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   Chapter 10 No.10

Captives of the Flame By Samuel R. Delany Characters: 17464

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


During the next couple of hours, two people died, miles apart.

* * *

"Don't be silly," Rara was saying in the inn at the Devil's Pot. "I'm a perfectly good nurse. Do you want to see my license?"

The white-haired old man sat very straight in his chair by the window. Blue seeped like liquid across the glass. "Why did I do it?" he said. "It was wrong. I-I love my country."

Rara pulled the blanket from the back of the chair and tucked it around the stiff, trembling shoulders. "What are you talking about?" she said, but the birthmark over her face showed deep purple with worry.

He shook the blanket off and flung his hand across the table where the news directive lay.

Crown Prince Kidnaped!

King Declares War!

The trembling in Geryn's shoulders became violent shaking.

"Sit back," said Rara.

Geryn stood up.

"Sit down," Rara repeated. "Sit down. You're not well. Now sit down!"

Geryn lowered himself stiffly to the chair. He turned to Rara. "Did I start a war? I tried to stop it. That was all I wanted. Would it have happened if ..."

"Sit back," Rara said. "If you're going to talk to somebody, talk to me. I can answer you. Geryn, you didn't start the war."

Geryn suddenly rose once more, staggered forward, slammed his hands on the table and began to cough.

"For pity's sake," Rara cried, trying to move the old man back into his chair, "will you sit down and relax! You're not well! You're not well at all!" From above the house came the faint beat of helicopter blades.

Geryn went back to his chair. Suddenly he leaned his head back, his sharp Adam's apple shooting high in his neck and quivering. Rara jumped forward and tried to bring his head up. "Dear heavens," she breathed. "Stop that. Now stop it, or you'll hurt yourself."

Geryn's head came up straight again. "A war," he said. "They made me start the-"

"No one made you do anything," Rara said. "And you didn't start the war."

"Are you sure?" he asked. "No. You can't be sure. No one can. Nobody...."

"Will you please try to relax," Rara repeated, tucking at the blanket.

Geryn relaxed. It went all through his body, starting at his hands. The stiff shoulders dropped a little, his head fell forward, the wall of muscle quivering across his stomach loosened, the back bent; and that frail fist of strength that had jarred life through his tautened body for seventy years, shaking inside his chest, it too relaxed. Then it stopped. Geryn crumpled onto the floor.

The shifting body pulled Rara down with him. Unaware that he was dead, she was trying to get him back into the chair, when the helicopter blades got very loud.

She looked up to see the window darken with a metal shadow. "Good lord," she breathed. Then the glass shattered.

She screamed, careened around the table, and fled through the door, slamming it behind her.

Over the flexible metal ramp that hooked onto the window sill two men entered the room. Fire-blades poised, they walked to the crumpled body, lifted it between them, and carried it back to the window. Their arm bands showed the royal insignia of the palace guards.

* * *

Tel was running down the street because someone was following him. He ducked into a side alley and skittered down a flight of stone steps. Somewhere overhead he heard a helicopter.

His heart was pounding like explosions in his chest, like the sea, like his ocean. Once he had looked through a six-inch crevice between glassy water and the top of a normally submerged cave and seen wet, orange starfish dripping from the ceiling and their reflections quivering with his own breath. Now he was trapped in the cave of the city, the tide of fear rising to lock him in. Footsteps passed above him.

Nearby was a ladder that led to a trap door which would put him in the hall of a tenement. He climbed it, emerged, and then turned up the regular steps to the roof. He walked across the tar-paper surface to the edge, leaned over, and peered into the alley. Two men, who may have been the people following him, approached from opposite ends of the alley. The sky was deepening toward evening and it was cool. The two men met, and then one pointed to the roof.

"Damn," Tel muttered, ducked backward, and bit his tongue with surprise. He opened his mouth and breathed hard, holding the side of his jaw. The helicopter was coming closer.

Then something very light fell over him. He forgot his bitten tongue and struck out with his hands. It was strong, too. It jerked at his feet and he fell forward. It was not until it lifted him from the roof that he realized he was caught in a net. He was being drawn up toward the sound of the whirling helicopter blades.

* * *

Just about that time the order came through. He didn't even have time to say good-bye to Clea. Two other mathematicians in the corps had shown appropriate awe at Clea's discovery and proceeded to locate the generator. The next-in-charge general, working on a strategy Tomar did not quite understand, decided that now was the time for an active strike. "Besides," he added, "if we don't give them some combat soon, we'll lose-and I mean lose as in 'misplace'-the war."

The shadow of the control tower fell through the windshield and slipped across Tomar's face. He pulled up his goggles and sighed. Active combat. What the hell would they be combating? The disorder, the disorganization was beginning to strike him as farcical. Though after the poisoned fish, the farcical was no longer funny.

The buildings on the airfield sunk back and down. The transit ribbon fell below him and the six other planes in the formation pulled up behind him. A moment later the island was a comb of darkness on the glittering foil of the evening sea.

