Read The First Four Chapters of The Calling

Excerpt from The Calling
by John Peace

This story is dedicated to the light that shines in the darkness.

Chapter One : Summoned

In front of Valin appeared a glowing figure. It was a man, standing in mid-air above a flat-topped boulder not far away down the hillside.

Valin's mouth crashed open.

Around the man shone a round, blinding radiance as if a great hand had flung a cup of a star's fierce blood over him. It was as though a gate had crashed open where before there had been thin air and a few insects blundering around.

Valin blinked hard, and squinted into the light. His heart began galloping in his chest.
Against this shining golden circle of sky he could see distant dark shapes, like walking towers, massive flying arrowheads spitting blinding shafts of violet, and many human figures fighting and running, hiding and falling. Valin heard shouts of command, cries of agony or maybe of fear, and rumbles like the collision of angry mountains. A choking smell forced him to cough. It reminded him of when he'd thrown his old wristscreen onto the cooking fire. He shrank back against the solid rock behind his back, terrified, wishing that it was a vivid dream, but fearing that it was not. His mouth had dried out and he couldn't speak. He squeezed his fingers into fists.

The stranger's grim face and short auburn hair showed under a silver helmet, and over dark clothes he appeared to be wearing a loose suit of light silver cloth that flexed and shone as he turned to glance sideways. He was obviously a warrior. It showed in the way he held his well-muscled body like a coiled spring. Yet he held no obvious weapon.

The young man named Valin had been resting against a towering boulder of rough black rock after a good lunch. His younger brother was playing quietly on the top of the boulder, out of sight, where he'd climbed with many loud announcements of his progress. That dreaming girl, their distant cousin, was somewhere nearby. The white-hot sun had climbed high into the cloudless purple sky. The youth was tired from their long walk and had been drifting in and out of a doze before the vision of this man had flashed upon him. His chaleen serpent pup, Charp, had been purring in his dreams, but sensing his alarm, had slithered away and hidden itself. Valin could feel its terror reflecting his own, and feeding on it, like two fingernails scratching on rock, harder and harder, one trying to outdo the other.

The glinting man hovered in a circle of golden light. "Elha calls you," he said, in a deep voice that managed to be both urgent and supremely confident. "We need you in battle, Valin Derojan. Are you ready? You will direct beam-cluster weapons from within the bunker. Simple work."

Shock held Valin in a tight grip. He didn't move or blink. All that crept from his mouth was, "Uh?"
"No need to fear," the man assured him. "But we do need your help - they are too many for us!" He held out his hand and beckoned.

He wanted to say, "Go away! You've got the wrong person!" But all that came out was a squeak: "Not me!" Until this moment, he'd always thought that he was quite brave.

"No excuses," said the warrior, baring his teeth, "it's you, alright. The call is for you. Your scan matches the profile we have for you." While he was still speaking, a cluster of slim steel shapes like fish streaked out of the distance towards him, leaving a curved condensation trail. He merely held up his other hand, without looking over his shoulder. The air seemed to ripple like a silk flag, rudely scattering the missiles. Some exploded in mid-air, some tumbled away out of sight. "Stand up like a man!" he went on. "The honour of your people is at stake. Your honour!"

Valin just began to edge away from the glowing man, sliding along on his rear, along the base of the boulder, and shook his head frantically. Honour! What use was honour to a man who thought he saw silver angels? It was as much use as a jewelled crown to a child who sat in the mud, lecturing the birds. He fingered the coarse scapprul-gut band at his left wrist, stabbed with a sudden fear that it might have fallen off. It was still there, of course.

Finally the silver-suited man lifted his wrist to his mouth and spoke briefly, in a tone strong and precise, not at all frustrated. Behind him, meanwhile, a huge shadow grew silently and swiftly until it almost blocked out the golden glow of the sky. The watching youth cried aloud in fear, at which the man threw himself aside, moving at the last moment, as agile as a cat. Still, the darkness seemed to crush him.

The darkness took shape, with whirling blades, spiked legs and weapon-ports that still glowed orange. Perhaps it noticed Valin cowering by the boulder, for it swung a blank mask in his direction. The mask had no mouth, and its eyes were lifeless.

Then the bright circle began to shrink, and it grew silent. The mask flew into a thousand pieces and the whole scene vanished with a flash and a shock wave that stunned Valin into unconsciousness.

When he awoke, an almost silent breeze was kissing the hillside where he lay against the boulder. His brother dropped to the ground nearby and prodded him. "Wake up! There's nothing to do here. Let's go!" he said. He didn't seem to have noticed anything happening.

Valin still saw the afterglow of that flash in his sore eyes. "Where's Charp?" he asked abruptly. As much as he trusted Killian, he knew he shouldn't say a word about what had just happened. First he wanted to know if it had been anything more than a bad dream. He really wasn't sure yet.

The chaleen's reassuring buzz swept over his mind, like waves on a sunny beach. It was somewhere close by, and Valin relaxed. The scent of alpine herbs calmed him. His fists unclenched, and he could feel where the nails had almost pierced the skin of his palms. He forced from his head the image of the warrior and his message of summons and honour, and stood up. What else could he do?

