Captives of the Flame
Chapter 11

Public Domain

The green of beetles’ wings ... the red of polished carbuncle ... a web of silver fire, and through the drifting blue smoke Jon hurled across the sky.

Then blackness, intense and cold. The horizon was tiny, jagged, maybe ten feet away. He reached a metal out and crawled expertly (not clumsily. Expertly!) across a crevice, but slowly, very slowly. The sky was sharp with stars, though the sun was dim to his light-sensitive rind. Like a sliding cyst, he edged over the chunk of rock that spun somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. Now he reached out with his mind to touch a second creature on another rock. Petra, he called. Where is he?

His orbit should take him between the three of us in a minute and a half.

Fine.

Jon, who is the third one? I still don’t understand.

Another mind joined them. You don’t understand yet? I was the third, I always was. I was the one who directed Geryn to make the plan in the first place for the kidnaping. What made you think that he was in contact with the triple beings?

I don’t know, Jon said. Some misunderstanding.

There was the laughter of children. Then Tel said, Hey, everybody, we’re with Arkor.

Shhh, said Alter. The misunderstanding was my fault, Jon. I told you that Geryn talked to himself, and that made you think it was him.

Get ready, Petra said. Here he comes.

Jon saw, or rather sensed the approach of another spinning asteroid, whirling toward them through the blackness. But it was inhabited. Yes! The three of them threw their thoughts across the rush of space.

There...


Roaring steam swirled above him. He raised his eye-stalks another twenty feet and looked toward the top of the cataract some four miles up. Then he lowered his siphon into the edge of the pool of pale green liquid methane and drank deeply. Far away in a beryl green sky, three suns rushed madly about one another and gave a little heat to this farthest of their six planets.

Now Jon flapped his slitherers down and began to glide away from the methane falls and up the nearly vertical mountain slope. Someone was coming toward him, with shiny red eye-stalks waving in greeting. “Greetings to the new colony,” the eye-stalks signaled.

Jon started to signal back. But suddenly he recognized (a feeling way at the back of his slitherers) who this was. He leaped forward and flung the double flaps of leathery flesh across his opponent and began to scramble back up the rocks. Jon had his tight, but was wondering where the hell were...

Suddenly his eye-stalk caught the great form that he knew must be Arkor coming down over the rocks (with Alter and Tel. Yes, definitely; because the creature suddenly did a flying leap between two crags that could have only been under the girl-acrobat’s control), and a moment later that Petra had arrived at the other shore of the methane river. Using her slitherers for paddles, she struck out across the foaming current.

Think at him, concentrate... There...


The air was water-clear. The desert was still, and he lay in the warm sand, under the light of the crescent moon. He was growing, adding facets; he let the pale illumination seep into his transparent body, decreasing his polarization cross-frequencies. The light was beautiful, too beautiful--dangerous! He began to tingle, to glow red-hot. His base burned with white heat and another layer of sand beneath him melted, fused, ran, and became part of his crystalline body.

He stepped up the polarization, his body clouded, and cooled once more. Music sang through him, and his huge upper facet reflected the stars.

Once more he lessened his polarization, and the light crept further and further into his being. His temperature rose. Vibrations suffused his transparency and the pulsing music made the three dust particles that had settled on his coaxial face seven hundred and thirty years ago dance above him. He felt their reflection deep in his prismatic center.

He felt it coming, suddenly, and tried to stop it. But the polarization index suddenly broke down completely. For one terrific moment of ecstasy the light of the moon and the stars poured completely through him. Chord after chord rang out in the desert night. Back and forth along his axis, colliding, shaking his substance, jarring him, pommeling him, came the vibrations. For one instant he was completely transparent. The next, he was white-hot. Before he could melt, he felt the crack start.

It shot the length of his forty-two mile, super-heated body. He was in two pieces! The radio disturbance alone covered a third of a galaxy. Twelve pieces fell away. The chord crashed again, and the crack whipped back and forth vivisecting him. Already he was nearly thirty-six thousand individual crystals, all of which had to grow again, thirty-six thousand minds. He was no more.

