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PostPosted: Tue Mar 03, 2009 6:55 am 
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Obduction Backer

Joined: Thu Feb 08, 2007 10:55 pm
Posts: 197
So. Oh, boy. How to sum this up...

Some time before Uru ended, I got a story idea about a group of explorers; I wrote a fair bit of it then, hoping to post it before the cavern closed. Then the story... grew. In fact, what it became was a big, complicated, non-linear thing, and it took a little while to find the way to the center. Eventually I realized it was really about the experience we probably all had there, to some degree: finding our own stories in the midst of a much bigger mystery.

And of course it had a lot to do with getting lost in Minkata OVER AND OVER AND OVER. What can I say. ;)

So it's been a long time now, and I think I've found the last few lines, and so I'm setting it loose, all 30,000 words of it good lord. This may take a little while to post, since it looks like I’ll have to do it in pieces or the forum kind of explodes, so apologies if you catch it in progress!

Obligatory disclaimer: other than a couple bitty cameos, all explorers here are meant to be fictional; if I copied anyone's avatar names, it was accidental. No infringement was intended, and all resemblances to individuals living or dead, etc, etc: you know the drill. Although I of course wouldn't dare to suggest that certain important individuals herein aren't real.... ;)

Enough blathering: have a story. I hope you enjoy.

----




It all began in the desert, so she supposes it's fitting she should die there.

Above her head, kept at bay only by a thin, wind-battered panel of canvas, the sand is howling. At first it had blasted in one consistent direction, but now it seems to come from everywhere: spirals of it, cyclones of it, dust devils ripping at the landscape and trying to pull her from it, or perhaps just bury her alive. She feels it in her eyes and mouth, feels it grate into her skin if she tries to move. Right now, only one hand is moving, tracing letters in the sand from a language not her own. Even under what shelter she could build, the wind wipes them clean before she can finish.

She wonders if all this had been a bad idea from the start, but she had no other choice.

In her unmoving hand, a small compass spins. Its needle turns wildly, as disoriented as she. She's down to her last few drops of water, still capped off in the bottle beside her, as if waiting as long as possible will keep it all from ending somehow. She's exhausted, and she's alone, and she is almost out of time.

The book clip on her belt is empty.


---

March 8, 2007: Eddy County, New Mexico

The hawk called just as Jae's GPS went out.

She broke from swearing at the thing to staring straight up, shielding her eyes from the glare. Through the uncovered roof of her rented jeep, which was stopped on the side of what might generously be called a road, she saw the bird's silhouette swoop gracefully overhead and then tilt northeast. Jae watched it until the machine on her dash beeped once, forlornly, then went dark. By the time she looked up again, the hawk was already out of sight.

"darn," Jae muttered. Whether it was over the bird or her useless navigator, she couldn't decide. Still, she had to be close.

She started rifling through the bag on her passenger seat.

Just that morning, she'd stocked up at the nearest town. It didn't have much to recommend it, but it did at least have a decent gas station, where she bought plenty of water (she uncapped one bottle now, gulping gratefully); a new pair of sunglasses to replace the last, which went missing after too many gray Northwestern winters; and random other sundries to add to her hastily-packed backpack. The compass had caused raised eyebrows at the counter.

"Won't need that where you're going," the cashier said. Off her puzzled look, he snorted, wrinkling and then snapping out the fifty-dollar bill she'd handed over. There wasn't much change left. "I've seen a few like you come through here. You tend to stick out."

Jae glanced up, catching her reflection in the jeep's rear-view mirror. She wasn't sure what had seemed so notable. Other than skin too pale for this sun and hair red enough it always caused comment, she looked ordinary enough. Of course, if the stories about this place were true, she wouldn't put it past even a gas station attendant to be looking for weirdness everywhere.

Jae dug deeper into her backpack and pulled out a scrap of paper. It contained the scribbled-down coordinates and an extra note to herself: Look for the volcano. She sighed, staring back out at the blank horizon. That GPS had probably been on the fritz for a while. It was pretty darn hard to miss a volcano.

"Anything?" she said aloud. "Just -- a hint, here."

The hawk's call echoed once more, distant but discernible. She turned.

Toward the northeast, the way the bird had flown, a black smudge rose from the landscape. She pulled herself up to look more closely, then grabbed for the bag again, digging out binoculars this time. Once she'd focused them, the shape became clearer. Not definitive, but....

She realized after the fact that she'd already sat back down and turned the keys.

You're gonna have to get used to running on instinct, she remembered as she drove, this time moving off the roadway and into open desert. The words were what the first message had said, that first time she'd dared ask anyone about this place. There's logic involved, believe me, but... you've got to keep your eyes and mind wide open. Just leap in.

Something, she thought later, must have been listening to that train of thought. Although the car had been doing a superb job with the uneven landscape, it chose that moment to launch itself over an inconveniently placed rock and come down with an ironic thud.

