It was necessary for Leon and I to go to different quarters, but now that I was resigned to the fact we couldn’t leave immediately, my focus was on how best to survive our current circumstances. We needed to appear unsuspicious and harmless. So I returned Leon’s anxious glance with a calm nod, and turned to follow Chalice alone through the stone arches and halls, while he was led by a talkative boy named Bravon in another direction.
If the architecture was amazing at 3000 feet above ground, it was truly breathtaking up close.
Chalice led me between massive pillars and sculptures, her leather slippers whispering softly on the stone paths as she spoke quietly about the customs of her people.
“Solanti is very peaceful and beautiful,” she said, gesturing outward toward a meticulously cared for garden area with one slender arm. We paused momentarily, and I knew she was giving me time to fully appreciate my surroundings.
The late afternoon sun illuminated a fountain which sprang up in the midst of a detailed group of statues of five young women in animated motion, laughing, splashing one another and apparently washing their laundry in the fountain of water. I turned slowly, in counter-clock-wise motion, looking beyond the fountain and down the main street. Even in the low-level light, things didn’t appear so well-kept a short distance away.
“This is your building,” Chalice said, with veiled haste, directing my attention back to the immediate surroundings.
She gestured inward at the open foundational floor of an enormous building. We ascended a few steps and entered the semi-shadowed interior of a great, open hall.
Great pillars of marble at regular intervals upheld an exquisitely carved ceiling. Around a raised central dais, several carvings of fully mature men and women were poised in animated, but frozen, motion. There was even one of an old man, with a beard down to his waist, wrestling what appeared to be a giant lizard in the agony of death. The man was looking away from the lizard at something, or someone, with a look of fierce protectiveness so believable, I wanted to stand on tiptoe and feel the reassurance of his gaze.
“These are the gods,” Chalice explained reverently, as we passed an eight-foot-tall, marble carving of a woman holding twin boys in her arms. “They came to Nedan when it was wild and dangerous and made a safe world for the Solanti people. Her name is Life. Her twins gave us the great gift and hung it on high to remind us of their protection.”
Chalice turned and pointed across the manicured gardens at a distant tower. Some 120 feet in the air hung a great brass bell that must have been as large as our spaceship. How had such a massive thing been forged? Or carried?
Beyond, and all around the bell lay the city of Solanti. And what lay beyond the city walls, I wondered?
“What’s out there?” I asked. Chalice shuddered and winced.
“The monsters. The bell protects us from them. It carries our prayers to the gods, and they protect us from the terrors of the Dark Wood.”
“Has anyone ever gone out there?”
“He did,” Chalice said, and pointed to the marble statue of the man wrestling the lizard. “He is Courage, the god of safety. He answers the call of the bell and fights on our behalf.”
“Have you seen him?” I asked, confused over what part of her narrative she had experienced and what might be superstition.
“Oh, no,” Chalice smiled. “No, he left long ago. They are The Ancients, The Elders of Nedan.” With another sweep of her arm she included all the great statues in the hall.
We began to walk on, but soon I paused before the statue of a young warrior who bore a child upon his shoulders. The man’s face was turned upward, looking into the face of the child who bent down to look back at him. Both were laughing and their expressions were so detailed they almost seemed alive. They were like photographs in stone. None of the children who had met us on the Starport could have carved such pieces of artwork. Who then, could have built the enormous marble halls and palaces?
“Are you are the descendants of these Elders?” I asked Chalice, as she waited in quiet patience for me.
“Oh, my!” She exclaimed, clearly shocked. “Why would you think that?”
“Well, where did you come from, if not from The Ancients? You are human, they look human. . .”
The smile left Chalice’s eyes, and she stared at me with a vague air of hostility. The fine wrinkles around her eyes contradicted the youthful blue of her gaze.
“The gods are divine,” she asserted with authority. “They came from out there, somewhere. They are immortal, and powerful. Someday they will return and save us from. . . from. . .” her voice trailed off and she looked around the darkening hall with anxiety.
“Then where did you come from?” I asked again. “And who made all of this. . .” I stepped into a low-angle ray of light and gestured out toward the great stone city of Solanti.
“Our ancestors made all of this,” she answered with a brittle smile. “They built until there was no more need, and so there would be room for future generations. They made the most of their moment so that we can make the most of ours.”
“And where did you come from?” I persisted, reminding her of my first question.
She hesitated, appearing to dread her own answer. Then her head lifted and she said emphatically, “From the stars, of course. Just like you.”
“Like, from planet Earth?” I looked out and up at the sky of Nedan. It was a deeper, darker blue than our own, due to the thicker atmosphere.
“I — I don’t know,” she stammered, and held her large belly protectively.
“You don’t know?” I asked. I heard Leon’s voice in my head, telling me to “chill already.”
“We don’t remember.” Chalice admitted at last. “I mean, those of us living now—we don’t remember where we came from.”
“Do you know where the Elders came—,” I started to ask when Chalice interrupted me with a decided shake of her head.
