Chapter Sixteen – It is Easy to Get Lost in the Belly of the Mountain
It seemed as though she’d hardly slept when the alarm started blaring its high-pitched buzz through the halls. Citlally groaned as the noise demanded that she open her eyes. Within moments, Allanah leaped down from the upper bunk and was kneeling at her side.
“Get dressed. We have to hurry if we’re going to get through breakfast and then get to the best mining site before anyone else.”
Through bleary eyes, Citlally could see the other women pulling on their uniforms, dull canvas coveralls that went down to their ankles and their wrists, with collars that wrapped around their necks.
“Mining is the only time having short hair is useful,” one of then hissed, sounding like an angry cat. “At least it will not get caught up in the tools.”
“What about the girl?” the other woman asked. “Can she even lift a tool?”
“Don’t worry about her,” Allanah told them as she handed the Terran her uniform. “She can scout for us.”
One of them made a face that showed her annoyance towards the idea. “Human scout, feh! Elf is a better scout!”
“Why is she so important to you, anyhow?” the other asked. “Just because you met her on that space station.”
“Don’t ask me to explain it.” Allanah zipped up her coveralls as she spoke. “She will do just fine.”
The other alien shrugged. “What choice do we have?” one said. “If we don’t bring her with us, we will be blamed for her dereliction. If she comes, her bleeding may worsen.”
“Then you won’t have your friend for much longer,” the other chimed in.
“I will look after her,” Allanah insisted. “You two just focus on mining. We don’t need any extra attention from the prospectors.”
It only took a few more minutes for two waulon men in uniforms to arrive, pounding on the door before opening it. The women filed out of the small bunker and followed the waulons through the halls to the cafeteria. They were given trays loaded with lumpy, soggy grains, shreds of dried meat, and what looked like a mixture of fruits. Citlally followed Allanah and the others to a table and sat down.
“You have to eat,” Allanah whispered to her when she saw her clutching her belly.
Citlally shook her head. “It hurts too much.”
“You have to overcome the pain,” the elf insisted between bites of her own food. The other two scowled.
“It’s like my guts are being pulled and turned inside out.”
Allanah sighed, not from annoyance, but in pity. “I know the lavishta‘s effects are horrible, but you’ll never make it through the day if you don’t keep up your strength.”
“I can’t do it,” Citlally hissed back, keeping her voice low.
The red-haired elf leaned in close to her, grabbing her arm. “Listen, this is your only hope. You can’t mess this up! Just eat now, and you can thank me later.”
Citlally looked up into her shining green eyes, feeling her own well up with tears. Had she really just been scolded by the very elf whom she had been so excited to meet not so long ago? She couldn’t focus on such thoughts for long; the pain in her belly was worsening, and she clutched it tighter.
“She isn’t going to make it through the day,” one of the women commented. “She is going to bleed everywhere just to pass through the… ordeal.”
Allanah glared at her.
“Why do they even give anyone lavishta if it can take her with it?” the other added, ignoring the elf’s expression.
“Better than the alternative, or so the Wilang think,” the first noted.
“Would you hush already?” Allanah hissed. Then she turned back to Citlally. “You have to eat!”
Now it was the human girl who glared at the others. She refused, even through her pain, to let them be right. She was not going to give up trying to survive, to get back to Endan. Her eyes still on them, she reached up one arm to pick up her spoon – although the bowl of it was nearly flat, and the handle had been bent this way and that – and took a mouthful of the porridge-like substance.
“It’s awful,” she said after she’d swallowed it.
Allanah smirked and shook her head. “Just eat. We don’t have much time.”
It took Citlally a lot of willpower to get enough food down that she felt like she could move. Her belly still roiled and churned, and she could feel the blood trickling out of her, ever so slowly, but also very surely, yet she stood when her elvan friend did, then followed her through the scullery.
Moments later, they began a long descent along a path that led deeper into the mountain. The men, satisfied that they were off to work, walked off towards another room to rouse some other workers.
The four women rushed down the hallway, which sloped gradually downwards, passing several other doors and even other miners, who were moving at a more leisurely pace. Once they were out of sight of anyone else, Allanah supported Citlally as best she could, helping move her along as she complained of weakness. The smooth ground gave way to stairs, and from there the hallway turned a corner.
