This is somewhat more serious than the last part, and hopefully not a textbook case of middle chapter syndrome...
"What is this?" Dal-ama poked the crumpled, dusty form with the dull handle of his spear. The unresponsive alien was lying in the sands of the dessert, unmoving.
Hem-ur looked at the strange creature, which they had just encountered on their hunting expedition. It wore bizarre clothing, the likes of which they had never seen. Hem-ur wondered what the unusual material of which it was made came from.
"It is some kind of strange man," Hem-ur offered.
"I’ve never seen a pink man before. And his face - it is so odd!" Dal-ama knelt over the alien, and examined his face. The native’s long, sensitive antennae almost touched the nose of the unconscious victim.
"Should we bring it back to the kehtur?"
"We should. It will make good eating if it is not a man after all. We are not far, so we can carry it." Dal-ama got up, grabbing the human’s arms. Hem-ur, for his part, lifted the legs. With a grunt, the two headed back to the home of their tribe.
James was half awake in a steaming, sweltering atmosphere. He could barely breathe on account of the humidity. There was a faint, sulfurous smell, and he heard the gurgle of water from somewhere below him.
Was this a dream? Where was he? Suddenly, a large, cold drop of water, condensed on some surface above him, fell and landed in James’ face. He opened his eyes.
A stark ray of sunlight fell down the center of a large, roughly cylindrical area. Its source was a partly overgrown opening at the top, from which several vines hung down. The light’s ray was clearly visible, for the atmosphere was thick will tiny droplets of water and possibly steam.
James braced himself on the floor as he attempted to get up. The floor was wooden, and was one of several wooden stories that he could see. Each was like a ring attached to the outside of the cylindrical area. The stories each had a large, circular opening in the center. Primitive ladders were strung between the stories, evidently to communicate people between them.
He guessed that the reason for the open design was to allow the steam to pass upward through the opening while also allowing people to move down to the lower levels with the ladders.
Managing to right himself, James looked at the wall. It was solid stone, irregular and natural.
Where was this place? It seemed to be some sort of natural structure, but it had clearly become the home of some people... Who?
He was not long in wondering. In the dim light of an area not touched by the finger of penetrating sunlight, a humanoid form ascended one of the rickety ladders. James observed that the person was short and of slight build, clad in minimal apparel, and possessed of two pendulous antennae on its forehead. The protrusions extended in silhouette from the shadow of the being's profile.
This was no Cytheran creature. James recalled being pushed into the strange, green portal that must have brought him here. Clearly, this was no trick - he was indeed cast into a strange world.
"Sum gahn dolo- sum fo-" The speckled, green native said, as he approached. James, of course, had no idea what he meant.
"Sum ghan dolo- sum dof fo-"
"Hello?" James ventured.
"Mul dolo Dal-ama pah-" The native gestured to himself. "Mul sath dola Ama pah-"
James guessed from the gesture that the native had in some way referred to himself with the last sentence, but he was no linguist.
"I don’t understand you," said James.
The native looked confused briefly, then called out. "Ig teh-al foth- Hu gahu kut sun-"
Judging from the loudness of the cry, he figured that it was not directed at him. Sure enough, just a few moments passed before the call had produced another person scaling the primitive ladder.
He was quite surprised to see that the person was not at all like the unintelligible person near him. The called person was thin but not frail, and wore similar clothes to those of the native. She had pointed, elven ears, and a normal complexion unlike the antitypical green shade.
"Hello!" James said to the elf woman. Perhaps here was someone who might have a hope of speaking Cytheran .
She returned his greeting with a slight, crisp elven accent, "Hello there. You must be James Averest, no doubt."
He was taken aback. "Yes, yes I am. How did you know?"
"In time. I am called Teh-al, by the natives here. You need not concern yourself with my actual name - it is unimportant." She turned towards the native. "Kog hom aka- Foth Hem-ur-"
The green-skinned person nodded to the request with a odd sideways motion and descended into the veil of steam by a nearby ladder.
"Where are we?"
"We are in the kehtur shared by the Ur, Ama and Joh families, in the land Shuy Jut - that means ‘Big termite mound’."
"There aren’t any around here, that is just what the first people that came to this area thought when they saw these volcanic formations - called kehtur - that we’re in. Oh - you weren't conscious when you came here. You’ll have to see it from the outside. It is quite impressive."
