Captives of the Flame
Silent as a sleeping serpent for sixty years, it spanned from the heart of Telphar to the royal palace of Toromon. From the ashes of the dead city to the island capital, it connected what once had been the two major cities, the only cities of Toromon. Today there was only one.
In Telphar, it soared above ashes and fallen roadways into the night.
Miles on, the edge of darkness paled before the morning and in the faint shadow of the transit ribbon, at the edge of a field of lava, among the whispering, yard-high ferns, sat row on row of squat shacks, cheerless as roosting macaws. They stood near the entrance of the tetron mines.
A few moments before, the light rain had stopped. Water dribbled down the supporting columns of the transit ribbon which made a black band on the fading night.
Now, six extraordinarily tall men left the edge of the jungle. They carried two corpses among them. Two of the tall men hung back to converse.
“The third one won’t get very far.”
“If he does,” said the other, “he’ll be the first one to get through the forest guards in twelve years.”
“I’m not worried about his escaping,” said the first. “But why have there been such an increase in attempts over the past year?”
The other one laughed. Even in the dull light, the three scars that ran down the side of his face and neck were visible. “The orders for tetron have nearly doubled.”
“I wonder just what sort of leeches in Toron make their living off these miserable--” He didn’t finish, but pointed ahead to the corpses.
“The hydroponic growers, the aquarium manufacturers,” answered the man with the scars. “They’re the ones who use the ore. Then, of course, there’s the preparation for the war.”
“They say that since the artificial food growers have taken over, the farmers and fishermen near the coast are being starved out. And with the increased demand for tetron, the miners are dying off like flies here at the mine. Sometimes I wonder how they supply enough prisoners.”
“They don’t,” said the other. Now he called out. “All right. Just drop them there, in front of the cabins.”
The rain had made the ground mud. Two dull splashes came through the graying morning. “Maybe that’ll teach them some sort of lesson,” said the first.
“Maybe,” shrugged the one with the scars.
Now they turned back toward the jungle.
Soon, streaks of light speared the yellow clouds and pried apart the billowing rifts. Shafts of yellow sank into the lush jungles of Toromon, dropping from wet, green fronds, or catching on the moist cracks of boulders. Then the dawn snagged on the metal ribbon that arced over the trees, and webs of shadow from the immense supporting pylons fell across the few, gutted lava beds that dotted the forest.
A formation of airships flashed through a tear in the clouds like a handful of hurled, silver chips. As the buzz from their tetron motors descended through the trees, Quorl, the forest guard, stretched his seven-foot body and rolled over, crushing leaves beneath his shoulder. Instinctively his stomach tensed. But silence had returned. With large, yellow-brown eyes, he looked about the grove in which he had spent the night. His broad nostrils flared even wider. But the air was still, clean, safe. Above, the metal ribbon glinted. Quorl lay back on the dried leaves once more.
As dawn slipped across the jungle, more and more of the ribbon caught fire from beneath the receding shadows, till at last it soared above the yellow crescent of sand that marked the edge of the sea.
Fifty yards down the beach from the last supporting pylon whose base still sat on dry land, Cithon, the fisherman, emerged from his shack.
“Tel?” he called. He was a brown, wiry man whose leathery face was netted with lines from sand and wind. “Tel?” he called once more. Now he turned back into the cottage. “And where has the boy gotten off to now?”
Grella had already seated herself at the loom, and her strong hands now began to work the shuttle back and forth while her feet stamped the treadle.
“Where has he gone?” Cithon demanded.
“He went out early this morning,” Grella said quietly. She did not look at her husband. She watched the shuttle moving back and forth, back and forth between the green and yellow threads.
“I can see he’s gone out,” Cithon snapped. “But where? The sun is up. He should be out with me on the boat. When will he be back?”
Grella didn’t answer.
“When will he be back?” Cithon demanded.
“I don’t know.”
Outside there was a sound, and Cithon turned abruptly and went to the side of the shack.
The boy was leaning over the water trough, sloshing his face.
The boy looked up quickly at his father. He was perhaps fourteen, a thin child, with a shock of black hair, yet eyes as green as the sea. Fear had widened them now.
