EXCERPT FROM

"Ataxia in Ataraxia"

by

Fran Van Cleave


From the December '98 issue of ANALOG.


"Shut up," Dad snarled, flipping open his personal communicator. "Captain Cheney, this is El Jefe. Prepare for lift-off, condition three."

Condition three? "Dad, you can't destroy their ship, you said the deal was OK!"

"I said, shut up, damn you! You think I'd go along with this ludicrous charade? Asking runaways to come out pretty please -- what nonsense! It's a trap! Arrogant bastards think I'd fall for...." His eyes widened in shock, and then he staggered two steps and collapsed.

McCann whirled and pulse-beamed someone behind me; a scream floated up on the air, surreal as the hole burnt in the back of Dad's head. It crossed my mind that he was dead, but I told myself to stop being so melodramatic. I mean, this was real life, it wasn't a play!

Only he wouldn't get up, though I pleaded with him, and he didn't curse me for being a fool. And then McCann fell, shrieking, a burn smoking half his face. A green pulse zinged my ear, crisping my long hair, and I was so frightened I ran behind Implacable instead of inside it. Kawasaki-Jones had disappeared, I didn't know where.

I heard a great shuddering boom, and the wind kicked up, whipping snow and pebbles from the ground. I peeked under the flyer's belly and saw the building collapse with awful majesty, engulfed in bright orange flames.

Should I try to rescue McCann first, and then Dad? McCann was closer and probably alive, but on the other hand, the medical people could surely resuscitate Dad, provided he hadn't lost too much of his....

As I dithered, four Guardia rushed out of Implacable and picked up Dad and McCann. Then they ran back in, all but one, who shouted, "Oye!" and fell off the gangplank. His body rolled under the flyer. It was Bobby Villa, Faerie's half-brother. The light had gone from his eyes -- he was dead.

I heard the engine start up just as I saw two pairs of white-trousered legs flickering across the icy field toward the flyer. The Guardia wore dark-green trousers. Who were these white-clad men?

How could I get inside Implacable when the two doors are on the opposite side, facing them?

The engine sound increased in pitch; Implacable lurched forward.

In a panic, I ran forward too, waving my arms, but the flyer pulled ahead of me. When it became clear I couldn't catch up, and that no one on board saw me, I made for a nearby pile of rock and logs, expecting to be scorched at any moment.

The two men in white seemed preoccupied with the flyer, running after it and shooting at it with blaster rifles.

I ducked down and scurried behind the connecting piles of rock and dead branches. After a minute or so, I ran out of cover, and had to make a dash across an open meadow, beyond which lay a scrub forest. The meadow was maybe ten or fifteen meters, but looked as bare as Halcyon Beach at high tide. My ears were freezing; I pulled the jacket-hood over my head and ran.

And then a blaster-bolt hit me.

I awoke to find myself lying face-down on a slight slope in the meadow. I smelt burnt plastic and ozone, and my head hurt like insanity. My hood wouldn't come off -- the polymer had melted to my hair.

I crawled toward the trees. I could still hear the Implacable's engines overhead, so I knew I couldn't have been out for more than half a minute. Whoever had shot at me must've had his beam spread too wide or low on power, otherwise I'd be dead.

Why hadn't they come to finish me off? I couldn't think. I would've killed for a snort of Quil, but Dad made me leave the bottle in the flyer so I wouldn't offend the Elfourans.

When I reached the trees, I got up and ran. The forest thickened and I lost myself in it.

Thoroughly.

When I could run no further, I collapsed onto a fallen tree, my lungs raw as a wound. An explosion shook the frigid grove. There was dead silence for an eon or two after it faded away.

And then a bird sang noisily somewhere in the forest, one of those mindlessly cheerful warbles. I tell you, I hated that bird. How could it be so happy when I was so miserable?

I was shaking and sweating at the same time, my hands and feet sopping wet. I wondered if this was worse than the time Alaric was killed. Since that part of my memory's a blank, I guess I'll never know.

Was this my fault? Would Dad have come here if he hadn't been so wound up about me being too lazy and irresponsible to make a good Administrator?

I didn't know the answers. All I knew was, I had to get home!

By yourself, down this mountain and through sixty kilometers of rainforest, without a machete or even a breather mask?

Uselessness is vrill.

Tears froze on my cheeks. Where could I go? The people of Hole-In-The-Wall wouldn't help. They were probably responsible for the attack, though I didn't doubt that the original barbarian, Colonel Daggs, was in on it.

Then I remembered the personal flyers on the rocket-field. If I stole one of those, I could fly most of the way home.

I hadn't flown one since Alaric was killed. The thought of encountering a quetzalcoatl made me feel sick enough to upchuck my socks, but how else could I get home? I'd need to have a breather mask for the rest of the trip, and be extra careful I didn't injure myself landing, but ... well, I could do it. If I had to.

I punched the 'local enviro' button on my watch. Three hours 'til dark. If I hurried -- if the attackers were gone, and I found at least one fresh breather mask -- I could spend tonight in a nice warm rainforest. Once I made it down to the ground and found the road, I'd have little worry about bocas, boojums, or quetzalcoatls. Just Colonel Daggs and his ilk....

My heart quailed. The play and the dance seemed a million klicks away. Maybe Dad and McCann were already revived, or would be shortly. They'd order the Guardia to find me and be quick about it, but for now I'd have to stick to this plan.

I looked around. Which direction had I come from? Little snow survived under these scrawny wind-blown trees, and I saw no trace of my passage on the leaf-covered ground.

I raised my eyes to the sky, and saw a black haze that I realized must be smoke from the burning spaceport. Had that last explosion been Daggs' ship?

Dad had ordered the Guardia to blow it up. I jumped to my feet, exultant, until I remembered all the sick people back on Elfour who wouldn't get their medicine now. I told myself the attack was partly their fault, but then I got all mixed up trying to figure out how.

I headed toward the smoke, wondering if my head was bleeding under the melted plastic, and what would happen if Dad was dead. I knew he couldn't be, but I'd gotten stuck on one of those obsessive-thinking loops my HealthMon always warned me about.

Would we be at war with Elfour? If so, the barbarians would have the advantage. We were clustered in a single city, easily attacked. I suspected they'd spread out -- their air was breathable anywhere, and they were too quarrelsome to live together as we did.

If Ataraxia were attacked, what would happen to Faerie? And Booter? And Summer and all the other kids? I moaned. All the wargames I'd played, and I had no clue how to save the people I cared about.

I forgot to look up at the smoke for a few minutes, and then when I looked at it again, it was off to my left. Scowling, I changed course.

My head throbbed hideously. Despite pain that would have felled a lesser man, I would push on to find Dad, and if worst came to worst, lead a ragtag band of civilized norms against the barbarian horde....

An image of Faerie's adorable self appeared before me like a holo. She's presenting me with a medal for saving the city. Her eyes are like twin pools, her brows as delicate as the nectar- feeding zephyrwing, her....

Presently I became aware of a rumbling sound behind me. The ground was smoother, so it was easy to walk faster. The Guardia must be blowing up Hole-In-The-Wall.

But wait, wasn't the town ahead of me, near the spaceport?

I turned and saw the boxy outline of an aluminum jeep approaching, like one I saw parked in front of the conference building, only....

Dr. Mbinga was driving. I ran, but a thousand fingers caught me, and I hit the ground like a ripe peach.



Read the rest in the December '98 issue of ANALOG


Return to Fran's sampler page.