Saying goodbye to Ella always choked Guinvar up. The woman had a habit of becoming both best friend and confidante despite a massive age gap. Her mother claimed she was the best friend she'd ever have, and Guinvar could believe it. For herself, finding another woman to talk to about all those girl issues remained difficult and awkward because she'd not spent much time around Terran families while she grew up. She liked the company of men, especially Alkash men. Who wouldn't? Their deference was appealing, and not a little flattering. If you managed to get past the whole 'is he being nice because he thinks I would make a good meal' thing, then they were perfectly polite and attentive companions. It helped a lot that she'd got her mother's knack of being able to read them so well. That particular little skill came in useful more than once.
She pursed her lips in thought, and stared out of the window. They travelled at a fair click, Atiron handling the small craft with all the experience of a true pro. Sliding a glance at him, she made an amendment to her earlier assessment. Except for Atiron, that was. He remained as much an enigma as always, though she had it on very good authority that Ella read him pretty much like an open file. Perhaps it was because she'd grown up and though he would always be the uncle she adored, he treated her rather differently now.
“Something is bothering you?”
From the corner of his eye he managed to give her one of those looks. Gods, she hated them. Amusement, tinged with sarcasm and a kind of smug knowledge rolled into one big smirk. Ever since she'd reached adulthood he'd also baited her tirelessly. For reaction. Always. Ugh. Here it came.
“Your apologies are not required, Guin.” She managed a snort, and stared out at the disappearing landscape. “Well...?”
Tempted to ignore him, she tossed a reply backwards and forwards. Smartass, or bolshy? Which? She settled on non-committal. “Thinking.”
Silence reigned for a while, a non-committal entertainment at her expense radiating from Atiron. “You are a smug -”
“So your aunt tells me,” he interrupted and gunned the craft to a higher speed, avoiding a herd of herbivores by pushing the nose up and sailing over them. Beneath them, golden-striped bodies milled about in panic and confusion, dust rising from countless massive-pawed feet. The sound of them shrieking a protest disappeared as they moved out of range. “I'll ask again. What's bothering you?”
“This Malak thing,” she said, tentatively, unwilling to say anything else and unsure of his reaction.
A subtle change of expression crept over his face while she sneaked a sideways glance. “Yes,” he agreed, and swung the machine towards the only large settlement the planet had, “that does present a few difficulties.”
Mostly, Guinvar wanted to steer the topic back to a safer area. Like how they would proceed on deciphering the artefacts residing in her bag, and what they'd do with the data once they'd got it. Yeah, that was one to look forward to. Coping with the stodgy atmosphere didn't sit well, and cramped her style. She brazened it out. “How come no one told me?”
“Ignorance is bliss, I believe,” he said, and the flier swerved into a downward trajectory with her stomach left behind for a good twenty second gap. Damn. Him. “And it was.”
Catching her breath and some of her breakfast, Guinvar snapped, “What the hell am I supposed to do with that information?”
“Nothing,” Atiron growled, the sound low, quite menacing. “Absolutely nothing.”
“You don't approve.”
Atiron lifted a burnished copper brow at her, and showed his teeth. “Approbation would serve no purpose.” The flier adjusted its course automatically and lined up with the narrow landing strips radiating close to the boundary edge of the doorway when he released the controls. The motors hummed. “Anymore than my disapproval, which -” he held up a hand when Guinvar opened her mouth, stopping her from speaking - “in any case would be the rankest hypocrisy given my own circumstances.”
“It should have changed by now,” Guinvar said, and sat back in her seat with a thump. The scowl on her face reflected in the glass screen.
The Alkash sighed, hawk profile fixed on the exterior beyond the small cabin; he met her eyes in the reflection. “Are you truly still so naïve, child, as to believe the last thirty cycles could dissolve the attitudes of millennia?” A soft bump indicated they'd settled on the ground, the canopy sliding away into the sides of the machine and the doors pulling away. “Or is it something more?”
Guinvar shook her head and he grunted in response. Reaching back he dragged her bag out and climbed out of the seat, setting off with long strides towards the compound. Forced to run after him, Guinvar managed to catch him up, and snatched at his arm. He slowed long enough to allow her to slip her hand into the crook of his arm. Pissed off, she trotted beside him wondering what he meant.
