Read Chapters 1 - 7 at: Deep Sky Stories
Chapter 8 - Nightfall in the Scrapyard
They took their places across from each other and Mr. Chater resumed with a new lesson. Alex's lightning-fast test writing feat was soon forgotten too, by everyone except him. As Alex pondered how he could have so easily recalled so much, he began to cast suspicious glances over at Rainah.
She, for her part, remained as mysterious as ever and the school-day came to a close with Alex fairly chomping at the bit for answers. This was too much of a mystery, what did she mean by, "We need your help", and, "you will soon need ours." Who was, "we", and what help was she talking about? As they boarded the bus to leave for home, one of the girls that Rainah played with that day noticed something odd.
"Hey Rainah", she asked, "where's your backpack?" Clearly, she didn't have one, nor was she carrying any books for homework over the weekend. When Alex thought back to the morning, he didn't remember seeing her carrying anything to school either.
"It's okay... I won't need it", Rainah replied, catching Alex's quizzical look. A quiet melancholy had settled over her and she gazed back at the little school with undisguised envy and yearning. Alex then recalled her words after recess as well, and they seemed to have a larger meaning now.
Rainah quietly took her seat and looked out the window, but then turned sharply away from the idyllic scene of the grassy playground as if willing herself to forget it. She had seen and done so much in that one day and had such a wonderful time with her new friends. But now, for some reason unknown to him, she was acting as if this one day was all that she would ever have. Alex sat down beside her, sensing the change and searching for the right words to cheer her up.
"Are you feeling okay", he finally asked.
"No", she answered dully, looking away and out the window at the soft-colored fields and farmyards rolling by. They sat together in silent companionship for the rest of the ride. In one's and two's, the children left the bus at their respective stops.
"Bye, Rainah, see you on Monday," said the same girl as she got off. Rainah gave a half-hearted wave and Alex heard her make a quiet little sound in the back of her throat. She stared stoically straight ahead from then on without another word. There were no tears...
The others all left until only Rainah and Alex remained. All through the rest of the ride, the desire to comfort and protect her grew steadily in Alex's heart. The compelling need to be there for her, to be her guard against whatever lay ahead renewed that sense of reckless chivalry that he had felt earlier that day.
So it was that, as the fields and pastures were abruptly replaced by the dark, harsh shapes of the scrapyard, Alex decided he would get off with Rainah at her stop. The bus lurched to a halt outside the gate that lead to the run-down, old weathered shack.
"You two take care", called the driver and he meant it as more than just a passing comment as he eyed the lowering shapes and shadows all around. It was getting dark sooner as it was late in October and autumn was giving way to the coldness of an early winter.
The bus disappeared behind some trees in a bend in the road and they were alone in the gathering gloom of approaching evening. Alex stole a sideways look at Rainah, standing beside him with that same wistful look in her eyes. What was bothering her so much since school had ended, he thought with bewilderment.
With that same uncanny insight, Rainah looked up at Alex and said, "I am not as you are and I never shall be. That makes me very lonely. But what makes me the feel most alone and sad is that I cannot stay here much longer, Alex. “Come", Rainah said and offered Alex her hand even as he puzzled over that last statement. Her soft, tanned moccasins made no sound as she lead him in and among the scattered piles and mounds of scrap-iron, tangled wires, and rusting motors that he had grown accustomed to all his life. He soon realized that they had bypassed the old shack at the front gate altogether.
As they ventured deeper, into a now familiar area, Rainah assumed the same alert watchfulness that Dart had the day before. Alex saw the same large hill of scrap-iron not far ahead of them and had a revelation: there had to be some connection between Rainah and Dart.
The reason for Rainah's heightened caution suddenly became evident as they crept round the curve of small scrap-pile. For there, not ten feet away from them, was a Fly. It sat motionless among a tangle of discarded servo wires, blending in with the other junk like an animal in the wild. Its metallic skin seemed to have changed like a chameleon's, making it nearly invisible to the unpracticed eye. Only Rainah's alertness and keen eyes had enabled her to detect the Fly.
