FALLING, ADALTA VOL III, CHAPTER ONE

Now that Hunter, Adalta II is alive and on Amazon, I finally have time to go back to work on Falling, book three. I started by going back through what I had written. It is nice when you actually like what you’ve done. 

As I promised, here is the first chapter of Falling. Please keep in mind this is a work in progress, and if you find a typo or spelling mistake, or I’ve written something like—Daryl is standing at the table, then all of a sudden he gets up—oops, he was already standing, or Cedar is drinking a glass of wine, but now she has a coffee cup in her hand—please make a comment so I can fix it. Right now I’m concentrating on getting the story down on “paper” and ready to publish next June.

I know that seems like a long time, and I wish I could write faster. My goal is to finish the draft in January, because, honestly, what really takes time and is sooo frustrating is the work that has to be done to get it edited, proofed, and published. The writing is the fun part. 

In the meantime, here is Chapter One. I hope you like it. I’d love to hear your comments.

Cedar Evan’s ears popped. The quarantine pod shuddered. The watering can fell off the bench. She lost her balance and smacked into a seedling table. The light over the containment hatch blinked red—on-off on-off on-off––again. Shit.

Cedar moved to the control panel. Oxygen levels were down but climbing. Pressure was down, but climbing. Her stomach was down but climbing. And climbing. Climbing a rope in her throat on its way to panic.

Yet another glitch. One or two or more––they increased every week now on Alal Trade Consortium’s five-hundred-year-old spaceship.

The light switched to steady green. Her stomach slid back down the rope, and the sigh she didn’t know she was holding burst like juice from an over-ripe orange.

She stumbled.  Galaxies curse my bionic foot. Bionic––my foot. It’s a hunk of plastic and wires that works when it chooses. Since we settled into our first orbit of Adalta.

One eye on the light over the door, Cedar moved from plant table to plant table. Quarantine gro-pod six was on the perimeter of the spaceship’s network of pods. The ship spread for kilometers in all directions––an enormous fractal net with hiccups.

The lights in her pod were on full-sun, the air was steamy with humidity and smelled of sweet soil. Her favorite place to be. She’d be lost when the directors finally admitted they had to abandon ship for the anti-tech planet below, and she had to leave this behind.

The seedlings were fifteen centimeters high, full-leafed and ready to transplant. With care, she uprooted a seedling with a sample of soil, spread it on a glass slide, and moved to her electron microscope. She’d miss her microscope as much as she’d miss her foot. How could she work without her equipment? How would she walk without a working foot? Would it fail completely? Would she be useless?

She dipped her head to the eye pieces and watched the dance of organisms. They made her happy. She was close to certain the microorganisms from the planet would be compatible with the ship’s ancient soils. Plants and microorganisms were so much simpler to deal with than the consortium’s directors. And possibly smarter.

The pod shuddered again. The red light over the door blinked again. This time the shudder didn’t stop. Neither did the blinking. Not good. Not good. Not good.

Cedar looked for her mother. Marion was repotting seedlings three tables away. ”We need to leave, Mother. Now. The containment status—" Her mother didn’t look up.  

Shit shit shit.  Cedar dropped her slide, slipped in a puddle of water, ran for her mother, and stumbled. Again. Shit shit shit. Now wasn’t the time for her foot to freeze. Now wasn’t the time for her mother to freeze.

"Mother!" Cedar yelled, and her mother looked around, her eyes wide with an oh-gods-what’s-happening-now look. "Get to the hatch. Now!" 

Cedar’s ears popped again.

"Now, Mother! Now! The containment is breaching. Move."

She didn’t move.

The breach klaxon clamored over and over. "Containment failing. Exit pod immediately. Containment failing. Exit pod immediately."

 Cedar ran as fast as the solid clunk of her frozen-again foot would let her, grabbed her mother, dragged her to the air lock hatch, and shoved her through.

The door behind them didn’t close.

She slapped her hand on the button to open the second portal, shoved her mother again and dove.

The second containment hatch slammed down behind them.

She laid there, flat on the floor, afraid to move. She couldn’t look. She couldn’t look to see if her foot was smashed. She couldn’t look to see if her foot was still attached to her, she couldn’t breathe.

Gradually the racing rhythm of her heart slowed. She could breathe. The sharp smell of the worn rubber tiles on the floor filled her nose and woke the blank spaces in her brain.

