The room was beautiful in a bare-stone sort of way, but I hardly noticed it at first. My mind was racing over the possibilities and implications of Ryonel’s story.
I didn’t want to stay cooped up while the guys were working on a new spacecraft. I could help them. During our two years with the Global E-fleet, Both Leon and I had worked in “The Pit” on space craft that needed repairs.
Besides, what were the dangers? Like, the actual dangers?
I stopped pacing and stood still beside the window, watching a scene play out below. In the half light of evening, two boys were dragging a young girl of about thirteen years of age toward the outskirts of the city. She struggled half-heartedly, as one who fears the inevitable. Realizing they might be able to see me, backlit in the window, I turned quickly and pulled the metal shutter down over the lantern. It was a glowing blue globe of some sort and I wanted to examine it —later.
With the room entirely dark now, I returned to the window, trying to relocate the scene of violence. A cloaked figure now appeared out of the shadows and offered the girl a cup to drink. At first she refused, but the two boys held her head while the cloaked figured appeared to pour the drink down her throat. She slumped and swayed, appearing drugged or confused. The cloaked figure stepped away and the two boys picked up her sagging body. They proceeded to make their way toward the perimeter of the city, carrying their victim by the feet and shoulders.
It was difficult to see them, and I hurriedly stripped off my backpack and searched through it for a small pair of binoculars. The mask impeded the use of the binoculars, so I took it off and searched through the lenses, trying to spot the small procession again.
They had reached the edge of the city, and stood in the clearing before the Dark Woods. It appeared, through the inadequate lenses, that a field of flowers lay all around the city, like a giant, white ring. There, the senseless girl was dropped and abandoned. The three figures turned away and never looked back.
Footsteps on the stone floor of the hallway caused my already racing heart to leap and stumble. I shoved the mask and binoculars into the open backpack, even as I made myself fall onto the small bed nearby. Then I realized I also held Ryonel’s unopened bundle in my hands. I shoved it hastily under the bed, but there was no time to withdraw my arm before a figure stepped through the doorway. So I let my arm hang limply over the edge and groaned.
“Are you ill?” a young voice asked without a trace of empathy.
“Yeees. . .” I groaned. “I feel awful! What’s wrong with me?”
“I don’t know,” the child answered and abruptly opened the shutter of the lamp, flooding the room with light again.
I opened my eyes to see a little girl of about eleven (and thirty) years old standing beside the bed, gazing at me with mild curiosity. Her light brown hair was tightly bound in two braids and her pale face was without expression. “I was sent to escort you to the Sustenance Hall,” the girl said. “But if you are ill, you don’t have to go.”
“I can’t go,” I moaned. “Please send my br - er - partner to see me. Leon. Please bring Leon to me.”
“I can’t,” the little girl stated flatly. “It’s against the ordinance of no fraternity with the ill.”
“What does that mean?” I moaned. “What am I supposed to do? Die?”
“We return to earth,” the girl responded matter of factly. “If you do not die, you will see the boy Leon when you go to the Sustenance Hall. There is an urn of water near the window. May the gods favor your moment.”
The stout and grim little girl closed the light again, then turned and left the room. I heard her retreating footsteps in the hall and found myself alone in the darkness.
My thoughts returned to the unconscious girl in the field of flowers. I leaped to my feet, grabbed the backpack, and slipped out the door.
Ryonel had turned to go the opposite direction of the Vaer when he had left me, so I instinctively turned that direction. There were many more empty rooms just like mine down the length of the dark hall. Luckily, my backpack contained a flashlight. With this, I found my way to a winding stairwell that went both up and down. Realizing I was on the forty-third floor made me hesitate, but only for a moment. The winding banister was smooth, and although the drop would be deadly, I wrapped myself around it, with my belly against the polished wood, and began to slide.
Round and round. . . and round. I couldn’t have been more than twenty-five floors down when I had to stop and wait for my head to stop spinning. I was afraid the dizzy vertigo would make me fall the wrong direction, so I continued to cling to the banister while I regained my bearings. I must have looked like a mentally handicapped adventurer, dressed in black, wearing a forsheda mask, holding a flashlight in my mouth, and clinging to a banister about 200 feet in the air.
I remembered the victimized girl in the flower field and shook off the wave of humor. A minute later and I was sliding down the last few floors to the Hall of the Gods.
Darkness had fallen, and with it complete silence. Everyone must be “taking sustenance” as Chalice had said. It took me a moment to decide which direction I should go. Then I began to jog through the dark streets toward Solanti’s boundaries.
The silent eeriness of the city made me pause to dig through my backpack for the stun gun Leon had shoved into the front pocket. Had the entire city emptied itself to go somewhere else for the evening meal? Where was everyone?
There were rows and rows of apartment-like dwellings, all appearing ancient and abandoned long ago. The further I got from the center of the city, the more vines and foliage was growing up through the streets and climbing the walls. The city of Solanti was the biggest and most beautiful ghost town I had ever seen.
The stones were pale gray granite or white marble, and many were so large I could not imagine the children of Solanti cutting or moving them, even with the heavy equipment we had on Earth. What civilization had built this place and where had they gone?