Alex followed where she silently pointed until he also saw the camouflaged Fly where it crouched stiff and still. He gazed at the thing with a mixture of fear and fascination for it was his first contact with such a creature other than by the voice from the shadows the night before.
From where he crouched, Alex judged it to be the size of large a cat and its long, pointed wings had a razor-edged sharpness to them. Strange that it was sitting so still. Was it dead, Alex wondered? There seemed to be no sign of animation about it. He was about to say as much to Rainah but a stern look from her with her hand over her mouth warned him to keep quiet.
Step by silent step she lead Alex back further, putting as much ground between them and the enemy sentry, for such it seemed now to be. At a certain spot that she deemed to be somewhat safer, Rainah crouched and with a stick, wrote out a message in the dusty earth: crfl Otrs kan heer far. It was his first experience with Rainah's writing skills and she seemed very lacking for one who Alex judged to be quite intelligent. After a few seconds of peering though, it all became clear: Careful, Others can hear far.
Clearly, Rainah had been given little chance at an education so far. No wonder she had been so sad at the end of the school day. We go rown otr sid, she wrote again in her broken spelling. Again, cautioning him with hand over mouth, Rainah remained hunkered in a half crouch and began to creep slowly to their right so as to circle around the Fly to evade detection.
Alex now saw the wisdom of why Rainah wore moccasins for she could have been a ghost, so silently did she move. There was a cat-like grace and stealth in her every step now as they picked their way in a wide arc around the danger. Every advantage was made of the piles of trash around them to further conceal themselves. The very air around them seemed taught with other dangers still unseen.
Alex felt stiff in the back from remaining bent over double like Rainah and he found himself breathing with shallow breaths in an effort to be quieter still. What else could these deceptive, hidden creatures do that could cause such a fearful response from Rainah, and just how many of them were there? Without realizing it, Alex found that he too was becoming hyper-aware and watchful, and that's when he saw the second Fly.
They were nearly on top of it when he suddenly reached out and touched Rainah's shoulder, signaling her to halt. Her eyes widened slightly on seeing it because it was almost directly in front of them, blocking their path. The chameleon paint it wore had shifted colors as well, and it lay in wait near the top of a scrap pile. Only its dull black wings had betrayed it as they were spread out oddly, like flower petals, following the rays of the slowly setting sun. It's recharging its batteries, Alex thought with a sudden insight. Probably these robots roamed about only at night, then rested by day, using photo-electric cells within their wings to re-energize again. This seemed to be their way to hunt as well, waiting for prey to come to them, waiting with deathly stillness, blending with terrible cunning into the landscape around them.
The Fly in front of them apparently was not fully recharged yet, but from Rainah's warning signs, it was clear that it still kept its ears open for prey. Activation would occur when it heard any disturbance in the silence around it. An attack would then come with deadly swiftness when its prey was within striking distance. Rainah was trying to show Alex something. On the ground she was slowly scratching a shape: it was a triangle. She pointed to the first corner and pointed behind them, then she pointed to the next corner and to the second Fly. She then pointed to the third triangle corner and Alex knew what she meant. A cold prickle of fear ran across his brow. A triangle; the Flies posted themselves in an exact triangle formation, trapping anyone who wandered within it. Where was the third though?
The sun seemed to be setting much too quickly now and Alex knew their time was running out. When night fell, the Others would wake again…and hunt. How many there were, he could only guess. Alex was beginning to feel more and more trapped and out in the open, and there seemed to be no place to hide. How many more of these creatures were stationed in the same hidden triangles all around them, and were some of them, even now awake and hunting for them?
Why-oh-why did I follow you here, he thought fearfully to himself. What did Rainah do here anyway? Why was this area so important to her as well as these evil creatures? Rainah's eyes flashed angrily back at him in what could only be described as an offended look.