She looked down. She moved her leg. It wasn’t caught. And her foot was right there at the end of her leg where it belonged.

“Oh, dear."

Cedar looked up. Her mother stared at the closed hatch.

"Oh, dear. I think your quarantine gro-pod is gone." She looked down. "I’m sorry, Cedar. I know that experiment was important to you. But I don’t think it can be recovered."

Cedar wanted to bang her head—Shit—on the floor—Shit—three times—Shit. But she already had a headache sharp enough to shatter diamonds. She pushed herself up, stumbled to the control panel, switched on the camera and watched her precious plants drift away.

Her knees threatened to give way.

She wanted to throw up.

Her mother reached a thin arm around her and flipped the com switch. Cedar alerted the captain’s deck. In less than four minutes two tugs appeared and attached themselves to the loose pod. Through its wide-open hatch she could see her seedlings. They looked fine. And they would for about twenty more minutes.

Then they’d dehydrate and die. Like her heart. All the experiments she’d worked on so hard for transferring plants from the ship to the planet.

Gone. Dead. Lost.

And there wasn’t a thing she could do about it. The microorganisms might last a bit longer––if the techs could get the hatch closed and the environmental systems back up. Big IF.

Her mother took her arm, her fingers gentle on Cedar’s clenched muscles. “Let’s go, Cedar. There’s nothing more we can do here. We’ll start over somewhere else.”

But Cedar knew. There would be no somewhere else. This was the beginning of the end to a familiar somewhere else. She looked past the floating pod to the planet beyond. The only somewhere else left.

Ten minutes and three walkways later, she left her mother with a cup of coffee in the small cafe near their apartment and headed for the director’s meeting room. "Glenn," she said to her Cue. 

"Voigt. Don’t call me to fix anything. I’m retired." Grumpy, cryptic Glenn Voigt, Cedar’s former boss and still mentor, clicked off. The old man could be more mothering than her mother in his own crusty, crotchety way.

She called him again. "Don’t click off. I need you in the director’s room. Now, Glenn. The unthinkable has finally happened." She could be just as abrupt and cryptic as he was. And right now it brought a bit of warmth to her stomach. Something normal.

By the time she got to the meeting room, Captain Kendra Pathal, and Clare Taylon, director of engineering and maintenance were seated at the table. Papers and schematics and cups littered its gleaming white surface. Random doors hung open in the wall of cabinets on one side. On the other side of the table was a wall-sized screen. Director of Security Sharon Chobra stood in front of the wall opposite the door filled top to bottom with overflowing plant boxes Every room on the ship had a plant wall—part of the bio-system that was Cedar’s responsibility . Sharon’s usually immaculate blond hair mussed, and her uniform half buttoned. All of them were much older than Cedar

Cedar swallowed hard. She stared at her favorite place on the big screen. Her gro-pod, two small one-person tug-shuttles clamped like parasites to its sides, hung forlorn in space, the brown and blue planet of Adalta beyond it under patchy gray and white cloud cover. Through the still open maw of the hatch she saw her electron microscope toppled over and in pieces. A pile of glass slides lay scattered and broken, glinting ruby crystals in the on-off on-off blinking red light.

Some pf her seedlings flats had slid off the growing tables to the floor. The little green plants looked forlorn, withering but upright, as if all they needed was for her to give them a drink.

Clare’s face was white, and Kendra, the captain, shook her head back and forth. Cedar could almost see the words No No No spinning in a circle over her head. She wanted to shake her own head. Or bang it on the wall. She’d told the captain. She’d told the directors collectively and individually, again and again. She’d told them the ship was failing––not just old, not just needing maintenance, not just damaged. Capital F Failing.

She’d just not told them the ship was being sabotaged. By the planet below them. If it was all but impossible for her to believe—

They were probably going to make this her fault since it was her plants sending rootlets and tendrils into sensitive places they didn’t belong. Sometimes shit just sinks, and she was at the bottom of the wobbly pile of hierarchy.

The captain, stocky, short, hair going gray over her square face and stolid expression, looked up. "What did you do, Cedar? What happened to your pod? What has happened to my ship?"