Eventually, she was forced to speak. “What are you getting at?”
“If you were to pursue any meaningful relationship, let it be professional and friendship.”
“Hear me out, Guinvar.” Everything died on her tongue. He never, ever, called her by her full name unless something serious was about to go down. They halted and he drew her hand into his own, covering it with long fingers. “You are the daughter of my dear friends and I would see no harm come to you. You are as dear to me as if you were of my own flesh and bone, but...” Atiron paused and searched her features, concern etched deep in his eyes. “You have a path to follow, as does Malak, and it would serve no purpose for either of you to lose sight of it.”
Bemused, Guinvar shook her head trying to get a grip on the suggestion and also to hang on to her world which looked as if it was just about to turn and slope off to some other plane. “We're friends, Atiron, friends. Nothing. More.” Unbelievable. Just unbelievable. “I've got work to do.” She glanced meaningfully at the bag. “Far too much on my plate.”
He eyed her, head slanted to one side as if he didn't really believe what she told him. After a pause, he gave a curt nod. “For now, yes.”
As they set off again, she demanded, “What the fuck -?”
“Is your aunt aware of your use of profanities?”
Pulling at him to stop walking, Guinvar gave a little growl. “Don't change the damn subject, you son of a bitch, and don't try to blackmail me with Ella.”
Examining her again, Atiron's mouth acquired a thin smile. “She would approve of the attempt.”
“Like hell -”
“We must concentrate on the real task, Guin. We have to. You know what's at stake.”
What was at stake? Gods of every heaven and the devils of every pit, yes, she knew. Find the machine, turn it off, and ensure the survival of both species. An elusive, probably mythical creation that would serve no purpose just like every other damn thing found over the last century. If the hegemony and Alliance hadn't pulled together at the last minute then she might well never have been born, and they certainly wouldn't be having this conversation, but they still squabbled about insignificant bullshit that shouldn't have any bearing on the real, and mutual, goal. Fuck the Makers, she thought, and her mind conjured unspeakable visions of torture for them. If one thing bound the two species of human together it was their mutual loathing of their progenitors.
Leaning forward, Atiron said, “Help find the key, Guin, and we stand to change everything.”
“Not just me,” she said, jumped out of her reverie.
“No,” he agreed, intense, “not just you, but every child born into this peace must strive for what we cannot achieve.” The hand holding hers tightened, claws cutting into the soft flesh of her wrist. “I will do what I can, as will my daughter.” He didn't need to add Ella into that equation; she already knew how important his consort was to the whole affair. Without her...
“Ella?” she whispered, almost afraid to hear the answer. Normally, he left her safe at home, unwilling to risk so much as a hair on her head.
“This time she will come with me.”
Warmth radiated from the corpse and Malak rested against it, unwilling to take another step into the sudden bitter storm blowing up out of some pit of an icy hell. Hoping to rouse Rabarn, he slipped along the fringes of his thoughts and discovered his friend still lay deep in sleep, the dream landscape that surrounded him full of shadowy figures. Unseen, one more ghost among many, Malak stepped up his infiltration projecting ice and snow into the visions flitting through his friend's mind with little effect. The human shuddered, an autonomic reflex, but remained otherwise inert. Which meant he would need to employ some other part of his arsenal. Malak squirmed deeper into the long pelt behind him, pulling its heavy legs into place to form a barrier and settled back to concentrate harder on getting past the barrier placed in his way.
In places it appeared insubstantial, like the ice on a puddle after the first frost of winter waiting for a boot heel to smash through the surface. Yet in other spots it had the tenacity of rubber, flexible, giving way only to snap back and sting the unwary with considerable force. Those he preferred to avoid. The trick, he'd found, was to worm his way through the many shifting layers, shedding everything that threatened, projecting benevolence. Anything less would mean Rabarn's defences closed on him with all the ferocity of a river elidor and its pack, to ravage him with teeth as sharp and deadly as those terrible lizards. Trained psyches like Rabarn's responded to danger with violence and determination, that matched his own or any other Alkash. It meant he needed to demonstrate recognisable kinship, but he came equipped for that, the chemical markers in his blood already shifting to change his thought processes to human prominence so Rabarn would respond positively.
