By Marshal 'FLATTOP' Westfolder
The crunch of the chalky gravel sounded portentous to Ehud. Dust to dust. Or ashes. The dinginess of the landing strip's lone structure bothered him not at all; a more sentimental being might even be moved to pity at the mass-manufactured prefab dropped here with no intention of bestowing affection on it - but none had.
The furtive being disgorged from the structure was of a species Ehud had never seen before, but the greasy rag it was wiping its hands on had brothers at a billion spaceports; too, the distasteful glance with which the ship was violated was no different than the usual reaction. For Ehud's ship was dilapidated, oh yes. The rust had carbon scoring, the carbon scoring had rust, the original components were spinning in a hundred different orbits around a dozen different stars, and her pilot wasn't much fairer.
The mechanic (for what else could it be?) scuttled up and looked everywhere but Ehud's face, croaking into the vocoder at its throat.
"Well-well, re-fuel? Re-pair? Very busy, very busy."
Ehud pointedly glared at all of his non-existent fellow customers before replying.
"Just enough to get me to the next system. Don't fix anything; Diana ain't broke."
The snort of disbelief needed no translation.
"For-you? Food-drink? Town-trip?"
"A lift to main street, please."
The mechanic brayed something the vocoder didn't bother with and another, shorter, version of the being djinned out of the pre-fab and approached. This one didn't have a rag.
"Town-trip? Come-come," its vocoder scratched out in a slightly higher pitch, and it gestured vaguely with an appendage. Ehud followed, leaving the mechanic's curious mix of invective and affection diminishing behind.
Ehud's ferryman kept up a steady stream of lore about the town, though things moved slow enough that the gossip merged with 'everyone knows' and swiftly descended to history in a matter of mere decades. Still, the story of mines small enough to not be worth the big corporations' time but profitable enough for independent operators was a common enough one, as was the inevitable coda of the ore drying up and leaving the husk of a town brown and dry, split open down the back. Ehud had heard it all before, and seen the echoes in the cavernous eyes of hopeless beings as desiccated as their environs. So why was this time odd? Even over the shrieking of the landspeeder, Ehud thought he heard a difference in the alien's speech pattern, a hesitancy or slowing of the vocoder's attempted recreation.
"Next-thing, mine-fail. Ore-there, still-sell, but-then lost-folk."
"Lost? Mining accident?"
A quick movement Ehud interpreted as a gesture of negation.
"Mine-fine. Gear-fine. Folk-delve, stay-gone. Empty-seats."
"Did anyone ever go look for them?"
"One-time. Two-times. All-lost. After-that," - a freakishly accurate recreation of a human shrug - "No-go. Why-die? Fly-then; other-moons, other-mines."
Trych's running dialogue drizzled on, but Ehud fell silent and ruminated. His mind-fingers wanted to turn the problem this way and that, to examine every facet, but the thing wasn't even cut yet; 'twas just an opaque mass of mystery. He dropped it and observed their destination hoving into sight around an outcrop of the crags they'd been navigating.
Ehud had given up wondering why things were all the same color on rocks like this long ago. At least the denizens of this hamlet had also dug into the native stone for a change, instead of inhabiting rickety free-standing shelters that remained upright mainly because falling down would require change.
There was, as usual, one larger structure that was, as usual, the combined town hall, general store, and cantina; the door, unusually, did not squeal like a demon when Trych dared impose upon it the indignity of being used for its intended purpose. Ehud followed the alien to the bar and took in the chamber after his eyes adjusted; besides an old-timer dozing in the corner there were two beings muttering into their drinks at each other, but none reacted at their entrance.
"Hey-hey, Miss-Achsa; new-blood," Untranslatable alien gravel-crunching. Laughter?
Ehud thought the approaching woman could have been studied as a medical curiosity for rapid aging, but her possessive step and imperious lift of her chin showed that her vigor was still hers, tho' her vim be siphoned. She pulled something brownish from a tap 'neath the bar and placed it in front of Trych, all without looking - clearly an interaction that had occurred countless times before. Instead, she was analyzing Ehud. Disassembling me and seeing which parts fit back together, he thought, too surprised at the intensity of her gaze to be discomfited by it.
Finally, the barkeep's ancient hail: "What'll you have?"
The wry query: "Is there more than one option?"
The grim admission: "Not anymore."
The coy clarification: "Not for me, anyway."