Jae tried to wrest control back, but the car was stopped, and what she could see out her window had changed.

The smudge was now a distinct shape, forming a dark cone. Its jagged rim cast irregular shadows over the landscape. She hadn't even realized she'd gotten this close already, and she could not, in fact, go much further; between her and the dormant volcano was a No Trespassing sign, one that adorned a seemingly endless length of barbed-wire fence. Something was tacked to the sign. Somehow, she felt like she recognized it.

Almost in a daze, Jae collected her bag and climbed from the car to face it.

It was cloth: a tan square, red-edged, marked with a handprint that swirled toward the center. It looked almost primitive, but there was nothing imprecise or accidental about its shape. Jae slowly raised her own right hand, fingers spread to mirror it.

When they touched the fabric, something in the world around her changed.

Jae felt a shudder in the air like a mild shockwave. The handprint on the cloth, improbably, glowed. An electric tingle clung to her skin even after the light faded, and she stared at her own palm, then the sign, finally ending on what lay beyond it.

The volcano, it seemed, had visitors. Within sight of where she stood was an Airstream trailer. She could barely make out a figure sitting before it.

Jae glanced back at the jeep, having a strangely practical moment of worry about leaving it. Then she rubbed her thumb across her fingertips. A single spark flew free. "Huh," she said. Then she gave the "No Trespassing" sign a wry laugh.

She ducked through the fence and made for the trailer, this time not looking back.

---

April 9, 2007: Ae'gura, on the way down the city steps

"So what did Zandi say to you that first time?"

"Eh. Not a whole lot...."

There was a snort of laughter. "Yeah. Getting a straight answer around these parts is kind of like pulling teeth."

"But it's more interesting that way."

"Oh, right. Interesting. You can have your interesting. But forget learning D'ni -- first I'm gonna have to get a full-on degree in Cryptic."

Jae joined in the laughter all around her.

She was following a group of fellow explorers through the city. They'd adopted her when they'd crossed paths in Gahreesen. After seeing what they'd been getting up to there, she wasn't sure this was the sanest crew to be with, but despite a few of the more... unorthodox hobbies they'd picked up, she figured they at least knew where they were going. As tour guides went, she was willing to give them a try.

One of them, the apparent ringleader, said his name was Max; the tall blonde was called Kirret. Jae wondered as she reminded herself of the others -- Mara, Dyner, and Cobalt, in back -- how many had been born with those names. After all, she was hardly immune to the switch. Not too many people called her Jae back home, but somewhere in the midst of all the introductions, that's what had come out, and the nickname seemed determined to stick.

Zandi hadn't called her that. Of course, Zandi hadn't called her much of anything. He'd been friendly, and he certainly wanted to see her succeed, but she knew what Max meant by "cryptic"; he wasn't about to give anything away outside of hints and tidbits. That small, knowing smile of his had been slightly unnerving. And he had ridiculous taste in shirts.

Still, he'd helped guide her here. Zandi, and that projected message in the Cleft....

"Whoa, there," said Kirret. "Watch your step."

Jae gulped. The pavement was cracked, and below the gap was a sheer slide down the cliff face. She stared straight ahead, seeing where the city ended -- which was to say, into little at all. The dark, dusty sky loomed over her.

"Needs a darn warning sign," said Cobalt, as he kicked one of the orange cones closer.

Jae leaned woozily forward. "What happens if you slip? I mean -- will anyone come get you?"

She meant recovery more than rescue -- a grim thought, but inevitable from this perspective. Mara only said, "Of course, but you can panic-link out. Like you saw them do in Gahreesen."

She tapped her own Relto book. Jae, feeling silly, nodded.

"Don't worry," Max said. "Whole different mentality -- you'll get used to it. Hey -- the Gallery's this way."

Jae backed up, very carefully, and turned to follow. What she saw was a series of doors set into a long wall, some of them blocked off. Max approached one of the few with lit handles, and gestured for her to take the lead. Jae put one hand to the latch.

Have you heard of the city -- the deep city --

The remembered whisper made her shiver, not exactly from fear or wonder but something else unnameable, and she cast open the doors.

---

March 10, 2007: somewhere without a name

Your journey has begun. You can't imagine how these small things affect the future, but someday you will....

The words came once she'd passed the first test, stepped beyond the strange set of double doors. Of course she knew the voice. And of course it came from everywhere. It filled the room -- the world -- wherever she now was, standing on the edge of understanding. Something deeper was happening than she could reach, but it was close, so close. As close as the stars beneath her feet. As close as the voice in her ears.

Still, she hadn't seen anything like this coming, that day in the desert. No one had said it would be like this when she came....

...to the fissure in the desert... the wound in the Earth... the path to things beneath the surface...

She turned and turned in place, seeing it all. She knew she had to commit this space to memory: the KI on her wrist wasn't enough to record it. It couldn't take in the sound, or the echoes thrumming up beneath her feet, or the words that weren't being spoken. The words that shaped the journey -- the future of a civilization --

She nearly stumbled where she stood. Nothing could take in the enormity of this. She felt overwhelmed.