Cedar couldn’t even roll her eyes. She was too sad, too angry, too scared. "I decided the ship was taking up too much space in space, Kendra, so I lopped off a piece." She slid into a chair opposite the captain, her back to the screen. "Mother and I are both ok, by the way. In case, you know, you might be concerned." She turned to the engineering director. "I don’t think this is a fixable problem, Clare."

"No. I’m sorry about your plants, Cedar, and your experiment. We’ve pushed the pod a safe distance from the ship. I’m not sure how it broke loose. Well, I know how—the sudden escape of air acted like a rocket engine and blew it off. Why it broke loose we don’t know yet.”

Mark Kelton, director of finance, walked in, immaculate in a tight white shirt and black trousers with a knife-sharp crease, thin blond hair slicked back off his face. "You’re just going to let it fall? Letting it drop on some farmer’s head is not a good way to let the people down there know we’re here."

"I’ve got two tugs on it now, keeping it in orbit till we figure out what to do with it." Clare gave Mark a duh-you-idiot look. "And do you actually still think we’re a big secret? After what Kayne did? After Galen and Marta? They’re down there on Adalta as we speak having some kind of wedding or marriage ceremony."

"Galen and Marta? I didn’t know they were still together."

"What ship do you live on, Mark?" asked Cedar instead of slapping the back of his head. “What obscure galaxy do you inhabit when you have your nose in your figures?" And your thumb up your nose. Or somewhere else she wouldn’t think about

Director of Security Sharon Chobra pulled out a chair and sat. "Kayne." 

Cedar could almost smell the disgust in Sharon’s voice.

"Selling akenguns to a primitive planet where such armaments are not only unknown, but their tech forbidden—and stealing Marta’s inheritance to do it. If the Trade Federation ever finds us he’ll go from our brig to 43Beck b in the Dorma galaxy. A nastier planet doesn’t exist, a fitting end for such a nasty man."

Mark said, "What do you mean, ever finds us?"

The four women looked at him, speechless. Cedar propped her elbows on the table and dropped her face to her hands. She was so tired of willful ignorance her head was too heavy for her neck to hold up.

Clare said, her words slow and clearly enunciated, as if she spoke to a five-year-old,  a particularly dim five-year-old, “The com satellites are gone, Mark."

"Oh, Yeah." He glared at her. "Do you have any idea what those satellites cost, Clare?"

Cedar took a deep breath before she could load Mark in a shuttle and aim it for a black hole. "No one out there in the wide wide universe knows where we are, Mark." She avoided looking at the others, who had all turned deaf ears to her warnings about the ship’s failing systems. "And this pod breaking loose is only the biggest and latest in a long series of system failures. The ship is dying, Mark." She didn’t add "As I have said over and over and over to you all." She had to glue her lips together to keep the words inside her teeth.

Glenn Voigt said it for her as he came through the door. The tall, handsome, silver-haired man said, "Face it, people. You have to start planning to abandon ship. And pray that this planet will prove hospitable. We ain’t going nowhere, boys," and he pulled out the chair next to Cedar and sat. "How’s your mother, Cedar. She okay?"

Cedar waggled her palm.

The remaining directors arrived, and the conversation ebbed and flowed, drifting like a cloud of galactic gas for another three hours before those whose heads had been mining the astroid-of-denial were willing to take action. Cedar’s rear end was numb, and her non-existent foot itched like crazy when the final decisions were made.

Glenn Voigt was appointed the ship’s ambassador to Adalta. Cedar could see he was pleased despite his grumpy, grudging acceptance. Assam Kamal, who was Kayne Morel’s replacement as director of planetary affairs, would accompany him. Cedar was appointed to tag along as the if-needed-scapegoat.

Assam, a big, shambling, deceptively athletic blond with the kind of face so ugly it’s sexy, walked out with her. "You have your work cut out for you, handling that old man, but I guess you’ve been practicing for it most of your life."

“But your mess is bigger, Assam. Kayne left you a big pile down there."

On her other side, Sharon said, "Do you think you’ll get a chance to ride one of those flying hawk-horses? Handling Voigt is a small price to pay for that chance. I’ll envy you forever if you get to ride one before I do.”

Cedar’s eyes rolled as she limp-clumped out the door. She’d rolled her eyes so many times in the last few hours they ached and were only not falling out of her head because she refused to let them and closed them tight when the urge got too urgent.

Ah, there’s the bright side to this debacle. The sudden glare is blinding.

