Madia snuck through the door only seconds later, imitating Bartroles walk with her small head high in the air and her chin stuck out like a snowplow. We were still laughing when a hand on the door latch scared us both. It was too late to hide.
“Leon!” I cried as soon as his tousled head peeked around the door. I leaped past Madia and grabbed my brother around the neck, happier to see him than I could ever remember. He laughed and hugged me back, then held me at arm’s length to look at me.
“Lani, you really have been ill. . . or have you?” he said, alarmed at first, and then suspicious.
“No. No, it’s just ink from a pen and vitamin C powder. I have so much I need to tell you and so much I need to ask too—“ I started.
“Same here,” Leon said hurriedly, “But we’ll have to catch up later. There’s too much to do. You’ve gotta remind me where to find the wiring for the landing gear in an old 370 Aero LC.”
“Same place landing gear wiring is kept in any of the late ’20’s Aerolite cargo carriers.” I said with a grin.
“Come on!” Leon exclaimed, putting me in a playful headlock. I stood on his toes and elbowed him in the ribs. A burst of laughter distracted us.
At that point we both noticed Ryonel and Madia watching us with fascination. Ryonel was laughing his crazy-but-contagious laugh. I hadn’t even seen him slip into the room.
“Hey - who’s this?” Leon asked with veiled caution, as he let go of me and nodded in Madia’s direction.
“Oh, sorry. This is Madia, she’s a friend - like a real friend. And she and I have a plan that we need to discuss with you guys.”
Leon and Ryonel looked wary to say the least, so I kept talking. “I found her in the lilies on the edge of town. Bartroles had left her out there to die because she’s been teaching the children how to read.”
“That’s awesome!” Ryonel exclaimed with a surprisingly American accent. He looked genuinely impressed and delighted. Madia blushed.
“Wait. What were you doing out there?” Leon growled at me. “Never mind, tell me about the landing gear wiring.”
“Take me with you tonight. Please.” I begged. “I can help. Really. And no one will look for me before morning. Then I can tell you everything that’s going on and you can tell me everything you’re planning too. It’s dangerous for us to not know everything we can.”
Leon looked hesitant and glanced at Ryonel questioningly. Ryonel frowned and appeared dubious.
“What? Is it like Jurassic Park out there?” I asked with my hands on my hips in defiance.
“Actually, no.” Leon admitted. “It’s like a Louisiana bayou, times two. The critters aren’t crazy, just big and dangerous. One of us has to stay on guard.”
“So, I can fix the wiring while you guard me, and we can talk and plan. Unless you’ve got an extra hour to spare right now.”
Ryonel smiled, but shook his head “no” and Leon sighed.
“Okay,” he said. “Bring your stun gun. Have you eaten? We brought some food.”
“I’m good for now,” I assured him, and sprang into action. I tied my hair in a knot, put on my jacket, checked the stun gun to make sure it was loaded, and pulled on my backpack.
Madia watched me with wide eyes. “Be careful, Lani,” she whispered. “You must come back.”
“I will,” I said, and hugged her briefly. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back before the morning bell.”
As though on cue, the bell began to toll, and we all cringed. Ryonel put on his mask and looked at me with a command in his glance. I put on my mask and so did Leon. Ryonel took off a bag he was wearing and looked through it until he found a small mask, less impressive, but more than nothing. This, he gave to Madia and she meekly put it on.
“We’ll be back before the light,” Ryonel told Madia.
We left her standing forlornly in my room, and hurried down the hall toward the stairwell.
“Now what is your secret way of getting up and down?” I asked Ryonel as we stood looking down the ominous stairwell.
Leon answered me as he demonstrated, “Slide down. Climb up.”
“Oh, my gosh. For real? That’s the big secret?” I groaned, and wrapped myself around the smooth banister. Ryonel laughed behind his mask.
“You are so much alike, and yet so different,” he said. “Like water and steam.”
“Peas and carrots,” Leon replied as he began to slide. “That’s what Mom used to say.”
“I like water and steam better,” I retorted through clenched teeth. Sliding down forty-three floors of banisters was not my idea of fun.
Leon was ahead of me and Ryonel was last. It wasn’t until we reached the ground level that I realized Ryonel had clipped a carabiner to the back of my belt, which attached me to him by a nylon cord. If I had fallen he would have either caught me or fallen as well. I met his apologetic glance through the blast shield of his mask and rolled my eyes. He laughed quietly and unhooked the cord.