They found solace in their smallness in the dark...and so did I. But light is powerful in the darkness.

It was true. Of course it was true. She listened to the rest, and she knew it was true.

But when she stepped up to the ledge at last, on the precipice of a sea of stars, she lost her breath, and shut her eyes.

---

April 9, 2007: in the Kadish Gallery

"Beautiful, isn't it?"

The sigh, wistful as it was, jostled Jae to attention, and just in time; her jaw dropped at the sight before her. Kirret was right. The space they were standing in was gorgeous.

This wasn't just a gallery; this felt like a cathedral. The high ceiling, the weighty columns, the peaceful, unbroken hush of the place all spoke of reverence, and then there was the stained glass -- huge and bright and filled with graceful obscurities. Jae trailed one hand down the railing as they all descended to the main floor to see.

It turned out they weren't alone. She soon saw a young man sitting on the linking-book platform across the room, diligently at work. Ignoring the others for a moment, Jae went to join him.

He made no comment when she approached, only adjusted the leather-bound sketchbook that was balanced across his knees. He was, she realized, making it easier for her to see. Across the page, the shape of the nearest glass panel was taking form.

"That's good," she murmured. And then: "Is that...."

Everyone else began to notice what had caught Jae's attention, and they drifted closer. Max turned from the rotating symbol-blocks he was studying in order to give them a smile. "Oh," he said. "You're working on that one."

"Another puzzle," Jae murmured. The patterns in the glass weren't arbitrary. When she pointed to the drawing, about to explain, the artist only nodded, as if he already knew.

She got a good look at him then. The young man had light brown hair and a certain look about him, the sort that made Jae understand what that man on the surface had meant by "you tend to stick out." He would have looked just this side of strange in the ordinary world, but here, he blended right in. "You noticed, too?"

They hunched together over the page. "They're all clues," he said. "Something about the way this Age works, the one that book links to...." He nodded his head back toward the pedestal. "I haven't been there yet... I wanted to get all this down first." He frowned, briefly gnawing at the end of his pencil. "Looks like this could be complicated."

Max squatted down next to them both, holding up his KI. "Why don't you just take a picture?"

"Call me crazy," said the man, with an amused smile twitching the corners of his mouth, "but I'd rather trust my own eyes around here."

Mara -- who had, Jae suddenly remembered, some sort of connection to the DRC -- looked slightly affronted. Jae, on the other hand, liked him instantly. She scooted closer.

"They look like some sort of... tanks," she mused. "Although I doubt it. Look at the numbering...." Her finger traced out across the page before she thought to ask, then she drew back, sheepish. "I'm sorry -- do you mind?"

He shook his head. His own fingertip tapped, then he flipped a page back and glanced over his shoulder. "And then there's that other panel...."

"Pathways," said Kirret, who was listening. Dyner leaned over to poke her upper arm.

"Don't give it all away," he said. "Won't be any fun for them otherwise."

Jae went back to the page. So many riddles. Hard to leap in if you don't know where you're landing....

Isn't that the point? another voice in her head replied.

"We should go," she said, standing up. "I mean -- to the book. There."

"We're expected in Bevin by 18:00," Mara said, sounding a little regretful. The others had grouped around her. Jae glanced back at the artist, who was still sketching, at least until he felt her gaze and looked back up.

"You and I, then?" Jae suggested. Over her shoulder, she added to the group, "I can catch up with you later."

"It'll be a lot later if you try to figure that place out," Max said, but he smiled anyway. "If you need help, you know where to find us."

They all waved goodbye, slowly retreating up the stairs and leaving Jae alone. Well, she thought, not quite alone. She turned back toward the pedestal, and the artist who was already waiting for her.

He grinned, hovered one hand above the linking book, and gestured for her to follow.

---

April 9, 2007: in Kadish Tolesa, inside the pyramid

He told her his name was Tom -- a name so plain that she believed him -- while they picked their way across lighted symbols, stone by stone.

He was twenty-six, and an artist from the east of Nova Scotia. Jae tried to imagine that while she went on tracing a pathway. She'd never been there; it was worlds away from where they stood now. What could it be like in comparison? Nothing like this....

"Steady," he said. "Turn to your right."

She did, shaking her head at herself. She'd expected, after her experiences in the Cleft and in Teledahn, that she'd have been walking this particular path alone. Maybe it was a silly thing to assume. Alone or together, Yeesha had said....

Funny, she thought, how none of them ever seemed to speak aloud of Yeesha. She cast about for another topic instead.

"I'm about to sound like someone on a bad car trip," Jae said, "but are we there yet?"

He turned the book in his hands, then squinted at the floor. "One more tile forward -- oh, there we go."