#

Restal’s guardian Daryl Me’Vere moved along the makeshift aisle between the pallets crowded into the tavern of the village of  Koria. He knelt beside a young guardsman, his arm torn, one side of his face shredded. He was half-healed and half-conscious. “I’m going to finish healing your wounds now, Boren.” 

There was comprehension and not a little fear in the boy’s eyes, but what he said first was. “How many did we lose, sir?”

Daryl made a mental note to talk to this boys lieutenant. He’d be a good squad leader. “Not as bad, this time. And you’re not one of them.”

“Will it hurt?” Boren’s voice was faint, as if he was afraid he didn’t have enough breath in him to speak.

“You’ll feel some heat, but it’s okay if you decide to sleep through it. You’ve done your duty. Now it’s time to let someone take care of you.”

The urbat left horrible ragged wounds. The hastily slapped on bandages told Daryl he’d gotten enough triage healing to stop the bleeding, but the sick, stinking miasma the urbat left over every battle lingered. It was always strongest where there were wounded, and if it wasn’t removed the wounds would fester and turn putrid.

Daryl held his hands a few inches from the boy’s face. His eyes never left Daryl’s.

Daryl concentrated, ignoring the exhaustion that threatened to prostrate him. He reached down through the bedrock beneath the village, searching for rivulets of underground water. He touched a surge of power and drew on it, burning away the heavy sick urbat-smell. Earth and Water power moved through him, and he focused it on the shredded cheek, checking for infection, closing the long gashes.

 “You’ll have scars, Boren. It’s been too long since the battle with the monsters for the healing to insure smooth skin. But they’ll be superficial.”

The boy tested the muscles in his cheek and discovered he could smile.

Daryl turned his attention to the injured arm and drew more talent force from the planet.  He lost himself as he knitted blood vessels, muscles, and tendons, repaired a deep score in the bone, and finally closed the final layer of skin.

“You’ll have scars here, too, but you’ll have full use of your arm.”

The young man made a fist and grimaced.

“I know. It still hurts. It takes a while for your body to finish the healing. Your arm will be sore, and you won’t be able to use it to the fullest for a couple of weeks.” Daryl patted his good arm. “At least the urbat stink is gone––from you if not from the room.”

But Boren had fallen asleep

Daryl sat back on his heels and looked around. The wounded lay on pallets with a few cots for the more severely wounded. The less severely injured leaned against the walls waiting their turn. With so many, the healers had to ration their battlefield healing, only doing what they must to stabilize the most worst and get them inside the tavern. 

He was running close to exhaustion, and there was too much to do for him to expend much energy in healing, but he let his eyes and his talent senses roam over the room. He noticed fever spiking in three of the guard lying there. He caught a healer’s eye and motioned to the three men. She nodded.

He raised his head and sniffed. At last the healers with strong Earth talent had removed most of the foul, stinking miasma that hovered over the wounded. One more reason they were tired and their talent stretched thin. One more reason why the less severely wounded, like Boren, had to wait so long for healing many would have scars.

Then he felt something else. A tiny nudge at his senses. He wound his way through to a young woman lying on a cot near the doorway and knelt beside her. Her name was Ana, one of his regular Karda Patrol members, and fiercely loyal to him, he knew. She had taken a sword slash low to her side. It wasn’t the wound he felt. That was closed and shallow enough the intestines hadn’t been compromised, but she was pregnant, and the shock was affecting the small life inside her.

He took her hand, and she opened her eyes. She was trembling with fear. “I thought I would be all right when the Healer finished with me, but there’s something else wrong. I have just enough talent to know it, but not enough to fix it. I don’t know….”

He could feel her hysteria rise. “May I?” he asked, with his hand just above her belly. She nodded, and he rested his hand on the blanket. He let his consciousness sink down through her, find the little spark that was new life, ground it, strengthen it’s shaken connections to the larger life that was the planet Adalta and to the mother-to-be. He felt the muscles of her abdomen relax.

“What is it?” she asked. “Did the healers miss something? A leaky blood vessel?”

A grin cracked across Daryl’s face for the first time in forever, and he sat back on his heels. “You have something to tell Jack, Ana. I’ll send him to you as soon as I see him.”

Her eyes widened, and both hands flew to her belly. “I’m pregnant?” Her eyes went frantic. “Is it all right? Have I killed it?”

