Eclipse – One
Heat and dust. The air smelt of spice and the lingering stink of sweat and vomit from travel through the portal, of bodies crowded too close and melting tarmac, an acrid tang she couldn’t place, while particles of dust bit at the exposed parts of her skin when the scalding wind whipped past. The sting of granules smarted, cutting like glass on her flesh.
Ella pulled at the cloth round her head, made it closer, glad now of the goggles protecting her eyes and the cover afforded by the robes she wore. She fancied that without them every scrap of moisture in her body would have leached to leave parched skin stretched over brittle bones – a sorry calling card of her existence – all for burial under the desert too soon. Shuddering, she reached for the container strapped to her side, releasing the tube to take a gulp from its flat, somewhat warm, contents. It eased the dryness in her throat and scattered the vivid image of her corpse enough so she could turn her attention to the low buildings rising at the side of her, block-like and, beyond, the entrance to the complex, ringed by an ornate wall, tall pennants fluttering. The forms shimmered, white mirages that shifted and spun, watery as a lake.
“Here.” Ella flicked a glance upwards at the tall Al’kash male standing a few centimetres to her right, and followed his hand as it pointed towards a small transport flitter humming in readiness at the edge of the narrow path where other vehicles departed and picked up passengers. None, she noted, were human and she chewed at her lip. “Your transport.”
She hid a scowl inside the folds of the hood at his contemptuous tone, but gave a dutiful nod and still managed to force out a fair imitation of meek. “Yes, my Lord.” Scalding gold eyes turned her way and she reflected perhaps she hadn’t managed to get the tone right. To ingratiate herself, she dipped into a small bow and the almost palpable sense of hostility eased. Nettled by his cavalier attitude but furious with herself for her reaction to both it and him, her next words stuck in her craw. “Forgiveness, Lord.”
He clicked his tongue, suspicion a needle prodding against her mind. Ella held her breath as he swept her, then, by all account, satisfied, “Remember to keep your mouth sealed in more exalted company, Teh’rahn, least you find its contents removed.”
“Lord,” Ella breathed, and tucked her head down. She notched the information on her mental tally, wondered how much more she would add and why she’d expected something more? If a mere flunky, a nobody, treated her this way…
A long-fingered hand between her shoulders gave a shove towards the waiting flitter and she stumbled forward, feet tangled in the fabric of her robe, a clumsiness he ignored. He set a blistering pace down the path and Ella found herself gaping at his departing figure before her wits kicked in and she galloped after him. Sweat trickling down her back she jogged to catch up, breath coming in gasps. He was already waiting when she drew to a halt by the transport, impatience etched on his aquiline features, an expression that turned to sneering disdain when she took another long slug of water. With a disregard that made her teeth grind, he passed his hand over the flitter’s smooth side and a door swung up to reveal a tight small space that gave her enough leg room to wriggle. A hard-looking seat filled most of the interior, surface polished to a high sheen, was its single feature.
“Teh’rahn.” The tone was unmistakable, irritated, and she faced him. “Pelcav will deliver you to your new household.” Deliver? Nothing more than a package then, of no importance other than that in her head. Hidden in her coverings, Ella’s lip curled, but she gave her attention to the figure who’d registered as a shadow in the corner of her eye, a mere bundle of cloth with no discernible features. “He will leave you at the gate.” She squashed a protest. How did she know where to go after that? As if he knew what flicked through her mind, the Al’kash growled, “Arrangements are in place for your arrival. Get in.”
Clenching her rage, Ella clambered inside and caught her small bundle of belongings when the human driver threw them after her, jarred when the weight landed awkwardly against her shins. Faded blue eyes gleamed from inside his hood, hostility and distrust lurking in them. That took Ella by surprise and whatever greeting she’d been about to utter froze like ice on her tongue, and then her own naivety astonished her. Why the hell had she expected anything different?
“Move along,” he said, brusque, and the door lowered, sealing her from glare and noise.