The "oh" came when the ground under them lurched. Jae grabbed out for him, then laughed: another elevator. The tile where they stood had suddenly lowered, taking them far enough to reveal a door at the bottom. "Guess that's it," she said. The stone came to a thudding stop, and they moved through the doorway to see what it would reveal.

The room within was immense, scaling up so high -- was that a door up there? -- that Jae felt dizzy. The whole chamber was ringed with weights and levers, familiar shapes from the glass back in the Gallery. Tom had already stepped around her to make a half-circle around the room, but she called out a question: "The book. What does it say?"

He returned, careful to avoid the ledges, and handed the sketchbook over. She studied the numbers there before the colors themselves made her stop. Red, white, green and blue.... "Wait a second."

She sat down on the floor. Tom squatted down beside her. "It's not just about the numbers," she murmured.

"No." The hint of a smile crossed his lips. "Here, work this out with me."

Slowly they did, scribbling notes in every possible color across the margins of the page. When the solution struck her, Jae leapt to her feet again. "Read those numbers back," she said. Tom jumped as if the answer had just hit him, too.

"One time for the first lever," he said. "Four times for the second...."

She yanked the lever back and listened to the machinery grind.

The chasm before them was filling up with massive stone steps, shapes so huge they required ladders to move between them, ascending and adjusting as she pulled the levers. The sound of it rumbled throughout the entire space. Jae braced herself, staring upwards as everything settled into place.

"How does anyone think like this?" she murmured, when she felt Tom's presence at her side again. "How do you build something like this? How do you write...."

Above them was an entire series of ladders, extending high above a massive chasm. Heights again. Blackness below. Her hand gripped the last lever tighter. Oh, God, she thought. How do I climb this?

She wondered later if she'd said it aloud, or if Tom had merely guessed. Either way, she felt his touch on her shoulder. "It'll be fine. Just go steady and don't look down."

Jae thought about it, then giggled despite herself, and kept giggling even while she gripped the rungs, preparing to climb. Even if the worst happened, she thought, there was a way....

---

April 1, 2007: Gahreesen, atop the main facility

The first thing she heard upon arriving at the top was a scream.

Jae stood frozen, frightened senseless for a second, and then she dashed forward to see what was wrong. She wanted to scream herself when she discovered what it was. Someone was running pell-mell down the walkway atop Gahreesen's first rotating building, yelling at the top of his lungs, ready to fling himself off the edge -- and there was nothing beyond it, for they hadn't reached the crossing point to the next building. There was nothing but a two-hundred-foot drop --

"Stop!" she shrieked, but the man had already jumped.

Jae stumbled to a stop amidst a small crowd. To her shock, they were all standing at the edge and cheering. Jae felt her stomach lurch as the building rotated further, showing the man more clearly as he fell toward the water, further, further still...

At the last moment, she saw his hand move, and his silhouette rippled into nothing.

The man beside her threw up his arms, whooping aloud in what sounded like triumph. "Best one yet!" he yelled. "Perfect 10 for form, wouldn't you say?"

"Enh," said one of the other spectators. "9.5 from the Russian judges."

"Spoilsport," he shot back. Then he turned to Jae, grinning. "Hey there. Come for a jump?"

She was still so winded that all she managed was, "Huh?"

"Bookjumping," the first man said. "New extreme sport, sort of. It's like bungee jumping without the rope. Fling yourself off some crazy high spot, enjoy the free fall and hit your Relto book before you go splat...."

"We've been all over D'ni looking for the best spots," put in the other man. Jae saw with some shock that he could be her brother: same red hair, same lopsided smile. The Australian accent, though, belied any direct connection. "This place is great, if you watch out for the beasties at the bottom."

"Beasties--" Jae repeated, just in time for one of them, in the not-far-enough distance, to let out a growl. "Oh."

"We've timed everyone's jumps." The first speaker nodded at the blonde down the line, who had a thumb and finger pressed on either side of her KI like she was using it as a stopwatch. "We're seeing who dares to let it go the longest."

Jae stared down at the drop again. She felt dizzy even contemplating it. "You're crazy," she breathed.

The lone person who hadn't spoken yet, a darker-haired woman behind her, snorted. "Won't get any argument from me there. But someone's got to keep an eye on these idiots."

"Ah, come on, Mara. We're not that bad."

Jae swiveled around. Approaching them from the same elevator she'd just used was a familiar-looking man -- the one, she saw, who'd just jumped. He looked windblown and red-faced, but perfectly whole, and he was twiddling his fingers in a wave. He'd let that fall go an awfully long time, and his hair -- dyed a vivid shade of blue -- looked wet from the mist below. Good freaking lord, she thought.

"Hi," he told her, offering a hand to shake. "I'm Cobalt. Sorry if I freaked you out there."

"Er." She could feel the residual tingle on his skin. He'd linked back to Relto, then, and made another link back.... "Don't worry. I guess.." She tried again. "Hi?"