His breath billowed in front of him, white, the crack of water loud as it froze when it left his body. Minuscule drops of ice fell from the air, crystals to blanket him... Concentrate, concentrate... Do not see the world, enter a place of peace, tranquillity, where nothing will harm you and you wish no harm. Consciousness faded. It bled at the edges, perception shifting, faltering... Mist rose up and Malak stepped free of it, conjuring ground where there was none. Grass and flowers bloomed where his feet trod, the heat of a ruddy sun beating down on him.
Echoes sounded, the distant thunder of his heart, and Malak stilled his mind, a deep cool pool, impenetrable, easing into the surroundings and extended his awareness. Living things bustled round him, the wee creatures of Rabarn's imagination, splinters of argent whirling in the air, sparks shooting from them to hit the ground and burst into a multitude of wings, numerous as autumn leaves. Perfumed grasses rose in front of him, a golden nimbus round each seed head, but Malak steered clear, appreciating them for the trap they were – his brother was too fond of the honeyed lure. How many times had they done this, when they both were fully conscious, in practise for a moment such as this? A hundred? Five hundred? Perhaps a thousand. Drilled to perfection, or as near as they could manage, by his grandsire, by Atiron himself, to anticipate the traps their unconscious would set. The had sculpted a bond that went deeper than some seas on Mehwo, deeper than the great trenches of the oceans of Terra - a terrible dark place where strange creatures scuttled along the bottom. And they'd learned to face them all. The demons and sprites of their collective nous could be called forth when needed but right now he wanted light. A flare answered his wish nearly as soon as he'd thought it and ignoring the soft whispers and enticements reaching for him with seductive arms, moved certainly towards it.
Leaving behind a grasping clawed thing and shaking off its clammy touch when it grabbed at him, he took stock of his surroundings again. Closer, it swam just out of reach, and he imagined himself a wave moving with the push of gravity towards a distant shore, the rumble of the ocean locked into his mind. Splashing against the barrier, he undulated into the warm brightness, pulling it into and over himself so he fitted almost seamlessly into Rabarn's jumble of imagery and spun a cocoon, bright as the centre of a star, merging with it until he was indistinguishable. The harsh clamour of rejection began to soothe, recognising him as one of their own. Now... The journey continued in twists and tumbles, ending only when he came to the final obstruction. A woven sheet of brilliance faced him, studded all about with diamonds, and Malak worked quickly, infiltrating its substance.
A long birth, a painful birth, every bit as traumatic as his first experience of being squeezed down a narrow canal. Emerging to the other side, his covering peeled from him like the skin of a fruit to leave him naked and barefoot and gasping for air that was not there. He fell to his knees, coughing, fingers wrapped tight in springy and soft deep blue fronds and somewhere his body recalled its function, responded and drew in oxygen. It washed through him, laden with ice and snow, the sensation of wetness threatening to break his concentration. Willing himself calm, Malak concentrated, finally stable enough to focus outwards. Raising his head, he took his first look and gave a sigh of relief.
Stretching in front of him lay a plain and great rocks, surrounded by a bank of trees with a river winding lazily through the landscape. In the near distance a figure lay stretched out on the bank side, dark head resting on his arms. Malak allowed himself a small grin. This was Rabarn's favourite scenario and he retreated to this place often when he healed, or needed escape from some other issue in the world. Pity he had no choice but to disturb him this time. Without further preamble, Malak gave the recumbent man a nudge which he brushed off like he batted at a parasite. This was the trouble with such places, he reminded himself, they were too beguiling. He gave a firmer push, adding his own particular bite, and was rewarded by vague movement.
Malak sighed with relief. Yes.
Where are you?
I need you Rabarn. Wake. Wake now.
Rabarn came to with a start, perceptions of cold bled from his skin distinct and impressions of snow and ice fled, insubstantial ghosts, as he regained a sense of place and time. When the furs slid off his body from his sudden movement, heat assailed him, too warm, stifling, taking every last intimation of chill. Shadows leapt on the tent's roof in response to flames from the heater in the middle of the living space, the homely crackle causing him a moments disorientation. Steam hissed, the complicated pipe and tap arrangement that gave them hot water gleaming with brassy overtones in the ruddy light. Rabarn licked his lips. Dry. He reached for the water at his side and slopped it as a memory surfaced, bobbing like a cork on the sea.