"We’re in something volcanic?"
"A large formation of rock over a hot spring, to be exact. It is a most curious and rare type of formation. At one time, this area in which we are situated was the throat of a truly massive geyser. It churned up a durable, insoluble, sulfate rock from the deep earth and plated the tube walls with it. That coating got to be several feet thick over the centuries. Meanwhile, erosion on the outside dissolved and moved the lighter carbonaceous rock around the tube, leaving this steaming chimney thirty meters tall above the dessert surface and quite a way below it."
She observed James’ nervousness at the mention of there being inside a geyser.
"Oh, the geyser isn’t active. Don’t worry about it. But the water in the spring and condensate from the steam vent creates a beautiful oasis around these glistening chimney formations. I must say I have been most fortunate in receiving this assignment."
"Assignment? What would that be?" Asked James, as he wiped accumulated condensate and sweat from his face.
"That’s right, you’re not here for a Shuy-juti science lesson. The alliance sent you here to see the Rift."
"Are you in league with the Luddites?"
"I like to keep out of political differences in general, I am a scientist. But yes, I can see for myself that their cause is a noble one insofar as the insistence on stopping the use of Elemental technology, so I agreed to help them."
"Help them do what? Blow up power converters that supply the world with necessities of life?"
"No, that is not my calling. I simply agreed to try my best to help you see first hand what your technology is doing to other worlds."
"These people seem perfectly alright."
"I fear that isn’t going to be true for much longer. Already the rift has reached the kehtur of the Hu and Gana, which is not more than ten kilometers from here. The Rift now expands at about twenty meters a day, but when those two converters in Darsh were running, it was growing by kilometers each day. It appeared suddenly, six kehturs where consumed while their poor inhabitants slept."
It did affect James, on some level. He’d been part of the review commission that had suggested the converters to the Dwarven government as a solution to their looming energy crisis for the Darsh factories, heavy industrial plants and the foundries that churned out massive planetary defense weapons for most of the Stellar Confederation.
"How do we get out of here?"
"A portal opens in four days, at the same spot where you came in. It will take both of us back to Cythera."
"Our portals are very limited. We could not evacuate them, so they will eventually die - further victims of Cytheran technology."
Another twinge of guilt hit him. He was afraid to ask what their estimates on how many worlds had been devoured were.
"There is nothing that can be done?"
"We have traced the rift to a lens in Odemia that powers a large brewery’s pasteurizing and electrical equipment, but the alliance’s attempt to knock it out failed. They’ll make a second attempt tonight. If it fails, I’ll try to convince the members of this tribe and several others in the area to abandon their kehturs and make a long pilgrimage across the dessert - before your people fix the Darsh converters and this entire area is annihilated in the name of warm showers, cheap electricity, giant weapons, and mass produced Dwarven novelties."
"You are serious about this rift? It is really destroying this world?"
"I am. The rift will destroy this world, and eventually billions of others in this universe. And when it is finished, it will move over to a new universe. Oh, yes, it is infinite energy for free - free for Cythera, and very expensive for these people and others like them."
"What would Cythera do without lenses? We have no sources of power to replace them. For that matter, the ban on the export of lenses from Cythera ends this year. Soon, the whole Stellar Confederation is going to be switching to lenses as their power source. What then?"
"Then, the blood of trillions will be on the hands of Cythera."
"Do the Luddites have any plans to stop the lenses?"
"No. It is too vast a task to seek out and destroy them all."
"Then what will they do?"
"Not what will they do, James, what will you do?"
"I don’t follow. I’m not a major political figure, In case you didn’t notice. And even if I were, we’re a democracy. You’d have to convince a majority of the Cytheran population not only that lens use must be eliminated but that we must break our agreement with the Stellar Confederation to supply this technology, which was a condition of our entry contract. Cythera would face sanctions and blockade just at the time when it would need trade with other world the most to get new sources of energy.
For that matter, the Confeds might even decide to enforce the treaty with the military, invade and seize the technology - where would we be then? All our planetary defense weapons are lenses!"
The scientist patiently endured James’ spiel.
"You have the access codes for the Energy Commission computer system. If you will give them to the elven alliance, they can put an end to the problem once and for all."
"Treason! That’s a capital crime! And there’s nothing on that system important that isn’t protected by a second layer of security. It’d do you no good!"