He released her hand to point. "That one there with the idiot grin is Max. The redhead's Dyner, the lovely lady whose every touch he yearns for is Kirret--"

The blonde girl rolled her eyes, but smiled. Dyner, for his part, flipped Cobalt off.

"--and Mara you already know, I guess. The D'ni Adventurers."

"We haven't quite settled on that as a name," Max said, elbowing his way back into control of the conversation. "I'm still siding with the D'ni Daredevils."

"And I suppose you want to throw in an apostrophe before the A," Dyner drawled.

Max gave him a smack. "D-apostrophe-ork."

"Guys," Kirret sighed. "Are you ever going to stop jabbering and let me jump?"

Jae must have looked surprised. She felt surprised. Kirret seemed too poised and -- well -- delicate for this sort of thing. But when Max gestured to the walkway and Dyner stepped aside to make room, Kirret stepped right up like a woman on a mission. Mara already had her KI at the ready, poised for photos. "You're gonna want to watch this," Max said.

Jae, who'd already figured that out, brushed her wind-tangled hair out of her face so she could see.

Kirret stood tiptoed at the edge of the walkway like a professional diver. Her back was to the stunning view, her smile to her friends who were watching. "We'll time you," Max shouted. She marked it, but didn't seem to care that much, because her gaze was now entirely for Dyner. And then she jumped. Jae gaped as she arced backwards in a perfect swan dive, then tucked in, spun, made a dizzying number of perfect twists and turns before she plunged arrow-straight toward the water -- and linked away. If Jae's eyes weren't fooling her, there was just the tiniest circle of finger-touch ripples below to mark her passing.

There was a hushed moment before Dyner murmured, "Perfect ten."

"Indeed," said Max, as he flung an arm around Jae's shoulders in a celebratory hug. Then he laughed, seeing the still-stunned look on her face. "God, all of this, and I still haven't even asked you--"

"Asked me what?"

He burst out laughing. "What is your name?"

---

November 28, 2007: Kadish Tolesa, on the brink

Jae.

Jae, concentrate.

Just put one foot in front of the other, hands out, chin up, and walk steady. You'll get to the other side and through the door, just like you did last time he was here with you, and you won't fall. You
will not fall. You won't think about the mist, or this slippery pipe, or the mad Age-writers behind this place who you'd strangle given the chance -- no, really, don't think about them. Breathe deep. Get your balance and get there, and maybe you'll --

-- oh, expletive --

-- upright, upright, get upright, don't slip again -- just swing one foot back up and over, you can pull yourself back up and finish this, just don't --

-- no,
no -- oh, God --

-- the book the book the book the book open the book
OPEN THE BOOK --

(the roar of wind, the sound of a link, and then silence)

---

April 22, 2007: Ae'gura, in the Kahlo Pub

"Hey, Jae -- eeeearth to Jae--"

"Bartender!""

Her head mean person/people up. "What?"

"Could I see your Relto book, please? Just for a minute."

Jae felt bemused, but she gingerly worked open her belt clip nonetheless. She supposed it was a measure of trust that she was doing this at all. No one in the Cavern went anywhere without their links home, their safeguards and exit strategies, but here she was, taking the thing off voluntarily. Without it, she felt completely naked. Of course, considering they were all in a pub -- decrepit though it was -- and working their way through enough surface-bought liquor to get the whole of D'ni tipsy, she supposed there were more embarrassing ways she could be getting naked, after all.

Jae laughed at herself, took another swig of ale, and handed the book across the bar to Kirret.

"Check it out," said Dyner, strolling up closer with a bottle in hand. "The writer at work, eh?"

Kirret had laid her own book down beside Jae's, flicking on a small flashlight as she undid the bands that kept all the pages except the first held in place. She was scanning over the delicate lines of writing that marked every page. "It's interesting," she murmured. "All our books look almost the same, but there's just tiny characteristics that are different -- like this character, here -- I suppose that's what confers ownership, or the choices we've made...."

"Do you know what words they are?"

"Not yet, but I want to learn."

Tom, who'd joined them today, leaned on the bar and read for a while over Kirret's shoulder. It was Max, though, who spoke up first. "You really want to write Ages? Can we even do that?"

She shrugged. "If there's any chance of the Guilds starting up again, I know which one I'm joining."

"You think there's a Guild for professional smartasses?"

Kirret smiled, but didn't reply. She was busy comparing pages again. Max let it go, leaned over the bar again and asked Jae for another beer. She fetched it from the cooler she was manning, thinking all the while. She hadn't committed to any formal group yet, but she was tempted. Still, taking that step made her wonder. Was she committing to staying? What would really keep her her here for good? She pulled out a second drink for herself, suddenly feeling thoughtful. Tom, she noticed, was watching her.

"Back home," she asked him, "what do you do?"

Tom looked off into the distance. "Nothing that important."

Cobalt was sitting with Mara at a nearby table; Jae could hear him chuckling. "Okay, now... I did filing. That's not important."

