Fire On HighPeter David
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THE ONLY SOUND ON THE PLANET Ahmista is the sound of a woman singing.
Oh, there are a few other sounds as well, but they are merely the sounds of the planet itself. The gentle breeze glides across the plains, moving the ashes through the air with subtle urging. (The ashes have been there for quite some time, but they dwindle in quantity with every passing day and every vagrant breeze, to say nothing of the cleansing provided by the occasional storm or downpour.)
There are also the normal grindings of tectonic plates, and a continent away there's an island of volcanoes that can raise a particularly impressive racket. Birds flap their wings against the wind; waves lap against shores, occasionally leaving a film of ash decorating the beaches.
But other than that… nothing.
The noise is rather conspicuous in its absence. No noise of a living, breathing population. There are none of the sounds of industry. Nor are there the sounds of people laughing or talking, or children crying out to be tended to. There are no sounds as subtle as lovers whispering in the dark, or as officious as bombs whistling through the air.
Nothing but her singing.
It is an odd song in that the tune seems to vary from one moment to the next. She lilts her way through it, never stopping except at those times when her fatigued mind and body require sleep. She does not like to give in to those urges, because it interferes with her vigilance, but every so often her head simply droops forward of its own accord and sleep steals into her head. Hours can pass with her in that condition, but then she snaps awake and is neither conscious nor caring of how much time has genuinely passed.
Even if there were sounds of any living beings on Ahmista, it is unlikely that she would hear them. She lives upon a mountain, if such a term as "lives" can be applied to her existence. It is not the highest mountain on Ahmista, but it is a fairly nice one, as mountains go. She is not quite at such an altitude as to feel a significant chill…not that she would even if it were subzero temperatures, because her lover keeps her warm.
In fact, her lover does more than that. Her lover keeps her company, her lover keeps her close. Her lover is the be-all and end-all of her existence on the planet, of her existence in the universe. She feels her lover in her mind, and she is content.
Her lover is sleek and gray, vaguely cylindrical in shape but with a variety of sections branching off in an assortment of directions. Its sections are inserted directly into her nervous system at a dozen points. In a way, her lover looks like a great thorny bush with limbs trailing off and intertwining with one another. And ultimately, all the branches come back to her, and she comes back to it, for together they are one. Together they are a whole. They complete one another.
She is singing to her lover more than she is to herself.
Her lover never tells her what it thinks of her songs. That's okay, really. She doesn't need to hear her lover's approval, because she knows she already has that. How could she not? After all, she has given her life over to her lover. She neither needs, nor wants, anything else. Her lover gives her so much. Gives her nutrients, gives her life and the ability to live. And all she need do is make her lover her entire reason for living. That she has managed to do.
It suddenly pulses in a different manner beneath her fingers. She has been drifting slightly, but the alert manner of her lover snaps her back to full focus. She reaches out with her mind, reaches out through her lover.
There is a creature.
It has just hatched from an egg, approximately twenty miles away, deep in a forest that is otherwise devoid of life. It is small, covered with fur, and looking for a mother who is long since dead. It has no claws, not yet. It's fairly helpless, really, at this point. Without its mother, it might very likely die on its own. However, it might be resourceful enough to survive, to grow and thrive. And possibly someday be a threat. Birds… birds have never been a threat, and for some reason she has always considered the sounds of their wings comforting. This, though, she cannot chance. She knows that. Her lover knows that. Or at least, she knows it now that her lover has told her, but she is—of course—in complete agreement.
At her urging, her lover reaches out with a crackle of energy, shudders slightly in her grip, and belches out an energy ball. It's nothing particularly large, because none such is needed. The energy that her lover is capable of disgorging is directly proportionate to whatever job is required. In this instance, it's fairly insignificant.
The energy ball covers the intervening distance in no time at all. The newborn creature senses something coming, looks up, and feels a source of light and heat. Its little eyes are still blind and so it cannot see what is approaching, but nonetheless makes the false—if understandable—assumption that it's about to meet its mother. It opens its mouth wide and makes a small yeep sound.
A second later, it's enveloped by the energy. The creature didn't really have time to have a full sense of its own existence before it didn't have an existence anymore. Instead it is reduced, in no time at all, to little more than a pile of ash. There is a hint of a tiny claw in there, and a few stray tufts of fur flutter away, caught in the breeze that quickly stirs the ashes into nothingness. Otherwise, though, there's no sign that the creature was ever there.
Back on the mountaintop, she begins to tremble. She wraps herself more tightly around her lover than before, for she knows that it has acted to protect her. The knowledge is exciting to her, stimulates her, and she begins to tremble.
She runs her hands along the surface of her lover. She has stopped singing. Instead she is beginning to quiver in anticipation, for this is how she always feels when her lover shows its strength on her behalf. And her lover knows that it has pleased her, and that knowledge excites it in kind.