"The Cytheran government does not think what we need is that important. They are either ignorant, or think we don’t have the resources in terms of scientists and engineers to make this data on the network useful to us."
"What is it?"
"The data files on the research by Karon Dalis on elementology."
"An Elementologist who lived several centuries ago."
"Look it up on the net museum, then."
"No, some of his research was classified by the government after the ethereal void was sealed. That information remains restricted to this day, and it is in the archives of the Energy Commission."
"The information is classified because Karon Dalis figured out what we discovered - that the use of the lenses which he pioneered wreaked havoc on other universes. He was centuries ahead of his time, but he never published the theory. Some government workers found that research six months ago, and sealed it in the archives. One of those workers was an agent of the alliance, but he was caught sending the files to us - the Government Infosnoopes aborted the document transfer before we got more than a few pages of introduction. Needless to say our agent didn’t get to make a second attempt, either."
"What good is it? Even if it does confirm what you say, what benefit will there be? I know enough about politics from being around it almost four decades to know that a warm burger means more to the average unenlightened Cytheran than the life of some person in another universe, sad as that is."
"Karon mentioned in the few pages of data we received that he had not only figured out the effects of the lenses, he also postulated on a way in which the elemental forces could be universally stabilized, preventing further dimensional transfers. The Alliance plans to throw all their remaining resources into executing this method of Karon’s."
It all becomes clear, thought James.
"Fine, I’m sold. But I don’t see what reason you have to believe I’ll succeed in getting you those files. I have no legitimate need for them, so the Infosnoopes will flag my download as suspicious and keep me under surveillance. That will make it essentially impossible for me to transmit them to you electronically. And if I print a hardcopy? That’s going to set off major alarms. The police will come to my office and I’ll probably be detained for interrogation! And I don’t do well under pressure... they’ll delete those files if they know the Luddites want them..."
Teh-al had, during the course of James’ whine, been mildly distracted by some doings by the natives on the level below them. She snapped her attention back to the captive.
"Oh, another person will arrive here tomorrow to explain the details we worked out for getting the information into alliance hands, and you can help him work out a plan for getting the files without attracting the Infosnoopes. That isn’t my field of expertise."
James looked about the uncomfortably humid surroundings. "Couldn’t you have picked a nicer place to show me one of the rifts?"
"The other worlds - that we know of - that are being attacked currently are a gas giant with non sentient macro fungi as its main life form, and a frozen, lifeless planetoids. This is easily the best of the three. It has humanoid life and is thus hospitable to it. Besides, I don’t see the reason for complaint, it is really a beautiful place - you can’t judge it from the inside of a kehtur. I’m sure you’d appreciate a look outside?"
He nodded quickly. Almost anything would be preferable to the choking humidity. As he followed Teh-al to one of the ladders, he wondered what he had gotten himself into working for the government... he certainly never imagined it would be this dangerous.
It would indeed have been a vast injustice to judge this world by the inside of a kehtur. As James stepped onto the rickety wooden platform that capped the shaft of the extinct geyser, he looked around. Out of the column of steam rising from the geyser, which rapidly dissipated into the desert air, the visibility was astounding. For his perch atop the kehtur, he could make out several others fairly close, not more than a few kilometers south of their position. Surrounding each was a cluster of green vegetation that petered out into unending dunes. A fast wind made the plants covering much of the outside of the kehtur sway, rustling reeds and grasses that eked out a living next to the ring of spring water that had tricked out of the kehtur’s heart. James noticed a lack of heat, this was clearly termed a desert because of its wanting in rain, not because of its temperature. In fact, he was cold. He was sure the wind-chill wasn’t helping.
"Is it always this windy?" He asked.
"No, but it is fairly frequently this way towards the evening. It cools off rapidly at night, it can get below freezing some times."
James nodded. The sun was indeed beginning to set. It was smaller but slightly whiter than earth’s sun, and bands of a crimson sunset radiated from it. It was stunningly beautiful. And James was chilled to the bone.
"Just one last thing. Look over there, to the west. See that white glow?"
James squinted, and looked for anything that could be so described. He was not too unduly long in looking. There was a faint band of white light, barely visible in the setting sun, a few kilometers away from his position.
He had an idea of what it was, but he asked anyway. "What is it?"