"It's important to somebody!"

He took a swig. "Not to me."

"I'm a legal assistant," said Mara, while she dropped her bottle into the DRC-marked bin she'd brought in; all surface trash had to be brought back where it came from. "It's good work, but I feel like I'm doing much more valuable things here."

Dyner sniffed. "I," he said, "am an electrical engineer. I'm a highly regarded professional of unimpeachable skills. And you know what?" All the pomposity fell out of his voice. "I'm bored stiff with the whole thing."

Kirret looked up slantwise as he took a gulp of his beer. "What do you want to do instead?"

"Make statues of our fearless restoration leaders," he pronounced, "entirely out of popcorn and popsicle sticks."

Max groaned and tossed a wadded-up napkin at him. Dyner, laughing, ducked. It was a minute before he recovered, and when he lifted his head, something about his expression turned shy. "Actually, I was thinking of something else... maybe becoming a librarian."

Kirret's eyebrows lifted. "That's a big change."

"Yeah, well." He smiled down at her. "Someone I know really likes books."

Kirret blushed and ducked her head. Jae, feeling as if she was about to intrude into a private moment, side-stepped behind the bar until she wasn't in their line of sight. "So what about you?" said Max, once she was there. "What do you do?"

"Actually, I... quit my job, just before I left. I had to--" She paused awkwardly. "Well, I knew they wouldn't accept the time away. But for what I want to do next? I don't know. Maybe photography. I always wanted to go into photography." Seeing the questions in the faces around her, she added, "I guess it's because I always loved discovering beautiful places."

She thought then of a page in Tom's sketchbook she'd watched him draw, and looked up to see his face break into a smile.

---

May 2007: throughout D'ni

They first became close when whey traveled through the Eders together, garden to garden.

Gira was a mystery, one Jae was glad she wasn't facing alone. She grew to appreciate her Relto book like never before in those leaps over lava, while the heat rippled up and sweat made her fingers fumble on the leather. By the time she could touch a journey cloth in a safe place -- she ran toward it, really, nearly slamming her hand against the wall -- she was trembling throughout, and glad for Tom's reassuring touch on her shoulder.

Afterward, she went to the waterfall and just let the water pour over her. When she decided she needed a proper shower out of it to get the sweat and grit off her skin, she told Tom not to peek. As far as she could tell, he only did once.

Delin, when they want there, was covered in snow.

Jae gasped in delight to see it, for she hadn't seen snow in months, and not like this: the garden was beautiful, the leaves still red and falling, and the light in the air was less like sunlight than some sort of ethereal, source-less glow. She leapt into it all like she was three years old instead of almost thirty. Tom had pulled out his sketchbook to draw, but she promptly distracted him with a well-placed snowball, and then the battle was on: first a fierce volley from his side, then dashing between trees and the supports of the gazebo as she plotted her revenge strategy, and at last making her final, devastating attack beside the obelisk. They ended it in laughter, collapsed in the snow and giggling like children.

By the time she remembered they'd come so she could take pictures, she looked out at the garden with dread. All that running around must have ruined everything. But when she sat up and looked, fresh snow had already covered everything in peaceful, undisturbed white.

This time when she stepped out, she did so slowly, and when she held up her KI, she realized she was holding her breath.

Once she passed through the door in Eder Kemo, she lost all words to describe the place, and her innocent levity began to filter away.

Tom brought lunch the day they went to Eder Tsogahl, and she watched him draw the fountain in silence. Once they finished, she sprawled out on the grass and stared straight up at the sunlit sky, wondering aloud how they could possibly call this entire place a cavern.

"Kind of a flexible term," Tom said. "Obviously all these Ages are.. somewhere else..."

"How is that possible?"

One thing she liked about Tom was that he recognized rhetorical questions, and didn't try to fill up the silence. She thought over all she'd read about the D'ni, their history and their writing, the logistics of linking, and then just shut her eyes and listened to the water, and Tom's voice over it all.

"When I first heard the call, I imagined something like this. Not this particular Age, that is. The idea. I had... images. Buildings silhouetted against the light. Great trees. Letters carved into stone. I filled a sketchbook before I ever came here. I knew I had to see it for myself... answer her voice."

She turned her head. "You heard Yeesha, before?"

She hadn't said the name aloud yet, and it echoed strangely in her ears. All she could think of now was the imager in the Cleft, and the message that began in a language she hadn't yet learned: Shorah. Rekoahn trecleft previn legloen b’rem…

Tom was quiet a while. "I don't know. But when I heard her here, I felt like I'd always known the voice."

She thought again of Eder Kemo, and the glyphs they'd both seen on the walls. She wondered now if it had been Yeesha or the Bahro who'd drawn them there. The stories had seemed distant at first, like some sort of ancient, strange mythology, but here and now it seemed all too real. She closed her eyes and remembered what she herself had dreamed before coming:

Rebirth. Destruction. Eyes in the darkness.

