Elementals-Chapter 7

From: Cheryl Baumgartner(C Baumgartner, Posted Date: Sep 15th, 2011

Beyond the Dark Zone:

 

Benai exhaled onto the curved piece of glass he was cleaning.  The lens was starting to become scored and pitted by the constant sand-blasting it was subjected to.  Neither glass nor metal was safe on this planet.  Nor was stone.  But it was all they had to work with.

He gently rubbed his moist breath off of the glass with the fabric of his shirt.  He sat in the shade of a canvas tent, one of many hastily erected here as a temporary residence.  Some men and women worked nearby, stripping down the fuselage of what had been one of the evacuation ships.  They would need the metal for construction of new machines.

Benai himself avoided such hard labor by acting as both leader and scientist.  He smiled slightly at his subtle manipulation of the few thousand refugees who filled his current environment.  Working the lens into the grooves of the metal half-cylinder he held, he fastened the other half over the top, securing the glass in place.  Then, he put the instrument to his eye.

Almost perfect, just a small misalignment.  It would do.  He angled his homemade telescope up towards the nearest dune, then up to the top of the tower of rock being built there.  The tiny figures of people doing more of his dirty work suddenly became larger in his enhanced view.  They stood perched on ladders, hauled stones up slanted planks, or operated improvised pulley systems.  Ah good, they were up to the fifth level.

And therein lay the problem.  They had to have something to get them up higher.  He wanted his tower city to be very tall indeed, and only accessible through entrances at the top levels.  The lower levels would be entirely enclosed by the stones, staircases spiraling around the inner walls.  Those stairs would stop at a certain point.  The point at which the border between the ruling class and the slaves would exist.

Benai gave a small, but truly joyful laugh.  They had no idea what was coming to them.  He’d already chosen his favorites, the ones who intelligently did everything he ordered without hesitation.  These would be allowed to serve him in the top section of his city.  The others, the ones who objected to his ideas and rules, would stay below. 

They’d be used as breeding stock to bring their population up to a safer level.  Once that was reached, there would have to be some measures in place to limit further reproduction.  We couldn’t have a bunch of kids and teenagers revolting against him, Benai, could we?

Once they were sterilized, they’d live the rest of their days as slaves in the city’s mechanical works.  Benai had already made early sketches of the giant bellows system that would be installed within the tower.  The only way for him to be comfortable at the heights of his palace would be if these people continuously blew up cooler air from below.  Huge fans would keep that cool air circulating just enough to keep them all from dying of heat stroke.

When they did die….well, he would cross that bridge when he came to it….

But back to the problem at hand.  He rubbed his chin and thought hard about how to get up to the top of this tower once the bottom was closed off.

A strong breeze brought a wash of sand flying into his tent and he turned his face away from the onslaught.  He was getting used to the high winds on this planet and the gritty discomfort they brought with them.  The canvas walls around him billowed outwards harshly, making the tent almost spherical in shape, before the wind finally escaped back out through the door flap. 

He dropped his telescope and gaped.  Of course!  Balloons!

He grabbed a piece of paper and stylus and began frantically scribbling.  His final product looked a somewhat like a child’s artwork, but it served its purpose.  The vehicle he’d drawn was a bit like a water vessel, with several modifications for air travel.  A single balloon would not be enough to get it off the ground with any people or supplies as cargo.  But three or four balloons attached to the framework could do it.

This time he laughed heartily out loud.  His own brilliance shocked him sometimes.  The vehicles would also allow him to cross the wide river of molten rock that cut through the hills nearby. 

He’d have the people stripping the remains of their own ship outside start on the first of these airships as soon as humanly possible. 

And then another thought struck him.  He almost stopped breathing for a moment as he tried to wrap his intellect around this new idea.  Stepping out of the tent into the burning sun, he searched the sky for their nearest neighbor. 

The planet that appeared to be mostly water orbited near the northern horizon.  At the moment, it was a long way from its occasional eclipse of the sun and the short relief it brought to the people here.  But that didn’t interest him right now.

