me to start to chuckle again while I slipped the kit over my shoulders. It had been both funny and embarrassing to try to make sure Falindra had understood that he’d need to take something to contain waste in, because there weren’t any handy restrooms in orbit.
"I’ll tell Falindra you are ready to begin, he has been waiting patiently for you to return."
"I’ll just bet he’s been patient" I mumbled to myself while Kalindra stepped back inside to get my partner.
When Falindra arrived, we both double checked our gear again, and then stood looking at each other. "We do this thing now" he told me in broken English. "Damn right we do" I replied. Before I could start to concentrate on the spells I was going to be using, Kalindra interrupted us by stepping forward and rubbing her cheek against Falindra’s, then mine. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but Falindra’s eyes looked a little brighter than before as he bowed, and then stepped back to concentrate. Following his lead, I began to run through my mnemonic song, and a few moments later, the two of us fell up into the morning sky.
It was almost a full day before the main event, but Fal and I had a long trip ahead of us. While it might only be a few hundred miles straight up, we had to get there at rest relative to the planet, not at orbital velocity. Even at our best acceleration rate, it was going to be a long flight, to slow ourselves down from Velar’s rotational rate. The flight spell we were using didn’t have an auto-pilot, either. We both had to concentrate on accelerating against the direction of the planets rotation. It took us about an hour to climb out of the atmosphere to the altitude we wanted, then we both worked as hard as we could to bring ourselves to a stop.
It was going to be hard enough to aim at that asteroid, when the time came. We’d decided that trying to adjust for being in orbit, as well as track the asteroid’s movement, was too much to ask. Falindra and I would take up a fixed position in space, away from the planet, and then wait for Kalindra and the rest of the group to rotate into position beneath us. They would be the ones that decided when zero hour was.
It was a good thing we’d allowed plenty of time. The two sweaty Mages that finally halted, and looked down at the spinning planet below them were not in any condition to concentrate on anything except resting.
"Smell not good" came the tired comment over my headset, and I knew exactly what he was talking about. An environment field might keep you alive, but it didn’t make you smell real good. Breathable air didn’t have to be fresh smelling. After sweating away for fourteen hours as we’d gotten into position, neither of us would probably have been even allowed inside Kalindra’s house without a bath. The only consolation was that we didn’t have to smell each other as well as ourselves.
I’m not sure what Falindra did to relax while we waited. For myself, I’d brought a book along in my pack, and a small tape recorder with some music I liked. With occasional nudges, to keep from falling towards the planet below, I tried to read and get my mind off of what was ahead of us. It didn’t work real well. No matter what I did, I found my eyes were still drawn to the bright ball of light in the distance, that still shimmered even though we were outside the atmosphere now. In the end, I packed everything away and simply stared at it, letting my mind drift wherever it wanted.
*It is time ...*
"Huh?" Kalindra’s voice in my head had startled me, I’d been lost in a day dream. The odd chuckle I heard over my headset let me know that Kal wasn’t the only one who knew I’d been lost out there in the stars.
"I make sure not move while you think" said my partner.
Sure enough, he’d kept both of us in position as I’d day dreamed. "Thank you" I told him. *Moving into final position* I ‘pathed to Kalindra, and I felt her lightly link with both Falindra and I. As we moved into position, I took one last good look at the asteroid that wanted us all dead, and felt the corners of my mouth pull back in a snarl.
"It’s show time ..."
The entire planet knew what we were up to, and those on the side below us had all been warned to stay indoors. When we fired our weapon, even with the extra precautions we were taking, there was a good chance anyone looking our direction would suffer eye damage. What the long term effect would be on the animal life that we couldn’t warn was anyone’s guess. We’d worry about that later, if we were still here.
The laser itself was huge. The only reason we could even see all of it was because Falindra and I were about ten miles away from it, floating behind the secondary shield. ,It looked like a huge cylinder with a secondary half cylinder between it and the planet below. Hanging beside the main weapon was a small targeting laser that would be our method of checking our aim. Since I had more experience with the weapon, and Falindra knew more about the spell they used to view things at a distance, I was busy stabilizing the main spell, while he called up our view of the incoming asteroid.
"Target got" came the voice over my headset.
