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“I’m stuck,” Davis groaned. “And I can’t see anything….”
“That’s ’cause your big ass is blocking the light.” Chisholm twisted the top of the cylinder he was holding and a glow illuminated the rocky floor in a dim circle around his feet. He let out a sigh.
This wasn’t what he’d hoped for. Just a big damp cave. The rock they’d landed on appeared to be populated only by lichen and algae engaged in a battle for supremacy on an otherwise barren world. Their struggle for biological dominance resulted in a barely breathable atmosphere, but not much more.
“Thanks.” Davis said as he reached for a small stalagmite and pulled himself the rest of the way through the hole. A spray of light rushed in behind him then dispersed in a wave to illuminate the rust colored cavern.
Chisolm took a better look around. Stalactites and stalagmites projected from the floors and ceilings every few feet and several had joined to form massive columns, giving him reasonable confidence in the stability of the ceiling. “This should do.” He cranked off the photoelectric cylinder to preserve the battery, it didn’t make much difference now that Davis had pried himself from the entrance.
“How long do you think we’ll be here?” Davis asked, brushing a fine red dust off his too-large pants.
“As long as it takes to recharge Meredith’s tug.” Chisholm replied. He refused to acknowledge that the ship belonged to him now. “I’d guess until about this time tomorrow, but it depends on how long a day lasts around here.”
“We can’t just go back and sleep in the can?”
Chisholm still wasn’t sure how long he could keep his temper from flaring at the continual questions. He took a breath and set his duffel on the ground. “The atmosphere is too thin here and we’re way too close to that star. The shielding in the ship wouldn’t protect us from the solar radiation long enough for us to recharge. We’re much safer underground.”
Davis shivered. “If you say so.”
“I do.” Chisholm replied, as he stepped around a thick wet column, deeper into the cave. “But we’re lucky, that same radiation will charge the tug up faster. Otherwise we might have been stuck here for a week or more.”
Chisholm stood at the edge of the light, marveling at how steeply it dropped into pitch black. Anything could be back there. Standing just a few feet away.
“Whoa!” Davis exclaimed. Chisholm jumped and turned, startled. “Dude,” Davis continued, “you look headless!”
Chisholm jerked his arms up in an exaggerated shrug. Who the hell is this guy?
“And handless!” Davis was altogether too excited about this. “Your suit is almost glowing but your body parts all disappeared.”
Chisholm was dark skinned, but the man should not be that enthusiastic about it.
“Whoa!” He mocked back. “Looking at you, it’s like the sun shining. Off that pale, bald head of yours!” Chisholm was bald too, completely hairless, but that seemed to be lost on Davis.
“Oh man,” Davis said, stung but not hurt. “You had to go for the head. Next it’ll be how I’m too short to reach the ceiling.”
“Nah,” Chisholm smiled. “I can lift you.”
“Can’t wait to get outta here.” Davis said as they settled down to sleep. The evening’s final ripples of light seeped through the cave entrance casting long shadows into the black. “It’s just eerie with all these things hanging around.”
Chisholm didn’t have the energy to lay into the guy about how lucky they were to have found this place at all. They’d been sewing for almost three weeks trying to catch up to Meredith and the Arken, but the cells didn’t have enough juice for another needle. If they hadn’t found this little star, Chisholm wasn’t sure what the next step would’ve been.
Sewing was the process of navigating the folds in space-time. Unlike the fantasies of ancient Earth’s science fiction, actual interstellar travel depended neither on faster than light speed nor worm-holes. The process was best described, in three dimensional terms, as a needle passing through accordioned fabric. Natural gravity wells, caused by massive objects like suns and black holes, caused the rippling of space/time. A ship equipped with a Lwazi drive, needled through the folds one at a time. If you wanted to get from point A to point B, by Lwazi’s law, you had to pass through every gravity well in between. Chisholm and Davis were just lucky this stop had a planet on which they could stall and recharge.
“Go to sleep,” Chisholm sighed. “Time will pass much faster that way.”
Chisholm didn’t sleep. He didn’t like the dark and, even with the ultra-light space bag he’d brought along, the floor bruised his bones and the air chilled his lungs.
Also, Davis snored like a donkey.
After an hour of rolling around trying to get comfortable but only banging up his elbows and knees further, he sat up and twisted the cylinder to low. The circle of light spooked him more than the darkness as he haunted himself with fantasies of what might be lurking just beyond its halo.
Chisholm knew the only way he’d silence his bogeyman was to walk straight at the bastard. He pulled himself out of his bag and set out to explore the entire space. It would eat up battery, but once he’d lit every corner of the cave he’d be able to settle in and relax.
The cavern stretched further than he expected but he was still able to navigate the perimeter in a few minutes. He then began zig-zagging through the columns that forested the interior when his foot struck something on the floor. Surprisingly, instead of stubbing his toe, whatever-it-was skittered across the floor in front of him. He jumped back instinctively and froze, holding his breath to listen.
Nothing. He waited until his oxygen was gone. Not a sound. After a deep inhale, he stepped forward slowly, watching the very edge of the light. There it was. It looked like a polished stone or some kind of scarab. He knelt beside it.
“By Darwin’s finches, I am a lucky man!” Chisholm whispered. “This just might get me the Arken back.”
Curled up like a sleeping baby and wrapped in a hard crystal cocoon, slept a Solar Locust. Its yellow stripes glowed in the light, even through its casing. Chisholm tucked his torch under his arm and slowly lifted the cocoon in both hands. It weighed less than he expected but felt hard as a diamond. He stood and started back through the cave.
He took three steps then stopped cold.
Not a sound. Total silence. Not even snoring.
“Davis?” Chisholm moved faster, dodging around the thorns of stone growing from the ceiling and floor as best he could in the dim light glowing from under his arm.
“Davis?!” Chisholm was shouting now. “Davis, cut the crap! Where are you?!”
Davis had vanished.
Chisholm stood in a small halo of light, surrounded by darkness, cupping a World Eater in his hands.