Later, Valin and his little brother Killian and their girl-cousin Mertyl stopped at the edge of a small patch of muddy ground. The hunting chaleen's long, legless body hung around Valin's shoulders like a thick rope of silken muscle. Some called it a land eel. Its sleek grey skin glinted violet in the sun, and Valin felt its contentment somewhere in his head, and trickling down his spine.

It was surprising that the hot summer sun in the deep, dark blue sky hadn't yet dried up this area of mud. A glistening black jellycoal towered over the mud patch. Its scent of rotting fish and human sweat wrinkled Valin's nose. He thought he could hear it clicking and sucking. Insects whispering in their own strange language might have made the same noise.

Valin glanced at the three-toed animal tracks, then looked around the almost treeless landscape. "Could be a hungry eripta, heading downhill to stalk our sandbacks," he muttered. He patted his hunting knife in its belt sheath and swallowed nervously. He didn't want Charp to pick up on his nerves, so he tried to smile and drive away the sense of approaching disaster. He had to say something to change the subject. Eriptas sometimes attacked humans too, and they could grow to a huge size. "The tracks are much too big for a scapprul. Scappruls always run in packs, anyway. They're more of a nuisance than a danger."

Killian nodded wisely.

Even though chaleens were born with a hunter's instinct and grew those knife-edged fins for gripping and slicing prey, Charp was still young and unlikely to do well against a huge carnivore like an eripta. His uncle had assured him that a fully-grown chaleen could handle just about any creature native to Elmarune, if it was forced to fight.

He scanned the sunbaked hillside. There were a great many boulders and ridges nearby where an eripta could be hiding. Also there were an unusually large number of jellycoal towers around, which probably didn't mean anything.

His hands trembled slightly, and he tensed his muscles to hide his agitation. The muscles in his left wrist chafed against the rough cord that encircled them. Only recently had they entrusted him with errands like this, following the day when Valin had hunted and butchered a scapprul and his father had made the man-ring from the intestines. Now every nomad could see that Valin was almost an adult, and they all watched him closely. Some even judged him too young to begin piloting the airtruck to market. A few young men wore the man-ring for years before the older men judged them worthy of manhood.

If I mess this one up, he thought, no one will ever trust me again.

Chapter Two : Eripta

Little Killian looked up at him. "Eripta? Cool!" he cried. "Then we can hunt it down and I'll kill it for you. Like this!" He swung his long stick, swish, swish, hitting Valin on the knee and then jabbing the empty air with a wild growl. "Let's do a menvring!"

"Look out," Valin said in distraction, still intent on watching for the big-fanged, thick-skinned predators that came out of the desert now and again and struck fear into the hearts of the farmers on the plateau.

Mertyl sniffed and swung her long, black hair with a toss of her head, gazing up at the few wisps of cloud as if nothing much were happening. She was rubbing a few tiny leaves between her fingertips, producing an aroma both pungent and sweet. Her hands were nimble, and used to working. The way she acted so distant and superior irritated Valin, but he could imagine how she'd react if he voiced his feeling. It was as though, he thought, in her childish arrogance that she hadn't yet outgrown, she felt that a show of day-dreaminess would set her apart from the name-calling and teasing that plagued the lives of children. He thought her nose too pinched and the nostrils thin instead of round, and her chin too bony, for her to be pretty. She wasn't exactly a cousin, but a relative of his father's cousin, and still a little too young for him to treat her as an equal.

"What's that? What's a menvring?" she asked. Her voice was slightly fuller than he remembered it, and he realised that she was only three or four years younger than him, and growing up fast. She spoke as if it were an effort to concern herself with their petty affairs. He was fairly sure his mother had prompted her father to send her along so that they could become friends. A suspicion hung on him that adults were making plans for him. But he was determined to marry on his own terms, and not for many years yet.

Valin shook his head. "It's nothing, just an old word. It means a quest, a long journey." Killian had picked up the word from their grandmother and her ancient folk stories.
"It's not nothing!" Killian burst out. "Brant the Lonely did a menvring and that's how he discovered Elmarune!" Valin decided not to answer that one. The first explorers and settlers on the planet had arrived so long ago that no one knew for sure who they were.

The leaves between Mertyl's fingertips turned to shreds, and she dropped them. There, beside the patch of mud, more sletch herbs were growing. She picked as many as she could, staying away from the stinking jellycoal mounds and towers. Sletch was good with meat dishes. What a relief that Killian and Valin hadn't started another of their arguments. An even greater relief was that the adults hadn't forced her to go on a journey with Valin's oldest brother, Sy.

She held a little respect for her distant older cousin Valin, but not because he kept a chaleen. Charp gave her the creeps. No, it was because he seemed able to control his temper most of the time, unlike most of his siblings. In that, he reminded her slightly of her beloved father, but in miniature.