“How do they know when to go deeper down, rather than forward?” Citlally asked, trying to keep her mind off the pain.
“The prospectors have specialized scanning equipment,” Allanah explained. “It can differentiate between rock, metal, and gem.”
“It sounds like Earth could benefit from technology like that,” she scoffed. “There used to be an age when humans would detonate entire mountaintops in hopes of revealing a vein of something valuable. Nowadays they’re trying to come up with a technology that can point out the goods without destroying nature.”
“Do not start talking as though Wilang technology is at all valuable,” Allanah chided her. “They developed it under threat of capital punishment, and the… what is the word for it? Ah, the uranium that they started mining caused nothing but trouble.”
The mention of that element stopped Citlally dead in her tracks. “Are we… We are not mining uranium, are we?”
“Don’t be daft, human,” one of he other aliens groaned as the hallway widened into a room. “We are not equipped to mine radioactive material.”
“That was ages ago,” Allanah explained. “They had no idea what they were getting themselves into, and by the time a group of aliens explained why they wore hazardous material suits when they came to buy the uranium from Sardonia, and why they took it away in specialized containers, it was too late for a lot of Wilang and waulon.”
“These days,” one of the alien women added as she held up her lantern to the room, “this is what they consider most valuable.”
The light revealed a wide, open room. Its walls were rough, with long gouges winding through them. Citlally imagined that veins of some valuable ore had been mined out of them. There were crates here and there around the room, and burlap bags stacked beside them. One crate was marked with bright red paint, and inside were a few stones of whatever rock the walls were made of. The other one was painted with bright green markings, and was completely empty. The room was not formed at right angles, as one would build up the walls for a home, but was instead lopsided and globulous. It had definitely been carved out in whatever direction the ore went.
Various mining tools, some manual, others based on some kind of technology that Citlally had never seen before, were laid on the floor near one corner. Allanah led her over to it and pointed out a narrow vein of ore that jutted out of the wall. It shone and sparkled like an emerald when she held the light up to it, but it had the creamy opacity of turquoise or jade. Citlally remarked that it was veined with darker and lighter shades, much like marble.
“It…is it glowing?”
“You could say that. The glow comes and goes in slow pulses, though they are still trying to understand why. It seems to react to light, but not in a way that is scientifically predictable.”
“There’s nothing like it on Earth… What is it?”
“Millefinluxium,” Allanah told her. “Number 142 on the Galactic Unified Periodic Table.”
Citlally’s mouth fell open. “One hundred forty-two?! How is it not radioactive? I – I’ve never even heard of such an element!”
“How could you have?” Allanah asked her. “So far, only planets near the Veil Nebula have been known to have any at all.”
“But… the radioactivity!” Citlally stuttered. “We were just talking about uranium being dangerous.”
Allanah shook her head. “Millefinluxium is stable. You have nothing to fear from handling it.”
“One hundred forty-two…” Citlally breathed, staring at the green ore, still refusing to touch it. “It must be incredibly heavy.”
“So we had thought,” the elf replied. “Think about this: when water freezes into ice, it forms a lattice structure that causes it to expand, so it is actually lighter, besides taking up more space. Millefinluxium does the same thing when it solidifies, but in a more exaggerated way. Besides that, it is riddled with air pockets, mostly full of helium.”
“What is it good for, though?”
Allanah shrugged. “It’s being sold to a specialist that lives on the other side of the Veil Nebula.”
“For a lot of money,” one of the alien women added as she walked over and pulled on a pair of gloves. That stuff is the only thing keeping Sardonia’s economy alive these days.”
“And the slavery,” the other one added as she tested the switches on one of the heftier tools.
“Selling the planet’s natural resources in order for the upper class to stay afloat is not a thriving economy,” Allanah told them. Clearly she believed in a different philosophy. “They should never have been given alien technology before they were ready. They were in economic turmoil when those aliens came in, and the trade has only made things worse for them. They should have been left alone to re-develop their economy into something workable.”
“She believes in failure,” one of the aliens scoffed, looking right at Citlally.
“It has happened on my home-world,” Allanah replied. “You have to completely rid yourself of the old ways in order to create new ones.”
“Just like Shiva… or a phoenix,” Citlally added.
Allanah gave her a piteous look, and laid her hands on her shoulders. “You have your own ordeal from which you shall be reborn.”