Silence. In no way companionable; but Miss Achsa appeared to have an understanding with silence, uncompanionable or nay.
Ehud cleared his throat and waded ahead.
"I'll have what he's having," - a side look revealed Trych with a proboscis in his glass - "And an answer, if it's not too expensive."
Another sightless pull. "'Pends on the question."
His container of local brownish whatever landed in front of him; he lowered his voice. "What do you think happened down there?"
Her shrug traveled in well-worn grooves. "Does it really matter?"
He took a sip, grimaced, and pushed the stuff down the bar towards Trych. "Why wouldn't it? Something happened."
She initiated the barkeep's ancient rite of polishing a section of the bar that didn't need it. "Them as went are gone. Wishin' don't bring folk back."
His turn to shrug. "Maybe. Like as not the searchers were too scared to do much looking."
A tightening around her eyes (Grey. Deep.) told Ehud it wasn't the first time that thought had been in her presence, but she held her peace. Instead, "What's your interest in the matter, stranger? Old Killych'll have your craft 'good-enough soon-enough,' lessin' it's atomized. Just tryin' to pass the time?"
"Just struck me different is all. I haven't been in many ghost towns that have actual ghosts."
Trych's head snapped towards him, and its words matched. "No-ghosts. No-curse. Just-lost."
"That's enough," the woman said just as firmly, and the alien's vocoder muttered a "Kay-kay, Miss-Achsa," as it went back to Ehud's drink.
"Just be gone by nightfall, stranger," she continued, almost kindly. "'Curiosity killed the long-cat's nose what got stuck in business it don't belong,' as 't'were."
"As 't'were," Ehud gravely agreed, and dropped it.
The setting sun cast its dying rays over Ehud as he arrived at the mine entrance. A rattling cackle gave up and phlegmed into coughing.
"I knew'd you'd show; yer jist as scavvy as me!"
Ehud's blaster went sheepishly back into its holster. The old man from the cantina lurched out into what light there was and froze Ehud with his intensity. The hands that held a vial of glowing blue may have been trembling, but his stare was fixed.
"Do not - seek - the treasure!" he intoned, and then the vial's stopper popped and Ehud felt something mysteriously warm splatter over his head and chest. It smelled of wildflowers and hyperdrive coolant that had been left out in the heat for a few months; the kind with the scum on top.
He wiped his eyes clear. "I didn't need a shower, old-timer."
"Don't'cha then? What're y'goin' down fer?"
Ehud shrugged. "Folk aren't just lost, they get lost."
The old-timer shook his head sorrowfully. "Sounds jist like somethin' a treasure-hunter'd say."
He turned and walked away sorrowfully, an effect quickly spoiled by the wheezy chuckles burbling away into the night. Ehud raised a glow-rod in his right hand and thumbed it on as he waded into the dark. Crazy old coot.
The stygian depths pressed in on Ehud as he descended. The walls of the rock channel were rough; whoever had wielded the laser-cutter hadn't carved so much as flailed about wildly until there was space enough to fit a hovercart through. His glow-rod tried its best, but gave up about three or four meters out; past that could have been anything. It was chilly, though any spot the blue goop had been remained curiously warm. (The stupid stuff was still all through his hair, too.)
Submerged in the gloom as he was, Ehud's mind-fingers started to itch with impatience. Something to grab hold of had to be down here; some drop of data that could be spit-shined and elbow-greased into polishing up an answer. His boots kicked up ripples of sound, but they were swallowed by the bottomless murk. Once or twice he thought he heard their echoes behind him. He kept walking.
From ahead, a pale glow grew; overrunning the banks of its chamber. Ehud rushed forward and then froze at the sight his brain was attempting to comprehend. To describe what he saw physically would be fruitless inaccuracy; but the drift of it, speaking in generalities and kind-of-like's, would be as follows: a shapeless mass that pulsed and glistered, oozing a malevolent halo of hard bioluminescence around itself; and shimmering opalescence had coalesced into tendrils of silver light. They were undulating, but the head of the miner that each enveloped was still. Ehud was staring, mouth agape, when from behind him came a low "What in all nine hells . . ."
He spun. The barkeep stared past him, her grey eyes become limpid pools reflecting the light of the sight before them. "Miss Achsa?" he asked incredulously; then, "Achsa!" - hissed in alarm - for she had begun to approach the thing, drifting towards it, dreamlike.