With a moments concentration, the targeting laser flashed, and a brilliant sapphire cylinder came to life in the distance. I had it on wide focus to start with, and I began to swing it through space in a search pattern, until Falindra told me I was close. Then I began to close the beam width down, and refine the focus, until Fal told me I had the asteroid dead center.
*Target acquired,* I ‘pathed to Kalindra, and together, Falindra and I began to strengthen the waveguide that formed the main weapon.
The targeting system was basically on automatic, the laser and the image that floated in space before us would continue on their own, so that we could concentrate on other things. It was going to take everything we had, and we weren’t sure yet that it would work. The waveguide that began to glow slightly in space before us was several times larger than anything we’d dared experiment with inside the planet's atmosphere.
It was all or nothing. We either succeeded, or Falindra and I would be the first thing that damned rock killed.
*Kalindra, we’re about as ready as we can be. Remember to build the power slowly so we can react to changes or problems.*
*Charging begins in three, two, one ...*
I could feel the energy buildup inside the waveguide, and I immediately fell into the pattern Fal and I had worked out during the last week. We had to monitor the laser every second it existed when charging, the spell was not stable enough to do what was needed without a mind to guide it. Even the smallest variation in the energy levels inside would cause the waveguide to begin to ripple on the surface, and it would tear itself apart if we let it. More than once during the next few minutes, I heard a grunt over my headset; Falindra straining with me to hold things together.
Skill and determination will only take you so far ...
At about ninety percent charged, Falindra and I reached our limits and I yelled in my mind for Kalindra to *HOLD!* Just the distraction of trying to talk to Kal was enough to send the waveguide into ripples that threatened to tear it apart in front of us. *Kal, this thing is going to explode in our faces any second.* I felt the energy level slack off slightly to give us breathing room, but things stayed silent for several minutes.
*You told me this might happen, we will use the other method and hope it is as effective*
Both Falindra and I sighed with relief as we felt the power level drop even further, but we both knew we’d just lost the first battle. We did indeed have a backup plan, but if it failed we were out of luck. There was no third plan.
The best idea had been for a laser that fired on a continuous basis. It would have given us more overall power and we could have corrected the aim in real-time. That was now impossible, but we still had to generate the same kind of power levels. That meant a smaller laser, overcharged, so that it fired a short burst then fell apart from the stress.
Slowly, Falindra and I manipulated the spell, and the waveguide it created, until our weapon was about two thirds it’s original size. That still made it a couple of times larger than anything we’d practiced with, but we had a lower limit on how small we could make it and still have any effect. Falindra checked our aim again, I checked the secondary shield, and when we were both happy I told Kalindra *Ok, open fire.*
Once again we took up the strain, once again the Kal and Mas began to pour power into the waveguide. When it was almost on the verge of lasing, they stopped to let Falindra and I brace for what was next. Then, within a fraction of a second, they almost doubled the power trapped in the waveguide and the world of Velar struck back at its attacker for the first time.
And all hell broke loose ...
Even at our height, there was enough of the atmosphere left to give a laser beam that powerful something to refract against as it fired. Before we could even scream we were overwhelmed by a brilliant flash of violet light, and given a kick backwards from the recoil. Even as I struggled to get my orientation I figured out what had happened. If I survived this, I intended to kick Penny all over my room for forgetting to warn us. Beams of light have mass, just ask anyone who’s played with the idea of a lightsail. It may not be much, but it’s there.
*Give us a moment to get stable* I yelled at the voice in my head that was demanding to know what had happened. *And stop yelling long enough to tell me what the hell effect we had!* As it turned out, I actually found out before she did.
Being tossed around like that had ruined our concentration and the spell. When I caught back up with Falindra finally, he was busy with his viewing spell, checking to see what we’d done to the asteroid and lining up the targeting system again. We didn’t have to look very hard to see we’d had an effect, the entire front half of the asteroid was still incandescing from the energy it had absorbed, and even as we watched we could see the cloud being dissipated as the teek’s below went into action.
"Gas and rubble!" I yelled over headset. "That thing is going to wish it had picked a better target to harass." Kalindra picked up what I was feeling also, and I heard an echo of joy ripple through the back of my mind. We had a chance now, we just had to use it.
What I missed was the weary look Falindra gave, me as we concentrated on reforming the spell for the next shot.