Jon, the voice sang through drumbled silicate.

Right over here, Petra, he hummed back. (The note was a perfect quarter tone below A-flat. Perfect! Not clumsy. Perfect!)

Where’s Arkor?

To their left the triple notes of an E-flat minor chord (Arkor, Tel, and Alter) sounded: Right here.

Just as they had made contact, before the music stopped (and once more their thoughts would become separate, individual, and they would lose awareness of each other and of the hundreds of other crystals that lay over the desert, under the clear perpetual night)--just then a strident dissonance pierced among them.

There, sang Petra.

There, hummed Jon.

There, came the triad in E-flat minor. They concentrated, tuned, turned their thoughts against the dissonance. There...


Jon rolled over and pushed the silk from his white shoulders and stretched. Through the blue pillars, the evening sky was yellow. Music, very light and fast, was coming from below the balcony. Suddenly a voice sounded beside him: “Your Majesty, your Majesty! You shouldn’t be resting now. They’re waiting for you downstairs. Tltltrlte will be furious if you’re late.”

“What do I care?” Jon responded. “Where’s my robe?”

The serving maid hastened away and returned with a sheer, shimmering robe, netted through with threads of royal black. The drape covered Jon’s shoulders, draped across his breasts, and fell to his thighs.

“My mirror,” said Jon.

The serving maid brought the mirror and Jon looked. Long, slightly oriental eyes sat wide-spaced in the ivory face over high cheekbones. Full breasts pushed tautly beneath the transluscent material, and the slender waist spread to sensual, generous hips. Jon almost whistled at his reflection.

The maid slipped clear plastic slippers on his feet, and Jon rose and walked toward the stairs. In the lobby, the throng hissed appreciatively as he descended. On one column hung a bird cage in which a three-headed cockatoo was singing to beat the band. Which was difficult to do, because the band was composed of fourteen copper-headed drums. (Fourteen was the royal number.)

Across the lobby wind instruments wailed, and Jon paused on the stairs. “Don’t worry,” the maid said, “I’m right behind you.”

Jon felt the terror rise. Hey, he called out mentally, is that you, Petra?

Like I said, right behind you.

Incidentally, how did I come up with this body?

I don’t know, dear, but you look devastating.

Gee, thanks, he said, projecting a mental sneer. Where’s Arkor and Company?

The music had stopped. There was only the sound of the three-headed bird.

There they are.

The winds screeched again, and at the entrance of the lobby, the people fell away from the door. There was Tltltrlte. He was tall, and dark, in a cloak in which there were many more black threads than in Jon’s. He unsheathed a sword, and began to come forward. “Your reign is through, Daughter of the Sun,” he announced. “It is time for a new cycle.”

“Very well,” said Jon.

As Tltltrlte advanced, the throng that crowded the lobby clapped their hands in terror and moved back further. Jon stood very straight.

As Tltltrlte came forward, his shoulders narrowed. He pushed back the hood of his cloak and a mass of ebony hair cascaded down his shoulders. With each step, his hips broadened and his waist narrowed. A very definite bulge of mammary glands now pushed up beneath his black silk tunic. As Tltltrlte reached the bottom of the steps, she raised her sword.

Think at him, came Arkor from the bird cage.

Think at him, came from Petra.

Jon saw the blade flash forward and then felt it slide into his abdomen. At her, he corrected.

At her, they answered.

As Jon toppled down the steps, dying, he asked, What the hell is this anyway?

We’re inhabiting a very advanced species of moss, Arkor explained, with the calmness that only a telepath can muster in certain confusing situations. Each individual starts off male, but eventually changes to female at the desired time.

Moss? asked Jon as he hit his head on the bottom step and died.

There...