Something skittered and snarled in the darkness as I neared the perimeter. Instinctively I jumped into a defensive stance, pointing the stun gun at the deep shadows. But the skittering sound of clawed feet disappeared into the distance, and I continued onward. I must be close now.
I began to run faster, just because my nerves were on edge. If something happened to me out here, Leon would probably never know. Around a curve in the road I came to a sudden stop before a vast field of white Calla lilies. They were in full bloom, and in the dim light of Nedan’s two moons, I could not see where the field ended and the Dark Woods began.
Then, as my labored breathing calmed, I heard the sound of someone crying.
I found a small boy kneeling beside the inert form of the girl I had observed from my window. He could not have been more than six years old. When he saw me coming through the flowers, he did not recognize me as human and cried out in terror. Swiftly, I pulled off the mask, and knelt down to make myself smaller.
“Hush,” I whispered softly, “I will not hurt you. This is only a mask. . .” I turned the object over a few times and rapped on the blast shield with my fingers. He looked back down at the girl and began to cry again.
“Madia. . . Madia. . .” He sobbed. His face was as white as the lilies. I took the girl’s hand in mine, and felt for her pulse. It was weak, but still there. She looked around thirteen and twenty-five years old at the same time.
I felt a wave of nausea, and reached for my mask. Something was wrong here. The boy vomited and then sat down listlessly next to the girl. They were little and frail, but I couldn’t carry them both.
The mask was too big for the little boy, so I tore off a piece of the girl’s robe and wrapped it around his face. I did the same for the girl, then I picked her up and slung her over my shoulder.
“Come!” I ordered the little boy, almost harshly, to shake him out of his listlessness. He stood up and followed me with surprising motivation.
Back through the streets we went, slowly this time, as I carried the unconscious body of the girl.
“My name is Lani,” I told the little boy as we plodded along. “What’s your name?”
“Danteres,” the boy answered through the ragged scarf. “Madia is my Care-sister. She could not bear.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, feeling the girl stir on my shoulder.
“She could not bear,” the boy repeated. “So the Marchempor gave her to the gods.”
“She’s only a child,” I protested.
“No,” Danteres shook his head and stated with authority: “She has been a woman for a whole star cycle. She could not bear. The Marchempor will be angry with you for stealing her from the gods. He will punish you. He might give you to the gods too.”
“Your Marchempor can go to hell.” I said through gritted teeth. My shoulder was aching like I’d been shot with a stun gun.
“Put me down!” the girl spoke suddenly. “Let me stand.”
“Gladly,” I said and put her down. The girl staggered on her feet and both I and Danteres grabbed her by an arm. She was petite, but strong, with curly red hair and bright blue eyes that were still clouded with whatever drug had been poured down her throat.
“You are Lani,” the girl said with slightly slurred speech. “I saw you in the Hall of the Gods before evening prayers. You should not have saved me.”
“You’re welcome,” I said wearily. “And now I’m going back to my room. Are you coming?”
She pulled away and staggered onward holding the little boy’s hand. I watched their progress for a moment, then shrugged and went on alone.
The light of Nedan’s moons was more than adequate now that they had risen above the cityscape. We found our way without any trouble.
I was very tired, but also very glad to be walking on solid ground. Only a few hours ago we were lost in space without hope of ever seeing another human again. That thought made me pause and smile encouragingly at the two kids tagging along behind. They looked at each other pensively, and then made some effort to catch up and walk along beside me. Neither spoke until we reached the looming dark Hall of the Gods again.
We stopped to catch our breath near the raised dais beneath the building.
“What am I going to do?” Madia asked, a bit clearer-headed than she had been before.
“What do you want to do?” I asked.
I looked up at the statue of the woman named Life, holding the twin boys. Moonlight fell on her face, showing the joy in her expression as she looked down at her babies. From where we stood, I realized the lizard-wrestling man was looking at the woman with the twins. She and her babies were the object of his passion.
“I want to carve statues,” Madia said fiercely, as though in protest. “And make paintings.”
I glanced at her in surprise. She was not looking at the statue of Life. She was looking at Danteres, who stood with one foot resting against the stone base and his hands on his hips as he looked up into the face of the Lady of Life. His posture was that of a thoughtful little hero.
“But there isn’t time,” Madia whispered, her fierceness fading. “We are only granted a moment.”
“There IS time.” I asserted, and my voice sounded loud in the quiet darkness. “I don’t know how you lost it, or who stole it from you. But there is time. Out there. . . away from this. . . this perspective, this religion, this. . . early death you’re all so committed to. There is time for all of it.”
The words echoed in my own mind, as though they had come from somewhere outside of me. They decried my own way, chosen or forced, and warned me to walk a higher path.
Madia’s head tilted inquiringly, and Danteres looked at me with the same contemplative expression he had bestowed on the statue.
A moment of silence ensued. Then, “Take me there,” he ordered simply with a wave of his little arm. “I have decided not to be the next Marchempor. I would rather go where there is time to paint.”