"Falindra, follow my lead and just before it fires, accelerate towards the asteroid using your flightfield. Don’t even try to stablize the spell, let it fail and we’ll reform it each time. That will take less time then trying to hold it together and get back into position."
"As you say, you understand better this thing then I."
During the next hour we managed to get off five more shots at the asteroid, each one boiling off huge amounts of water vapor and small chunks of rock that the telekenetics swept out of the way towards open space. It was on the fifth of those shots that I finally notice something was wrong with Falindra and asked him "What is wrong?" He wouldn’t answer me, and Kalindra told me to leave him alone.
*Kal,* and I felt her wince at my misuse of her name, *Is he going to be OK?*
*No, but it is his wish to "go out fighting" as I believe you call it.*
I started to argue, and was told in no uncertain terms to drop the subject. There wasn’t anything I could do to help, and I knew I couldn’t do it by myself. Hanging alone in space a few hundred yards from me was a being who was going to give his life for his world, one way or another. It was his choice freely made, and I was expected to help him kill himself, to try and save his race. What hurt in my gut was, I didn’t have any choice but to let him do just that.
Three shots later, with the asteroid whittled down to something like a third its original size, Falindra quietly and calmly said good-bye to all of us, and a spark of fire died in my mind. Even as I yelled and spun around, I knew it was too late. All I saw was the expanding cloud of air and water vapor that flashed outwards, as his environment field faded, and released everything to open space. It only took a second to dash over to where his body floated in space; what I saw there made me sick. I’d never seen explosive decompression before, and I had to work to keep from losing the contents of my stomach.
*Brian* It took several minutes before I realized it wasn’t my own conscience I was hearing. *Brian, send him home to us.*
*Send Falindra home to us, let him return to the planet he died defending.*
It took a moment for me to figure out what Kalindra meant, then I nodded to myself, and gave Falindra’s body a boost towards the planet below. With a silent good-bye, I brushed the tears from my eyes that I couldn’t explain, and turned to look at the enemy that had claimed its first victim. An enemy that now had the freedom to claim the rest.
*Kalindra, unless you know something you haven’t told me, I think you better get underground, and prepare to try and survive this things impact. Maybe we’ve shrunk it enough that your people can survive and deal with the results.*
*You might be right, but I don’t have that option. The projected impact point it almost on top of one of our larger cities, I can’t let all those people die unless I’m dead first.*
Given what I’d just seen, I had absolutely no doubt she was serious. Unlike humans, Velans tended to put their racial needs above their own. If she could have gotten there, I suspect Kal would have been standing at ground zero, throwing everything she had at the rock that threatened her world. What I didn’t understand, either then or afterwards, is why I decided without hesitation to be standing beside her helping.
*Kalindra, there is no way I can generate and hold a waveguide the size we were using, but I’ll do what I can . Get ready to resume fire on my mark.*
I let the secondary shield, and the targeting laser, vanish with a silent pop. I couldn’t afford even the tiny bit of mental effort it took to keep them functional. This time the waveguide wasn’t ten miles away, it was at my feet, and I sighted along its length at the fuzzy oblong that looked close enough to reach out and touch. Reach out and swat, was more what I had in mind, as I told Kalindra *this one is for Falindra* and felt the laser beneath me begin to charge.
I was angry, and I fed my anger everything I could think of. Every bit of memory I could dredge up I used to focus my hatred on that piece of rock in the distance, to focus myself on holding my only weapon against it together. It felt like somebody had shoved a hot needle through my skull when the laser fired, I used that pain to fan my anger even hotter.
Two shots later that eternally damned hunk of trash slapped us in the face with its final insult. Underneath all that frozen water and rubble was a solid rock core that laughed at our laser and our efforts. We tried one more shot to be sure, all we did was boil a thin layer of rock into gas. On top of everything else, we were out of time.
*Brian, get out of there, you can’t do anything more.*
*Are you going to hide underground?* I snarled, clamping down on the anger I’d been feeding. For the first time since I’d been on her world, I felt something akin to the anger I was feeling radiate from my partner. *I didn’t think so, I’m staying.*
*And do what, you obstinate human?!*
*Cheat* and I tossed an idea around in my head, while Kalindra demanded to know what I meant.