Drink forgotten, he grabbed for his furs, shaking off a slight dizziness from his rude awakening. Autonomic responses kicked in, the all too real sense of need and danger making him react rather than think. Boots... boots? Where the hell...? Hard soles met his groping fingers, lodged under one of the sleeping cushions, when he connected with the recalcitrant items. He dragged them out, yanked them over his feet and pulled up his hood, crawling for the opening to the tunnel. How long, how long...?
Be quick. Not his own thought. The tone sounded in his head with the clarity of cut-glass.
Effortless, the result of long years of training, of personal knowledge, their minds linked and Malak appeared as a small radiating splodge on the map spread out in his head, far enough from their shelter to need transport. Now he'd got him pinned, Rabarn snagged a few items from the tent – a flask full of warm tea, some of the revolting chunks of dried raw flesh Malak kept for emergencies, and the high energy bars both of them tolerated because they had no choice.
Rabarn scrambled down the short tunnel on his hands and knees, huffing with the urgency, emerging into a night unrecognisable from the one he'd left earlier. Snow swirled in circles, great soft white feathers in shining clumps, eerily silent in the face of a rapidly falling temperature. Even the wind had slowed, pushing the downfall about with lazy ineptitude, stirring it eventually to drifts that were building against the rigid sides of the tent and covering their equipment. Rabarn didn't want to spend too long digging out their transport sled. The impression of warmth leaving his friend bit at him and he hurried, fumbling, fingers numb as he released the chains holding the sled in place. Hopefully, it would work first time.
Try one. Hope always sprang up and never delivered. Nothing. Not even a purr. Two. A quiet rumble indicated it might come to reluctant life. Three... Shit, shit, shit... Frustrated, Rabarn gave the machine a kick, and regretted it instantly. Misjudged aim and sheer stupidity, he snarled to himself, are no substitute for patience and methodology. Yanking his temper back under control, he gave it another go, winding the starter tight as he could and let it go, on the verge of pleading with it to cooperate. A false start... no, no, no, no, no... it sputtered... Rabarn gritted his teeth, waiting... and then it sang into life.
He flung himself into the driving seat and toggled the controls. Under him the machine gave a complaining grumble, but responded to the commands despite initial sluggish reluctance to comply. Switching to low-level skimmer mode, Rabarn flicked the switch that would extend small fins at the side for added stability. Reversing, he swung its nose into the storm and raised the canopy, light spilling from the vehicle when he set it to high speed.
All around the landscape glowed with a subtle nimbus, the pale glow from the sled highlighting flakes as they flurried in a ballet across his path. He leaned forwards against the console, peering into the darkness, testing the link he'd established with his friend. Damn him. What the hell was the idiot thinking when he took himself out into a night like this? If he was dead he'd have his hide and nail it to his mother's front door as a warning to all other young Alkash that being stupid cost. Alive, and he'd find a way to extract a promise that he'd never try something like that again. Maybe threaten him with Guin, or a lack of Guin, which was probably a better way of getting compliance.
Damn shame, Rabarn growled back, that skin of yours would look pretty on Tracitral's door. Oh, he could see it now stretched across the ornate surface, the soft light of the rooms inside making it translucent.
A lovely image, but I'm not certain my dam would agree.
Rabarn chuckled. She might when I tell her about this.
Of course, Rabarn replied, his mood shifting from scared to annoyed and put out.
We taught you so well.
Massive lurches over uneven ground rattled Rabarn's teeth and he wrestled with the sled controls as it bucked with all the determination of an unbroken stallion, engines whining in protest at their mistreatment. Crabwise, the machine slid along while he grunted with the effort to get it back on track, spinning one hundred and eighty degrees and back again, the slim wings ploughing into soil as it threatened to turn on its side. Sweat broke out on his head, made his scalp itch while his mouth went dry, heart hammering at ten to the dozen. Tiny ant feet crawled over him when each nerve fired in a cascade of blind terror and for a single horrible moment he thought he would lose control, but a sudden lurch to the right saved him and the sled flew straight again. A quick consultation with the console told him that, by some fucking miracle, he still made good time. Not willing to risk another heart in mouth moment, he pulled the sled up sharp, slowing the engine as he drew closer to the point where Malak should be, not wanting to overshoot. Margins of error, sure, in a general sense, were good, but not this filthy night. He scanned the bleak exterior, eyes narrow. Damn, it all looked the same. White, white and a bit more white. A flicker. Rabarn moved the sled a metre or so forward, idling the motor. Yes. There. The console light grew brighter, indicating he'd been right. Was Malak still alive? Rabarn reached out.