She stole a covert glance at Valin. It always seemed as though his eyes were too far apart, and his face was too long. Maybe the midwife had stretched his head when he was born. She almost giggled out loud. And his mouth seemed to twitch or pull sideways whenever he was thinking, or trying to control himself, or else he'd clench his fists as if his rioting emotions were a wet rag he had to squeeze out. And lately there was that dreadful scrap of dried intestine on his wrist for him to fiddle with. He frowned a little whenever he spoke. It wasn't a scowl, she knew, but a sign of concentration. Then he'd sometimes scratch at the raw scar on the back of his left hand if something annoyed him. He had a simple soul, she thought, a simple soul puzzling through how to live in this complicated world. Sometimes she could tell what was going through his mind. She noticed how his dark, wiry hair had become matted and wild during the course of their hike. He'd been trying to grow a mustache and beard, but it looked more like his chin was sprouting heads of very fine, brown moss. Yeuch! The unkempt hair made his ears seem twisted. That was the problem with boys, or one of the problems. They didn't know how to take care of themselves.

Valin, Mertyl and Killian had walked a long distance that day, and they could no longer see the farm down below, where their nomadic clan had pitched camp. For most of the time, Charp had slid between the rocks with hardly a sound, sending Valin its pleasure at scouting ahead, but now it was tired and worried, sharing Valin's unease. These were the two sides of having a chaleen: Charp and Valin had trained for month after month to become almost one being when they were hunting scappruls, so that Valin could feel Charp's excitement and almost see what it could see, smell each new scent, and Charp would obey Valin's simple commands and come when called, but when one of them became anxious or upset, the other was swayed by the mood as a tree by a storm. It took much more experience before Valin would be able to overcome this.

The plateau spread out, dusty and brown and almost treeless, and beyond it snaked a huge, dark crack in the earth. More plateau stretched out on the other side of the huge ravine until the world hazed out in the distance. At the bottom of the canyon, out of sight, ran the generous Fargale River, bringer of life to most of this part of the continent. How Valin longed for another chance to hike down to the river and swim with his friends, and leave all his troubles behind for a while! He was still exhausted from the nightmare after lunch and he was full with the thought of floating on one of those deep, slow pools under the boughs of the grapestone trees. But he took a deep breath and tried hard to concentrate, to shake off the heat that pressed in on them.
Behind the three of them rose the rocky hills that separated the plateau from the Dross Desert. The desert gifted them nothing but trouble, it seemed: sandstorms in the middle of harvest, occasional tribes of thieving nomads, and now eripta too. But here, beyond the desert's dunes and barren rocky loneliness, a few fragile flowers poked up from the gravel: tiny blooms of white and purple, seeking the sun, nodding in the faint breezes. The wide hillside seemed to be twitching as the widely-spaced flowers all swung to their own rhythms.

"We should get back to camp soon and tell father," said Valin. "He only bought the sandbacks two winters ago. We can't afford to lose a single one." Most of all, he dreaded the thought of losing Killian and Mertyl to one of those monsters. He tried to change the subject. "Sometimes, now that chaleens are so few among our people, farmers hunt down eripta with a sentic."

Killian screwed up his face, asking, "What's one of them?"

Mertyl answered. "A sentient machine. A machine that thinks. A mechanical servant. Don't you know anything?" She sniffed and turned away.

With a frustrated snort, Killian turned away, not far from tears now. "But... you didn't..." was all he could stutter. Charp slipped from Valin and thudded to the ground. It began browsing, biting the heads off the purple flowers.

The young girl, more than a head taller than Killian and dressed in a patched-together dress of many colours, was eating a grey brickfruit she'd brought in one of her deep pockets. She sniffed again at all this man-talk and said, in her voice that reminded Valin equally of icy streams and birdsong, "Can we go back the same way we came up, past that little waterfall?" Valin knew very well that she understood what they were talking about, knew how dangerous an eripta could be, but she seemed to keep her nerve. He nodded to her in agreement.
Killian looked up at his big brother, then back at the plateau, as if straining his eyes would let him see their tents. He shielded his face against the sun and sighed at the thought of all that walking. Then he looked back down at the tracks and said hopefully, "Maybe they're not eripta tracks. Maybe they're somethin' else."

With a frown, Valin bent over and traced the tracks' outlines with his fingertip. Through the mud grew the roots of a thin creeper that was almost the only plant life around. "Hmmm... you could be right this time," he said. Now he looked closely, it was embarrassingly clear. It was hard to admit he might be wrong and his brother - half his age and little more than half his height - might be right. But he knew Killian didn't have a mean bone in his body and wouldn’t tease him.
He decided it was true, and began to breathe more easily. Eripta tracks were narrower and closer together. These, widely spread and with the occasional smudge of the rear toe, looked like eswark prints, and he told Killian and Mertyl this.

Killian's eyes rose. "Oh! Eswark! Then maybe the Grapetree clan is camped near here. Let's go and see 'em! They might let me ride one of their eswark calves!"

Valin was irritated and shook his head. "Not unless we know it's a friendly clan. The Aquan tribe won't be through this way until winter, for the big market, and the last we heard, most of the Grapetrees had a contract over the canyon."

Mertyl finally threw away the brickfruit core and smirked at Killian, saying, "Killy, we have to go back to camp now. No time for calf rides."

Killian snarled at her, then squealed at Valin and begged, "Pleeease? Then we can explore that ancient ruined city in the Red Desert."

