Béla floated in the air, some distance from the great ship. Looking down, she could see clouds moving across the landscape far beneath her. She traced a ribbon of blue from where it emptied into a glistening lake, back across little brown squares and dark green areas, back to its source, a large patch of white near the bright crystal sun. That was probably snow. The darker green areas were probably groves of trees. The little brown squares speckled with white and green were probably fields, waiting for the grain that was even now being unloaded from the great ship.
That brought her mind back to the ship, their new home, and her father. No one had ever named the great ship or the hollow moon she floated in. Béla realized that a telepathic race would have no need to name objects and things; they simply projected images to each other. She suspected that her father was simply patronizing her when he had allowed her to name their great venture.
Moving her wings slightly, she rolled and looked ‘down’ in another direction. There was a small town far below her. The concept of ‘up’ and ‘down’ was still slightly disorienting. From where she was right now, everywhere was ‘down’. Béla knew that when she got to the surface, everywhere would be ‘up’, or ‘over’, but not ‘down’.
She had flown out a small distance from the great ship, fuming that her father wouldn’t let her fly to the surface alongside one of the cargo carriers. She knew, of course, that the only safe passage was via the North or South poles, but she chaffed at having to ride in a cargo carrier like a ‘grounder’ to get there.
Her thoughts reminded her that she would be expected to show up in the cargo bay for transport to the surface, soon. She looked around for the great ship, suddenly realizing she’d drifted some distance from it. It was so tiny that she missed the little black dot against the landscape behind it, and had to search for it mentally. Once she knew where it was, she could see it and began to fly toward it.
Not realizing it, she was already falling toward the surface far below. Drifting with the gradually increasing wind, Béla was being carried away from the great ship faster than she could fly toward it. After several moments of flying as fast and as hard as she could, Béla realized she was in serious trouble.
'Again? Shit and God Damn!' she thought disgustedly.
The air around her was becoming more turbulent. Béla spread her wings wide, trying to decide what to do. She couldn’t fly up. The wind pushed her sideways faster than she could climb, and sideways was another direction of DOWN! She realized with considerable nervousness and upset that she was going to have to match her speed to the growing landscape beneath her, or be smashed against the inner surface by the centrifical forces surrounding her.
In her flights around the inside of Deimos, Béla had encountered this problem a couple of times, but tiny Deimos was much smaller than New Eden and the air turbulence between the center of that moon and its inner surface was miniscule. The dangerous part about flying around inside Deimos had been the treacherously uneven landscape and the rapid, wobbly rotation.
Béla knew, from her studies, that there was a relatively calm cushion of air that rotated near the same speed as the surface below her. During a storm, that air cushion could extend up for several thousand feet, depending mainly on the temperatures and velocities of the air masses involved.
‘I’m flying the wrong way!’ Béla realized, as she fought against the increasing wind velocity. ‘I should be using the wind to help me speed up!’
She arched her back and flipped over, stalling out, and began diving even faster toward the surface, picking up speed with the wind behind her, now. That was good, because she needed a *lot* of speed. She also needed a towering cushion of air to dive into, so she could change her trajectory to skim the inner surface and not slam into it.
Now flying as fast as she could in the same direction the wind was carrying her, Béla desperately began searching below and behind her for a towering storm cloud she could dive into. The turbulence and air pockets she flew into kept spinning her around and carrying her hundreds of feet up, then down. She’d had to fold her wings behind her twice to keep them from being physically torn from her shoulder sockets. She was now helplessly caught in the same trap she had warned Elaine about the day before.
Far below, there was a huge cumulus cloud catching up with her. The updraft it was creating as it approached was pushing her up and away from it. Béla realized that she would be sucked down in a deadly air pocket once the cloud tower passed beneath her and there would be nothing she could do to prevent a fatal impact against the surface. She suspected that the smear she would leave on the surface wouldn’t regenerate, even with the help of her father’s advanced technology.
Béla moved her wings forward in her shoulder sockets, forming them back into arms and dived straight down, watching the cloud rapidly increase in size as it loomed beneath her. She dived, feeling the hopelessness of her situation as she watched the huge cloud racing by beneath her. She sobbed in defeat as she realized was going to miss. The violent updraft she was diving through wasn't permitting her to fall fast enough.
‘Curl up into a ball, Child!’ her father’s voice sounded inside her head.
