Authors: Eric Brown
Tags: #Science Fiction
After three months of mild winter, spring comes to Chalcedony in a sudden burst of activity. First the swordbills return
and take up residence in the shola trees that line the foreshore. Then the shola trees turn from silver to green and send forth their luscious, pendant blooms, and an army of alien insects gives voice to a constant a cappella chirring, welcoming the onset of the warmer weather.
The residents of Magenta Bay, after wintering in the south or on Earth, return home. Shops and cafes open along the waterfront and tourists take advantage of the coast’s scenic beauty and bring with them news from around the Expansion.
That year, a little over six years since meeting Hannah van Harben, life for me was just about as good as it could get. It was a long time since anything of any note had occurred to disturb the placid regime of my existence, and that was fine by me.
* * *
I had not seen my friends for more than six months. Matt and Maddie had been touring the Expansion with Matt’s latest artwork; Hawk and Kee had been on a long haul across the galaxy, taking rich tourists on a trip to the Nilakantha stardrift. Normally, the absence of my friends for so long—after enjoying their company almost every day for years—would have sent me into a spiral of loneliness and self-pity. But marriage can be a great corrective to these maladies, and though I missed my friends and our drinking sessions in the Jackeral, family life filled my time, my thoughts and my emotions.
I suspected Hannah was planning something. After six years of marriage I knew her so well that I was picking up subliminal signs: hesitations in conversation, smiles and glances away when I tried to probe.
And then there were the more obvious indicators: com-calls abruptly terminated when I entered the room, then a call that Hannah insisted on taking alone.
For a ludicrous second I entertained the notion that she was having an affair—even though our marriage seemed idyllic—and I think my apprehension made her come clean.
It was four o’clock and the sun was shimmering on the scaled surface of the bay. Hannah had finished work early and we were enjoying a cold beer on the verandah of the
“Do you miss them?” she asked, watching me closely above her raised glass.
“I do. It’s only when they’re away that I realise how important they are to me. We’ve been through a lot together. That said…”
“You and Ella mean more to me than anyone else in the world.”
She reached out and gripped my hand, then released it quickly, stood up and made for the lounge. “What?” I said.
She paused in the doorway. “Shhh. Wait there.”
Intrigued, I watched swordbills swoop over the distant headland where Matt and Maddie had their dome.
Hannah appeared a minute later, carrying a silver envelope.
“What is it?”
She sat down and tapped the envelope with a long fingernail. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”
I laughed. “Out with it. What’ve you been planning?”
She pulled a face. “Was it so obvious?”
“You’ve been up to something for weeks.”
She passed me the envelope, watching me closely, a slight, pursed smile of anticipation gathering her lips.
I unzipped the seal and tipped out the contents: it was one of those gimmicky talking brochures. Activated by my touch, a honeyed feminine contralto purred: “Thank you for selecting a Meredith Summer Break.”
I thumbed it into silence and watched a series of idyllic images play themselves out across the surface of the brochure, accompanied by explanatory captions.
“Nestled on the edge Chalcedony’s equatorial plateau,” I read, “Meredith villas are a series of luxurious holiday retreats…”
I gazed at A-frames and silver domes cantilevered over geometrically perfect waterfalls, and free-form extruded glass houses seemingly oozing between hundred-metre-high trees.
I looked up. “But… we can’t afford this!” I laughed.
“Well, we could, at a push. But we don’t have to.”
“You’re talking in riddles.”
She smiled. “Matt can. He contacted me a couple of weeks ago. Some billionaire tycoon bought the ten-year rights to Matt’s latest creation. He called to say he wanted to celebrate when he got back.”
“So that’s what all those calls were about!”
Hannah laughed. “I had to liaise between Matt, Hawk, and the people at Meredith villas. It took some sorting out.”
I had never been farther inland than the Yall’s Golden Column. The continent’s little-explored interior was a mountainous region of vast rainforests, spectacular rivers ten times as long as the Amazon, and abundant alien wildlife.
“We’re meeting Matt and Maddie, Hawk and Kee there next week, and staying for a fortnight. Another beer?”
While Hannah fetched a second bottle, I activated the brochure.
“A special feature of your Meredith break,” the seductive voice said, “is a one-off and strictly limited tour of the archaeological site at Tamara Falls…”
I stilled the image and the voice died. When Hannah returned, I indicated the brochure. “Isn’t that where there was that big hush-hush discovery made a few years ago?”
“That’s the place, David. And we’ll be granted special access.”
I whistled. “This must have cost Matt a fortune.”
“Typical of the man’s generosity,” Hannah said. “We have some wonderful friends.”
The sound of an approaching ground-car broke the silence. The woman in the driving seat halted before the
, waved and called out, “Here she is, on the dot of five as promised. One slightly grubby and very tired little girl.”
“Thanks, Lola,” Hannah called.
Ella erupted from the rear of the car, a miniature version of Hannah, all long blonde hair and gangly limbs. She sped towards the
as the roadster turned and roared away.
Seconds later Ella sprinted through the doorway and launched herself onto my lap. Her weight activated the brochure and the mellifluous woman’s voice, muffled under my daughter’s bottom, said, “Thrill to the unspoilt splendour of the Tamara Caves, wonder at the natural…” I pulled the brochure from under Ella, switched off the sound and passed it to her.