But Valin ignored him. "Actually, Mertyl, we've still got to find that well with the pump and get it started again. Or there'll be no rice harvest. We promised Farmer Angtal."

"We?" queried Mertyl. She hadn't been there when Valin had received the errand.

"Come on!" he insisted.

So saying, he set off up the hill. Killian followed, holding his stick like a rifle and shooting at imaginary Space Raiders with his loudest sizzling noise. Mertyl lagged behind, lifting rocks to look for the violet wormlets she found so fascinating. Charp tagged along behind Valin, a tiny purple bloom caught in its thin mouth as it slithered along.

Watching his younger brother, Valin was disturbed, though he wasn't sure why. The boy imagined his battles with Space Raiders with such fierce energy. When Killian caught up with him again, Valin told him to stop his game.

"But why?" whined Killian. "Raiders took one of our brothers away, didn't they? That's what Sy said. Then-"

"I don't want to talk about it," growled Valin. He had thought he could escape from his dominating older brother out here, but Sy's name kept on coming up. He knew little enough about the matter anyway, and since his parents always kept a troubled silence over the lost brother, he didn't know how to talk about it either. "Just keep the noise down," he finished, and strode ahead, fingering the scar on the back of his left hand.

Mertyl had long ago realised that her father wanted her to marry. If only mother hadn't died, she thought, there wouldn't be this pressure, not so soon. But then she wouldn't be up here in the hills, looking for wormlets and skyseeds. So she smiled to herself when no one was looking, and kept her distance from Valin, speaking only when necessary, never making eye contact. He's not going to make a wife of me. It's my life and I'm going to live it. For as long as I can.

This was the constant tug-of-war in her heart these past months. She'd go through anything for her father, except an early marriage. Recalling how his face had darkened yesterday when they had argued brought tears to her eyes now. All the same, she suspected there had been a contrary kind of pride on Father's face, mixed with the anger. Perhaps she was just overtired from lack of sleep: That odd dream, that beautiful face she had seen, then lying awake and trying to remember what the face had said to her. 

She knelt down to look under a wide, flat rock that lay only an arm's length from a mound of quivering jellycoal. She ignored the tiny sucking sounds the jellycoal produced and tried not to breathe in its foul odour. The rock came away from the damp mud with a sucking pwok! and there was a whole nest of twisting, violet wormlets, each about the size of her little finger and ringed in black where one segment met the next. She wiped her eyes dry with the back of one hand.

After scooping the worms into her pouch and sealing them in, she went on to the next rock, but there was nothing under that one. She sniffed at her fingers where the worms had secreted their slime on her skin: Yeuch! Grandpa had better be right. It's hard work collecting all these. She had smelled the perfume he made from these ugly little creatures, and it amazed her how it could smell so sweet when the worms started off so stinky and slimy. This time he wanted more of them, because Mrs Angtal had put in a special order for the perfume.

Her grandfather told so many stories of his travels beyond the sky, but he and her grandma still knew more than most people about the uses of Elmarune's many plants and mosses, and worms too. Odd, she thought, that they never mentioned any use for the jellycoals. They just warned her to stay away from them.

She glanced ahead, satisfied that she was far behind Valin, and distant enough from Killian that he wouldn't talk to her. Killian's alright really. I must be kinder to him, she realised. Talk to him, maybe, instead of always dreaming about mother.

It wasn't that marriage revolted her - one day, she knew, she would marry and gladly raise lots of adorable children - but she could still feel the bonds of childhood calling her to linger in the sunlight and dance with her friends. Besides, she remembered her father's teasing: what if all her children were as troublesome as she was herself? Hmm. I'd prefer not to think about that. Such a fierce, joyous life was burning somewhere in her ribcage and would not be tied down and tamed - or not yet, anyway. Not until she'd travelled to some of the places Grandpa talked about.

Chapter Three : Dreamer

Valin fumed as he and Killian climbed the hill.

"Hey, wait for me!" called his brother. He ran a few steps to catch up with Valin's longer stride, panting like the bellows used by the tribe's wrinkly, grinning old blacksmith. "What's up, Val?"

Valin sighed, and stopped to look back over the hillside they'd climbed. "I hoped that by now we would have found the irrigation pipe. It must have got buried."

Killian looked around. "Pipe?"

"Yes, the one that leads from the well down to the rice fields. But I haven't been up in the hills for a year. No well hole, no pipe, nothing."

With the sudden beaming grin he often used to try cheering people up, Killian said, "Aw well, never mind. It's just a pipe, right?"

Valin shook his head, still searching the hillside for a clue. "Wrong, actually. The rainwater stored up in these hills is vital for the plateau farmers. They struggle for every drop of water they get." Pumping water so far up from the Fargale River was out of the question. Even with the reservoirs that had been built in these hills a few years back, the crops often grew withered for lack of irrigation. The rains were few and far between. So for many generations, the plateau farmers had dug wells amongst the rocks and gravel of the hills at the edge of the desert. Sometimes a well dried up, so they would abandon it and start digging elsewhere.

He stared hard at the barren hilltops which were sprinkled with clumps of jellycoal towers, trying to remember what the view had looked like last time, and where the clumps had been, as if that would be any use.