“You can ask Marchempor Bartroles all of your questions tomorrow. He will tell you what you should know.”
She began to walk again, with urgency in her step. Her voice changed and became brisk and loud, “It’s time for prayers. Would you like to join me? If you prefer to go to your room, I’m sure no one will mind. . . this once.”
“Oh, well thanks. I—“
Assuming my choice, and not waiting for my answer, she pressed a brass panel and the stone wall in front of us opened to reveal another Vaer. “Your room is on level forty-three, overlooking the Gardens of Reverence. Bartroles deemed it so. Be sure to thank him. Someone will come to attend you for the Even Sustenance.”
With that, Chalice turned away with a rustle of her flowing robe, and was gone. I wondered if she was running away from our conversation, the darkening hall, or if she was truly in a hurry to go pray.
She never looked back, so I stepped into the Vaer, and found the number I was looking for on the inside wall.
Following an impulse, my hand wandered higher on the brass panel and I pressed the top number: 112. If every floor had ceilings as high as the first one, the top floor would be over a thousand feet in the air; a literal sky scraper of white marble.
The Vaer rose from level to level, and I could see through the outward facing glass panel the gardens surrounding the bell, the white stone city of Solanti, and then a large field of pale flowers between the city and the Dark Wood. It all looked much smaller than it had at ground level. My eyes strained to see into the Dark Wood, searching for a movement or sign of anything dreadful.
When the Vaer stopped, I turned expectantly toward the door, but it did not open. Instead, a holographic face of a boy appeared, looking at me questioningly.
“Yes?” he enquired.
“Uh, is this level 43?” I asked, playing dumb. His expression cleared and he smiled condescendingly.
“No, you were mistaken. I will send the Vaer to level 43 for you.”
“Oh, thank you.”
“You are most welcome,” he said and his hologram disappeared.
I felt the tingle of fear. Leaving here might not be as easy as I had hoped. What was on level 112? Was the Starport guarded?
Through the glass I saw the small figures of people below gathered in the gardens around the bell tower. The sun had just set below the horizon, casting a golden hue on the white stone buildings and the bell tower. Hundreds of children knelt in the Gardens of Reverence around the bell, but the crowd seemed quite small in comparison to the size of the city.
Suddenly the bell began to toll. At first I could only see it move, then a wave of resonance spread around the bell as though the sound were a stone in a body of water. The plants and trees swayed and the children fell on their faces as if physically pressed downward.
Then the wave hit the Vaer and the whole building seemed to vibrate and resonate under the influence of the bell. I could even feel the resonance inside my own body, causing my heart to beat faster. I reached deeper for a breath to fill my lungs and push back against the wave of sound that shook my entire frame. It was both wonderful and terrible at once.
Lost in the resounding vibration, I did not hear the Vaer door open behind me, and was caught off guard when a hand closed around my arm and pulled me backward into the dark interior of the hall.
“Shhh. . . the Vaer’s are monitored—” a voice whispered in my ear.
Instinctively, I knew the whisperer was a man, and my nerves were already on edge to say the least. I was alone, on a strange and dangerous planet. I didn’t hesitate. I used his own strength pulling me toward him, and pivoted on one heel, throwing all my weight into a punch right into my attacker’s solar plexus.
He flailed like a windmill, gasping for air and fell backward onto the stone floor. In an instant he was up again, crouching defensively at a distance of twelve feet.
I could not see his face and realized suddenly that he was wearing a mask with filters, not unlike Earth’s old forsheda A4 military issue. Shaggy black hair hung down around the mask. His tall, wiry figure told me this was no aging child of Solanti. From his left hand dangled another mask.
We surveyed each other guardedly and after a moment I heard him laugh. It began low in his throat, but grew until it sounded like the laugh of a madman. His wary stance relaxed and he held out the mask at arm’s length toward me.
“Put it on,” he said through the hepa filters. “I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here to help.”
I did not reach for the mask or change my defensive posture.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“My name is Ryonel. Your brother Leon told me where to find you. I brought him a mask too. Put it on. The bell has rung, and the toxin waves are rising. Put it on!”
This last command was nearly shouted with paranoid frustration. He looked and sounded like a madman. But he was older than all the children gathered around the bell, so perhaps sanity isn’t always what it’s billed to be. I took the mask.
Then he began to laugh again, just a chuckle randomly through his mask while I adjusted mine to fit properly.
“Why are you laughing?” I asked irritably.
“Nervous, I guess. I probably sound crazy. I probably am a little crazy.”
I stepped away again and paced warily, trying to see his eyes through the mask.
“I won’t hurt you,” he said again, this time his voice was quiet and pleading. “I just have waited so long. . . and I almost gave up hope. Your ship gave me everything I need to finish The Aero—”
“No!” I interrupted harshly, rushing forward to grab him by the front of his cloak. “You will NOT touch our ship.”
Up close, I could see his eyes through the blast shield of his mask. They were green, honest, and young. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-three years old. He stared back at me in silence, and then spoke gently,
“They had your ship towed off the edge of the Starport before the bell was rung.”