“Where were you?”
“No place,” was the boy’s quietly defensive answer. “I wasn’t doing anything.”
“Where were you?”
“No place,” Tel mumbled again. “Just walking...”
Suddenly Cithon’s hand, which had been at his waist jerked up and then down, and the leather strap that had been his belt slashed over the boy’s wet shoulder.
The only sound was a sudden intake of breath.
“Now get down to the boat.”
Inside the shack, the shuttle paused in Grella’s fist the length of a drawn breath. Then it shot once more between the threads.
Down the beach, the transit ribbon leapt across the water. Light shook on the surface of the sea like flung diamonds, and the ribbon above was dull by comparison.
Dawn reached across the water till at last the early light fell on the shore of an island. High in the air, the ribbon gleamed above the busy piers and the early morning traffic of the wharf. Behind the piers, the towers of the City were lanced with gold, and as the sun rose, gold light dropped further down the building faces.
On the boardwalk, two merchants were talking above the roar of tetron-powered winches and chuckling carts.
“It looks like your boat’s bringing in a cargo of fish,” said the stout one.
“It could be fish. It could be something else,” answered the other.
“Tell me, friend,” asked the portly one, whose coat was of cut and cloth expensive enough to suggest his guesses were usually right, “why do you trouble to send your boat all the way to the mainland to buy from the little fishermen there? My aquariums can supply the City with all the food it needs.”
The other merchant looked down at the clip-board of inventory slips.
“Perhaps my clientele is somewhat different from yours.”
The first merchant laughed. “You sell to the upper families of the City, who still insist on the doubtful superiority of your imported delicacies. Did you know, my friend, I am superior in every way to you? I feed more people, so what I produce is superior to what you produce. I charge them less money, and so I am financially more benevolent than you. I make more money than you do, so I am also financially superior. Also, later this morning my daughter is coming back from the university, and this evening I will give her a party so great and so lavish that she will love me more than any daughter has ever loved a father before.”
Here the self-satisfied merchant laughed again, and turned down the wharf to inspect a cargo of tetron ore that was coming in from the mainland.
As the merchant of imported fish turned up another inventory slip, another man approached him. “What was old Koshar laughing about?” he asked.
“He was gloating over his good fortune in backing that hairbrained aquarium idea. He was also trying to make me jealous of his daughter. He’s giving her a party tonight to which I am no doubt invited; but the invitation will come late this afternoon with no time for me to reply properly.”
The other man shook his head. “He’s a proud man. But you can bring him to his place. Next time he mentions his daughter, ask him about his son, and watch the shame storm into his face.”
“He may be proud,” said the other, “but I am not cruel. Why should I move to hurt him? Time takes care of her own. This coming war will see.”
“Perhaps,” said the other merchant. “Perhaps.”
Once over the island city of Toron, capital of Toromon, the transit ribbon breaks from its even course and bends among the towers, weaves among the elevated highways, till finally it crosses near a wide splash of bare concrete, edged with block-long aircraft hangars. Several airships had just arrived, and at one of the passenger gates the people waiting for arrivals crowded closely to the metal fence.
Among them was one young man in military uniform. A brush of red hair, eyes that seemed doubly dark in his pale face, along with a squat, taurine power in his legs and shoulders; these were what struck you in the swift glance. A close look brought you the incongruity of the major’s insignia and his obvious youth.
He watched the passengers coming through the gate with more than military interest.
Someone called, “Tomar!”
And he turned, a grin leaping to his face.
“Tomar,” she called again. “I’m over here.”
A little too bumptiously, he rammed through the crowd until at last he almost collided with her. Then he stopped, looking bewildered and happy.
“Gee, I’m glad you came,” she said. “Come on. You can walk me back to father’s.” Her black hair fell close to broad, nearly oriental cheekbones. Then the smile on her first strangely, then attractively pale mouth fell.
Tomar shook his head, as they turned now, arm in arm, among the people wandering over the field.
“No?” she asked. “Why not?”
“I don’t have time, Clea,” he answered. “I had to sneak an hour off just to get here. I’m supposed to be back at the Military Ministry in forty minutes. Hey, do you have any bags I can carry?”