There are several ways to increase the power of a laser. You can pump more energy into it, you can decrease the beam width to intensify the energy density, or you can increase the frequency of the beam. There was a way to do all three if you were insane, and at that moment I had no doubts about my lack of sanity. *Kalindra, can you deliver a massive pulse of energy timed to the exact moment I request it?*
*How accurate do you need it to be?*
*Very ...* She admitted she could, and the anger I felt at her answer just helped me focus on what I needed to do.
It was like two minds overlapping; it was what I’d feared from the moment I’d first learned Kal was inside my head, but it was the only way to do what needed to be done. I could remember things that had never happened to me. A fuzzy face leaning over my crib and talking in a language I couldn’t understand, a smell that said "mother", the thrill of being accepted as an apprentice by Falindra. God only knows what Kalindra made of the memories she got from me.
Two minds acting as one. One with the knowledge of the weapon that was needed, one with the power and skill to apply it. The asteroid core was clearly visible when we acted; at point blank range we took our last shot.
The waveguide started out about the size of what we’d first used, a massive thing that I wouldn’t have been able to hold together even at a quarter charged. Kalindra pulled on enough raw energy from her star to power something almost twice that big and held it in check. We were thinking as one, one thought, one goal, and together we thought to ourselves .... *Now*.
The waveguide imploded inwards towards a fixed diameter at the same time all the power we’d held in check was dumped into it. It didn’t have to exist very long, just long enough to fire a single short burst. Even as our link was torn apart by my scream, the largest X-ray laser ever created bored a hole through to the center of the asteroid core, and released its energy. The explosion was magnificent ...
* * *
My re-entry was seen by most of planet, or so they told me when I woke up a week later. The backlash from the implosion had thrown me towards the planet at a shallow angle, and I’d have skipped off the atmosphere and back into space except for Kalindra’s fast thinking.
Tracking my thoughts, she’d gathered part of the telekinetic group herding core fragments, and had had them pull me towards the planet, even as I’d hit the edge of the swiftly rotating atmosphere beneath me. I’d left a clearly visible fireball as friction had started to accelerate me up to the speed the planet rotated, a fireball that had gotten even brighter when the teek’s had helped the process along so that I wouldn’t fall out of their sight. The ride wasn’t gentle to say the least. Between the initial explosion and the re-entry, I was a real mess by the time Wythdantis got to me.
The real show was about two hours later when the remains of the asteroid hit the atmosphere. Most of the small stuff burned up on entry, but there were a few good sized core fragments that made it all the way to the ground. Kalindra’s people were in for some strange weather for the next few years, but at least they were alive to worry about it.
Much to my surprise, I was alive also, though it felt like my brains had been turned to mush, as I finally woke up to the sounds of an argument outside a very familiar room. "Oh shit, not again ..." I muttered to myself, as I closed my eyes, and tried to deal with what felt like an icepick buried in my forehead. It didn’t work, and my head kept pounding away in time to my heartbeat. I fumbled around for my glasses, and staggered across the room to the door.
The view in the hallway was insane, even by my new standards. I recognized Kal and Wythdantis, but the rest of the crowd was a blur of bodies, and what I finally realized were cameras of some kind, when every one of them swung to face my direction. I reacted out of sheer anger ...
"One more noise, and I’m going to start throwing people into the center of the local star," I snarled in what I hoped was understandable Velan. I must have gotten close, they all went dead silent, and stared at me. When Kalindra grinned, and her fur started to crackle from the energy buildup, they had the good sense to turn and run. It was just as well, I couldn’t have lit a candle the way I felt, and I collapsed in the doorway with a moan.
"How the hell did they get in here anyway?," I managed to ask, as Wythdantis carried me back to the bed., "I thought you people had better manners then to force yourselves where you didn’t belong?"
"The news services have been sitting outside since we brought you here. They are slightly psychotic to begin with, and were relying on the fact we don’t get physically violent to try and force their way inside to talk to you. Several of them will be needing the services of a healer though, I notched a few ears ..."
Something hadn’t felt right from the moment I’d stepped into the hallway, and it finally dawned on me what was wrong. "Wythdantis, I’m not having trouble understanding you, and I should be. What have you done to me this time?" I regretted it the moment I said it.
"I saved your worthless, ugly, alien hide" she snarled as she slammed the door on her way out.