Ehud grabbed at her arm, but it slipped from his grasp as she was pulled as inexorably as the tides. He began casting about for some other solution; for while generic disgust filled him at the placid look of the slumped miners-turned-soul-husks, he was specially vehement that that fate not come about for this human he'd actually shared conversation with.
Horrified, he observed a reaching arm bulge out of the central mass and begin stretching towards Achsa. Grabbing a discarded hammer off the cavern floor, he gritted his teeth and swung it at the offending tendril. But his weapon was unwieldy and his stroke even more so, and the thing writhed easily out of the way. Don't be a fool, Ehud remonstrated himself - his hand let fall the hammer and he filled it with blaster. It had been chrome, once; now any sheen was due to diligent polishing, not flashy marketing, and pits and scratches tell just as much history as craters and canyons do. The familiar weight worked against his arm's velocity the way it had a thousand times before, and his finger squeezed the firing stud almost before his brain realized it was time to shoot. Superheated plasma tore through time and space and tentacle (plasma itself, maybe) and the thing writhed again, this time not in a dodge. Garnet sparks poured off of the breach in the pearlescent epidermis as it flailed about. Two more tentacles shot out and coiled around his arms before he could fire again - his thews strained but were no match for the crushing strength restraining him, and now lifting him bodily. For the second time in as many moments Ehud froze, for surging towards him now was another tendril, coming for his head, sure to root him with nought but an ashen mien remaining: a phylactery with no body.
Welp, . . .
Then the thing was upon him, and Ehud stilled his body so as to fight it off with his mind; for he was full of piss and vinegar - a stubborn cuss, born under the sign of the jackass. . . . But he never got his chance.
The instant the probing tentacle came in contact with his head, it froze for a fraction of a heartbeat, and then recoiled. The thing began to bubble and then boil from within, distending its already sense-maddening form into another phase of abhorrence. Ehud found his limbs free and his body falling; he landed hard and something went "spang!" in his ankle (a sound he was sure ankles should not make). He groped for his blaster, fumbling it back into its holster, and looked about him. The horror was flailing its limbs and shuddering as it boiled; its previous prisoners were sprawled where they fell, unmoving; but Achsa had found him and was drawing him up, supporting him on the side he could put but a fraction of his weight on.
"I don't reckon you got a reason to stay," she stated the inquiry flatly.
"No ma'am; out's fine," Ehud gritted.
Achsa made no reply, but hustled them out of the chamber - a few bends in the tunnel later she slowed to a more sustainable pace. Neither were interested in prolonging their time in the dark, nor in speaking. Finally, they reached the threshold. Ehud stayed Achsa:
"What're we saying?"
"What? Where?" She sounded annoyed.
"You know where, you know who." he said calmly. "Folk are going to want to know. They have a right."
"Oh, they have a right, now, do they?" Her voice dripped scorn. "The ones who gave up? The ones who just moved on? The ones who forgot?"
"The ones who could forget, you mean?"
Her wordlessness could have melted stone.
"How many times did you try to go down there, Miss Achsa? How many steps in did you take before turning around?"
She looked at the ground. "Pap Paolo always caught me. Said I couldn't go. I told myself I couldn't hurt the old coot just to get my own way, but," she shrugged, "Maybe I was glad for an excuse to not go down."
"Well, . . ." he paused, considering. Then, "Those folk aren't lost anymore. A scav life isn't really what some might call a life, per se, but the Diana's got a spare berth; and I can always promise you another moon - if you're willing."
She cleared her throat. "Let's get you back, stranger, an' let Pap take a look at that foot."
Ehud nodded, and dropped it.
Something whined particularly petulantly as Ehud took the Diana through her preflight. "Oh, shush," her pilot muttered, not unaffectionately. "You've had bigger aches before." His hands slowed their usual dance over the various control interfaces, and then stopped entirely. He traced a scarred manufacturer's placard, the raised T O X O N - S H I P Y A R D S just as worn as the gloved digit that did the tracing.
"Noisy little lady, ain't she?"
Ehud spun his chair around and stood, wincing only a little on his bound ankle. "Yes ma'am, she is, that."
Achsa stood at the open hatch, both hands clutching a duffel in front of her. "Is that berth still open?"
Ehud tried (and failed) to restrain a grin. "Yes ma'am, it surely is."
A few minutes later they were in the air; and then, beyond. A companionable silence lapped placidly between them. Ahead, another moon rose.