Clouds banded the deep blue at the horizon. There were three stars out, the same stars that he had looked at as a boy when his sunup to sundown work day had ended. Between hunger and hunger there had been some times when you could look at the stars and wonder, as there were now between times of work and work.

The controls were set. There was nothing to do but wait for land to rise up over the edge of the world.

* * *

As the end of the metal ribbon was a transparent crystal sphere, fifteen feet in diameter which hovered above the receiving stage. A dozen small tetron units sat around the room. By one ornate window a bank of forty-nine scarlet knobbed switches pointed to off. Two men stood on the metal catwalk that ran above the receiving stage, one young man with black hair, the other a dark giant with a triplex of scars down the left side of his face.

In another room, the corpses of the elders of Telphar sat stiff and decomposed on green velvet seats.

* * *

It was evening in the solarium on top of the General Medical building. The patients were about to be herded from their deck chairs and game tables under the glass roof back to their wards, when a woman screamed. Then there was the sound of breaking glass. More people screamed.

Alter heard the roar of helicopter blades. People were running around her. Suddenly the crowd of bathrobed patients broke from in front of her. She touched the cast that covered her left shoulder and arm. People cried out. Then she saw.

The glass dome had been shattered at the edge, and the flexible metal ramp ran a dark ribbon from the copter to the edge of the solarium. The men that marched across had the insignia of the royal guards. She clamped her jaws together and moved behind the nurse. The men marched in, fire-blades high, among the overturned deck chairs. There were three stars visible, she noted irrelevantly, through the bubble dome.

Good lord! They were coming toward her!

The moment the guards recognized her, she realized the only way to get out was to cross the suddenly immense span of metal flooring to the stairwell. She ducked her head, broke from the crowd of patients and ran, wondering why she had been fool enough to wait this long. The guard tackled her and she heard screams again.

She fell to the hard floor and felt pain explode along the inside of her cast. The guard tried to lift her, and with her good arm she struck at his face. Then she held her palm straight and brought the edge down on the side of his neck.

She staggered and she felt herself slip to the floor. Then someone grabbed a handful of her hair and her head was yanked back. At first she closed her eyes. Then she had to open them. Night was moving above her through the dome of the solarium. Then the cracked edge of the glass passed over her, and it was colder, and the blur and roar of helicopter blades was above.

* * *

"On course?"

"Dead on course," said Tomar back i

nto the microphone. Below, the rim of land slipped back under them. The moon bleached the edges of the vari-colored darknesses beneath them; then went down.

"What are you thinking about, Major?" came the voice from the speaker again.

"Not thinking about anything," Tomar said. "Just thinking about waiting. It's funny, that's most of what you do in this army: wait. You wait to go out and fight. And once you go out, then you start waiting to turn around and come back."

"Wonder what it'll be like."

"A few bombs over that generator, then we'll have had active combat, and everyone will be happy."

A laugh, mechanical, through the speaker. "Suppose they 'active' back?"

"If they cripple our planes like they've done before, we'll make it to the island again."

"I had to leave a hot cup of coffee back at the hangar, Major. I wish it was light so we could see what we were doing."

"Stop bitching."

"Hey, Major."

"What?"

"I've invented a new kind of dice."

"You would."

"What you do is take fifteen centiunit pieces and arrange them in a four-by-four square with one corner missing. Then you take a sixteenth one and shoot it within forty-five degrees either way of the diagonal into the missing corner. It works out that no matter how you do it, if all the coins in the square are touching, two coins will fly off of the far edge. Each of those has a number and the two numbers that fly off are like the two numbers that come up on the dice. It's better than regular dice because the chances are up on some combinations. And there's a certain amount of skill involved too. The guys call it Randomax. That's for random numbers and matrix."

"I'll play you a game someday," Tomar said. "You know, if you used a smaller coin than a centiunit for the one you fire into the missing corner, say a deciunit, the chances that it would hit both corner coins would go up, that is your randomness."

"Really?"

"Sure," Tomar said. "My girl friend's a mathematician, and she was telling me all about probability a few weeks ago. I bet she'd be interested in the game."

"You know what, Major?"

"What?"

"I think you're the best officer in the damn army."

Such was the conversation before the first battle of the war.

* * *

Such was the conversation Jon Koshar monitored in the laboratory tower of the Palace of the Stars in Telphar. "Oh damn," he said. "Come on, Arkor. We'd better get going. If the Duchess doesn't get here with Geryn soon.... Well, let's not think about it." He scribbled a note, set it in front of one visiphone and dialed the number of another that was on a stand in front of the receiving platform of the transit ribbon.

"There," he said. "That's got instructions to follow us as soon as she gets here. And she better not miss it." They went down the metal steps to a double doorway that opened onto a road.

