The Stars Like Ice
I stood in the bow of our fifty -foot inflatable boat and watched Kresthaven's sun, the polar star Vega, lay a broken red path across the rippled surface as it slipped into the Western sea.
With no good place to land a starship on the jagged ribbon of the northern continent, Star Sojourner was left orbiting this frozen world, while the team made planetfall in our hovair, and then inflated the boat.
The air had claws that raked my cheeks and invaded my nostrils with icy slivers. Glaciers growled as they crossed paths like combative giants, but somewhere, in those measureless ice caves that swirled down to a sunless sea, my good buddy Huff was hiding.
He had sent a frantic plea for help from the star positioning system of a merchant vessel that came to trade while he was visiting his people.
The team responded quickly, with our leader, crafty Joe Hatch, who came out of retirement yet again, and my good friend Chancey, who wasn't afraid of Satan himself, leaving his family in Harlem to join the search. Bat, our laid-back Southern medic, decided we needed him. "Who else will chase after y'all with a medkit, Bubba?" he'd said with an exaggerated drawl. And my exotic, smart, and beautiful lifemate, Sophia Rella, who stood beside me now, with black slanted eyes that captured my soul every time I dipped into them with a gaze.
I'd given up on trying to keep her safe from our dangerous missions. She'd told me in no uncertain words that she was her own person and would make her own decisions. I'd acquiesced when she'd punctuated it with a raised hand. She knew karate and I didn't.
After Huff's frantic call, I left my work on Blackroot, that highly opportunistic and dangerous plant/animal from planet Halcyon, where I'd been studying it at the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, as the head of a team of astrobiologists. Blackroot, or Bristra, as it was known on its homeworld, was an exotic lifeform with the potential for prolonging human life. No one knew yet for how long. I sighed and leaned on a rail. Right now, this mission to save Huff was more important.
Sophia looked over the side of the boat at the darkening sea. Silver fishes flashed by. "I'd love to see what's down there," she said.
"Well, somewhere in this sea, there's a sunken starship that spiraled out of the Alcubierre bubble and was caught by Kresthaven's gravity well. They say it carried gold buillion from planet Fartherland's mines."
"No one's ever tried to salvage it?"
"A few dive expeditions from Earth and planet Alpha tried."
"They gave up?"
"The cost was prohibitive, and it's a big ocean." I thought of a woman I'd known on Fartherland. One of the tall people in a community of little people. By now she was probably married and had a family of her own.
"A cred-chip or two for your thoughts," Sophia said.
I smiled at her. "Maybe someday, Soph, when we're ninety." I stared at the rippled sea. "Then you can tell me about your escapades, too."
She peered intently into the water. "I'd still like to know what's down there."
When I'd met Sophia on her homeworld, New Lithnia, she'd made her living catching lobster-like crustaceans called crusties, to sell to restaurants.
"I'll bet the visibility's a hundred feet," she mused.
I gazed into the crystal water. "More like two hundred."
"Want to bet?"
I kissed her cheek. "What'll we bet?" I murmured.
She turned her head and kissed me on the lips with her wide, full mouth. "I can think of something."
"If I win, you're mine for the asking, woman."
She ran her hand through my hair and smiled that alluring smile that was only for me. "The truth be known, Blondie, you smile and I'm yours for the asking."
"That's what I like, an obedient woman."
But Sophia's dear always dripped with sarcasm.
I chuckled and lifted the graphoculars to scan the glacier to our west. It caught the evening light like a blue castle carved by Great Mind's own hand. I focused on a small, dark object in front of an ice cave, and lowered the graphs.
"Did you see something, Jules?" She slipped her arm around my waist.
"Could be a candy wrapper." I winked at her.
"Where there's a candy wrapper on a glacier," she smiled, "there could be Huff. Are you probing for a telepathic link?"
Huff wasn't a sensitive who knew when he was being probed, but he had a latent tel power that made it easier for me to read him.
I lowered my head, closed my eyes, and formed a red coil of energy behind my forehead. This was not meant to stun or kill, but simply to probe a sentient being. I had learned control and focus from my Kubraen mentor, Star Speaker, back on Halcyon.
"I think it's him, Soph," I said, after receiving his thought patterns. It wasn't always easy to separate his rambling thoughts, at once simple, yet deeply wise, from the patterns of animals, until he made a conscious effort to communicate. Even then, his literal translation of speech made it difficult.
"Then again," I said, "it could be another Vegan, or an animal."
"What about the candy wrapper?"
I shrugged. "Might be animal scat, but it's worth checking out the cave."
Sophia squinted at the cobalt sky, darkening toward black in the east. "It will be night soon."
"I still have time."
"As in we," she said.
I took her hand as we walked to the cabin. "Soph, suppose you stay on board and I take Chancey with me? Huff once told me that even his race of powerful predators retreated to glaciers for the night. That's when the Dire Druids hunted in packs."
"Dire Druids?" She frowned.
"I think it's a bastardization of their name for themselves, Dir' Druaii'diedi'thae'sy'f'uts, or something like that."
She laughed. "Dire Druids will do. You think we're in danger from them?"
"No. I think they're in danger from us if they attack. I wouldn't want to kill any of them."
She nodded and opened the cabin door. Warm air swirled around my face.
Chancey, Sophia, and I took our skiff and rode to the ice floe with the cave, and the candy bar, as it turned out to be. I stuffed it into my jacket and we entered the cave. "Huff?" I called.