Béla curled up into the smallest ball she could make, offering as little resistance against the terrific updraft as she could. No longer able to see where she was going, she plummeted downward, desperately hoping that the sensation of falling wasn’t the last thing she would ever feel.
She cried out in terror as a solid wall of icy black water blasted against her naked body from head to toe. Fighting her impulse to curl up even tighter against the freezing assault, she stretched out to catch herself in the vast, black storm, kiting her wings to match its fearsome velocity as the wind and rain tore at her and drove her violently down, then up, then down again.
Terrifying, dazzling, bolts of lightning crashed all around her, blinding her, deafening her, and confusing her until she had no idea where she was or which way to fly. Béla felt sick and dizzy from all the lightening blasts and the terrible, wild tumbling, her whole body numbed by the horrific shaking just from the thunder surrounding her. She was so freezing cold and wet that she could barely draw in a breath of that icy, water-filled wind and was amazed that she was alive and still flying. Uncertain and disoriented, she wildly kited her wings, blindly trying to remain aloft.
After several moments of violent tumbling and the desperate fight to keep her wings from being shredded and ripped from her body, she suddenly realized that the wind was no longer blasting wetly at her and threatening to flip her over. Daring to believe that she’d actually succeeded in matching the velocity of the inner surface, she spread her wings wide and glided with the wind, resting her burning, cramped wing and back muscles. Her lungs were raw from gasping wet, freezing air and every inch of her bare flesh was burning from the pelting of the cold rain as it whipped around her.
Still forcing her wings and body straight and ignoring every instinct to curl up and protect her bare skin from the freezing, pelting storm, Béla looked down at the cold, damp landscape floating serenely only a hundred feet below her, still blinking away the black spots caused by the lightning. A victorious shout of joy radiated from deep inside her soul. It was radiated back to her from many sources somewhere far above.
Béla realized that everyone on the great ship had become fearfully aware of her desperate situation and found themselves completely unable to help. Even from this distance, she could feel their joy and relief as they celebrated her success and survival.
‘If you didn’t want to ride with me, you could have just said so…’ Elaine petulantly thought at her, pretending to be annoyed.
Béla could feel Elaine’s tearful relief and knew that her sister had been through her own private hell, not knowing if her favorite sister was going to live, or die the horrible death Béla had described to her just the day before.
Spotting a farmhouse and anxious to get out of the cold, drizzling rain, Béla circled and banked toward it. Her speed was completely matched with the surface now, and flying here felt almost the same as flying on Earth. She landed and collapsed to the ground, unable to stand, her legs and body completely numb from the cold and no longer willing or able to obey. Her arms and back cramped from the strain of her ordeal. After trying to stand up twice and falling each time, she lay on the cold, wet ground for a while, simply letting the rain fall on her while she rested.
The cold rain that had been pelting her skin when she was aloft was, in reality, just a light sprinkle on the ground, although the wetness she lay in indicated that it had rained harder, earlier.
Struggling over onto her back, she could see that the landscape rose dizzily around the dark clouds in every direction. The crystal sun was shining on several edges, reminding Béla of a giant, constructed stage intended for an outdoor play. She couldn’t see the crystal sun, itself, because of the angry storm clouds rushing above her.
Finally catching her breath and feeling a slight promise in her body that it may someday obey her again, she looked at the farmhouse. Despite the fact that it looked dark and deserted, she could feel someone inside, weak and sick, radiating grief and longing for an end to lingering sickness and pain.
‘Let me help you,’ Béla called anxiously to the mind that had just brushed against hers.
‘Stay away… There is only death… for you… here…’ the person inside responded, desperately.
An image was attached to the response. ‘A slight headache, a dry cough, bleeding from sores that erupted on the skin, then fever, diarrhea and vomiting, causing incredible weakness. No one to help, your wife sick and dying, lying in her own feces. The smell of sickness and death, your wife lying next to you, dead and rotting. Death all around… too weak and sick to move, taking so long to die…'
Distressed by the images that the being inside the farmhouse had broadcast, Béla pulled herself up, forcing her own protesting muscles into action. She lumbered unsteadily up to the farmhouse door and pulled it open. The smell of rotted flesh was so strong it disoriented her and made her eyes water. She gagged and staggered backward. She could feel weak protests of her actions radiating from the unknown person inside.