"Did you know about the Bahro?" she heard herself asking.

Tom was quiet for a moment, but then let out a puff of air. "Rumors. I wanted to know what was behind them."

Jae considered that. She'd thought it was just one of those cavern legends. Well, <i>mostly</i> she'd thought so. "I'm not sure I buy most of the stories," she said, although a bit too lightly.

"I want to see them myself," Tom said, for his part sounding earnest. "Draw them. Make it real." He looked her way. "And you?"

Jae bit her lip, then reached out towards Tom.

He'd held her hand until the last moment in Eder Kemo, when she had to step through the journey door alone. She wondered what Yeesha had told him when he'd gone there. Did he feel the same unease now in these garden Ages that she did, knowing where they came from?

The Garden Ages are beautiful, but they were built on the backs of the Least....

She felt his hand clasp hers, and tried not to think of the nameless figures on the walls that had watched them. She focused on Tom instead, remembering him standing in Kemo's surreal forest while the fireflies gathered around them, holding them together in a strangely sacred space, and illuminating his haunted smile.

---

May 20, 2007: Ae'gura, on the Great Stair

For those who are not yet aware, a crack was discovered early yesterday afternoon in one of the buildings in the City. Explorers were warned to stay out of that area as a precautionary measure....

Jae and her friends had plans that day, but the global message on the KI disrupted them all. After much searching, they found Mara where they ought to have expected her: by the barriers in front of the Pub, directing explorers away.

Max and Dyner looked exasperated, but not the least bit surprised. Cobalt just folded his arms, looking unhappy. It was Kirret who tried to get her attention. "Mara!" she called. "What's going on?"

Jae elbowed closer, seeing several people by the barriers wearing helmets, and Mara, who'd donned a DRC jacket and was busy answering questions. Jae had a strange flashback then to chatting with Mara inside the Pub itself -- a sharp contrast to the terse way she was dealing with everyone now. It suddenly seemed like a lifetime away, and Jae didn't even know why.

"I'm sorry," Mara said, to the group at large. "This part of the City has been declared unstable. I understand your curiosity, but it'll be safest if you return back to Bevin and wait for news there."

"Okay, who died and made her a ResEng?" Max muttered.

Mara, who'd heard that, spun and shot him a look; her eyes had gone strangely wide. Jae got the sudden idea that whatever was going on here, Mara meant what she said. She tugged at his elbow. "C'mon, Max. We're not going to get anything out of her right now."

He frowned, but did as Jae asked. They stepped back from the crowd and watched from a distance, talking amongst themselves.

"Have you heard anything else besides what came over the KIs?" Dyner asked. Cobalt shook his head.

"No, and if she was going to tell anyone..." he said, just a bit bitterly. "I'm just hearing...."

"Bahro," someone said, too quietly to identify. Jae felt chilled at the very idea, but no one moved to deny it. While strange fragments of memory pricked at her, none of them complete enough to help, she felt the beginnings of a deep sense of discomfort, and a headache brewing where her skull met her spine.

At last Dyner plucked at her sleeve. Jae blinked up at him. "Any word from Tom?" he said. "I thought he was supposed to meet us here. Before... you know." One hand cast out. "This."

She sighed. Tom's KI message had been brief - Can't come -- I'm sorry. I'll tell you when I return. Meet me in the prayer room tomorrow? "Not much."

"Just what we need," Max said under his breath. "More mysteries."

Jae pinched the bridge of her nose. The memories were still chasing each other around her head, sounding suspiciously now like a dream she'd had the night before -- and another one much like it that kept recurring, showing her little besides eyes and a vague sense of warning. More mysteries, indeed.

And maybe, a little voice in her head prompted her, you need to start paying attention to that intuition more than you have been....

She shut it up, unnerved. "Whatever's going on around here," she muttered instead, "it's bigger than us. Come on."

Kirret, still frowning, came with her. Max and Dyner followed. Cobalt was the lone holdout, and when Jae looked over her shoulder partway up the Stair, she saw him by Mara's side, trying to get her attention. It wasn't working. Jae sighed and kept on walking.

She didn't know where she was going yet, but somehow or other, she'd ended up in the lead. And in this state of mind, she couldn't help but think it was the last place she ought to be.

---

timeless

In her dream, the Cleft was overtaken by sand.

The sun beat down from above as the winds whipped harder, driving dust into the air, making her choke. The only escape was down the ladder. She struggled to breathe as she descended, slipping on the last rung and almost tumbling to the bottom of the fissure below. Even here, sand was blowing in from up above, covering the plants and turning the water-pools into mud.

Jae struggled down to the opening in the tree, desperate now for shelter. The glyphs stayed unlit when she arrived. All she could hear was the distant wind, roaring like it intended to follow her, and more noises -- stranger, unearthly noises -- like claws scraping stone, or the rustling of clipped wings.