Yes. I am here. Hurry.
Heartened by that brief touch, Rabarn glided to a halt, slamming the machine into ready mode, canopy dissolving with a hum before he stepped out onto the ground. Cold punched at him, found every minuscule gap in his clothes, and he gasped from the shock of it when it gnawed its icy fangs into his tender flesh. Somehow he managed to get his gloves back on and hood up around his already thoroughly chilled ears as he headed in the direction of the mound all the instruments in the sled indicated held Malak. Leaning into the wind, he fought against its determined effort to get him off his feet, and staggered the last few metres until he reached the hillock. Somewhere in there Malak waited, and he picked up speed.
Boots skidding on the frost he slid around the front, glad to get out of the wind. Digging down, he worked as fast as he could. “Malak?” he dug down again, not pausing, scraping the forming ice away. Fur parted under his probing fingers, thick, its colours bleached to nothing in the dark. “Damn it, man, are you okay?”
I hear you.
Help me then.
The corpse of the animal trembled and the built up deposit of whiteness began to move, fissures appearing in its powdery surface. Some of the thick covering cracked off and fell, a miniature avalanche of ice crystals, still not frozen solid, luckily for them. As soon as Malak understood how much trouble he was in, Rabarn realised, he must have hunkered down with the kill to preserve energy and stay warm. Then all he needed to do was concentrate on kicking Rabarn's sorry ass into gear. Which he'd managed to do rather effectively. Perspiration dampened Rabarn's armpits and his shirt clung to his back while he worked at uncovering more of the great beast, scraping snow from its fur until he came to a small gap, something stirring beneath it.
Malak, can you hear me?
Yes. Keep going. The light is changing.
Then gloved fingers poked up past the fur and he seized them, pulling hard as he could. Placing all his weight into it, he leant back, knees braced against limbs set concrete with rigor and the snow tumbled apart unable to resist them both. He fell back hard, hitting the floor with a loud 'oof' just as the surface collapsed to leave a dark gap.
Breath knocked out of his lungs, Rabarn lay collecting his garbled wits for a second. Above, white flurries hovered. so he rolled to his side and clambered to his feet. They had to get out of there. If they didn't move more quickly the fall would bury them both and they'd never find the tent again. Despite all their training they were both helpless if the storm grew more furious. The modicum of shelter provided by the sled didn't cut it, and they had to get back to the tent. That was designed to take the brunt of the worst the weather could throw at them. Even something as extreme as this. Come on. Come. On. Through the white haze he spotted movement and he dug faster.
The hand had become an arm, so he gripped it by the forearm, and slowly, slowly Malak emerged, head and shoulders squeezing free until his torso came into view, then his other arm... Grabbing Malak's other arm, Rabarn tugged, and together they crashed to the ground, Rabarn scrambling to get out of the way as the Alkash landed with a heavy thump.
“No... time...” he gasped, and Malak nodded, lurching to his feet and following him to the sled.
They slipped and slid the few metres across open ground to the sled, guided by the automatic tethers the machine had reeled out in the face of such appalling conditions. Hand over hand, they pulled themselves into its sheltering side and clambered gratefully into the seats. Shaking, Rabarn triggered the canopy, and it hummed into existence again, shutting out the whine of the wind.
“What... about... that?” Malak asked, still fighting to grab whatever air he could after having it stolen, and nodded towards the corpse of the dead animal.
“Just a... suggestion,” Rabarn muttered, busy getting the sled to start, “but let's leave... it for now.”
The sled swung away from the wind, creeping towards their camp. A real possibility existed that they could well be sucked into the centre of the umbra, and Raburn didn't want to risk that. Not yet. They still had too much to prepare for either of them to brave it.