He grabbed his telescope from where he’d dropped it in the sand.  Swinging it toward the other sphere, he saw a thin whorl flowing between that planet and his.  The two were so close, they had actually merged a bit of their atmospheres.

Lowering the scope slowly, his heart and mind started racing.  With these balloon ships, he could conceivably travel along that small corridor to the water planet and….

…..and do what?

Anything he wanted.  Everything!  He could take water, food, people, materials.  Whatever served his needs.  The possibilities were almost endless!

So far, his workers had managed to find only small deposits of water far below the surface of the desolate rock on which he stood.  These would very soon run dry and he would need reliable and plentiful alternatives.

He swallowed hard.  He had never before shed a tear.  Not when Klea, Sarni, his parents, or his Vila had died, and certainly not when Danik had died (although he’d been furious almost to the point of tears).  But now, moisture actually appeared in the corners of his eyes at the thought of conquering the resources of that other world.

So much work to do, so little time.

Stuffing the telescope into his belt, he rolled up the drawings and headed over to the top of the dune where the workers labored.  He’d give his foremen the sketches and have them get started right away.

“Graint” he called as he loped up the hill.  His second in command turned immediately from where he stood, arms folded across his chest, barking orders.

“New tasks for your builders” Benai said.  He unrolled the plans and explained them to the other man as quickly as he could, stressing the purpose for which the constructions would be intended.  Graint’s frown grew into a wide grin as the new plan unfolded for him.  In his mind, he was already dissecting the ships into their parts and workings as the explanation finished.

“I know you can handle this Graint” said Benai.

“Darn right, boss.  You won’t be disappointed.”

Benai winked and turned to go back down the dune to his tent.  He halted in mid stride when something in his peripheral vision sparkled.  The flash had come from a set of dunes to the East.

Puzzled, Benai brought his telescope to bear again.

For a moment he saw nothing but sand as he swept the horizon.  But then he stopped on a formation that he couldn’t remember seeing there before.  A structure, with figures moving around it, stood there in stark contrast to the surrounding flatness.  The base of the building looked very similar to…..

To his tower city.

The sparkle caught his attention again and he quickly found its source.  A man stood atop a dune in front of this distant construction, holding his own telescope in front of his face.  The sunlight glinted from his lens.

Benai couldn’t see his foe’s features behind the scope, but new at once that here was a new enemy to be contended with.  Someone was building another city, to rival Benai’s, using manpower and materials that should belong to him. 

Must be some renegades from another ship that never joined up with me.  Well, looks like I have to make examples of them.

His good mood gone, he stalked back to his tent.

He had brought many weapons with him through the fractal core.  There had been 6 of them hidden in his clothes when they’d evacuated, and he’d been able to salvage a few more from the ship’s armory.  It had actually been his first order of business here to make sure he was the only one with access to all things deadly.

There hadn’t been a reason or an opportunity to use them here up until now.  He slid his favorite from under a pile of papers next to his cot.  The gleaming sickle dagger felt so comfortable in his hand.  He kissed it and slipped it into his boot.  He hung a three-tailed whip from his belt, along with a dozen throwing knives. 

Along with killing this faceless adversary, he’d also need to destroy that city.  He grabbed four explosive grenades from his supply pack and pocketed them within easy reach.

Feeling deadly and determined, he stalked back out of the tent and over to the dune where Graint worked.  If he hadn’t been so distracted with his dire purpose, he would have been pleased to see Graint already making measurements on a metal plate to start making the first balloon gondola.

“I’m heading East for a bit” Benai called to him, “Keep everything running until I return”.

“What’s happening, boss?” Graint asked.  He turned in the direction Benai indicated and shaded his eyes from the sun.  Without the scope, it took some time and squinting, but he finally found it.

“What the crap they think they’re doing?!”

“My sentiments exactly” replied Benai, a grin forming on his face at his servant’s reaction, “I’ll be taking care of it.  And don’t worry when you hear several large booms.”

