The night flew by quickly as we began to test and tweak all The Aero’s functions. The mercury power source had to be spun up and that took several hours .
We were so absorbed in our work, I was surprised when Ryonel told us sunrise was nearing and that we needed to hurry back to the city before the bell. As we began to put away the tools, he told us his plan.
The guys would work on The Aero one more night and make sure she was flight ready. Then Leon and the boys would fly The Aero to the Starport at dawn that morning. Ryonel would come to help me get the children and the Care-sisters ready.
Ryonel told me there was a Heavy Vaer that would lift us all at once. It was made for moving equipment up and down from the ground to the Starport.
The Heavy Vaer could be hot-wired just as Madia had done to the Vaer in our building. But only once. As soon as we got there, our escape would be known, so we would have to act quickly, and all at once. Anything we wanted to take with us would have to be carried.
A terrified scream interrupted our plans, and all three of us rushed down the loading ramp to find Jase and Telson shooting at a fallen tree trunk. I hesitated in confusion, trying to understand what I was looking at. Then I saw human legs sticking out one end of the tree trunk, and a large yellow eye looking at us. It was a snake! A snake the size of a fallen tree, with Naero in it’s mouth.
The snake reared up in pain, it’s mouth and throat moving as it tried to swallow, or possibly eject, the creature in it’s jaws. A massive body and tail lashed around and narrowly missed The Aero.
Ryonel and Leon leaped and rolled back onto their feet as the snake’s tail passed underneath them. Telson was thrown thirty feet and lay on his back, unmoving.
My reason returned to me in a rush and I pulled my stun gun and ran toward the creature’s head, trying to keep one eye out for the lashing tail. I shot right into the snake’s face, repeatedly, and he jittered with the electric current.
From the corner of my vision I saw Ryonel running toward the writhing serpent. He made a flying leap and landed astride it’s neck. Leon leaped over the whipping tail again and ran toward the creature’s mouth. He grabbed Naero’s legs and began to pull.
Just as Leon fell away with Naero, Ryonel shot repeatedly straight down into the snake’s skull with what appeared to be an old Glock. Almost immediately, it fell limp beneath him.
Jase was kneeling beside Telson at some distance from The Aero, and the fallen boy seemed to be recovering from having his breath knocked out.
I ran to Leon, who was kneeling beside Naero, checking his pulse. There was blood on his face, a viscous layer of fluid all over his upper body, and a machete-like knife was still clenched in his fist. His mask had come off inside of the snake. Naero opened his eyes and took a shaky breath.
“I - I can’t feel my legs,” he said with dawning horror.
I grimaced and admitted, “Uh, that’s probably my fault. You should get feeling back into your legs here in about. . . fifteen minutes. Sorry about that.”
Leon laughed one brief burst of relief, and continued to check Naero out. The blood on his head was not his own, but that of the snake. It appeared that Naero had been using the machete inside the snake.
“We’ve got to go,” Ryonel said from behind us. His face was strained with tension. “There’s no time. We’re already late. I’ll carry him.” The light of dawn had flooded our little clearing with a misty shimmer.
Ryonel grabbed Naero by the front of his tunic, lifted him up and slung him over his shoulder.
“Sorry, my friend. Hang in there.”
“It’s fine,” Naero mumbled, “just go. There’s too much at stake.”
We began to run back the way we had come. Ryonel ran first, his gun in one hand, his other holding Naero’s thin body over his shoulder. Leon was last, coming along after he had closed The Aero’s loading ramp.
As we ran through the dawning light of the jungle, I heard birds singing for the first time. And the hum of a few insects. We startled a lizard the size of a dog, which hissed at us and ran away. A large mammoth-like elephant passed by in the distance, heading away from Solanti as fast as it could maneuver through the thick woods. Finally I could see a break in the trees ahead. It was the lily field. And beyond it, the sun was rising.
Would we be discovered? My heart began to race faster than our pace warranted.
As we broke into the open and ran through the knee-deep field of Calla lilies, the Bell of the Ancients began to toll. Without hesitation, Ryonel ripped off his mask and handed it around himself to Naero. “Put it on!” he barked and continued to run.
The sound of the Bell was distant and without conscious intention I counted the seconds before the physical wave of resonance reached us, “one, two, thre—“ Whoosh.The lilies bowed and gave up a great cloud of pollen. The birds and the insects were gone and all was silent.
We broke out of the lilies and onto the edge of the city. Ryonel began to cough and had to stop. Leon took Naero from him, but Naero shoved Leon away and staggered to one side.
“I can do it now,” he insisted. “Just give me a moment. . . You guys go! Go!”
Ryonel took off his woven shirt and wrapped it around his face, while waving at us impatiently to go on without him. Angry red scars laced his bare back and shoulders. He had been beaten badly with a whip and left uncared for as he healed.
Everyone hesitated, looking at each other with desperate expressions, afraid to part, and afraid not to.
“Run! Get back to your rooms!” Ryonel gasped when he stopped coughing. He looked at Leon and me. “I will find you. Run!”