Two mechanical vehicles stood there, both with pre-controls set for similar destinations. Jon and Arkor climbed into one, pushed the ignition button, and the car shot forward along the elevated roadway. White mercury lights flooded the elevated strip as it wound through the city.

The road dipped and houses got wider and lower on each side. The horizon glowed purple and above that, deep yellow clouds dropped into late evening. There was a sound of planes overhead.

As the car halted at the barren limit of the last suburb of Telphar, a sudden white streak speared from the horizon. "Uh-oh," said Jon. "That's what I was afraid of."

Something caught fire in the air, twisted wildly through the sky, and then began to circle down, flaming.

* * *

"Major! Major! What happened to D-42?"

"Something got him. Pull over. Pull over everybody!"

"We can't spot it. Where'd it come from?"

"All right, everybody. Break formation. Break formation, I said!"

"Major, I'm going to drop a bomb. Maybe we can see where that came from in the light. I thought you said cripple."

"Never mind what I said. Drop it."

"Major Tomar. This is B-6. We've been-" (Unintelligible static.)

Someone else gave a slow whistle through the microphone.

"Break formation, I said. Damn it, break formation."

Over the plain, a sheet of red fire flapped up, and Jon and Arkor pulled back from the railing that edged the road. Another white streak left the horizon, and for a moment, in the glare, their shadows on the pavement were doubled in white and red.

The sound of the explosion reached them a moment later, as broken rocks leapt into visibility like a rotted jaw swung up through red fire.

Another sound behind them made them turn. The lighted roadways of Telphar looped the city like strands of pearls on skeletal fingers. A car came toward them.

Another wailing missile took the sky, and a moment later a screaming plane answered, tearing down the night. This one suddenly turned as its flaming motors caught once more and careened above their heads so close that they ducked and disappeared among the city towers: an explosion, then falling flame drooled the side of a building. "I hope that's nowhere near the Palace of the Stars," a voice said next to Jon. "We'll have a great time getting back if it is."

Jon whirled. The Duchess had gotten out of the car. The red light flared a moment in her hair, then died.

"No. That was nowhere near it," Jon said. "Am I glad to see you."

Tel and Alter, still in her cast and hospital robe, followed the Duchess out of the car.

"Well," he said, "you brought the kids too."

"It was better than leaving them back in Toron. Jon, Geryn is dead. I asked what to do, but I didn't get any answer. So we lugged his body along just in case. But what do we do now?"

From the railing Arkor laughed.

"It's not funny," Jon said.

The Duchess looked overhead as another missile exploded. "I had hoped this wouldn't happen. This means a war, Jon. A real one, and unstoppable."

Another plane crashed, too close this time, and they ducked behind the cars. "Gee," breathed Alter, which was the only thing anybody said.

Then Arkor cried, "Come on."

"Where to?" asked Jon.

"Follow me," Arkor repeated. "Everyone."

"What about Geryn?"

"Leave that corpse behind," Arkor told them. "He can't help."

"Look, do you know what's going on?" Jon demanded.

"More than Geryn ever did," the giant returned. "Now let's get going." They sprinted out along the road, then ducked under the railing and made their way across the rocky waste.

"Where are we going?" Tel whispered.

Jon called back over his shoulder, "That's a very good question."

* * *

The plane got tipped, and for seven seconds, while the needles swung, he didn't know where he was going, east or west, up or down. When the needles stopped, he saw that it hadn't been any of the first three. Suddenly the green detector light flashed in the half darkness of the cabin. The generator! The radiation generator was right below him. Then he was blinded by a white flare outside the windshield. Oh, God damn!

He felt the jerk and the air suddenly rushed in cold behind him. There was a hell of a lot of noise and the needle quietly swung.... He was going down!

Land lit up outside the front window; a small block house set in the wrecked earth. There were three whirling antennae on the roof. That must be it! That must!

It happened in his arms and fingers, not in his head. Because suddenly he pushed the stick forward, and the plane, what was left of it, turned over and he was staring straight down, straight ahead, straight, straight below him. And coming closer.

It must have been his arms, because his head was thinking wildly about a time when a girl with pearls in her black hair had asked him what he had wanted, and he had said, 'Nothing ... nothing....' and realized he had been wrong because suddenly he wanted very much to ... (The block house came up and hit him.) ... Nothing.

* * *

Tel and the Duchess screamed. The rest just drew breath quickly and staggered back. "He's in there," Arkor said. "That's where your Lord of the Flames is."

The landscape glowed with the encroaching light of the flaming torch, and they saw the blockhouse now with its whirling antennae on the roof. Before the plane hit, a darkness opened in the side of the blockhouse and three figures emerged and sprinted among the rocks.

"The middle one," said Arkor. "That's him, face him, concentrate on him...."

"What do you...?" Tel began.

"You ride along with me, kids," Arkor said, only he didn't move. Two of the figures had fallen now, but the middle one was running toward them. The torch hit, and his shadow was suddenly flung across the broken earth to meet them....

* * *

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