“I saved this stuff from the ship my grandmother arrived in,” he said. “Isn’t it odd to think I’m from Earth too? I mean, like — half Earthling.”
“Half Spanish, too,” Leon added. “Did your mother teach you any Spanish, Ryon? Hablas Espanol?”
“What?” Ryonel looked confused.
“Yeah, probably not,” Leon said. “Never mind, here we go. . .”
The sun had set and the Hall of the Gods lay in deep shadow all around us. The great statue of the Lady of Life and the Twin Heroes seemed to watch us slip past, and if they had any spiritual vibe at all, it was one of wishing us well.
The route we took out of the city of Solanti was less obvious than the path I had taken to find Madia the night before. Nevertheless, we ended up on the edge of the same enormous field of lilies. A haze of pollen shimmered just above the field, like a halo, in the first rays of the double moonlight.
“We never take the same route twice,” Ryonel said as he paused and looked around with nervous expectation. I nearly jumped out of my skin when three more figures stepped out of the shadows of the building behind us.
“Easy,” Leon said as I pointed my stun gun at the nearest figure and fell into a defensive stance. “They are friends.”
“Lani,” Ryonel said, gesturing toward me with a tilt of his head, “meet Jase, Naero, and Telson. I found them the same place you found Madia, about a year ago. They were given to the gods for insurrection against Bartroles.”
“Madia?” Jase interrupted. “Madia was given to the gods? Is she —“
“She’s safe,” I said. The three boys looked around Madia’s age. Somewhere between thirteen and thirty. They showed an obvious devotion to Ryonel. It seemed that all was not peace and unity in Solanti. Divisions had existed before Leon and I had arrived.
“Follow me,” Ryonel spoke as he turned and began to run through the field of Calla lilies. We followed him single file. It felt good to run on solid ground again. For over a year, all of our exercise had been in the E-Fleet gym and pool.
We crossed the lily field without incident and entered the Dark Wood. Ryonel carried a light-ball such as Bartroles’ had the night before. Both Leon and I had infrared goggles, but could not wear them and the mask at the same time. So we followed Ryonel’s light.
The jungle-like wood was so silent it felt creepy to me. No bugs or frogs were singing. No breath of wind stirred. My own breathing inside of the mask seemed like a deafening roar in comparison.
At intervals Ryonel stopped, as if to listen or find his bearings. He often looked at the sky, and the tree coverage above.
During one of Ryonel’s pauses, I asked Leon, “Is it always this silent out here?”
“It gets noisier toward morning,” he answered.
“Everything living runs from the bell,” Ryonel explained. “When it begins to ring, all the creatures of the wood run away. They find their way back after a few hours. Then most of them seem to remember and leave again before sunrise. Those that don’t, run when the bell begins to toll.”
He pointed to a large ditch-like track that cut into the black soil and curved around and through the trees.
“Is that a snake track?” I asked, unable to keep my voice from squeaking. We had begun to run again and no one answered my question.
Unexpectedly, we broke through the tree line and into a large clearing of grass. There, sitting in the middle was an Aerolite Carrier.
I felt my own pulse quicken with anticipation. This was familiar.
The twin moons of Nedan lit up the clearing with silvery-blue light. Scattered throughout the tall grass were pieces of junk Ryonel had collected from our ship or taken off of this one. He must have been working on this project for years.
“All we lack is the landing gear, onboard gravity, and. . . the space cavity oscillating resonator,” Ryonel told me as we ran up to the Aero.
“Wait. You don’t have a space cavity resonator?” I echoed. “You can’t even leave the planet without a SCOR.”
“He knows.” Leon said quietly, and his voice was chiding.
I swallowed and took a deep breath. Our ship was gone. This was it. Ryonel’s Aero was the only option on the table.
“Okay. Well, she looks sturdy anyway. Have you got a crimper, tape, wire cutters and voltage meter? Fixing the landing gear shouldn’t take long.”
Ryonel and the other three guys were repairing an electric perimeter wire we must have run across without my even noticing it was there.
“Does it work?” I asked Leon, watching them reposition fallen poles and hook on the wire.
