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The following text is excerpted from DECEPTION WELL by Linda Nagata. Copyright © 1997 by Linda Nagata. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or republished without permission in writing from the author.
Lot wriggled toward the open vent, his slender, eight year old body crushing a path through the brittle foam of rotting insulation that coated the interior of the air duct. A light breeze brought the dust forward, where it lingered in a cloud that beguiled his headlamp, getting into his eyes, his nose, his throat, and clinging to the moist, teardrop-shaped surfaces of the sensory glands that shimmered on his cheeks. He could feel a wet cough down in his lungs, itching, burning to get out. His shoulders shook as he fought with it. Captain Aceret had boosted him into the ventilation system with instructions to proceed with full stealth. He couldn’t let himself be discovered. Jupiter’s army was counting on him to get through.
He dropped his face against his arm just as the cough ripped out of his lungs.
And it wasn’t just one small cough. For a few seconds it felt like he was going to hack his lungs right out. The air duct shook. The organic fingers of his headlamp squeezed tighter against his brow. Streams of dust swirled off in the slow breeze. He imagined Silken troopers in the corridor below, listening to him, laughing at his distress. Tears started to run out of his eyes and he didn’t try to stop them.
Jupiter. He grasped at his father’s name in half-formed apology. Jupiter, I want to come to you. I do.
He felt his smallness then. He was nothing more than a tiny spark: flash, burn, die, in the black reaches of the void. It was the same for any of them. They were a border people. Half the troopers in Jupiter’s army had lost their first families to the mechanized assaults of the old murderers. Some had wanted to run away to the Hallowed Vasties. It was said that no weapons of the Chenzeme could wreck the human civilizations there. But the Vasties were achingly far: from their former home in the star cluster known as the Committee, it was over eighty light years to the nearest cordoned sun. Anyway, Jupiter said they didn’t need the Vasties. He’d found sanctuary for them in the Well.
The coughing fit wound down. Lot listened for any untoward sound from the corridor below, but there was nothing. Maybe he’d gotten lucky… if luck was the proper word for it. Every step forward was a step closer to the deadly world of Deception Well. He tried not to think about that as he wriggled toward the vent. He believed in Jupiter Apolinario. Jupiter had survived the Well. He’d found in it the hidden world of the Communion, where self and other might be forever joined into a singular state of nirvana, alien/human/alien, blended in a living matrix that had existed for at least thirty million years, unsullied by the evil of the Chenzeme. Jupiter said they could be part of it too, if they trusted him, believed in him.
I do believe.
He swiped at the sticky droplets of his sensory tears, vainly trying to clear their clogged surfaces. He’d come into the city of Silk with Captain Aceret, as part of the advance mission. They’d arrived here aboard a shuttle under the pretense of friendship, never mentioning Jupiter’s name as the great ship Nesseleth settled into a distant orbit beyond the fifty five thousand mile limit of the space elevator that supported Silk. Captain Aceret had launched his commando raid to seize control of the elevator system, just as Nesseleth dropped her cargo slug containing the regular army: fourteen thousand troops, men, women and children, with Jupiter at their head. By the time the slug moored at the upper end of the elevator, Captain Aceret had secured lift control, and Jupiter’s army began to descend.
That should have been the end of it. Jupiter Apolinario had no interest in the city of Silk. It was only an inconvenience that Silk had been built on the elevator column, two hundred miles above the seething green equatorial forests of the Well. The army had no choice but to pass through the city. They would have preferred to go peacefully, dropping straight down through Silk’s unpopulated industrial core. But the Silkens wouldn’t allow it. They were scared of the Communion. They never went down the Well, and they were determined to stop Jupiter’s army from going down too. They’d cut the tracks where the elevator passed through the city, forcing the loaded cars to stop on the upper industrial levels; trapping the army in separate, sealed loading bays.
Captain Aceret couldn’t help them. His tiny force was pinned down inside lift control by the frantic efforts of Silken security. Only Lot had been able to slip out undetected, escaping moments before air locks in the duct system closed, sealing off lift control. There was no going back. But that was okay. Lot knew the moves. Jupiter had kept him in commando training since he was five. He knew how to pack his sense of self away in cold storage, fear and doubt chilled down to a static background hum. He hauled himself forward.
His lungs burned, but soft little coughs helped to ease the pressure. The vent that he’d struggled toward came into view through the swirling dust. He whispered to his headlamp to switch off. Then he peered down through the grating.
The corridor below was dark. Motion sensors controlled the lights, so that meant it was probably empty. Better, the sticky drops of his sensory tears didn’t detect any human presence. He lay still for a moment, concentrating on not getting scared. Then he ordered the headlamp back on. The beam pierced the dust, revealing a dead end to the air duct: a closed air lock just a few feet beyond the vent. It wouldn’t be long before oxygen ran out on the other side.
Reaching to his waist pack, Lot took out the pocket torch Captain Aceret had given him. It made a soft hiss when he turned it on, then spat loudly as the white flame cut the seam that sealed the grating. An acrid smoke made Lot’s eyes water and his lungs itch. Coughing softly, he moved the hot grate aside before it could self-repair.