“It’s decided to stay, I think.” He put a large, sword-callused hand over hers, his grin even bigger, his heart lighter. “A new life.  I’m glad I’m the one who discovered it. I needed that sign of hope and regeneration. Thank you, Ana.” 

Something in him relaxed for the first time in months, since he had first learned of Readen’s perfidy. Since he’d been shot with a poisoned arrow on Readen’s orders. Too pragmatic to believe in signs and portents, nevertheless, tired as he was and irrational as it seemed, Daryl couldn’t help smiling. He walked through the wounded, speaking to each of the injured as he went. Thanking the troopers and assuring the villagers that they would have the help they needed to rebuild and repair the damage from the urbat attack.

Three of the village councilors waited for him on the wide covered porch of the tavern, two women and a man––faces drawn with pain, anger, and fear.

“Will they be back?” Headwoman Suvana’s right arm was in a sling, her left arm supporting it. She shifted on her feet, and pain flashed across her face. “Perhaps we could meet in my home. It’s not far.”

Daryl nodded and followed the trio to a small, brick one-story home. A young girl was sloshing a bucket of water across the steps. It ran red with blood and strings of thick yellow ichor. Her skirt was tied up out of the way, and Daryl saw thick bandages wrapping both legs.

She noticed his look. “I’ve been to the healers. I will be all right.” She moved aside and they entered, doing their best not to step in the bloody water.

Inside, a small boy slumped, half asleep, in a chair at the stone table that took up much of the kitchen-living area. Both his arms wrapped in colorful bandages clearly torn from one of the curtains on the window beyond him.

Suvana shook her head at Daryl’s questioning look. “My family is not as bad off as some of the others. My bonded is unhurt. He’s the blacksmith and made sure to keep one of the weapons made of the monster’s metal close by him. Unlike some who thought since we’d heard of no attacks all winter, they were over, that our walls were high enough, strong enough, and we’d be safe inside them.”

She sat, almost fell, into a chair. “They were wrong. Please seat yourself. I can stand no longer. Mina will finish washing the blood and the ichor from the porch and come to make us some tea. And we could all use a sandwich, I think. You are welcome in our home, Guardian. May our table provide you sustenance, may our land provide you work to suit your heart and hands, and may you find safety within our walls for your rest.” She paused. “And may the work our land provide you be less bloody than this day’s.”

The boy lifted his head, and his mother said, “Go to your bed, son. You’ve helped as much as you can. Now you need rest.” 

He looked at Daryl, at the sword on his hip, and his lips went tight and flat. He forced words between them, “Where were you? Where were your soldiers? Why were you so late?”

“To bed, now, Arlen,” his mother said. 

The boy backed away into another room, his eyes never leaving Daryl’s. The accusation blazing in them burned deep in Daryl’s chest. It would do no good to tell the boy he and his patrol had been fighting at a village forty kilometers away—an attack that had been even more devastating than this one. That one of his patrol members and a Karda were dead. That he’d been fighting urbat since winter season had changed to early spring in village after village. That every trooper he had was either exhausted or injured or both.

“He lost his best friend. He’s an apprentice healer, and he couldn’t save his best friend, Guardian. Please forgive his anger,” said Suvana, her voice low, tired, unapologetic.

The male councilor, Davris, said, “You are always too easy on that boy, Suvana. He needs discipline.” His words were harsh, angry. “We hold no blame for you, Guardian. We are grateful that you arrived when you did. Your Karda Patrol saved us.” His fawning, conciliatory words grated on Daryl.

The other woman, Bettis, spoke. “And we wouldn’t have needed so much help, Davris, if you had agreed to spend enough to raise our walls this winter. Like we were told. Or agreed to pay our blacksmith to forge more weapons like we were told. Or agreed to train our young people to fight like we were told. I think it might be time to change our village charter. If all three of us have to agree on an action, too often no action is taken, and today we’ve had a harsh lesson.”

She pulled her blue cloak edged with the distinctive dark red embroidery of a healer tighter around her. “I’m exhausted, and I still have patients to see to. Let’s figure out what we do next and get this meeting over with.” Bettis looked at Daryl. “We won’t let those monsters defeat us.”

“Were there only urbat attacking, or was the Itza Larrak with them,” asked Daryl.