Ella gripped her holdall when the flitter jolted, rising before it started to pick up speed, and stared through tinted windows, craning for details of the surroundings when they exited the compound. She snatched glimpses of wide streets stretching away towards the desert, buildings hugging their length, overhanging upper storeys and, beneath them, deep shadows, blue-black, dim figures moving, shrouded by sweeping robes.
Splashes of vivid colour lightened the stern exteriors in the form of banners or flags, flame red and orange, a burning sulphur blue, green highlighted by gold and copper, yellows of many hues from palest primrose to deepest sienna, inky glyphs advertising exotic wares from all the planets in the Hegemony. Other species moved among the throng, and she spied the tell-tale glimmer from the aura of a Genla with their companion Rul riding on a broad shoulder, hidden partially by folded diaphanous wings that sparkled with rainbows. She tracked their movement as long as she could, surprised to see an important species so far from home and wondered at it. When they disappeared into the shadows, Ella sighed and scanned the buildings again: wrought iron fretwork covered the narrow windows, and shutters sealed them against the relentless heat. On the ground Lilliputian sand devils danced, whirling the dessicated remnants of foliage from palm-like trees, skirt-like, lifting them to a piercing blue that arched overhead.
Her nerves began to scream again, a twitch in her fingers, the rapid beat of her heart in her throat; she forced them to compliance, to nothing more than an anxious hum and forced a breath of cooler filtered air into her lungs. She allowed herself to be still, thoughtful, appraising, and logical. It would be foolish to allow panic.
Arms wrapped round the tote, Ella rested her chin on it and repeated the mantra she’d forced herself to repeat every day since she’d been selected. They were enemies, they controlled the Teh’rahn Council, played with it like a cat. Treated their supposed collaborators – she snorted – with disdain, herded her people like cattle, enslaved them. However you viewed it and despite so-called equivalence, they were a people in bondage. Which begged the question why a rag-tag bunch of Teh’rahn’s were selected for a so-important science expedition? A twinge in her guts made her suspect it could only be something nefarious, or dangerous. Both probably.
The bleating of her parents and sibs ran through her mind. “It’s an honour… You should be grateful for the opportunity… The House Nu’Heth rarely shows an interest in its human subjects and you will be treated well…” Every single banality ever uttered thrown like crumbs to entice her from outright refusal to reluctant acceptance. In the end, Ella admitted, her family’s persistence battered her into agreeing to the assignment and the compulsory training, despite baulking at its total compliance to Al’Kash mores, so she could, at least, pass for a satisfactory servant – if required. That and a word in her ear from the Council. That her ‘observations’ would prove useful. But the expectation she should feel honoured? Safe in the dim interior of the vehicle, contempt curled her mouth. Irrespective of what her dear father thought, she refused to become a possibly useful rope by which her family could haul themselves onto the larger stage regardless of what the Council wanted from her.
And then the Nu’Heth. Quite the enigma. Potentially dangerous and politically unsafe. Ella rubbed her nose on the coarse fabric of her tote while she pondered them. One of the great houses supposedly down on its luck, ruled by a Matriarch whose sanity seemed questionable, propped up by a wannabe, autocratic, older son with more front than the Council Building of Gnethe. Oh yes, Vuian u’Heth Atiron’s reputation preceded him. A liar, manipulator, and all round out and out bastard. Other adjectives were bandied around to describe him and they came to mind too easily for her liking… Ruthless, cunning, harsh…
She lingered miserably on what she knew, dreading the reality and knew she embroidered it, but wasn’t certain how to stem the flood of useless thoughts. Then something absurd occurred to her and she gave a short bark of laughter. It mattered not a jot what she thought she knew but, oh the irony. It was too rich, far too rich. Her family and his. Both, in their own way, attempting to climb an illusory ladder to some imagined glory.
Amused by the idea, she forced herself to study the passing landscape instead, noticed they’d come to the edge of the city and were leaving it behind at a decent clip. The rear window gave a her a better perspective, so she shifted position, able to see how the ruddy sand encroached its borders, a stealthy movement to engulfment, low dunes that rippled, wave-like, towards the city boundaries, all carved into fantastic shapes by the cruel wind.