"Come any closer, heathen," a furry white Vegan said in stelspeak from the corner of the ice cave, "and I will rip out your throats and send you to the Pit."
Behind him a smaller Vegan crouched over three cubs who whined as they clung to her fur. The cave was bare, except for a stack of white animal furs in a recess, with a pile of bones and rows of diminutive ivory statues of Vegans and various unfamiliar animals, indigenous to keepworld, I assumed. Two ivory tusks, carved with figures, leaned against a wall next to cutting tools on the floor.
"You enter my home without permission!" The Vegan went up on hind legs and waved long, hooked claws at us. "Get out while your bodies and your souls are still tied together!" He swung a paw toward Sophia.
I put a hand on my holstered stingler and stepped in front of her. Chancey drew his weapon and joined me there.
"Put it away, Chance!" I whispered. But he didn't. "We won't hurt you or your family," I told the Vegan. "We're just looking for our friend Huff." I took out the candy wrapper and extended it. "I think this is his. We thought he might be somewhere around here."
"I do not harbor those who break the Code," the Vegan roared. "You have insulted my family by entering my home without consent, and insulted them twice by mentioning the infidel's name. Leave while I have control of my wrath."
"Sorry about that, tag," Chancey said, "but we came a helluva long way to find him."
The Vegan snarled, showing shark teeth. "If I knew where the cast-out was hiding, I would seek him and bring him to the Altar of the Pit, where his heart would be ripped out while he still lived, and his liver would be sacrificed to the Ten Gods." He took a step toward us, but his eyes were on Chancey's stingler. I sensed that he knew very well what that weapon could do.
Sophia moved to my side and I extended an arm to block her from the Vegan. "Sir," she said softly, "he sent us a message that he was in trouble. We came here to help him. Can you tell us what our gentle friend has done that he is an outcast?"
"That is not the business of Terrans," the Vegan said. "You who would desecrate the Sacred Code."
"OK." I lifted my hands. "We mean you and your family no harm. We're leaving. Chance, Soph, let's go."
We backed toward the entrance.
The cubs, stirred by their dad's show of courage and our retreat, squeezed past their mom and ran around their dad's legs, yapping at us and making false charges. "White eyes!" one called to me.
Their mom shrieked and tried frantically to gather them. She stumbled into dad's legs and he toppled with a howl.
I took Sophia's arm and pulled her out of the cave. "Let's get back to the skiff before we have to stun him and the cubs."
"Yeah," Chancey said, "I guess we did enough damage for one night." He holstered his weapon and grinned as we got into the skiff. "White eyes."
I lifted anchor while Chancey started the motor and turned toward our boat, anchored offshore.
What could gentle Huff have done to arouse such animosity from his own people? I took out the candy wrapper. "I think Huff was here. I think he wanted us to find this."
"Then why didn't he wait?" Sophia asked me.
"Maybe he needed to locate a safe ice floe for the night."
The glaciers deepened to sapphire with dusk. Some rose in ragged cliffs, cascades frozen by the arctic clime. The horizon was seamless with night knitting sky to sea.
"It's beautiful," I remarked, "in a frozen blue world kind of way."
"As blue as your white eyes." Sophia kissed my cheek.
"Yeah, it's a nice place to visit," Chancey said, "but I miss the cement ruins of Harlem." He chuckled.
I turned on the bow and stern lights of the small inflatable so Joe and Bat would see us coming.
"What the hell is that?" Chancey pointed to a white bar seething across the flat surface, racing toward our port side.
"Tsunami!" Sophia shouted.
"Turn the bow into it!" I told Chancey, who was at the wheel. "We can ride it."
An inflatable is virtually unsinkable, but they flip easily.
"Look!" Sophia pointed to broad white heads with down-curving tusks that rode the wave.
"Got to be Druids," I said. "Turn her around, Chance, and make a run for the boat."
"Hang on!" Chancey raised spray that slapped my face with ice water as he turned the skiff, opened her up, and headed for our boat.
But the Druids gained on us.
"We're not going to make it!" I drew my stingler, so did Sophia, and Chancey as he steered with one hand.
The Druid with the broadest head and longest tusks rose up and eyed us from the foaming water. A trumpeting sound echoed off glaciers as more Druids rose up, then plunged down, showing finned tails as they dived.
Animals or people? I wondered, and what's the line that separates them? Intelligence?
Joe and Bat, with their higher perspectives from the boat, were firing into the water. The bar dissipated. Floating foam bubbled as blue laser beams snapped at them.
Chancey swung the skiff to bounce against the side of the boat and threw out the anchor line. I grabbed the boat's ladder and held the light skiff against its side. "Go, Sophia! Chancey," I called. "Go!
"Sophia climbed the ladder. Bat reached down and helped her swing quickly onboard.
Chancey threw himself at the ladder and scrambled up. "C'mon, Jules!" he shouted and reached out for me.
My hand was suddenly ripped away from the ladder as the skiff heaved, thrust up from beneath. My stingler went its own way into the water.
"Jules!" Sophia cried.
The anchor line went taut. I tried to turn the skiff as it plunged into the sea, away from our boat, but the motor, even at full bore, was no match for these creatures who had the line.
My friends stopped firing as the Druids drove the skiff from underneath. I clung to the wheel, expecting them to flip the small inflatable at any moment. Our boat turned and followed me.
How long can a human last in this frigid water, I wondered dumbly as the skiff raced across the surface, raising white spume that froze my cheeks. I had to face the fact that as Druid food, probably not very long.