labingi: (Ghanior)
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Mercy
By 'Eblia Te'Zhano Yoq

A story from the Continuation universe.

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

I awoke again, squished in padding that propped me on my side. As on awakening from a nightmare, I lay still, afraid to move, the world reduced to my throbbing head and pounding blood. After some seconds, I deflated the padding and clambered out of my harness. Reports showed only minor damage. I began to be hopeful. Sensors read breathable atmosphere at 1.1 G, no electronics within ten, twenty, I went out to fifty kilometers. When I requested an astral location, however, my ship's gentle pulse clicked off; screens vanished; lifeless alloy surrounded me, battery-lit. The shutdown was so smooth and total that a message stating, "fools fail" could not have made it plainer. On some level, I must have guessed from the first that my ship had been sabotaged, but I'd treated the crisis as a force of nature. Now, the obvious humanity of my adversary filled me with a human anger.

I rolled the top hatch open on manual. It lay perpendicular to the ground. A whirling green before my eyes stilled into a coniferous forest, thick and moistly grassy beyond the lacerated earth. Morning? Afternoon? The air flooded in heavy with wet turf and smoke, though I saw no fire; my ears popped.

I listened. A breeze fanned my sweaty face. Two birds conversed with a monotonous "tich, tich," life barely touched by my passage. The damp dripped into my ship as if wrung from a washcloth. My mind poured outward furiously, the polar opposite of my usual self-encasement. Surging all my hypertelepath's power at the forest, I caught a faint hint of distant minds, at least a kilometer away, too far off for me to a guess a direction or a number beyond more-than-one. Friends or enemies? Not the slightest clue.

A sudden, fool need to escape my ship impelled me to wriggle out the hatch and make the four-meter drop. I forgot to check the hull temperature and burned my palms and the backs of my thighs, not badly; I must have been grounded some time before waking. When I landed in a mass of dirt, a shock stabbed up my neck and my jaw, and I found a sharp pain in my shoulder.

The forest loomed, as if it had leapt closer. It would have been pretty if it hadn't pressed me so. I stared up at the hatch now above my head. After a brief visual inspection of the ship, I hauled some broken limbs up to the hull to make a structure to climb on and, thus, after a half hour of architectural trial and error, got back into my cockpit and, being alone, indulged a few tears as I gathered my supplies, relieved in the back of my mind that, for the moment, Qer'yem had become unimportant.

***

I found my hand communicator in a corner. My ship had read no electronics in the area, but that was a macrosweep; it wouldn't catch a small com, and I knew people were out there. For a moment, I contemplated keeping signal silence, but if my adversaries had intended to capture or kill me, they'd had ample opportunity. Come to that, why not try my direct? True, it was encoded to read only Ash'torian signals, and this planet looked like none in Ash'tor. But it seemed a reasonable first attempt even on the off-chance of help from my own people.

I activated my wrist control and subbed a general inquiry. Aloud I identified myself formally as an Ash'torian citizen: "Naha'jûn Ad 'Elbia Yoq, requesting reply."

Not five seconds later came an incoming signal: "'Eblia?"

I sank to the floor, which had been the side, of my ship. There was no one--none--whose voice I would rather have heard. "Chi'anové?"

A pause. "I make you 9.75 north-northeast of me."

I checked my own display. "Confirmed. You'll Walk to me, I wonder?"

An ominous hesitation. "I can't. I'm being slammed."

"Slamming" occurs when some force prevents a Walker from entering Jana and flings them back into real space. It was almost unheard of then, the word only coined about five years before. No one understood why it happened, but as far as I knew, it had always resulted in the Walker being pushed back to point of origin.

"You were slammed from base to here, then."

"Yes." His tone warned against further discussion.

"How long have you've been here, I wonder?"

"Two days."

Had it been two whole days since we'd last spoken? I checked the chron from my direct. I must have been unconscious for over twenty hours. Was I hungry? Was I groggy? I ran these question past my body and discovered, no, not really. Still on adrenaline high perhaps.

"You're all right, I hope." I pictured him two days wandering with nothing but his tiny emergency pack for supplies.

A laugh. "I'm alive."

"Have you seen any people, I wonder?"

"You know I like to say hell is other people. I take it back; it's trees."

"I appreciate the feeling." Their shadows spread toward me like icy water. "I wonder if you're up for hiking 10K to my ship?"

