Captives of the Flame
During the next couple of hours, two people died, miles apart.
“Don’t be silly,” Rara was saying in the inn at the Devil’s Pot. “I’m a perfectly good nurse. Do you want to see my license?”
The white-haired old man sat very straight in his chair by the window. Blue seeped like liquid across the glass. “Why did I do it?” he said. “It was wrong. I--I love my country.”
Rara pulled the blanket from the back of the chair and tucked it around the stiff, trembling shoulders. “What are you talking about?” she said, but the birthmark over her face showed deep purple with worry.
He shook the blanket off and flung his hand across the table where the news directive lay.
CROWN PRINCE KIDNAPED!
KING DECLARES WAR!
The trembling in Geryn’s shoulders became violent shaking.
“Sit back,” said Rara.
Geryn stood up.
“Sit down,” Rara repeated. “Sit down. You’re not well. Now sit down!”
Geryn lowered himself stiffly to the chair. He turned to Rara. “Did I start a war? I tried to stop it. That was all I wanted. Would it have happened if...”
“Sit back,” Rara said. “If you’re going to talk to somebody, talk to me. I can answer you. Geryn, you didn’t start the war.”
Geryn suddenly rose once more, staggered forward, slammed his hands on the table and began to cough.
“For pity’s sake,” Rara cried, trying to move the old man back into his chair, “will you sit down and relax! You’re not well! You’re not well at all!” From above the house came the faint beat of helicopter blades.
Geryn went back to his chair. Suddenly he leaned his head back, his sharp Adam’s apple shooting high in his neck and quivering. Rara jumped forward and tried to bring his head up. “Dear heavens,” she breathed. “Stop that. Now stop it, or you’ll hurt yourself.”
Geryn’s head came up straight again. “A war,” he said. “They made me start the--”
“No one made you do anything,” Rara said. “And you didn’t start the war.”
“Are you sure?” he asked. “No. You can’t be sure. No one can. Nobody...”
“Will you please try to relax,” Rara repeated, tucking at the blanket.
Geryn relaxed. It went all through his body, starting at his hands. The stiff shoulders dropped a little, his head fell forward, the wall of muscle quivering across his stomach loosened, the back bent; and that frail fist of strength that had jarred life through his tautened body for seventy years, shaking inside his chest, it too relaxed. Then it stopped. Geryn crumpled onto the floor.
The shifting body pulled Rara down with him. Unaware that he was dead, she was trying to get him back into the chair, when the helicopter blades got very loud.
She looked up to see the window darken with a metal shadow. “Good lord,” she breathed. Then the glass shattered.
She screamed, careened around the table, and fled through the door, slamming it behind her.
Over the flexible metal ramp that hooked onto the window sill two men entered the room. Fire-blades poised, they walked to the crumpled body, lifted it between them, and carried it back to the window. Their arm bands showed the royal insignia of the palace guards.
Tel was running down the street because someone was following him. He ducked into a side alley and skittered down a flight of stone steps. Somewhere overhead he heard a helicopter.
His heart was pounding like explosions in his chest, like the sea, like his ocean. Once he had looked through a six-inch crevice between glassy water and the top of a normally submerged cave and seen wet, orange starfish dripping from the ceiling and their reflections quivering with his own breath. Now he was trapped in the cave of the city, the tide of fear rising to lock him in. Footsteps passed above him.
Nearby was a ladder that led to a trap door which would put him in the hall of a tenement. He climbed it, emerged, and then turned up the regular steps to the roof. He walked across the tar-paper surface to the edge, leaned over, and peered into the alley. Two men, who may have been the people following him, approached from opposite ends of the alley. The sky was deepening toward evening and it was cool. The two men met, and then one pointed to the roof.
“Damn,” Tel muttered, ducked backward, and bit his tongue with surprise. He opened his mouth and breathed hard, holding the side of his jaw. The helicopter was coming closer.
Then something very light fell over him. He forgot his bitten tongue and struck out with his hands. It was strong, too. It jerked at his feet and he fell forward. It was not until it lifted him from the roof that he realized he was caught in a net. He was being drawn up toward the sound of the whirling helicopter blades.
Just about that time the order came through. He didn’t even have time to say good-bye to Clea. Two other mathematicians in the corps had shown appropriate awe at Clea’s discovery and proceeded to locate the generator. The next-in-charge general, working on a strategy Tomar did not quite understand, decided that now was the time for an active strike. “Besides,” he added, “if we don’t give them some combat soon, we’ll lose--and I mean lose as in ‘misplace’--the war.”
The shadow of the control tower fell through the windshield and slipped across Tomar’s face. He pulled up his goggles and sighed. Active combat. What the hell would they be combating? The disorder, the disorganization was beginning to strike him as farcical. Though after the poisoned fish, the farcical was no longer funny.
The buildings on the airfield sunk back and down. The transit ribbon fell below him and the six other planes in the formation pulled up behind him. A moment later the island was a comb of darkness on the glittering foil of the evening sea.
Clouds banded the deep blue at the horizon. There were three stars out, the same stars that he had looked at as a boy when his sunup to sundown work day had ended. Between hunger and hunger there had been some times when you could look at the stars and wonder, as there were now between times of work and work.
The controls were set. There was nothing to do but wait for land to rise up over the edge of the world.
As the end of the metal ribbon was a transparent crystal sphere, fifteen feet in diameter which hovered above the receiving stage. A dozen small tetron units sat around the room. By one ornate window a bank of forty-nine scarlet knobbed switches pointed to off. Two men stood on the metal catwalk that ran above the receiving stage, one young man with black hair, the other a dark giant with a triplex of scars down the left side of his face.
In another room, the corpses of the elders of Telphar sat stiff and decomposed on green velvet seats.
It was evening in the solarium on top of the General Medical building. The patients were about to be herded from their deck chairs and game tables under the glass roof back to their wards, when a woman screamed. Then there was the sound of breaking glass. More people screamed.
Alter heard the roar of helicopter blades. People were running around her. Suddenly the crowd of bathrobed patients broke from in front of her. She touched the cast that covered her left shoulder and arm. People cried out. Then she saw.
The glass dome had been shattered at the edge, and the flexible metal ramp ran a dark ribbon from the copter to the edge of the solarium. The men that marched across had the insignia of the royal guards. She clamped her jaws together and moved behind the nurse. The men marched in, fire-blades high, among the overturned deck chairs. There were three stars visible, she noted irrelevantly, through the bubble dome.
Good lord! They were coming toward her!
The moment the guards recognized her, she realized the only way to get out was to cross the suddenly immense span of metal flooring to the stairwell. She ducked her head, broke from the crowd of patients and ran, wondering why she had been fool enough to wait this long. The guard tackled her and she heard screams again.
She fell to the hard floor and felt pain explode along the inside of her cast. The guard tried to lift her, and with her good arm she struck at his face. Then she held her palm straight and brought the edge down on the side of his neck.
She staggered and she felt herself slip to the floor. Then someone grabbed a handful of her hair and her head was yanked back. At first she closed her eyes. Then she had to open them. Night was moving above her through the dome of the solarium. Then the cracked edge of the glass passed over her, and it was colder, and the blur and roar of helicopter blades was above.
“Dead on course,” said Tomar back into the microphone. Below, the rim of land slipped back under them. The moon bleached the edges of the vari-colored darknesses beneath them; then went down.