‘Go away… You will die here!’
Béla braced herself against the overpowering smell and entered the small farmhouse. She found herself in a quaint little kitchen. The incredibly nauseous smell filled the small house. She hadn’t smelled anything that bad since she was killed and thrown into that mass grave in Germany fifty years… no, a hundred and some years ago. She still had to make adjustments in her thinking for the years she had lost inside the Praetor.
‘Please! Go Away… Let me die…’ the mind in the next room weakly insisted.
Béla peered into the next room. It was darker than the kitchen she’d just left. She could hear someone in the room, their every breath being drawn painfully into a terribly dry and agonized throat. The heavy smell of rotted flesh was even more sickening in here; so strong that it seemed to coat her mouth and throat with its rotted, oily stench. Béla threw open a window, letting in a fresh, cold wind and took a deep breath.
The fresh air whipped up the smell, making it even more intense. Béla gagged, unwilling to breathe the intense aroma that surrounded her. As the figure on the bed gazed weakly at her, Béla noted that it was surprised that a young, naked girl would suddenly appear. Even as sick as he was, he responded somewhat to her female nakedness. Béla felt the person radiate an incredible sadness that another beautiful, fragile young woman would soon be destroyed by this wasting sickness.
“I have no intention of dying,” Béla told him, trying not to gag as she approached the bed.
As her watering eyes adjusted to the darkness in the room and the smell, she could see that the man was lying in his own filth and vomit. It was impossible to tell how old he was. What was left was just skin and bones. He had been unable to care for himself for several days, maybe a week or even longer.
Someone was lying in the bed next to him. The rotting gray flesh frozen forever in a tooth-baring grimace of agony informed Béla of what her nose already knew. That person was beyond any assistance she could offer.
The frail man shook his head in denial as Béla sat down on the bed with him even as he radiated the agony the small effort caused him.
‘Surely you do not want… to die like this…’ his mind weakly screamed at her. ‘Please, leave while you can… It is already too late for me…’
Béla gazed into his eyes and radiated ‘Peace!’ at him. Looking around, she saw a knife among the dishes and rotted food on the filthy table next to the bed. Picking it up, she deftly slashed her wrist and held it over his face, letting her blood drip into his mouth. After a moment, the man weakly took her arm and pulled her wrist against his lips, sucking at her healing wound and making little animal whimpers as he forced himself to swallow her blood.
Béla could feel the man’s self-loathing at his own actions even though he was unable to stop himself from taking her blood and knowing that he was infecting her with his very touch. After several minutes, he passed out. He already looked younger and healthier.
Béla left him in the bed with his dead mate and looked around for something to protect her from the cold. Although there was no wind in the farmhouse, it was still cold. Besides, she didn’t plan to stay inside any longer than she had to – the smell was simply too intense.
She explored the sprawling little farmhouse as her new charge slept, breathing peacefully, probably for the first time in days or weeks. There was another bedroom with a set of twin beds in it, one bunk over the other. The room was messy, but empty of any more bodies. The next room was a storage room full of supplies. She found spare bedding, dragged it back through the two bedrooms and through the kitchen door going outside.
She reentered the farmhouse and began exploring the kitchen hoping to find something to eat. She found a can of processed meat and a can of peaches and took them back outside. Dropping them down on her new blanket she dragged her bedding farther from the house, wishing she could rinse the stench from the farmhouse off her, but also hoping it didn’t rain again and wet down her bedding.
Finally satisfied, Béla sat down on her blanket, then lay back and watched the low clouds race by overhead. After a moment, she remembered she was starving and pressed the button on the side of the can of meat, causing it to open. It was some kind of mush, most likely intended to be spread on a piece of bread or a cracker. She dipped her fingers into it and sucked a glob of it into her mouth. It had the texture of coarse peanut butter and smelled like brine water. She licked it off her fingers, deciding that it actually tasted pretty good if you held your breath. There was so much salt in it, she nearly gagged, but at least the salty taste of the canned meat byproduct replaced the foul taste of death in her mouth.
Béla looked at the other can and decided the meat paste probably wouldn’t go with the peaches, but she needed something to drink, so she opened the can and drank the juice. That took care of the excess salt flavoring in her mouth.
Exhausted, she fell into a troubled sleep, thinking about peaches, meat paste, and the horror that was in the farmhouse.