***

In the hours I waited for him, I began to hear the silence. It descended on my awareness like the falling of the day. Silence had surrounded my mind, of course, from the time I first closed the hatch of my ship before launch. For me, one of the blessings of lone travel has always been rest from others' thoughts. I'm used to that peace ending as soon as I reach my destination. I open the hatch; the cacophony explodes as if I'd stepped into a rally.

Only here, it hadn't. No human minds were close enough for me to passively receive them. As I stared out the hatch through charcoal branches at a twilight sky of patchwork yellow, I remembered a visit to a park in Zah'nib City. I'd hiked a trail down to the bottom of a gulley, trees on every side, and the slopes rising around me blocked out everything: traffic, voices, ocean, thoughts. There was only water trickling and a warbler's song. Now, that peace came again.

And it brought a deeper peace, beyond refuge from minds, the peace of being unwatched. Here, no one cared if I sobbed aloud or sang of Yor in Ránlan. If my hair was snarled, no one cared. No one was here for me to judge myself against: no young lovers or lifelong friends, no confident souls spearheading the Rebuilding. No agonized minds calling for aid I couldn't give. No Qer'yem. They'd washed away. It would have been very freeing if I had not been so afraid.

I set up my hand heater in the cockpit and half slept. His nearing entered me dreamlike, as a call to prayer from the street can echo in a sleeper. I heard but did not realize I heard his stymied mutterings, his fatigue, his comforting solidity.

He rapped on my hull, and I started awake, jerking my hand light out the hatch to guide him up.

"It's good to see you, Chi'anové," I said with as much heart as I've ever said anything.

He fell in a heap on an emergency blanket, my sideways flight chair hovering like some blunt stalactite between us. His own slight provisions gone, he dove into my rations. He'd found a stream by heading down the watershed. But with his hike to my ship, he was thirsty again, rumpled, damp. He looked small. He was small, but right then, he looked it. My lamp turned his pale hair and eyes translucent, as if he were an afterimage of himself. Chi'anové had been a Walker for thirty-two years. Unable to Walk, he saw himself as an amputee. I was glad that his weariness had temporarily suppressed that anguish so that neither of us had to feel it.

"It was crazy," he told me after he'd eaten. "I imaged my entry point on Sham'tab and Walked, and it was like... running full tilt into a force field. It was like--I wonder if you've ever seen a bird fly into glass? It was like that."

"If you were slammed here, something directed you, just as someone input an auto-course to bring my ship here. The sabotage of my ship is just a security breach." There was, of course, no "just" about it. "But what agency, I wonder, can supersede where a Walker walks?" Such power beggared all that we knew of Walking.

He shook his head, a little stupid with fatigue. "It was like turning--being turned, like a gale-force wind. That's all wrong, but I don't know how else to describe it. I was dizzy, without even really having time to be dizzy. And then I was here in this tree factory, half unconscious, with the usual headache times ten--well, times two. I tried Walking back to base, various other places. I tried five times total; same thing, except a more typical slam--just back to origin. Finally, I decided I'd take the hint before my brain hemorrhaged."

An ache still lingered behind his eyes. I had initially mistaken it for my own headache worsening. We shared out blocker patches and felt a little better.

Chi'anové took off his gloves to diffuse the shift that had built up in his hands, the buzz, as he calls it. Without their black carapace, his hands looked delicate as fired clay.

He is my best friend, I thought. Funny, two months before, I'd have said that of Qer'yem. Two years before that, I would have said it of Chi'anové. I think of myself as a loyal person, yet sometimes I'm taken aback by my fickleness. I'd taken him for granted in the time I'd had Qer'yem, he who'd been the bedrock of the last decade of my life. He had never made me a promise, nor I him. We had kept them without the making. Lost here, it seemed both miraculous and inevitable that we had found each other.

Watching him sleep in the orange of my hand heater, I reviewed our situation:

We'd been en route to Sham'tab for what had seemed a routine mission. Did some force from that planet have the power (and the reason) to forestall us? Nothing came to mind; we'd been sent to investigate routine trade negotiations. Was our mission incidental?

And why would someone strand us within easy distance of each other? It was too much to be coincidence. Why did it want us together? Not to kill us. It could have done that already.

Had the Trae'dah Eye betrayed us or been infiltrated? Which was worse?

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