Killian followed his gaze. "Teacher says jellycoals is really creatures, you know, they move over the years. She knows so much about them."

Valin nodded. The little groups of black shapes on the hills may not have been there when he'd last come this way. "Yes, I'm sure she does. But no one has ever studied their life cycle." Killian sniffed and began walking back down the hill.

No one had ever bothered to learn if the jellycoals were aware of other creatures, or how they reproduced. Charp had always avoided the black growths like poison. Perhaps it sensed their feelings, alien even to its own strange mind. Elmarune kept its secrets close to its chest.

Every hill had its own shape and shade, he told himself, no matter how similar they all looked. It was no use giving up yet. He felt a shy memory of finding the well on a hilltop shaped like a filed-off tooth. "I'll climb to the top of this hill to get a good look around," he called back to Killian, who had lost interest and was fighting hand-to-hand with the Space Raiders. He showed no sign of hearing. Mertyl was even further back down the slope and had her nose under an upturned slab of rock. Just my luck to be stuck out here with a child and a dreamer, he griped to himself. Again he imagined himself floating on his back on the Fargale River, with the huge leaves of the copperwood vines shutting out all of the sky except for a few sparkles of light. Or better still, his thoughts wandered on, sitting in the cockpit of the airtruck, a hundred kilometres above everything, with nothing and no one to worry me. It's a pilot's life for me.

He had almost reached the top of the hill, daydreaming, stepping over and around the black boulders, crunching over mats of those creepers, hardly aware of his surroundings, when his foot broke through the surface and the ground gave way beneath him. With a cry, he scrabbled to get a hold on the nearest rocks, but they too were tumbling down. Even as he fell, he knew his mistake: it was an old, abandoned well that had become half-covered with tumbled rocks, creepers and a thin layer of dirt. He should have spotted it.

In a cascade of dirt, pebbles and small boulders, Valin fell into darkness and crashed to a halt some distance below ground level. His left leg hit first and folded badly under him, and a piercing pain filled him. He cried out in agony and grabbed his knee. At the same moment a distant echo of animal despair sounded in his head. Charp had been just close enough to share his shock and fear, but too far away to see him fall. The chaleen was probably raising its snout, questing in its anxiety to find Valin.

When the dust cleared, he found himself at the bottom of a steep-sided pit about five metres deep, wide enough for him to lie down at the bottom, but much too sheer and deep to easily climb out of. Still, he had to try. But even pulling himself up and standing on his uninjured leg was too much, and he collapsed, moaning loudly. So this was what it was like to die. How he regretted his daydreaming now!

He couldn't see much of the well-hole around him. The darkness was suffocating, and the foul smell that had been nagging at his attention finally overpowered him: jellycoals! He peered around. The walls of the pit seemed to be glistening and popping, scritching and sucking. With so many strange whispers at once, it was like being caught in a crowd of quiet, muttering madness. The smell choked him, as if he was stuck in a giant sweaty armpit. Too bad that he hadn't landed on one of the alien growths. It would have cushioned his fall.

The opening at the top showed a blaze of sky too bright to look at directly. The sun was still high. He shouted, and threw rocks through the opening, yelled until his throat was hoarse, and waited, but there was no sign of Killian or Mertyl. They're probably still playing, Valin thought wretchedly. What was worse, Charp seemed to have wandered away in its effort to find him, and now Valin was cast into a stormy sea of feelings. Usually, between his efforts not to discourage his chaleen and its supportive waves of calm breaking into his consciousness, nothing much could perturb his mood. They helped each other stay focussed and content. It had taken a few years for them to reach that level of togetherness, years of frequent frustration and repetitive training. But now he couldn't feel Charp in his mind, and there seemed to be nothing to stop him sinking into utter chaos and helpless self-pity. The scar on his hand itched, but scratching only made it worse. It's so lonely, with no one else in my mind but me.

So the sharp pain in his leg, the disturbing murmurs of the jellycoals and his wretched situation led his thoughts in a downward spiral. After a long while, he found himself thinking about the vivid nightmare that had burst upon him earlier that day. He'd never experienced such a terrifying dream in his life. The thought of that bright warrior stirred him though, strangely, deep down. A moth flinging itself at a burning lamp must have a similar fascination with the light. It surely seemed totally real, he thought, but surely it couldn't have been. That light seemed to be the only way out of his despair. What was the last thing the warrior had said? Your people's honour is at stake! The memory struck into the core of who he was.

Honour! His reputation! The man-ring! His relatives' thoughts of him, and the outsiders' words about the Derojans, in the end, were all that really mattered to him. How could anyone hold their head up if honour was lost? How could you live on? Of course, he valued different people's opinion according to who they were. Valin couldn't care much for how little children valued him, or for the opinion of strangers who he'd never meet again. But Valin's father - if he lost his respect, then he'd die. So, he realised, the greater the person was in Valin's eyes, the more Valin was lifted by their respect.