“Not for the really big things,” Leon confessed. “But it gives us a few seconds of advantage. Last night a big lizard came after Jase while he was working on the tail stabilizers. When it hit the wire, it let out a hiss that alerted us all. Ryonel shot it down before it could reach the ship.”
Leon gestured toward a lump in the grass behind the ship. It was bigger than the body of a dead horse would have been. Then he lowered the loading ramp and preceded me with his gun drawn.
“All clear,” he announced over his shoulder. “Come on in.”
While Leon hung the globe lantern from a ceiling grip, I pulled up the removable panels in a passenger bench and exposed the landing gear wiring.
“I thought that was the stabilizer wiring,” he said, scratching his head. “No wonder it wouldn’t work.”
“That’s right here,” I said, tapping the next panel over.
Leon went to work in the panel next to me and we began to talk over the events of the last day. I told him about Madia and Danteres; and about all the children who were hoping and preparing to go with us. Even as I talked, the plan sounded ridiculous to me. What were we going to do with forty toddlers?
Soon I realized that Ryonel was quietly working behind us, taking apart the damaged SCOR behind the cockpit. In the moonlight outside the ship I could see Jase standing with a gun in his hands and his back to the ship. The younger guys were all guarding us while we worked.
“Dang, Lani,” Leon said, when I came to the end of my narrative. His voice was muffled because his head was as far down inside the wiring bench as it could get with the mask still on. “How the heck are we going to feed all those kids?”
“I have ninety days worth of food stored for five adults,” Ryonel offered. I turned around and looked at him in surprise. There was no frustration or blame in his expression. He was trying to find a way for the kids to come along. He had taken his mask off, and following his cue, I took mine off as well.
“The Aero should be able to carry their weight and more,” he added.
“Hey— thanks.” I said and smiled at him with genuine enthusiasm for his offer. Ryonel turned red, even in the blue light of the globe.
“They are my people,” he explained. “Some of them are nieces and nephews. I had hoped after we get away. . . if we find a safe place. . . that we could come back and take the ones who want to go. . .”
“Go where?” Leon asked with some frustration, pulling his head out of the bench to look at us. He took off his mask and raised his brows questioningly.
The dream I’d had earlier in the day came back to me with intense clarity.
“Ryonel, is there an old sky rail in or around Solanti?” I asked.
“I don’t know. What’s a sky rail?”
I tried to think of what might remain of a sky rail after hundreds, maybe thousands of years.
“Is it like a broken vine above the trees?” he asked when I hesitated.
“Yeah - maybe. Except it wasn’t always broken. I think. . . this is going to sound crazy. . .”
“Of course it will.” Leon said.
“I’m good with crazy,” Ryonel returned the smile I’d given him earlier.
“I keep having these dreams about the way Nedan was a long time ago. In the dreams I’m on a sky rail headed toward Solanti for a celebration. We passed a place beside the ocean that had huge stone walls. Walls big enough to keep out the - the -“
“Monsters,” Ryonel supplied.
“The walls were in the shape of an enormous star, and there were a few buildings inside, but mostly crops of food. Miles of farmland. With a river running through it to the sea.”
“Lani,” Leon said, in a wake-up-now voice, “you—”
“Estuary,” Ryonel interrupted, his eyes glazed with memory. “My mother told me about a place where the river met the sea. A safe place. She wanted to go there. She said her mother had seen it before the crash. An estuary in a star, she said.”
Leon looked from me to Ryonel with a mixture of consternation and amusement.
“And what if it’s not there?” he asked. “What if it’s in ruins?”
“We wouldn’t need the SCOR,” Ryonel suggested.
“And if it keeps out the monsters we could grow more food. . . and the children would be safe.” I added.
“There might even be others alive inside the walls,” Ryonel said.
Leon didn’t answer right away. He got to his feet and leaned inside the cockpit and flipped the stabilizer switch. The “eeeenh-eeeehn” sound of the flaps moving asserted his success at wiring. Then he looked at me questioningly and I nodded. Leon flipped the landing gear switch and the sweet hum and jolt of working landing gear followed.
Ryonel was grinning from ear to ear as he shook Leon’s hand as though he’d rather wrestle him.
“Well,” Leon said, “let’s get this baby back together and crank her up. We’ve got a star fort—estuary to find.”