There was a long silence. Surana’s quiet voice answered. “I wanted it to be a rumor.” She stopped and closed her eyes. 

“No,” said Davris. He spit the words out. “It was just imagination. Those boys were so scared their imagination was making them imagine something that wasn’t there. They’ve heard too many stories––”

Surana ignored him. “Three young men were cutting wood in the forest and spotted the monsters. They warned us. Thank the lady Adalta for that. We were able to prepare at least a little. But one of the monsters they saw was not an urbat. It was taller than a man and walked on two feet, dark as night with yellow eyes, and every-time it showed itself, anyone within twenty meters froze in terror. It had to be the Itza Larrak. Thank Adalta, Bettis realized in time that it was throwing a psychic field of fear, and she organized our Air talents. They were able to break it up.”

“When the Austringer and the Kern were here, they warned us about what it could do,” said Bettis. “We’ve worked hard on our defense against his terror attack.”

Surana said, “It stayed at the edge of the forest, well behind the urbat, controlling them. It never came near enough to the village to be in range of our weapons. I don’t know where you were, Davris, that you didn’t see it.”

Davris snapped his words out. “We had prepared, whatever these women tell you. We had. And we killed a lot of urbat. We drove them off.”

 Daryl sat straighter in his chair. The girl Mina handed his a mug of hot, strong tea. The warmth on his hands was welcome. Early spring might be warmer than the cruel winters on Adalta, but sometimes it was hard to tell. “You are fortunate you had strong enough Air talents to block it.” He didn’t tell them that had they not been able to block the Itza Larrak, most all of them would be dead. He’d found too many villages, too late, that hadn’t been so fortunate.

There was a loud cry from the sky, and Daryl heard Abala’s words in his head. ~Tessa, Kishar, and Galen approach.~ There was a pause then Abala added, humor in is voice, ~Ket, too, of course.~ 

He caught himself before he slumped in relief. “Suvana, The Austringer and the Kern are approaching your landing field. With the help of your best Earth and Water talents Galen can be sure the town is completely cleared of the stink from the urbat, and he’ll salvage the armor and metal bones from the ones you killed. We’ll leave them with your blacksmith. Tessa will talk to your village defenders about strategy. I could see your walls had almost reached high enough. You’ll be able to repair today’s damage and finish them, with luck, in possible a tenday and a half. Galen will also bury the urbat for you if you collect them in one spot.”

He tilted his head toward Davris. “Do not worry about the costs. Restal’s treasury is being hard hit, but I will see about what can be done for you. Planting season is still tendays away, so every worker you have can be put to building up your walls. If you need more Air and Earth talents to help you fire the mud bricks, I’ll see what I can do about that. I’m heading for Me’Mattik Hold to make sure he sends troops to help you.”

There was a long and uncomfortable silence. The three village leaders stared down at the table. 

“What is it? Do you think he won’t help? He’s your holder. It’s his responsibility.”

Suvana finally looked up. “He’s gone. He and his troops are gone. Meryl went to see him to ask for help on our walls last Deciday. His hold is virtually abandoned, only servants and a few guards remain.”

Daryl looked at her, dread rising inside him like a terrible sickness. “Gone.”

Bettis said, “Gone. North. To your brother Readen’s hold with all his troops, some of them our sons and daughters, willing or no. We are at your mercy, Guardian.”

“Many weren’t willing to go. They hide in the forest—if they haven’t been killed by the roaming urbat. They wait to see if you will accept their service. They don’t want to be known as traitors because they refused to follow Me’Mattik,” said Suvana. “The one’s close enough when the urbat attacked fought with us. We can use their help.”

Bettis’s face twisted with disgust. “Me’Mattik is not a strong talent for a holder. Probably doesn’t have much more than I, a simple village healer, do. He believes your brother is fighting you on behalf of those with weaker talent—against the custom of rule by strong talent. That was his reasoning.”

Surana snorted. “His excuse, you mean. He is a traitor to Restal.”

“I hope you will not hold his treason against us, Guardian,” said Davris. His eyes shifted back and forth between the other two councilors. “We are completely loyal to you. You are the true leader of Restal.”

There was a long silence. Then, still sitting tall and straight in his chair, in a voice quiet and controlled, Daryl said, “You will have what you need. I’ll see to it.”

Inside him, another layer of pain formed––ice around his heart.