((There are much larger and more urgent matters lying ahead of all of us right now other than your little fears)), a sudden message was spoken in Alex's mind. He gave a start as he realized that the unbelievable had just happened: he heard Rainah's thoughts, as clearly as though she had spoken out loud. What was more, she had heard his thoughts as well.
((We must kill it)), she said silently. There was a hardened expression on her face that Alex had not seen before. ((It lies between us and home and we cannot lose any more time)), came her thoughts again. ((There is only one thing that can kill this)), she said in his mind while pointing at the Fly, ((and you have it with you.))
"What", he mouthed at her, but then, as if by an unheard command, Alex felt something grow cold in his back pocket. It felt like Rainah had dropped an ice cube in it while he wasn't looking. Reaching around anxiously, Alex dug down in his coverall pocket and felt the slippery smooth metal of that amazing all-purpose repair tool that he always carried. This time though, instead of the usual warmth it gave off to signal a change in function, it was doing something completely opposite. Alex yanked it out and stared at it anxiously!
It was just beginning to change shape! There was a wicked keenness in its shape now and a rapier-sharp appearance to it as a thin sliver of a blade began to take form. The magical device became even more liquid as well, stretching toward the ground like silver taffy until the new form was complete and it stiffened and solidified again.
((Do not touch it)), warned Rainah in his mind. He could see why, it was so sharp that it looked as thin as paper when seen edge-on. Rainah held out her right hand in a silent request for the three foot, double-edged sword that Alex now gripped in his trembling hands.
Alex noticed something about her hands that he'd missed until then: her palms were darker, nearly coffee-black and her nails were long and sharp a like cat's claws. A savage, primal huntress stood before him now, not the Rainah who had sat quietly in class only a few hours before. A keen, razor-sharp focus was in her dark blue, ancient Asian eyes.
The reality of what she was about to do to the sleeping creature before him was numbing in its dark purpose. Though this Fly and the others like it had the single-minded purpose to hunt for him and the other unknown people, Alex had not been brought so face-to-face with them until now. The awful fact that he would need to fight back so terribly to stay alive made Alex weak with fear. And now the shock of seeing such a wicked, cold blade also being born from his beautiful and creative silvery instrument was nightmarish.
Its new, deadly purpose shocked him and Alex looked away from the shaking hand which held it.
Oh, please, please go away, he thought desperately, both to the weapon and to Rainah. Moments passed, then a small, calloused hand rested with care on his arm.
((It will be okay, Alex)), said the soft, silent words in his mind again, ((you are but a boy. I will do this but I can only use your Luss one time. If I fail, if I die, so be it, my hopes to share more will end, but you must use your Luss to survive and help my friends escape to recreate Homeworld as best they can. A small hint of me and my kind is all I have ever asked for in return for your survival. I am sorry, Alex. Look away if you must but this must be done.))
Alex did as Rainah commanded and averted his eyes. She took the short sword from him and hefted it with ease. There was no doubt that there had been many times in the past when Rainah had seen the need to swing a blade against a foe. Alex was, after all, still only a soft-hearted schoolboy, so he looked away at the soft wine-red clouds of a beautiful sunset while Rainah stepped forward to sternly face the fear and do what had to be done for them to survive.
The deep red lines of the sunset clouds lent their own beauty to Alex, thus softening the fears he was now constantly having. Danger was all around him and he was beginning to realize just how close death was in the deepening shadows all around. Alex now only wished to be in the safety of his old, weathered little house, with his mother's warm arms around him. Rest, I just want to rest, he cried to himself as darkness fell around him completely.
A strangled cry snapped Alex out of his reverie of self-pity and spun him round! Horror gripped his throat and his hand leapt there instinctively, but it was only because he saw what was happening to Rainah. Her feet kicked frantically in the air and her hands were clawing at something black and sinewy that had coiled like a snake around her neck! The bright silver sword lay where it fell from her grasp and now a twin snake was curling swiftly up from the Fly with deadly purpose! Rainah's eyes bulged terribly and it was that which galvanized Alex into action! Without thought, but feeling only hot, black fury, Alex sprang forward and snatched up the blade. Only then did he briefly see the slits of violet hatred glaring up at him from the black soil.