But why did the warrior speak about honour, as if it was all in Valin's hands? Was Valin not honoured, and was Derojan clan not held in high esteem by all? What could he do about it?
He'd usually been a hard worker on whichever farm his father had led them to, and on his long trips to market in Elmara City, learning to fly his uncle's airtruck, he'd earned the respect of his father and uncles, and had tried to stay out of fights. It was a good life, when the people who mattered to you respected you. If it wasn't for Sy, life would be a cloudless sky. Still, the idea of forever ploughing, planting and harvesting lacked a certain vital spark. Menvring... That was Killian's favourite word these days. But menvrings were adventures that came in dreams and stories, not in real life.

"Valin! Hey, Charp, look! There he is! Watcha doin' down there?"

Valin looked up at the boy's shrill voice from overhead. He gathered himself like the shards of a broken pot and tried once more to pull himself to his feet. This time he succeeded, and said, "Killian! Where were you while I was breaking a leg?" He told Killian what had happened. "And stay back from the edge! I don't want you falling down here on top of me!" he ended. He was gritting his teeth against the pain. "Where's Charp?"

The sound of sobbing came down the hole. "Charp's here, now. What - what - how are you goin' to get out?" asked his little brother through his tears.

Valin shook his head in frustration. And there - Charp's puzzled, anxious touch, as a smooth slide of skin over his mind. "There's no way to climb out. My leg's broken. It's too steep. You and Mertyl have to get home and bring someone back here with a rope."

This was too much for the young boy. "I can't!" he wailed. "It's too far!"

It took Valin twenty minutes to calm Killian down and convince him to try the journey. At long last Mertyl joined her cousin and stared down at Valin with eyes like moons. She seemed unable to speak from fear, or astonishment.

"You'll easily find the way together," he called up. "Killian, just imagine I've been shot down by Space Raiders and you have to call the EDF. You'll be home by dark if you start now. Mertyl will be with you - right?" The girl nodded.

Finally, after much encouragement and sobbing flying up and down the dark hole, Mertyl and Killian took their leave and disappeared from the well's mouth. All was silent again, except for Valin's beating heart and ragged breathing. Now he could feel Charp's warm concern lapping against his discomfort, but distantly, and mixed with distaste: the jellycoals disturbed the chaleen. He tried to project a little optimism back again.

He seated himself again slowly, careful not to disturb the broken bone in his lower leg, and began the long wait.

As she hurried down the hillside with Killian close behind, Mertyl's heart churned. Suddenly, from being the distant cousin she wanted to avoid, Valin was a relative in need of her help, and almost like a brother. It was funny: he'd looked almost likeable, down there in that pit, helpless and in pain. But now she could do something to help. Killian might have frozen in panic on his own, but she could lead him back to camp and lead people back up the hill. The problem was that the whole thing might force her and Valin together somehow. Perhaps she'd have a chance to speak her mind to him and make him see that she wasn't for him. She just knew that there was a Mertyl-shaped gap, somewhere in the universe, and she was determined to fill it.

Until now, life had been composed of camp chores, working in the farmers' fields, and play. Just that dream the other night had confused her routine: the blinding light, the figure, and 'Come with us'. Yes, those were some of the words. What was she to make of that? She hadn't got back to sleep until almost dawn. Now, though, her heart was beating with a purpose, and she knew she could succeed. So this is what it's like to be an adult, the thought dawned on her, as her feet flew between rocks and tufts of grass, and Killian's panting breath followed her.

The afternoon dragged endlessly for Valin. Thirst was an enemy that gradually grew in strength. The terrible throbbing in his leg never let up, and below the knee his leg swelled. Through it all, the jellycoals' stench sickened him.

Gradually he realised that the light had changed, or his eyes, and he could make out more detail in the pit. Sure enough, the walls were thickly plastered with jellycoal masses, and something else: the roots of some plant trailed down to the floor of the pit. With a shock he realised that they grew out of the jellycoals. He had never heard that jellycoals had roots. Perhaps they had grown here to seek the disappearing water of the old well.

Looking closer in the dim light at the slim tendrils of the roots at his feet, he convinced himself that he could see movement. He reached out his finger, and felt something small wriggling around. He took one between his fingers and looked carefully. It appeared to be one of Mertyl's violet worms. He couldn't be sure. But he dropped it in disgust. These, too, smelled awful. But after further inspection, it seemed that the worms were actually emerging from the ends of the jellycoal roots.

He shook his head. What could it mean?

It was much later when Charp sent a garbled wave of horror, receding into a blank absence, and he heard footsteps at the mouth of the pit. At least, he hoped they were footsteps. For a long time he called, and watched. Charp had fled, he guessed. From what?

Then a head appeared up there, but not the head of a man. It was much too big for a human, and the horns and massive shovel-like jaws were those of an eripta. Its slitted eyes gazed down at Valin from above its rubbery snout and its nostrils that flared in fury. He felt and heard himself draw in a breath, felt a fist thumping in his chest, and his horror pressed him into the mud. Now it couldn't possibly get any worse. The end had surely come.

The eripta slavered and snarled down at him. He backed against the wall of the pit, sweating and breathing hard, searching with his hands to find a big rock that wasn't there, never taking his eyes from the beast. It was so big, its back as high as a man was tall. It was preparing to leap down on him, but something held it back. Perhaps, Valin thought, it knew that it couldn't get out again if it did jump down. Just possibly, it disliked the jellycoals just as much as Valin did. The eripta pawed at the lip of the hole, snorting sharply, and a hail of loose stones and earth fell on Valin.