With his words, my heart dropped and hit the stone floor with an echo that shook me more than the ring of the bell. My arms hung limply at my sides. We were doomed.
“But, before they took it, I got everything I need to finish The Aero.” Ryonel’s voice was sympathetic and elated at once. He held out his right hand, and in it he held the photo I had taped to the navigation screen almost two years ago. I looked down at it, trying to think through my horror over losing the Sparrow Hawk.
Mom, Dad, and Timothy. All that Leon and I had left of them. My hand trembled a little as I took it, and he must have noticed.
“It’s going to be okay,” Ryonel said softly. His own hands were scratched and blackened with lithium grease like a fleet mechanic. It was those dirty, beat-up hands that broke through my despair. I could see the effort in the grease-lined scratches.
“Where is Leon?” I asked, after a moment of awkward silence. The question seemed to flip a switch in Ryonel’s brain.
“Leon!” he exclaimed. “I’m supposed to tell you. . . no time! Listen, I have to talk very fast. . . let’s go —“
He grabbed my arm and began walking rapidly through the halls, past doorway after doorway. Many of the wooden doors hung askew with age and decay. All of the rooms we passed were empty and silent. Did anyone else live up here?
“Leon and I are going to finish The Aero at night. I have ways through the city. . . secret ways. Your brother is a real pilot! He knows so much! With his help we will be able to finish the￼ship in a matter of days and fly out of here! But you have to cover for us. And you can’t go down to the bell. Leon says he won’t help me if you are in danger.”
“How am I in danger?” I asked, reaching up to touch the mask. “What is the toxin?”
“It’s - I - the bell - I think - I don’t know,” Ryonel said with some exasperation. “But the people who live and work on ground level get sick and die soonest. And the bell has something to do with it. I don’t know what. Maybe it’s a resonance. Maybe it’s a toxin caused by resonance. . .”
“You don’t know.”
“No. But I’m really old. And I have lived away from the bell and refused to worship it my whole life.”
The inflection of his voice reminded me that he must think of himself as an old man, having out-lived all of his relatives and peers.
“Is Leon safe?” I asked, pausing suddenly in the hallway. “Will you keep him safe?”
“Leon!” Ryonel exclaimed again and took my arm to urge me on. “Yes, yes. . . you— you have to pretend like you’re sick. Like you’re too sick to go down to the Sustenance Hall. Stay in your room. Wear the mask when no one is watching. You might be above the toxins here. But just in case, Leon said you should wear it when no one is watching.”
I got the impression Ryonel was slinging around Leon’s name to get me to cooperate. He couldn’t have had more than half an hour to talk to him. How were they suddenly best of buddies?
“When will I see Leon?” I asked.
“You can’t see him! He has to stay away from you to keep them from being suspicious.”
“No.” I stopped abruptly again. “I’m not okay with that. I need to know this is Leon’s plan. I don’t know you. I have no reason to trust you.”
We had reached the room prepared for me and stood in front of the door. It was identified by the blue glow of a lantern shining out into the hallway. The entire floor seemed empty. I had been put away, away from my brother, away from anyone who could answer my questions —except this half-crazy man, Ryonel.
Ryonel looked at me silently. He seemed very stressed and at a loss. His shoulders twisted in anxiety, and he shifted from foot to foot like a wild animal trying to decide whether to stay or to run.
“She. . . she said it was only a matter of time before others came. And I, I was supposed to be the next Marchempor. If they would have followed me, we could have destroyed the bell and defended the city. But my dad said she was crazy and told them not to listen to her and he chose someone else to take his place. . . and when I went down to talk to them they tied me to the bell tower and beat me until I couldn’t—I didn’t—I don’t remember— and I thought maybe I could— maybe—Leon—”
His voice trailed away as he struggled to resolve a dark memory and reach for the hope he thought our arrival might offer. It was apparent Ryonel had taken abuse at the hands the Solanti people.
I sighed. If Ryonel had wanted to hurt me, he would have tried it already. There was no point in distressing him. If I needed Leon, I would go find him, or he would find me.
I reached out and touched Ryonel’s shoulder with my right fist and smiled.
“It’s okay, Ryonel. I believe you. Thanks for letting me know what’s going on. Tell Leon not to worry about me. Tell him to stay safe. And you - you make sure he’s safe for me, okay?”
Ryonel’s whole frame seemed to “ping” like a bowstring released from tension. He grabbed me by the upper arms and then released me instantly, as though afraid I might punch him again, and exclaimed,
“Thank you, Lani! Thank you! You won’t be sorry. You’ll see. Me and Leon are gonna get us out of here. I’ll keep him safe. I’ll - I’ll - I can’t promise, because promises don’t have any power. . .”
I smiled and found myself trusting him in spite of his oddities. There was no guile in this man. He might not have all his marbles, but he wasn’t a liar.
I took the bundle he offered me, and walked into my room. When I turned around to wish him luck, he was gone.