He still didn’t hear any sounds, or detect any human sense from the corridor. Captain Aceret said the Silkens had only a few security troops. If any one segment of Jupiter’s army broke out, the Silkens would be quickly overwhelmed.
He touched his headlamp. “Hark, release,” he whispered to the Dull Intelligence that controlled the device. The organic fingers loosened their grip, and the lamp came away in his hand. He tucked it into a pocket, then grabbed the vent’s hot rim with his gloved hands and dropped to the floor, landing with practiced quiet.
Lights flashed on, revealing white walls tinged brown with mildew or perhaps with age. The smart fibers in his camouflage suit instantly shifted in color and reflectivity to mimic the dirty white walls. The camo paint on his face shifted too.
He could see for maybe a hundred yards in both directions, before the corridor curved out of sight. A heavy door was set against the inside curve. Jupiter would be waiting just beyond it, trapped in a loading bay along with a small section of his army.
The Silkens had disabled the electronic system that controlled the pressure door, and there were no manual overrides on the interior. The army had tried using assault Makers to dissolve the door and the surrounding walls, but the tiny molecular machines had inexplicably failed. So it was up to Lot to open the bay door by hand.
Captain Aceret had thoroughly drilled him. First thing, find the control pad. It was set high in the wall, and Lot had to stretch to reach it. He slapped the reset button, then turned to the manual lever.
The door had been designed to protect against accidental decompression; it wasn’t a security device. So long as the sensors registered equal pressure on both sides, it could be opened manually. In a minute, Jupiter would be free. The army would move out again, this time on foot, winding down through the spiral corridor of the city’s industrial core, down and down to the lower elevator terminus, for the final descent to Deception Well.
Lot hesitated. He kept thinking of the Communion as a gigantic slime creature wrapped around the surface of the planet, disguising itself with a hide of forests or oceans or deserts, but really, under the skin, it ate anybody who came close. Soon, it would eat them. Jupiter had said so. And it would change them. Lot wasn’t really clear on how. Sometimes, he wasn’t sure he wanted to find out.
I do believe.
Seizing the large handle, he shoved it down with both hands, then slammed it to the side. The satisfying thunk of a heavy steel mechanism inside the door rewarded his efforts. He waited a moment, then pushed again. The door slid on smooth tracks back into the wall.
Yet the entrance remained blocked. Lot found himself staring up at a barrier made of overlapping combat shields. The shields scintillated with a dark, distracting iridescence that was hard to focus on. Amid the slippery surface were hard knots: Lot started as he recognized the muzzles of grenade launchers protruding through sealed cuffs in the shields, and the glassy stare of video eyes.
“Wait!” he squeaked, and jumped back, pressing himself against the wall, so that his camouflage blended almost perfectly with the musty white.
“Corridor clear,” a gruff voice announced. There was a sharp crack! and the finger-sized body of a scout remote shot down the corridor, its wings beginning to vibrate with an angry buzz as it rounded the curve and disappeared. Another took off in the opposite direction.
The combat shields opened as a unit, turning sideways like baffles on an air vent, admitting a humid burst of tension into the corridor. Then troops in gray armor darted out the channels, their faces grim behind the clear visors of their helmets. The first unit carried incendiary grenade launchers. The second wave was armed with slender missile launchers, their buzz-winged ammunition — like the scout remotes — guided by an on-board Dull Intelligence. Half turned up the corridor, half turned down. Two more waves armed with bead rifles followed, and finally, a tactical unit, their helmets opaque as they operated on the data supplied by the layered realities evolving on their internal screens.
Then the combat shields fell back on either side of the opening. A patch of light from the corridor spilled a few yards into the loading bay. Beyond that, the bay was dark and silent, though Lot could scent the readiness of hundreds of huddled troops in the cavernous space. He’d started to straighten up, thinking he should report to somebody, when Jupiter Apolinario strode forward into the light.
Lot caught his breath, staring up in awe at his father’s tall, imposing figure. Like the advance troops, Jupiter wore gray body armor, but without the helmet. His long blond hair lay neatly across his shoulders, framing a stern though handsome face. High on his cheeks shimmered the silvery droplets of his own sensory tears. Only Jupiter and Lot had them; Lot wasn’t sure why.
Jupiter seemed more youthful than most of his officers, though Lot knew that was only appearance. He watched as Jupiter’s gaze searched the empty passage, lingering on the open ceiling vent. Captain Antigua and Captain Hu stepped up on either side of him. They conferred beneath the arch that divided the corridor from the loading bay.
“They’ve found us,” Captain Hu reported. “Resistance downhill at less than one hundred yards.”
The deep whump! of a grenade launcher slammed up the corridor, followed immediately by a flash of superheated air. There was a brief silence, swiftly broken by the harsh buzz of DI slugs peeling off after their targets.
Jupiter gazed in the direction of the firefight, as if he could see the action taking place around the bend. “Phase two,” he ordered softly. He fell back to the side of the passage. Captain Hu did the same. Lot had to scramble to get out of their way.
“Squads two through twelve!” Captain Antigua barked. “You have your assigned targets. Get those other loading bays open and get our troops out now.”