This went on for some time, longer than Valin could stand. His untamed, unchecked feelings had exhausted him. Gradually it dawned on him with horror that Killian and Mertyl were in danger, even if Charp had slipped away just in time. In fact, perhaps their bodies already lay nearby. He hadn't heard them cry, but the eripta was fast. He forced himself to stop imagining what could have happened, but he longed to destroy that beast with his own hands, if that would save Killian or Mertyl. He realised that he could never look his father or uncle in the face again if he came home without their children. The shame would cling to him forever. He managed to stand again, swaying, but there was nothing more he could do.

Finally he slumped against the rocky mud, exhausted. "Come on, then, catty," he muttered, "come and get me." He had no strength left to fight, or even to stand. The eripta yowled and roared in response. It was going wild with hunger and frustration.

The only clear thought Valin could form was that jumping into that strange, terrifying dream of golden light would have been preferable to this thirst and pain and helplessness.

Chapter Four : Eskemant

Two men stood silently on a rocky cliff top and surveyed the quiet battlefield. The smells of wood smoke and singed metal mingled with a bitter stench wafting up from the ruined bodies and machines down below. Nothing stirred down there now. One of them, clad in a close-fitting silver suit, leaned on a smoldering steel strut. His young, strong-jawed face had collapsed in exhaustion and he was staring into the distance.

The second man stood straight and relaxed. His face wrinkled in a dozen places as he turned to the younger man. His black, calf-length battle tunic was smeared and torn, and with the toe of one boot he nudged the great, charred hand of some beast which had been severed from its body. Its four claws scraped across the rock until the whole hand tipped and fell over the cliff. "Esk, listen to me as a friend and a warrior of Elha," he said. His deep voice rang with total assurance, as if they'd been doing nothing but sitting back in armchairs for the past hour, instead of fighting for their lives. "This is just another battle, eh? Like breaking the siege of Marach, where we fought tougher odds than this. Like the strike on the Inborl colonies, the first time we engaged the Xurxav in open warfare. Like Ensnade, and the campaign of the White Suns. Each battle was a desperate struggle, but we pulled through.

"The darkness will never overcome the light. We'll pull through again, and regroup. We can deal with the security breach and gather more recruits to fill the gaps. I've been through a dozen worse times, man."

Captain Eskemant nodded, but slowly. It took a great deal of effort or thought to make the smallest movements. He gave his superior officer a haunted look. "Yessir, I know you've seen a few worse moments than this in your career. But for me - the way the straks found their way in to our home 'verse almost undetected, through a clamped and code-locked portal, then multiplied and let in all those - what would you say they were? Two battalions of elite Inborl commandos?" The older man nodded. "Well, sir, to me it seems more like the beginning of the end for the Telarines. Just look at our losses. Almost half of us are gone."

"You lost four of your best, and each one was a close friend. Yes, by the Veil! It shatters you. We live as if our artificial universe were a guarantee of total security. We become used to stepping out of the mainline universe of battle into our haven; used to the feeling of total separation and calm. We like to think we're in control here. But it seems the enemy's gained some ground on us recently." Commander Zystas nodded again, lost in thought, then turned towards the building near which they stood. Eskemant followed. The one-storey house sat at the cliff edge. Its wide landing ramp had been reduced to a stub in the battle; its steel frame had buckled and melted, and the handsome wooden facing had been almost completely burned away. The commander pushed at the door and the whole doorway collapsed inwards with a dull thud. Jagged holes in the roof lit the interior like a scattering of spotlights on a stage. He went on, "This we can rebuild in short order, see? No hassle. The ops centre below is intact. Lieutenant Ertosug saw to that, am I right?"

Eskemant nodded as they picked their way into the ruin. "Yessir, thanks to her, and also to your prompt arrival with Antamol Squadron. Some straks were forming a drilling rig when you came."

"So I see. We must work harder on our strak disruptor. If we can only stop their microbots linking to each other, we may yet win this war. We may be way ahead of them in brane control and gravitech, but their nanomechanics is improving all the time." The commander indicated a large, blackened machine on the floor among the pieces of fallen roof. It was shaped as a tripod with a thick drill head in the centre. What might have been a motor or control unit lay separately, smashed to pieces. Its fine structure was hard to tell among the ashes and debris, but that which was not badly burned seemed to be constructed of something like crystal, as if the whole device was made of tiny flakes or needles, interlocked to make the whole. "When Erisjen landed through the roof and cut it down, it had just started to drill, he said. It was too close."

Then he turned to where the centre of the main room had been. "Let's go down and see how they're getting on." Lying in the centre were roofing boards reduced to charcoal and steel girders, some still hanging from their attachment points at one end. Each man silently raised one hand towards the pile of debris, which showed that each wore a silver ring on one middle finger. First a burned board, then a loose girder began to slide across the floor without any visible help, until with much scraping and rattling the whole pile scattered and shifted, gradually revealing a round metal hatch.

Eskemant lowered his hand first. "I cannot do much of this now, sir," he muttered. "My thoughts are..." He was distracted by an image of his wife's face, and those of their children. So distant. Fading out of reach.