"That’s the rift. We can’t travel to it tonight - no one here travels at night. Between the cold and the nocturnal set of animal life, you’d be very fortunate if you survived. We’ll set out early tomorrow morning."
James and the elven scientist descended readily back into the kehtur. It seemed to him that there was no happy medium here, it was either too hot and humid or too cold and windy. He shuddered at the thought of having to try to sleep in the omnipresent steam inside the kehtur, but the idea of this ‘nocturnal set’ of creatures seemed to make outdoor sleep unviable.
The inside of the strange native dwelling offered some intersecting features, even to one who was not normally fascinated by ‘primitive’ cultures. James spotted some of the natives engaged in crushing the thick leaves on some succulent plant into a paste. Others wound twine from dry grass, making rope. James figured that such rope would need frequent replacement in such a damp environment as this.
The ladders connecting the levels of the inside of the kehtur were made of that rope. This did not instill confidence in James as to their dubious safety.
He’d lost track of Teh-al while watching the natives go about their activities, and decided to find her. He hadn’t the slightest idea about where one was supposed to find food here, and he was famished. He was pretty tired too, and he hadn’t seen anything reassembling a bed or sleeping area in the upper levels of the structure. As the walked over to the edge and prepared to mount the mildewed ladder, a voice greeted him.
"Hello strange man!" The voice was clear, but high in pitch. James turned to see that the source was one of the natives.
"Are you surprised that I talk in Cytheran?"
"I am. I didn’t know any of you did."
"Ig Teh-al has taught me many of your words. It is good to have more than one person who talks in both of our languages. Ig Teh-al says our people have a talent for speaking more than one language."
James nodded. "That’s good. Where is Teh-al now? I was just looking for her."
"She is down below in mehthur. I will take you to it if you want me to do that."
"Please. Lead the way, uh, what is you name?"
"Yi-Joh is my name."
As they headed for the ‘mehthur’, whatever that was, James observed two of the natives hauling in a large dead animal from outside. It must have come too near to the kehtur for its own good, and become a victim of their sentries. The creature was nonetheless formidable, with razor teeth and a stout and powerful body. It looked like a good reason to stay indoors after sundown to James.
As it turned out, Mehthur was the term used by the people here to designate the steaming spring deep inside the Kehtur. Sturdy wooden platforms were positioned around the spring, from which a steady column of water vapor rose. A triad of streams of water flowed away from the spring and to the circle of water outside, and some of the natives sat on the edge of the wooden platforms, wading in the more temperate regions of the pool. Mothers bathed their children in the cooler streams, and one of the kehtur-dwellers was drawing hot water from the steaming aperture of the spring in a crude bucket. This was clearly the social center of the culture, and the foreign sounds of their language filled the air.
James easily picked out the pink elven face of Teh-al among the emerald natives. She was dangling her feet in the spring, talking to a rather corpulent person who was evidently the leader of this clan, or at least, he reasoned, the patriarch of one of the three families supposedly here.
"Ig Teh-al is speaking to Je Ur-ama, the one who is leader and father to the Ama family. We must not interrupt them."
James nodded to his guide, and stood watching. "What are they saying, Yi-Joh?" He asked.
"They are talking about the rift that devours our land."
"It will grow larger, Ig Teh-al says. The Kehtur of the Ama, Joh and Ur will be eaten by the rift as well if it is not stopped.
Je Ur-ama is talking now. He says that the way across the dessert of Shuy Jut is difficult. His people have lived for six generations in this Kehtur, and will be reluctant to leave without cause. But he knows of the danger and will make things ready to leave if the rift begins growing quickly again.
Ig Teh-al thanks him for his time and for listening."
James observed Teh-al get up from next to the Ama patriarch, and walk across the log floor to him.
"James! I was just speaking to the family head of the Ama. Do you need something?"
"As a matter of fact, I came to ask about where one acquires food around here. It’s past suppertime, and I’m famished."
She nodded and turned to Yi-Joh. "Yi-Joh, please show James where he can find something to eat. I have to talk to the family heads of the Ur and Joh - leaving the kehtur would be a decision they would have to make together."
"The food is this way James!" said Yi-Joh, already headed for the ladder.
(to be continued)
Maybe in retrospect there was not enough action in that part... I dunno. Something felt wrong about it, help me out here. - Bryce
(This message has been edited by moderator (edited 01-28-2003).)