She gasps out a name… a name known only to her and her lover. A name that has never even been spoken aloud, but is instead something communicated without need of clumsy speech. It is something deep within their mutual soul, for her lover was soulless until she had joined with it.
It had been so long since she felt the fire within her, that for the briefest of moments she entertains the notion that her lover had sought out something to kill for her. Something to obliterate, because that was the only way that it could possibly find sufficient stimulation to give her, and itself, what it needed.
But then she quickly dismisses the idea from her mind. Her lover would never do that, would have no need to do that. Her lover is not the embodiment of destruction. No. Her lover is the giver of light, the provider of joy.
The heat fill her mind, radiates from throughout her lover, and she can feel her heart speeding up, thudding against her chest with such abandon and power that it threatens to burst through her rib cage. If that were to happen, of course, then she would die, but she is not concerned. She trusts her lover implicitly. She knows it wou
ld not hurt her.
Her lover, though, is not mortal. She realizes that on some sort of base level. Her lover is something else, something special. Something beyond anything that she has ever known before.
And she comes to the realization, even as its love floods through her, that she can never return to anything that once was.
Her lover prefers the silence, for it makes it that much easier for it to hear her as she starts to sob with the pure joy she derives from their bonding.
It used to come much more frequently, back when there was more life on the planet. As each thing threatened her, her lover dispensed with it, and each demise would fill her with orgasmic pleasure. Such encounters now are few and far between, but that is all right with her. She has her memories, and she has her lover to keep her warm, safe, loved.
Slowly, so slowly, she tries to steady the pounding of her heart. She sags against her lover, clutching it even as her fingers open and close spasmodically. Deep in her chest she laughs softly to herself, enjoying the warmth her lover has given her and the sense of security and safety.
"Thank you," she whispers, which are the first words spoken on the planet in some time. "Thank you… for that. Thank you for being mine. Thank you… for choosing me."
Her lover does not reply, nor does it need to. It simply continues to pulse against her, and if it is pleased that it has given her pleasure, or displeased at her reactions, or completely uncaring, it's really impossible to say. It just sits quietly, unchanged, unreacting. She strokes it once more and she feels her consciousness drifting. She wants to stay awake, unwilling to surrender to a hazy sensation of bliss that threatens to carry her away to slumber. "Not… tired," she moans like a petulant child being shunted away for a nap, and she does her best to resist.
Ultimately, however, she fails. Her eyes flutter closed, her head sags forward and thumps gently against the metal sheath that is the exterior of her lover. Moments later, still warm from the gentle pleasures of her lovemaking, she falls into a peaceful sleep. She does not snore, does not make any extraneous noise. And so, for a time at least, there is no vaguely humanoid sound on the planet Ahmista aside from her soft breathing as she sleeps. Sooner or later, though, she will awaken once more. At that point, she will begin singing again in that odd, aimless way she has, remembering what her previous lovemaking was like and wondering when the next opportunity will come along….
COMMANDER ELIZABETH SHELBY ran the video log of the bridge of the Excalibur, not quite able to believe what she was seeing.
Nearby Dr. Maxwell was watching her with an apologetic expression on his face. Behind him, sickbay personnel were going on about their business as Shelby sat in the private office usually used by Dr. Selar, studying the last moments of consciousness she had known before keeling over several days ago. She had been certain that she was fully recovered but now, watching the video log with a growing sense of doom, she was wondering if perhaps she should take a permanent sick leave.
Through her off-the-cuff strategy, she had just managed to dispatch a warship belonging to the dreaded Redeemers by using, literally, the power of a sun to do so. But she had come on to the bridge still suffering from head injuries sustained during a disastrous landing expedition to the planet Zondar. All she remembered was that she had passed out right after saving the Excalibur from destruction, but now she was watching the immediate aftermath.
She watched herself leap to her feet, her fists exuberantly pumping the air over her head. She called out triumphantly, "Hah! Spectacular! Engineering, great job! You too, McHenry! Excellent all around! Oh! Look!" She pointed into midair.
"Look at what, sir?" McHenry was asking.
"Colors!" Shelby called out excitedly—and then she pitched forward, Si Cwan just barely catching her before she hit the floor.
But that wasn't the worst of it.
She wasn't unconscious, oh no. No, that would've been too merciful. Instead she had stared up into the air as Si Cwan had said with concern, "Are you all right, Commander?"
"They're all different colors!" Shelby had said.
"Blue, green, pink…"
Si Cwan looked with confusion at the others on the bridge, who seemed equally perplexed. "What are, Commander?"
"The colors!" Shelby had said again, joyously. And then she had passed out.
In sickbay, separated from the event by several days, Shelby clicked off the video record and tried not to display the pain she was feeling. She was not especially successful, unfortunately.
"You said you wanted to see it, Commander," Maxwell reminded her as if concerned she was going to be angry with him. "I advised against it, remember."