The citizens of Solanti were bowed down in the Gardens of Reverence, murmuring their prayers, when I slipped around one of the great pillars that decorated and upheld the Hall of the Gods.
I began to climb the stairs as fast as I could, but I had already been running for twenty minutes. My breath came in ragged sobs as I past the nineteenth floor, already over two hundred steps into the game.
By the time I reached the thirtieth floor I was so light-headed I had to stop or pass out and fall back down. It was there, catching my breath on the thirtieth floor, that Madia found me.
She was running down the steps, crying.
“Lani - oh Lani! You must hurry. They’ll be back!”
I wanted to answer her, but I had literally no breath left with which to form words. I lay across the top step and heaved for breath.
“Someone came before the bell. . . I didn’t know what to do. So I wrapped myself in your blanket, on your bed, and refused to answer them. I think it was Jennasi, Bartroles favorite little informer. She thought I was you and kept talking about how you should get ready to go with the Marchempor, and that sustenance was being brought to you. Oh, Lani, hurry. You must get back to your room!”
I pulled myself up on the banister and began to climb one step at a time. Those last thirteen floors were the hardest journey I ever made physically. I pulled the mask off and sucked deep breaths of air, climbing as fast as I could.
38, 39, 40, 41, 42. . . 43. Madia had gone ahead and was watching the Vaer from a safe distance. When I staggered down the hall toward her, she nodded that the way was clear. I wondered if Leon had made it back before he was missed, and what if he hadn’t? Curse that stairwell!
There was no pretense in the way I collapsed on the bed and pulled the covers over myself. Madia quickly put my mask away, pulled off my boots and stowed the backpack away under the bed. Then she fled for the safety of her own room, even as we heard an alarm sound and angry shouting outside the window.
It took a few more minutes for Bartroles and a group of young soldiers to reach my room. By then I had mostly quieted my breathing, but was experiencing a strong sense of vertigo from climbing the steps so rapidly. In reaction to my strenuous effort, now my body felt like it was falling downward, sinking into the bed. I lay on the thin mattress, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the spinning and falling sensation to stop. If I’d had anything in my stomach, it would have come out, right then and there.
“Stop!” I heard Bartroles command. He left his teenage soldiers at the door, and stood over me with a perplexed look.
“Jennasi said you would not answer her,” he accused. My eyes slowly found his face in the scene still spinning above me.
“I. . . feel. . . weird. . .” I said honestly.
“Your face is very red,” Bartroles admitted. “Yesterday it was white.” His voice sounded genuinely concerned, but he changed abruptly and swirled his robe around in anger.
“Leon is missing,” he said, watching me with dark suspicion. “Have you seen him?”
“Leon?” I said weakly. “Is he here?”
Bartroles sighed with impatience and frustration. “No, he’s missing.”
“Working on our ship?” I asked. “He needs to repair it. Did you give him what he needs? So kind of you.”
The Marchempor looked at me with sudden realization and turned sharply to speak to his soldiers. They wore leather armor over the simple linen robe of Solanti and were armed with what appeared to be a strange mix of very ancient and ornate swords, and simple, crudely made billy clubs.
“Observe the Vaer logs and the Starport. . .” Bartroles began. “And bring me Ryonel —“
Running footsteps echoed in the hall, and we all awaited the messenger.
“Your Excellence, we found him. . .” announced yet another teenage boy dressed in a common robe.
“Where?” the Marchempor demanded impatiently.
“Asleep in the ablution block, in one of the pools. He said he had a fever and needed to cool down. What’s a fever?” The boy added this question impertinently at the end of his answer, and Bartroles waved a disagreeable backhand at him in return. The boy hung his head and trotted away.
Then the Marchempor spoke quietly to the soldiers in the hall. But I heard enough of his words to know he was tasking them to keep an unrelenting eye on Leon from now on. This was dismaying news to say the least.
“Well, your illness is similar, I suppose,” the ruler of Solanti admitted, when the soldiers were gone. “Although your color is not as violent as it was a few minutes ago. Do you feel like taking sustenance?”
The morning light was not kind to Bartroles. I noticed for the first time that his hands trembled and he had developed a periodic twitch beneath one sagging eyelid. A stroke? He was seventeen and eighty years old at the same time.
Nevertheless, his eyes travelled over me lustfully. I keenly felt the absence of his armed guards. Was I safer with, or without, their presence?
“I want to see Leon,” I said instinctively, curling up into a fetal position on the bed. “I need to know he’s okay.”
“Do you love him?” Bartroles asked with the manner of an interrogator.
“It is unfortunate he is so ill,” he said with smiling malice. “He might not live.”
I wanted to knock him down and crack his head on the stone floor. I was probably stronger than him. Leon would be safe then. I would be safe. Ryonel’s back would feel better. Madia would not have to hide in fear for her life. In fact, all of Solanti might celebrate if their cruel and decrepit leader was dead. I sat up on the bed.
The Marchempor of Alomine stepped backward and bumped into the little table holding the now-empty vase. It wobbled, fell, and broke.
“You need another day to recover,” he said hurriedly. “And I am occupied today. Tomorrow I will show you my kingdom.”
Then he swept out of the room and walked rapidly away.