So desolate. What few plants she could see straggled low across the ground, some gripped the ground with desperate, wire-thin tendrils that lashed themselves to whatever rocks jutted upward, or they whirled across the surface of the desert, spinning like wheels. She caught the occasional glitter of another vehicle as it sped past, a tell-tale shimmer of metallic paintwork and artificial light, but not a thing else moved in that grim environment.
She stared at it until the tedium got too much. Delving into her bag, Ella retrieved her tablet and chased the data she’d read about Kasht, curiosity reigniting as she read. It still bore many points of similarity to her world: mass, temperate zones, polar caps. Much of its equator lay under desert brought about by wars fought long ago, its oceans reduced to small, salty, seas. Rain fell infrequently, a precious commodity that brought little bounty to the land before it disappeared through porous rocks to end up in deep lying aquifers which they syphoned and rationed for use in industry and domestic installations. Another flick of her fingers brought her to the great glass plain – Ella had seen holographs before and sincerely hoped she would never set foot in it – then on to dying forests, the choking sandstorms. Little wonder Al’Kash coveted her own green world and its abundance, its plentiful water and beauty.
She set the tablet on one side and leaned back, her mood sourer, and watched the landscape flatten to an almost featureless plain, dunes and rocks gone, kilometres gobbled away by the flitter’s pace. The motion lulled her to an uneasy doze, one where visions of a burning planet featured, its seas turned to desert and choking ash, while unknown dark figures with the savage features of Al’kash, pointed teeth glinting in the light of an orange sun, stalked her and rivers of blood steamed, foetid, the arteries of a dying world.
A sudden lurch had her slide against the door, bang her head, and sent her flying onto the floor, bag and contents leaping from her loose grip to scatter like rice at a wedding, tablet clattering away. Wedged into the small gap between seat and dividing wall, she grabbed the seat and twisted herself onto her knees, knocked her head again in the process and swallowed down a few choice words. Shovelling her underwear and other sundry items with one hand back into the bag, she patted around to see if she’d missed anything but couldn’t track down her tablet which meant it had to have gone under the seat. Ella eyed the narrow gap situated by the floor, looming like a strip of midnight.
“Of course,” she growled, and gingerly fed fingers, hand and forearm into the opening. By splaying her hand a little she managed to get the tips of her fingers to touch the smooth plastic sides, but couldn’t get a better purchase. Hunkering down lower, she managed to get in a further few centimetres and gain some purchase on the machine. She eased the tech forward, hissing when a jagged piece of metal grazed her skin through the long sleeve of her overall and hissed annoyance when it tore.
She was busy studying the rip and blood daubs when the vehicle drew to a sharp halt and the door swung up. Sunlight lurched into the space and Ella brought her hand to her eyes to shade them. Coloured dots danced, blinding her until she blinked and they faded to negatives, revealing a lanky figure who’d pulled a scarf from his mouth to expose his face. Al’kash, not Teh’rahn. She scrabbled up onto the seat, banged her head once more and winced. At this rate she’d be brain dead too.
“Yes.” She dared a glance at him. A wisp of dark copper hair fluttered free from his hood and then slicked against his bronze skin, sweat giving him an almost metallic glow while the corner of his mouth twisted up. Entertainment sat in his tawny eyes as he surveyed her crumpled appearance and she cringed with embarrassment. A crunching sound alerted her to Pelcav, who leant into the flitter and snatched her bag out of her hands to sling it over one shoulder then stalk away towards a large building at the end of a gravelly drive. Open mouthed, Ella stared after his retreating form then realised how foolish she looked, and snapped her jaw shut. “Sir, my holdall and my computer is… are -”
The alien cocked his head, interrupting her. “Will be brought to you later.”
“But, Lord, it’s -”
“Will be given to you later,” he repeated, tone brooking no further discourse on the matter, and stepped aside to allow her to room to get out. He hesitated for a brief moment, and added, “You may call me Trinsp, if you wish.” Sharp teeth glimmered. “’Lord’ is so divisive.”