She turned in place, stumbled, becoming lost in the dark, and then she heard a long, drawn-out scream.

When she saw the flash of blue eyes in the darkness, the ground beneath her cracked away, and she fell and fell and fell until she woke with a dry, desperate scream of her own.

She stayed sleepless until the dawn, feeling those eyes on her still.

---

May 24, 2007: Bevin, in the egg room

He hadn't come when promised: no message in her KI, no communication through her friends. Jae went again the next day, and the day after, avoiding all the talk in the Cavern of what had just transpired. It only put her more on edge. Finally, on the third, she closed herself in one of the prayer rooms, taking a seat on the ledge to huddle against the glass as she thought.

When the eerie, droning music was overcome by a rap on the door, she nearly fell off again in shock. Her KI had just blinked a name as an alert. It was Tom.

Jae leapt to the door to open it, but it slid open to reveal him before she got there.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I'd hoped you'd be here...."

She fumbled for words, feeling shaky and nervous. "It's..." She'd meant to say it's all right, but really, it wasn't. "Haven't you heard what's happened?"

Tom looked confused. Jae gestured at his KI and said, "You haven't even had that thing on, have you." When he shook his head, Jae put a hand to her forehead and said, "Read your messages."

He did, one after the other, and began to look sick. Then he closed the door again, slumping back against it. "What must you have thought...."

Eyes in the darkness, thought Jae, picturing poor Wheely. You have no idea. "I'm just glad you're not... God, Tom, where were you?"

He lifted his eyes to hers, and then held out his sketchbook. "I suppose," he said with a weak smile, "this isn't the best time to say I was out exploring."

She opened the book and stared.

He hadn't wandered anywhere she hadn't yet been, but he'd seen so many things she hadn't. In retracing his steps through Yeesha's journey, he'd found so many details: symbols hidden everywhere, hints of messages, hidden clues. Jae turned the pages, tilted the book sideways, lifted it closer to squint: there was so much. She'd never guessed. She'd spent so much time just trying to puzzle through the main obstacles, and she'd missed the little things....

"I kept thinking if I went back, really heard what she was telling us, I'd understand things better. I thought I'd understand the Bahro and what their enslavement had really meant." He paused, looking rueful. "I guess I went and missed the obvious, though."

Jae sat back down on the ledge. Drawn on the page before her was Yeesha's name symbol, in more detail than she'd ever seen it before. She traced over the edges, her fingertip barely brushing the page.

"Why didn't you ask me to come with you?"

She hadn't meant to say it. The hurt in it surprised her, as did the underlying fear. Tom didn't say anything. He merely stepped closer, taking the book from her hands and setting it aside. Then his hands cupped her cheeks, his forehead rested against hers. The silent apology left her breathless.

"I'm not sure your friends would have understood," he said. "But you... I should have. I should have. I just -- needed some time to see."

"It's all right," she murmured, though she wasn't yet sure it was. She pulled away to pick up his book again. "But I want you to tell me what you've found out."

"Of course."

She hugged the book to her chest. "And I have to tell you what I've... been seeing...."

She heard it then, over the ringing sound that permeated the room. It was a shuffle of feet across the floor: one awkward step, then two, perhaps rounding the corner to face them. Jae was so stunned at the sound that she didn't realize she'd run outside to face it, almost as if spellbound; Tom had to race to catch up with her. The hall stood empty. Jae glimpsed the unspoken question on his lips before she whirled around to see the darkness behind her.

"Tom," she said, "it's...."

A larger thunk obliterated her words. The main door had opened. "Tom!" someone yelled: it was Max. He, Kirret and Dyner were running into the egg room, faces bright with surprise. "I thought I saw your name in the KI -- where've you been,, man?"

Jae turned away from the reunion. She had to know what she'd heard. Around the ring she went, peering into each of the private rooms, straining her vision to see if anything lurked against the ceiling, anything... but all the way around she went, and she saw nothing. She realized she was squeezing the sketchbook so hard she'd left fingerprints on the spine.

"Jae," Kirret called, waving her closer. "We were just telling him -- there's been a new Age opened today."

She tried to focus. In the midst of all this strangeness, the topic was so jarring it was difficult to even realize what Kirret was saying. "An... Age? Where?"

"The book's in the library," Max said. "It's called Minkata."

She didn't know the name, had never heard it before, but suddenly, with a roaring in her ears, Jae knew what was coming. She murmured the words aloud even as Max did.

"It's in the desert."

---

Fate turns in spirals, and you know you'll end the journey here.

You who dream of shifting sands, of mysteries beneath the surface... you will withdraw from that book until you are ready, and follow another path, but you know you will return. You will bring him with you, follow him, lead him, keep your secrets and lose hold of his, until you must return. You will enter the desert alone in the search for another, and find the unsought instead. Remember these words when you are called. Remember these words if you are lost. Keep strong, and do not falter. Sometimes the will is enough....



//continues in pt. 2...


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