"I remember," she sighed.
"It's not important, Commander, It was just a … a stream of consciousness comment. Dreaming with your eyes awake. I guarantee you, no one's going to think about it or even remember it by now. And I'm certain that absolutely no one is going to kid you about it."
She looked up at him bleakly. "On this ship? No way are they going to let it go," she said as if she were awaiting her turn to step into the cart that would bring her to the guillotine. She put her face in her hands. "Face it, Doctor—I'm a dead woman."
* * *
"She looks rather healthy for a dead woman."
Mackenzie Calhoun, captain of the Excalibur, scratched his chin thoughtfully as he studied the picture that was staring back out at him from the computer screen. On either side of the table, Ambassador Si Cwan—former head of the Thallonian ruling class—and Lieutenant Robin Lefler, the ship's Ops officer and part-time assistant to Cwan, had just heard him make this pronouncement. Although Lefler generally had a very ready smile, it wasn't on display at that particular moment. Si Cwan, who customarily had something of a deadpan, didn't look any different than he usually did.
Calhoun leaned forward thoughtfully as if closer examination might yield some bit of information that he'd previously missed. The picture on the screen was of a woman with long, dark hair, a square chin, narrow nose, and a steady gaze that appeared to have a piercing, intensely intelligent air to it. Not an easy thing to project over a mere photograph made for computer identification, but somehow she had managed it. He could only wonder what she was like in person, if that was how she came across in a simple photo.
"So let's see if I've got this straight," he said after a moment, meeting Lefler's gaze. "The Momidiums, out in the Gamma Hydrinae system, claim that this woman was rooting around on their planet about five years ago. This would have made her a trespasser as far as both the Momidiums and the overseers of the Thallonian Empire"—and he gestured suavely to Si Cwan—"were concerned."
"That is correct."
"If the Momidiums had turned her over to the Thallonians, they likely would have executed her."
"I dislike the term 'execute,'" Si Cwan said. "It sounds distasteful to me. Cruel and most impersonal."
"Your pardon, Ambassador," said Calhoun. "How about 'killed'?"
"As you wish. They likely would have killed her." He watched Si Cwan nod his head in agreement and continued, "However, they had no desire to overlook the crimes of trespass and perhaps spying, so they imprisoned her. Have they given any indication as to precisely what they have to hide that they thought was subject for a spy's interest?"
Si Cwan glanced at Lefler, to whom the question seemed addressed, but she made no reply and he came to the realization that she was barely listening. He lightly tapped her shin under the table while stepping in himself to say, "No indication at all, Captain. They have been fairly circumspect in that regard. As with most sentient beings, they like to have their secrets."
"Fine. We needn't dwell on that at the moment. But now," he said thoughtfully as he drummed his fingers, "they want to make nice to us, so they offer to turn this female over to us. One Morgan Primus by name." Even though he knew the name he nonetheless glanced at the computer screen for reaffirmation, much as someone who has just loo
ked at his watch will look at it once more if someone asks him the time even a second later. "They offer her in exchange for certain promises which you, Lieutenant Lefler, feel are not unreasonable."
He said her name with sufficient emphasis that it appeared to jolt her from her slightly dreamy and distracted state. "I'm sorry…?" she said as she realized she wasn't focused on the question.
"The Momidiums," Si Cwan gently cued her.
"About their demands…"
"Oh. Not unreasonable at all, sir," she said quickly. "They are a fairly simple people, actually. They desire some advice from any agricultural specialists on designs for a new irrigation system they've developed for their farmland. Oh, and they have a flu epidemic in one of their outlying provinces. They believe that they've managed to synthesize a cure, but it will take them approximately two weeks to finish running tests on it, and they want to know if our facilities could possibly cut that time down."
"I've already run it past Dr. Maxwell, sir. He assures me that our labs could test the effectiveness of the cure through cross-matching and molecular analysis within three hours of receiving it."
"Good. And if the good doctor finds flaws in the formula, I imagine it would not be overly demanding for him to correct those flaws, now, would it."
"Bordering on Prime Directive violation, isn't that, Captain?" inquired Si Cwan.
"Bordering but not over the line, Ambassador," replied Calhoun. "However, in this instance, Starfleet agreed to give us some latitude. So, Lieutenant, in exchange for these agreements, the Momidiums will present us with this human female,"
"That's right, sir."
"A female whom you claim could pass for your mother's twin."
"No twin, sir," said Lefler and she tapped the screen with a knuckle. "That is my mother."
"The mother whom you said died in a shuttle accident about ten years ago."
Lefler squared her shoulders, pulling herself up straight, for Calhoun had made no effort to hide the disbelief in his voice. "That's correct, sir. Morgan Lefler. At least, that's the name I always knew her by. 'Primus' wasn't even her maiden name, so I don't know where that name came from."