* * *
I eventually did find out what had happened, though I wasn’t sure knowing the answer helped. As best Kalindra and Wythdantis could figure, Kal and I were both feeling an echo of that final link we’d made. It had been that echo in part which had helped Kalindra track me during re-entry, and now I was tapping the remains of it somehow to translate in the same way Kalindra had used me earlier. It was fading over time, and I know both of us were glad. We’d each seen parts of the other that were best left hidden, and even that faint echo of the link was enough to remind us.
We didn’t manage to avoid the news teams much longer either. When I was barely able to walk without falling over, they ambushed us in Kalindra’s back yard and wouldn’t leave until I talked to them. I guess when you’ve been threatened with extinction, a pair of angry Mages doesn’t do much to stop you. I think what I hated most of all about that interview was the nickname that I ended up with. After Kalindra and I described what had happened there at the last moment, I started hearing the name "Starfire" in conversations as I hobbled around while healing. More than once during the week that followed, Kalindra and I would look at each other while listening to somebody talking, and one of us would mutter in English "Maybe we should have let it hit."
When I could get around under my own power and not bump into things, I gathered our little band of people together, and told them it was time for me to return home. They in turn finally started talking about things we’d somehow avoided until now.
None of us had any real idea just where the world on each side of my gate was in relation to the other, and Benindra was almost as paranoid about it as Kimi had been. They were thankful for my help, at least Kalindra was, and she said that if I ever needed her help I had only to ask. The final choice of whether to leave the gate operational or destroy it was mine in theory, although I was rather sure it wouldn’t be hard to destroy it if somebody else really wanted to. We spent most of that night talking, and I was no better off then when we’d started. The job was done, the cleanup could go on forever, and that just raised another issue that I alone had to deal with.
I tried not to think about what must be happening back on Earth. I’d been gone far longer then I’d ever planned on being. If I’d died, things would have been in chaos but it would have faded out when I’d stayed missing. Now I’d get to fall into the middle of that chaos, and I’d have to straighten it out as best I could, and the longer I waited the worse it would be. So, some two weeks after I’d helped save a world, I prepared to leave it.
And that left me with one final question I still couldn’t answer.
"I was almost getting used to that green sky," I said with a chuckle, as I stood in front of the gate that would return me home. I handed Kal the staff I’d been using to help me walk as she handed me my backpack.
"You could return and see it again if you wish. I will make sure the gate remains untouched on this side."
I turned and looked at the person who’s call for help had pulled me from I wasn’t sure how far away. I couldn’t feel a thing from her, the echo had finally faded, and I wasn’t even getting the flashes of emotion I’d gotten at first. "Are you sure that would be a good idea?" I waited for an answer, but didn’t get one. We’d fought with each other and at each others side to save a world. What I felt at that moment was impossible to try and express, maybe Kalindra felt the same way. It wasn’t simply respect, it felt more like friendship, but it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.
In the end I simply smiled, bowed as I would have to Kimi, and stepped back through the gate to the world of my birth.
One of the things that Kalindra has never cured me of is my snoring, much to her disgust. The sunset I’d been watching through the worldgate, as I’d thought back across all those years, was long gone and it had taken me with it. Penny hadn’t said a word as I’d taken longer and longer to reply to her, and she had let me fall asleep without comment.
I was comfortable enough that I didn’t wake up when a low creak echoed through the lab. The muffled giggles as somebody removed a blanket from one of the supply cabinets went completely unnoticed as well. I did manage to smile in my sleep, as a pair of furry arms tucked the blanket around my neck so that I wouldn’t catch a chill as I slept.
"I think he forgot I was back here studying" came the whispered comment, from the furry member of the pair who kept my life interesting. "He has never spoken to me of some of the things he discussed with you, it was interesting, finally hearing some of what he felt during that time."
"He did relax a bit more then I’ve ever seen him do before. He usually goes quiet on me when I mention the subject," came the low pitched reply from a monitor on the wall.
They talked for several hours while I slept that night, about what, though, I’ve never known. When they finished, Kalindra smiled to herself and gave me a gentle nip on the ear before she stepped through the gate and returned to her own world.
What all of us had been through should have been the adventure of a lifetime. What kept us together afterwards became the real adventure.
But that is another story ...
Edited by Jon Brandon Williams
Topeka, KS, 21 July 2004