“And remember,” Jupiter added, the tone of his voice seeming soft, though it rose in volume over that of Captain Antigua, soothing and reverberant at once. “The main body of the army is depending on you: the children, the wives who are with child, the non-combat members of our family who rely on your arms and your alertness for their own survival. Remember them. Believe in them. Believe in me.”
That last word hung in the air for a moment, and then Captain Antigua stepped in again. “Go, go, go!” she shouted, and the troops hauled off like a river of stone, churning and raging as they deployed throughout the narrow passage.
Lot felt a hand caress his head. He looked up, to see Jupiter gazing down at him with an odd, squinting expression. “Switch off your camouflage, Lot, you’re straining my eyes.” His voice carried effortlessly over the thunder of the passing troops.
Lot felt his cheeks go hot beneath their cover of camouflage paint. He hurriedly knocked a wrist panel and the suit’s camo function flicked off, leaving him clothed in dull gray. He snapped off his hood as the last of the assault troops rolled out of the loading bay. Captain Antigua moved out with them, heading downhill, toward the lower elevator terminus.
Jupiter crouched beside Lot and ruffled his tangled blond hair. Rare approval floated on the air between them. “You’ve given us victory,” he said. “You are more than my only child. You are my right hand.”
Lot stared at him, momentarily stunned, feeling his mouth open in a silly grin. Jupiter grinned back at him, and that made it even worse, leaving Lot crazy-happy like some of the women would get at convocation.
Jupiter touched his hair one more time. Then he straightened, and stepped across the corridor to confer with Captain Hu.
Lot coughed softly, trying to vent the mean, wracking spasm he could feel building in his lungs. He felt warmed by a deep sense of pride. He’d opened the way for Jupiter. He’d let the army into the underbelly of Silk. He was Jupiter’s right hand, and he was not going to give in to another spasm of coughing. That was not how a trooper conducted himself.
He coughed again, then swallowed hard several times. Across the corridor, he could hear Captain Hu relaying progress reports:
“Loading bays two through six have been opened. Approximately twenty percent of the army has entered the corridor system….”
“And Nesseleth?” Jupiter asked.
Lot moved forward at the name of the great ship, the sculpted entity that had carried them across the void.
“The great ship is still coming down,” Hu said grimly. Lot caught the scent of disagreement in those words. “She has approximately two hours left, Jupiter, before she burns.”
Lot couldn’t suppress a cry of dismay. “Nesseleth?” He scrambled forward, forgetting for the moment a trooper’s proper reserve. “Did the Silkens hit her? Have they killed her?”
Jupiter frowned down at him, his angry mien impacting against Lot’s sensory tears and suddenly Lot felt stricken. He looked down, covering his mouth to stifle another cough. His eyes were watering. He could scent Jupiter’s disapproval and he knew he should back away, stand quietly on the side, wait for orders. But the ship was going down. If Nesseleth died, they would have no way out. No way back.
Dread realization crept through his brain. “You’ve ordered her to crash, haven’t you?” He backed away a step. “You’ve killed her.”
Jupiter barely looked at him. “She was human once. She seeks her own salvation. To follow the army is her own wish.”
“No, that’s not why.” Lot shook his head. “It’s because she loves you. She’s doing it because she loves you.” Suddenly Lot felt jealous, fiercely jealous, because he wasn’t sure he loved Jupiter that much, enough to lay down and die for him, no questions asked, and he wanted to be able to love that much, to believe….
The cough that had been working at his lungs finally slipped out in that moment of stress. It started small, but after the first hack Lot lost all control over it. He turned away, throwing his hands over his face as his body shook with the convulsions. He felt as if he were choking, as if his lungs were melting, as if he couldn’t get a breath. And all the time he was picturing Nesseleth and wondering if it would be worse to strangle, or to burn.
He was on his knees before it was over. In his hands he could see blood-colored mucous. He could feel the weight of Jupiter’s gaze, and the sense of his anger all around.
Then Jupiter was there. He swept Lot up in his arms, holding him against his chest as if he weighed nothing. “What have they done to him?” he demanded of Captain Hu, and the fury in his voice made Lot shrink. “Have the Silkens used assault Makers against him?”
“We can’t know that yet, Jupiter.” Hu took two stomping steps toward the loading bay. “Medic!” he bellowed. “Dammit, where’s that medic?”
“Get a tactical squad on this,” Jupiter growled. “If the Silkens want to play germ warfare, then let them. We’ll see how their museum Makers hold up against a modern arsenal.”
Lot started to protest. The dust in the ancient air ducts had irritated his lungs. There had been no assault Makers. But another coughing spasm took him and he couldn’t get the words out. Blood sputtered out between his lips, smearing across Jupiter’s armored chest. Then strong arms were grasping him from behind, pulling him away.
Jupiter bent quickly, kissed him firmly on the head. “We’ll be together again.”
“No, wait!” Lot croaked, reaching for him. “I didn’t mean it. Don’t leave me.” But Jupiter was already gone.
Book 2 of the Nanotech Succession
by Linda Nagata
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-0-9831100-2-6