Chapter 8: A Climb
Jack steered the rover along the base of
an almost perfectly vertical wall of cliffs. The sheer, rocky face stretched
high and extended in both directions as far as their instruments could scan. The
next climate zone waited on the other side. They hadn’t found a way through or
around. Jack sighed. They were off course, and getting more so by the mile.
“The Collins won’t know where to find us,” he said for the tenth time. No one answered this time, either.
Jack squeezed a tube of coffee to heat it. He was getting tired. No, more than tired, he was getting pretty damn close to exhausted. It was long past someone else’s turn to take the controls, but he hadn’t spoken up. At least driving gave him something to do while the scientists did their work. Even if, at present, that work involved getting them well and thoroughly lost.
Behind him, he heard Kim shuffling in her seat. Jack glanced in his mirror and saw her look up from her station and turn to Dominic. “Anything?”
Dominic shook his head without looking back. “My scopes are useless in this light. If there’s a way through, around, or even under this cliff, we’re not going to find it till tomorrow.”
Kim frowned. “The nexus is that way. Through the wall. So if we want to go home—”
Dominic shrugged. “We have to get to the nexus. I know, I know. Maybe we should just fly the lander over. Oh, that’s right. Jack crashed it.”
“Uh, again, saved us. Hel-lo?” Jack shifted his grip on the wheel. An idea flitted through his brain. He knew he should probably think it through before he acted, but then, why start now? Dominic wants to fly? Let’s frickin’ fly.
“Okay,” he said aloud. “Can’t go through, can’t go around. That leaves one choice.” He reached for a control, made a fast adjustment, and thumbed a trigger.
Two grappling hooks attached to cables fired from the rover and fixed themselves high in the cliff’s sheer wall. Hidden cranks begin to turn, pulling the rover to the wall.
“Jack—!” Dominic began. Jack didn’t look back.
The rover reached the wall. The cranks turned. The motors whined and the cables strained. And then the rover began to climb almost straight up the sheer wall of stone.
“Yeah, baby,” said Jack. “Total Spider-man here.”
Kim held on to her seat with white knuckles. “You are insane,” she said. “You are certifiably, certifiably insane.”
Jack nodded. “I get that a lot.”
“This isn’t how these cables were designed to work,” said Dominic. “I’m not sure they can handle this kind of stress—”
“What’s your idea?” Jack returned.
Dominic shrugged. He had no answer.
Jack nodded. Thought so. Looks like the fancy-ass scientist needs good ol’ Jack after all.
The Rover reached the grappling hooks. Jack hit another control and fired and fired a second set, higher up. The second hooks caught. Jack reeled the first set back in and the rover continued its assent. When they reached the second set of grappling hooks, Jack fired the first set again. The rover climbed higher.
At last, the rover reached a narrow ledge near the very top of the wall. For the moment, at least, they were horizontal again. Jack grinned. One more climb would put them on top, or very close to it. He reached down and hit his control. The hooks fired again … but came crashing back when they hit … something. Something Jack couldn’t see.
Dominic and Kim scrambled at their stations, adjusting their instruments.
Jack closed his eyes and shook his head. “What the hell was that?”
Dominic frowned. “Another energy field?”
Kim didn’t look up from her instruments. “I can’t read anything….” Her fingers flew across her instrument panel frantically, making more adjustments.
“It must be the same energy bubble that crashed the Armstrong,” said Dominic. “Of course. Damn! We’re at about the same altitude, or close, I think….”
Kim shook her head. “We won’t be able to push through that.”
“Nice one, Jack,” Dominic muttered.
Jack closed his eyes and reminded himself, again, that hitting Dominic wouldn’t solve anything. It’d feel damn good, though.
“I’m open to ideas,” Jack said.
Dominic leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms across his chest. “At least this ledge is stable. We can spend the night here and figure something out tomorrow.”
Jack shrugged as he considered. “I guess so. And we’re probably safer up here than we would be below.” He checked the countdown clock on his wristband. Time was bleeding.
Kim nodded reluctantly.
Jack looked down through the windshield at the narrow ledge and the jungle far below. “Just don’t step out to pee in the middle of the night,” he suggested.
# # #
In the deep shadows beneath the jungle canopy, Skye Nayal shook the reins and urged her horse to take a couple of steps forward. She felt exposed this high up, but she needed a better view of the tall mountain face on the far side of the river valley. She pulled off her bronze helmet and let her dark hair fall free over her armored shoulders. The moving metal … thing she’d been following had stopped — near the very top of the great barrier cliffs. Higher than she’d ever climbed. Higher than anyone had ever climbed, anyone human, at least.
She frowned and chewed her lower lip thoughtfully. Whatever it was, it contained more iron than she could see in a thousand lifetimes, more wealth than all the clans together could ever hope to gather. Her eyes narrowed and she shook her head.
What was that thing?
She heard a noise — something shuffling in the trees on the hillside, below. She pulled her mount back into the shadow of the canopy.
Far below, she saw dark figures creeping forward. They, too, watched the metal thing. Skye could see the setting sun flashing off the bronze of their telescopes. More rustling, and the shadows emerged from the trees. Now, Skye could see them clearly — three creatures, scaled with a few tufts of brightly colored feathers. Their teeth were like daggers and their claws were swords. They wore bronze armor and blades on their limbs and nimble tails that make their natural predatory skills even more lethal. Their reptilian eyes gleamed with cold intelligence. They rode great beasts, also armored, that looked, to Skye’s eye at least, much like themselves, only much larger and with smaller, feathered forearms.
Not that Skye had to see them to know what they were.
The creatures were Skareiki. The enemy.
They watched for a moment, and then turned their terrible, killing mounts back into the trees and rode away. Skye listened carefully for a moment to be sure they hadn’t turned her way, and then relaxed. They were moving with speed, and away — to report, no doubt. That meant they’d be back, and with numbers.
But not for a while, most likely.
The night was still. Even the wind was silent, a rare thing on this side of the mountain wall. She turned her attention back to the metal thing.
Its mystery troubled her. And called to her.
She heard a rustle behind her and turned. Two of her riders, the brothers Lasair and Tac, approached, returning from their scout. Before either of them could speak, Skye held a finger to her lips.
Lasair raised his eyebrows and mouthed a single word: “Skareiki?”
Skye nodded once and whispered. “A moment ago, down below. They’re gone now, but best to be cautious.”
Tac kept his voice low. “What were they after way out here?”
Skye pointed to the cliff face and saw Lasair’s eyes widen with surprise. “What is that … thing?”
“I don’t know,” Skye said, shaking her head and frowning. “But there are humans inside. I saw them.”
Lasair’s jaw dropped. He shook his head. “Humans! Here? Who?”
Skye shook her head. “None I’ve seen before.”
“Where did the come from?” asked Tac.
“I don’t know,” said Skye. “They’re strange. They’re not like us. Even their clothing is strange. They’re like … like the pictures of angels in the churches of the English.”
Skye saw Laisar’s brow furrow. “Are they making for the Fallen City? If they’re with the Skareiki—”
Skye shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think they might be … lost.” She pursed lips for a second. “Keep scouting. I’m going to take some riders and follow them. I’ll meet you at the boats.”
After a moment, Skye added, almost to herself, “I want to know where they came from.”