Commander Zystas brought his other hand to clasp his officer's shoulder. "I know," he said. "It's only natural after you've lost so many." Finally the hatch in the floor was clear of wreckage, and the commander lowered his palm. "You might want to check your T-ring downstairs. I often find mine's knocked out of calibration after a big fight like this."


The hatch slid open, to reveal a slim tube descending with neither stairs nor rungs, and the commander stepped in first. He descended quickly but steadily, and the captain followed.
They emerged into a darkened control room, tidy and peaceful, untouched by the battle that had raged to and fro above-ground. Several people sat at consoles nearby, working behind transparent soundproof barriers. One, a woman dressed similarly to the captain, stood and opened her door. Captain Eskemant braced his shoulders and straightened his weary frame in some semblance of strength.

"Commander; Captain," she began crisply. "I've assessed the security breach. Can I file my report directly?"

"Yes, Lieutenant," replied Captain Eskemant. "Go ahead; my link's open."

Lieutenant Ertosug closed her eyes briefly and bowed her head in concentration. The two men received her report into their mindsets and scanned it for a few moments.

The commander nodded once. "It's as you were saying, Captain. It had to be from inside."

A scowl appeared on Captain Eskemant's face, then vanished. "There's no other way they could have got in, sir. We know Drokstrak's labs aren't anywhere near building a useable time-space folder. They must have used our portal. But -" Then he turned to Lieutenant Ertosug with a grim smile. "Thanks, Lieutenant. Go and get some rest. And that's an order." She nodded, reluctantly, and moved off to an alcove furnished with easy chairs and a wall screen.

"But I won't accept that it was one of my people. That we have a - a traitor. Sir, during our last outing we skirmished with a swarm of ankapeeds on the colony starship they'd wrecked. I expect there were some stealthed straks among them that somehow latched onto one of us and made it back through the decontamination checks."

His commander directed a long, penetrating stare at the captain. "You have an inner conflict with this, am I right? Tell me which Telarines survived the battle."

Eskemant sighed. "There's Ertosug, sir. She is so transparently loyal. Her homeworld is under constant pressure from the Inborls. She's always on her own personal mission. It's all I can do to keep her in check. And her family members are either safe or dead.

"Wesht Kulshi is suffering from that untreatable infection the straks put on him. We know they have no cure for it, either, so they couldn't corrupt him, offer him treatment in exchange for intelligence or help. It's really too late to reverse the damage to his body anyway. But you just talk to that guy and his mind is as sharp as a knife. I've never seen him get confused or lose that openness with me. Anyone dealing with the enemy would be struggling inside. He'd clam up on us.

"Aniyan is a windbladder. Enough said.

"Urb has proved himself in many crucial battles. He's done more damage against the enemy than any of us. It wouldn't make sense for him to betray us. And he doesn't have the clearance for the portal anyway, to let the straks in."

The commander nodded, grudgingly. "You know your people well enough. But you didn't mention Ynerog Jau."

Eskemant looked at the commander sharply, and lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper. "But she's a Jau! Sir, you know how the Jau have been against Drokstrak since the beginning, with what happened to their homeworld." He glanced across the room to where Ynerog's trunk and branches stood inside her glass environment chamber.

Zystas sighed and inclined his head to one side. "I know she's a Jau. But Jau are alien. Not just normal alien; she's virtually a sentient tree. We don't really know how they think. She's a mystic; a deep, slow thinker. I don't pretend to understand her type." He puffed out his cheeks. "What about those who died today?"

Eskemant raised his voice. "They all gave their lives in the line of fire. Why would a traitor -"
"I know, Esk. We're just trying to cover all the possibilities. I'll run another background check on all the Telarines, and Aniyan will cross-check our examination of the portal's data log. We'll get to the bottom of it.

"And by the way, that new apprentice you tried to contact during the battle. Try him again. Train him up. His profile looked very promising. I can see why he's been called."

"But sir, he's a hopeless case. Legs turned to jelly the moment I opened the link. And he had an odd symbiotic creature messing up his mind. He was dependent on it."

"Really? Did you check up on the beast?"

"Yessir. It has an extremely sensitive transceiver organ in its snout. Native to Elmarune, but heavily modified by the early settlers many generations ago. Interferes in his natural emotional development."

"Hmm. Monitor his situation. Try him once more, along with the others you located, but he has to leave that symbiont behind. Of his own free will."


They stood in silence for a minute. The hushed activity around them continued. Then Zystas put his hands on Eskemant's shoulders and looked into his face. "You've been through hell today. What I want to know is whether you are prepared to carry on, or if you need a break."

Eskemant frowned. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, and said, "Yessir. I'm fine now. I just get this question, now and again." He paused, and looked into Zystas's eyes. When he spoke, his voice did not waver. "Where's our backup, sir? Why are we so few? The Elder Worlds, I've heard..."

Commander Zystas dropped his hands to his sides so that they slapped his thighs. Eskemant saw the shadow of doubt pass across his face. "Yes. All of us ask the same thing. And behind that question is a deeper question. I ask it often.

"I ask myself: where in all this chaos is Elha?"

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