Ella smelled of school, that inimitable perfume of little girl sweat, computer keyboards and memory-dough. She grabbed the brochure. “Starry,” she said, the latest superlative she’d picked up from friends. “Tamara Falls!”
“Would you like to go there for a holiday?” Hannah asked.
Ella beamed. “Holiday? Us? Me and you and Daddy?”
Hannah nodded. “And Maddie and Matt, Kee and Hawk.”
“Everybody!” Ella trilled. “I haven’t seen them for years and years!”
“Well,” I said, “perhaps a few months.”
She regarded the brochure. “Lizzy says that alien ghosts live in Tamara Falls,” she said with all the authority of a five-year-old. “Lizzy told me the ghosts are not very nice. She knows.”
I smiled. “Does she now?”
Ella nodded seriously. “She told me. Her Daddy works at Tamara.” She leapt off my knee with the sudden, disconcerting transference of attention common to children, and said, “Where’s Mr Noodle Pie, Mummy?” And then, “I’m hungry!”
“Noodle Pie’s in your room, on the floor where you left him this morning. And there’s a samosa in the cooler.”
Ella ran off and Hannah took her place on my lap. She kissed my forehead. “Idyllic interior scenery
alien ghosts,” she said.
I backhanded a tress of golden hair from her cheek. “Can’t wait to see Matt and the others, Hannah. Catch up with what they’ve been doing…”
Overhead, a swordbill shrieked a deafening mating call and dived towards the bay.
The five days before we were due to set off inland seemed to drag.
I filled the time with the usual pursuits. I looked after Ella while Hannah was at work in Mackinley, and when Ella was at school I read or took long walks around the bay. In the evenings we had a meal on the verandah, and when Ella went to bed, Hannah and I chatted about her work—she was investigating a rare bank robbery that had occurred in the capital last week—and looked ahead to the holiday.
Ella wanted to know all about Tamara Falls. “Will there be an animal farm?” she asked one day on the way back from school.
“I’m sure there’ll be animals near the villa,” I temporised.
“And will Hawk and Kee tell me all about the places they’ve been to in their spaceship?”
I laughed. “Hawk’d like nothing better.”
I gripped her small hand as we walked along the foreshore. Ella had been a late and unexpected bonus to a life I had thought complete: after two years of trying for a child, we’d resigned ourselves to having only each other—and although that was fine by me, I was troubled by the fact that Hannah wanted a child. My guilt was expunged one day when she came up to me in the kitchen and said, “You don’t have to go to the medical centre for that sperm test, David.”
I looked at her. “What, I can do it at home?” I asked, abstractedly.
“Idiot.” She mimed a slap across my cheek. “I’m pregnant.”
I had thought that life could never be any better, and then Ella came along and showed me what I’d been missing.
Now she pointed a finger towards the
. “Tell me the story of the Yall, Daddy.”
So for perhaps the hundredth time I told her all about the Yall, the Opening of the Way, and my involvement in it.
On the night before we were due to leave for the interior, we packed cases and gathered together everything we might need for two weeks in the rainforest. The resulting mountain of baggage was sufficient to equip a small army.
We packed Ella off to bed early, because we were setting off just after the crack of dawn, and after a light meal had an early night ourselves.
For some reason I could not get to sleep. I usually slept well and snored like an earth-mover to prove it, as Hannah was always telling me. That night, however, I lay awake for hours, and when I did slip into a light doze, something would wake me and I’d start upright as if from the effects of a nightmare.
Eventually, I slipped out of bed and moved through the ship to the kitchen.
I poured myself a glass of sava juice and stood by a side-screen, staring out at the bay, silvered by the light from the Ring of Tharssos. The damned thing was, I was dead on my feet; my limbs were heavy and I could feel my eyes drooping. I knew I’d suffer for my insomnia when the alarm went off at six and Hannah marshalled us with all the efficiency of a drill sergeant.
I turned to retrace my steps back to bed—and stopped dead in my tracks.
A vaguely familiar figure stood before me in the entrance to the corridor.
It seemed to float, light and ethereal, as I stared. Tall and attenuated, it was more amphibian than mammal, with scales and a pair of gills below its abnormally thin skull: the image of a Yall.
It cast an eerie green glow, the only illumination in the room.
I leaned against the wall for support. “What do you want?”
Perhaps I should have been frightened at the sudden presence of this apparition—frightened not because it betokened some bizarre supernatural phenomenon, but because I guessed that its appearance was the harbinger of imminent crucial events.
After all, the Yall do not show themselves—or their avatars—without due cause, as I knew full well.
I stared at the apparition with an odd calm, a certain fatalism at the fact of its presence.
I said again, “What do you want?”
I did not expect it to answer me verbally: after all, that was not how the first apparition, all those years ago, had communicated with me. Rather, then I had heard its words in my dreams.
So I was more than a little surprised when the elongated alien wraith raised a hand and spoke. “Do not be alarmed.”
Suddenly, I wanted Hannah to be with me, to share the experience. I had the intuition that it would be a long time before it might happen again.