“Let me come with you!  I’ll tear their arms off!”  Graint was almost vibrating in his enthusiasm.

“I appreciate it, Graint, but I really think this is something I should do myself.”  Then, on a side thought, he said “Maybe I’ll bring one back alive just for you to play with.”

“Oh yeah” said his foreman, cracking the knuckles on both hands.

Benai set off.

He drank from his canteen only twice on his trek, and then only sparingly.  They’d all learned to live on as little water as possible since crashing here.  He stayed behind dunes whenever possible, but wasn’t strongly concerned about sneaking up on his target.  Who cares if they saw him coming.

Once he was close enough, the panic that ensued among the workers of that other tower made him chuckle.  He saw them all dash behind stones or into their own tents.  They must know that he wasn’t here for a social visit.  Their leader had surely told them that Benai would be miffed once he discovered them.

And where was this illustrious leader?  Benai stopped about 30 paces away from the main construction area, looking for whoever seemed to be in charge, the rat among all the scurrying mice.

From a tent to his right emerged the man he sought.

The man was tall, stocky, and entirely bald.  He held a telescope similar to Benai’s in one hand, while he drank from a cup in the other.  Benai saw a thick black stripe tattooed from the man’s lower lip down under his chin.

But even with the skin art and no hair, Benai knew who this was.

“Danik?”  For a moment he wondered if the heat was making him hallucinate.

“Not my name anymore, Ben.” said the other, tossing his telescope to someone behind him and taking another drink, “You’ll call me Duke.”

“You’re dead” said Benai, recovering from his surprise, “I danced on your entrails myself.  I kicked your head across the dunes for sport.”

Duke smiled a crooked smile.  “I do have to hand it to you, old friend.  You picked a very interesting planet to let me die on.”  He gestured toward his tent.  “Shall we?”

Benai didn’t move.  Duke sighed and shrugged.  “If you insist, we’ll talk out here.”  Benai had been tensed for battle this whole time, but had to know how his enemy had risen from the dead first.

“Since you won’t remember any of this, I might as well tell you my tale.”

Duke began.  “Being crushed was an incredibly painful experience, at least until my spine was severed, so that should give you some pleasure.”  He winked at Benai, who only scowled.

“But then I felt myself sort of….floating, in darkness.  I didn’t have a body, but I was….content.  It just seemed like I was waiting, in an in-between place, for something important to happen.  I had no sense of time there, but as it turns out, I was only gone for a few hours.”

Benai kept his face blank, listening intently and growing more and more furious inside.

“When the moment came, I was pulled out of that darkness, for lack of a better word.  I woke up, quite literally, back in my body on this very spot”  He pointed to the rock at his feet.  “When I looked, there were others also waking up around me.  Others who had also died on that ship.”  He swept his hand towards the people at the tower, who had by this point come out of their hiding places. 

Now Benai could recognize a few of them as the mortally injured passengers he’d not stopped for on his way to the cockpit right after the crash.

This planet held the power of resurrection!

“But the funny thing is…” Duke continued, “None of them can remember who they were before they died.  Just as you will not remember after I kill you.  That is, if you return at all.  It seems that some stay in that darkness, still waiting.”

“I appear to be the only one who can recall my past, and so I’ve become the natural ruler here.”

“You rule nothing” Benai retorted, “And I think we should see how many times I can kill you before you stay dead.”

“Oh yes” smiled Duke, “I know how good you are at killing people, Ben.  But I don’t need to be stronger or faster to beat you.”

A cold spear of pain ripped through Benai’s chest.  He dropped to one knee and looked down.  A crudely fashioned metal shaft protruded from his heart, with paper-thin slivers surrounding the end.

An arrow!  A damned bloody arrow!

“I just need to be smarter” Duke finished.

Benai’s vision went blank as his heart burst and he collapsed into an ungraceful heap in the sand.

“Goodbye Ben” said Duke, taking another drink from his cup.

I will come back….and I will remember…..