No instant was wasted then as he swung the whispering blade down in a deadly blur between the creature's eyes! Sparks shot skyward and crawling bolts of released power snapped and crackled up through the shivering weapon and into his body. Alex's teeth clenched painfully but he was soon beyond knowing pain. He flew suddenly through the air as a vicious electrical surge jolted him and smacked him away savagely! Death came and hovered ever so near...then drew back as Rainah barred its path with ancient chants and words never heard on this world.
The dream returned, now so very real, as Alex lay in Rainah's small, protective arms. They shared the walk now, through the beautiful, lonely dunes, strolling quietly hand-in-hand. They walked for days on end, it seemed, casting their eyes here and there over the ancient land that Alex knew now was Rainah's Homeworld that she spoke of.
Soft sand swirled up now and then as sinuous, whispering dust-devils, accompanying them on their journey. The sun shone pale and faintly down on them yet Alex felt its warmth more so than on any other summer day before this. The miles melted away behind them and Alex knew a peace beyond measure; a calmness, as though he drifted effortlessly through time. There was a smile on Rainah's face too; something he had seldom seen from her. Alex saw a free contentment and a softening of her features which reassured him and drew him closer to the quiet land with the horizon that curved away differently.
A canyon they came upon and they drew nearer till it lay before them, beautiful and vast. Rainah led him carefully to the edge of a cliff and Alex gasped in awe. Tears of wonder came unbidden as he tried vainly to see the entire massive expanse of if. But it could not all be seen, no matter how often he cast his eyes below, to the sides or off into the distance.
The dimensions of such a natural wonder were staggering. Towering, rounded plateaus marched in uncountable numbers from horizon to horizon, in the midst of a cool, concealing mist. From an unknowable depth came the faint thunder of a huge rushing river the size of which must easily have dwarfed that of the Nile or the Amazon.
Rainah pointed to something small and faint resting on one of the high plateaus, thus taking his eyes away from the might and endless expanse of that king of all canyons. Alex squinted against the smaller setting sun, trying to follow where she wished to him to look. He wiped a tear away and stared once more, and then it appeared like a mirage out of the softly drifting mist – a house.
Small and round it was and of the same soft tan colors as the beautiful land around it, and then, Alex saw more and more of them. The same simple round little homes, resting in clutches of two, three or four on each of the slender, sandstone towers. Every now and then, Alex saw as well, long hanging bridges or walkways swooping across the dizzying heights, connecting one plateau to another and another.
Tiny figures could sometimes be seen picking their way across those suspension bridges as they made their way back and forth from neighboring towers. Small, orange lights slowly ignited in each home as night gracefully fell on the idyllic scene and without knowing why, Alex turned and gazed plain-faced at Rainah. Her smile was small and quiet, her chin was held up proudly and her eyes were very young.
((My home, Alex...my home.)) Again he had missed something in all this vast beauty. What was that, deeper in the mist which rose up from the thundering river? It was something like the other rocky towers, only more. Rainah was pointing directly at it when she said those words. Try as he might, Alex could not quite see through the fog and gathering darkness. For a brief moment though, he thought the tower looked like the spire of a beautiful, majestic castle.
Looking again on Rainah, Alex shivered, for her voice had become suddenly faint and her eyes had a savage pleading in them. Rainah held both his hands and shook them as she yelled at him, "Wake up!" “Please....Alex.....wake up!"
The stars of the alien land shivered and shifted dizzyingly and the air suddenly grew much colder. A blur of light and Alex was looking up at his own stars in the dark night sky.
"Alex", Rainah was pleading in an anxious whisper as she held him and looked fearfully around at the thick, threatening shadows that now surrounded them on all sides.
Next: Chapter 9 - Down the Glass Tunnel
As of 2017-03-26, Chapter 9 may be read at www.deepskystories.com