The wave came again and thundered on the beach. He staggered backwards, just as the froth spumed up the sand. The sky was blue-black. He raised his fingers to his lips (seven long tines webbed together) and whined into the night. He lifted his transparent eyelids from his huge, luminous eyes to see if there wasn’t some faint trace of the boat. Spray fell on them, stung the rims, and he snapped all three lids over them, one after another. He whined again, and once more the wave grew before him.

He opened the two opaque lids, and this time thought he saw them far off through the greenish spray. The pentagonal sail rode above a billow-blue, wet, and full. It dipped, rose, and he pulled back his transparent eyelid again, this time when the wave was down, and thought he saw figures on the fibrous hammock of the boat. On the blue sail was the white circle of a Master Fisherman’s boat. His parent was a Master Fisherman. Yes, it was his parent coming to get him.

Another billow exploded and he crouched in the froth, digging his hind feet deep into the pebbly beach.

The crosshatch of planking scudded onto the shore, and they swarmed off. One wore a chain around his neck with the Master Fisherman’s seal. Another carried a seven-pronged fork. The two others were just boat-hands and wore identifying black belts of Kelpod shells.

“My offspring,” said the one with the seal. “My fins have smarted for you. I thought we would never swim together again.” He reached down and lifted Jon into his arms. Jon put his head against his parent’s chest and watched water beading down the pentagonal scales.

“I was frightened,” Jon said.

His parent laughed. “I was frightened too. Why did you swim out so far?”

“I wanted to see the island. But when I was swimming, I saw...”

“What?”

Jon closed his eyelids.

His parent smiled again. “You’re sleepy. Come.” Now Jon felt himself carried to the water and into the waves. The spray fell warmly on his face now, and unafraid, he relaxed his gill slits as water fell across him and they climbed onto the boat.

Wind caught the sail, and the open-work of planking listed into the sea. Long clouds swung rapidly across the twin moons like the tines of the fishing forks the fishermen saluted the sacred phosphor fires with when they returned from their expeditions. He dreamed of his, a little, in the swell and drop. His parent had tied him to the boat, and so he floated at the end of a few feet of slack. Water rolled down his shoulders, slipped beneath his limp dorsal fin, and tickled. Then he dreamed of something else, the thing he had seen, glowing first beneath the water, then rising ... He whined suddenly, and shook his head.

He heard the others on the boat, their webbed feet slipping on the wet planks. He opened his eyes and looked up. The two boat-hands were holding onto stays and pointing off into the water. Now his parent had come up to them, holding a fishing spear, and they were joined by the Second Fisherman.

Jon scrambled from the water onto the plank. His parent put an arm around him and drew him closer. (Here he comes, Arkor said.) His other hand went to the seal of authority around his neck, as though it gave him some sort of protection.

“There it is,” Jon suddenly cried. “That’s what I saw. That’s why I was afraid to swim back.” (There it is, Jon said.)

A phosphorescent disk was shimmering under the surface of the water. The Second Fisherman raised his spear higher. “What is it?” he asked. (What is it this time? Petra wanted to know.)

Indistinct, yet nearly the size of the ship, it hovered almost three breast strokes from them, glowing beneath the surface.

(I’ll have a look, said Petra.) The Second Fisherman suddenly dove forward and disappeared. Still holding to the frame of the boat, Jon and his parent went under the water where they could see better.

One of Jon’s eyelids, the transparent one, was actually an envelope of tissue which he could flood with vitreous solution when he was submerged to form a correcting lens over his pupil.

Through the water he saw the Second Fisherman bubbling through the water toward the immense, transluscent hemisphere that dangled ahead of them. The Second Fisherman stopped with an underwater double-reverse and hovered near the thing. (It’s a huge jellyfish, Petra told them.) “Can’t figure out what it is,” the Second Fisherman signaled back. Then he extended his fork and jabbed at the membrane. The seven tines went in, came out.

The jellyfish moved, fast.

The tentacles hanging from the bottom of the bag raveled upward like snagged threads. The body bloated and surged sideways. Two tentacles wrapped around the Second Fisherman as he tried to swim away. (Eep, said Petra. These things hurt.)

 
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