“Lor-… Trinsp?” She cocked her head and studied him, uncertain, but he seemed amused not irritated or, worse, laying a trap for the stupid human.
“Yes,” he murmured. “Now, be quick.”
When she left the chill of the flitter the heat hit her like blast furnace and she yanked at the arms of her robe to pull the rip together; she couldn’t help sucking in a breath when her fingers brushed against the grazes. A small parcel appeared under her nose while she fumbled for her goggles and hood,
“Wear this. It provides better protection – extra layers are required this far into the desert, and hurry.”
“Oh….” Ella grabbed the package, shaking it out into a gossamer fine overcoat and threw the garment over the top of her garment, slipping her arms through long silvery sleeves; it settled against the fabric, bonding and cooling within seconds. She stared at the flimsy stuff while it made itself an indistinguishable part of her robe. “Amazing.”
“Indeed,” he replied, and made a fluid gesture towards the low set of buildings in the near distance. “Come.”
Okay. Don’t give anything away, she thought, and stumbled after him when he set off. This was the total sum of her experience so far – following random Al’Kash – and she grappled with a return of her old and dearest friend, impatience, with his supporting act, major pissed. Gritting her teeth, she picked up the pace and headed down the track just behind him, gravel crunching under her feet. The air had a different quality, the scent reminding her of eucalyptus though less pungent, more floral. She scanned the surroundings, expecting to see a tell-tale blueish haze of volatile oils hovering above some guilty flora but nothing caught her eye except the elegant beds.
Low walls on either side acted as a barrier to carefully tended gravel and sand, a rainbow of hues from darkest cinnabar to pale coppery green, yellow and white, granite, marble, slate and sandstones laid in patterns that flowed in elegant swirls. Interspersed between, the deeper purples of desert plants drew the eye to a greater whole and Ella realised they were pictographs. There a warrior on a fantastical winged beast, next a queen, obsidian hair flowing, glowing eyes picked out with golden quartz and, finally, as they drew closer to a narrow entrance leading down steps beneath a roof slabbed by granite, a depiction of The Orb, rays leading away from its dusky surface towards the Six, each picked out with different coloured stone. Her own world shone azure blue, the rock flecked gold and silver, highlighted by the glossy green of chalcedony. Unable to resist temptation, Ella knelt, traced her fingertips lightly across the surface and snatched it away as from the corner of her eye something stirred in the artful arrangement of waving plants representing the void. A long yellow tail slithered out of sight, so fast she thought she might have imagined it save for a soft hiss of warning and the snort of amusement from her companion.
“There is no danger. All that pose a threat are cleared on a daily basis.”
“Daily?” she repeated, eyes fixed on the spot she’d seen it disappear, convinced green reptilian orbs stared at her from the dense undergrowth, ready to pounce. “How dangerous?”
“There are things in the desert, Processor, even we avoid.” She felt his gaze rove across her, and she suppressed a shiver; it was far too predatory. “Come.” The tone was mild but firm. “We cannot dally any longer and there will be time enough for you to explore the more… interesting aspects of the waste later.”
She cast a backwards glance at the garden while they strode down to the stairs and under the overhanging granite, coolness radiating from the rocky surrounds. She hadn’t realised how weary the short walk would made her and she rested a grateful hand against the wall’s surface for a brief moment, relishing its chill, while the male pressed a palm against a panel. The concealed door slid open with a faint thunk, a blissful gust of much cooler air following in its wake and the lights illuminating automatically as they moved across the threshold into the entrance hall.
Ella pushed her goggles to the top of her head, letting the hood of her robe fall back. Hair stirred against her nape from the so welcome breeze and she pushed her fingers down the front of her garment so it gaped open and allowed air in past her layers. “Where now?”
“Through there,” Trinsp said, and gestured at another doorway. Ella spared a glance his way and he nodded at her while he removed his outer garment and held out his hand for hers. “You are expected.”
Going through, she’d no idea what to expect but a bright, light room with a table and benches was not high on her list. Neither were the faces that lifted to scan her on entrance. Especially one of them.
“Hello Ella,” Verlis Rokay murmured. “What a surprise to see you.”