Before the young Terran could ask the elf to explain what she meant, the sound of heavy footsteps foretold the coming of a man. The women busied themselves with the final tasks needed to prepare the equipment, not wanting to risk seeming off-task when he walked into the chamber.
“Well, well, well,” the smooth, cunning voice began. There was a tense moment of fear, the worry that it was one of the meaner prospectors angry that he didn’t already hear the drills and chisels working, before the figure rounded the corner. “If it isn’t my very favorite ladies.”
“If it isn’t the smoothest liar of them all,” one of the aliens snapped.
“Ah, Chessy, I already told you, yours is a special case.” The man pushed his shaggy brown hair out of his face and slipped a hand into the pocket of his jacket.
Allanah eyed him so coldly that Citlally could tell she didn’t put up with attempts to charm or distraction. “Did you bring the work orders?” she asked him, her voice even and flat.
“I would never fail you, princess,” Jalingan replied, pulling a paper out of his pocket, his voice still as playful as ever.
Allanah snatched the paper from him, glared at him for a moment, and then turned around to unfold it and read it to herself. She noticed that it was written in her own language, so that nobody else would be able to read the message he’d written to her.
Mine the millefinluxium until the first guard passes through. The way is ready. The lion will be waiting. Fill the crates and do not call attention to the human. Mine all the day through. Return to your room after your shift and never speak of her again.
The rest of the paper was a mess of mining instructions, tools to use, a waste of ink meant to look like the day’s orders. Allanah eyed him warily for a long moment.
“You went through a lot of trouble to write out these orders,” she noted.
Jalingan shrugged. “I only act out of my own sense of greed. Stop acting like some kind of princess who intends to be rescued by her knights before the week is out.”
“And tarnish your reputation?” she asked in a mocking tone. “Heh. Never would I dream of doing such a thing.”
Shaking his head, he turned to go. “I have to get myself a different job. Being a mercenary on Sardonia is hardly worth the pay. I should have been a bounty hunter instead.”
“Never too late for that!” one of the other women called to him as he started to walk away. “Scathing liver-belly,” she hissed to herself. Her words hardly made sense to Citlally, but she at least understood that the alien was irritated with him.
With Jalingan gone, Allanah turned to the other ladies. “We need to get to work,” said.
Nobody argued with her. They picked up their tools and took to excavating the millefinluxium out of the wall. Citlally hardly felt that she was needed, so little did the others ask her to do. They pulled the crates closer to where they were working, and let her rest on a boulder in between handing her chunks of rock to toss into the bin painted with red lettering. As they freed chunks of millefinluxium from the wall, they handed it to her more delicately.
She learned that they were expected to wrap the ore in layers of burlap to keep the pieces from scratching one another. It reminded her of diamonds, the way they were so valuable, yet able to damage themselves. Besides that, they were both made up entirely of one element.
The millefinluxium felt heaver than it looked; with its green shades, it looked no heaver than jade, but a palm-sized piece felt as though she’d been handed a large chunk of metal. Still, it was not too heavy for her to hold, and she carefully wrapped each piece before laying it in the bin painted with green lettering.
After what seemed like ages, listening to the sound of the drills on stone, thankful for the ear protection that Allanah had found, a pair of armored men passed through. Citlally couldn’t tell what species they were, due to their helmets and gloves, but they were keenly interested in how much millefinluxium was in the bin.
“Trade commission is expecting two more crates,” the guards told the group. “Do not let them down.”
The women agreed; there was no arguing with the guards without unspeakable repercussions.
When they were gone, Allanah gave the other women a serious look. “Are we going to be able to fulfill that order?”
“Of course we will,” one of them replied.
“There is plenty of millefinluxium in this vein… but we might have to get sloppy with the rock if they want us to deliver a bin that’s overflowing.”
“That is what they always want,” the other agreed. “Full to the brim is never enough; there has to be extra.”
“As long as there is enough that we don’t get questioned later,” Allanah told them. Then she took Citlally by the arm. “Get started without me, ladies. I’m going to show this one how to scout ahead for another vein of millefinluxium.”
“Be careful, scout,” one of the women said as she lifted her tool. “Your kind gets lost in the mines all the time.”
“When you get lost in the mines of Sardonia, nobody – and I do mean nobody, never – comes to find you,” the other added. “Nobody cares whether you’re safe, and when one worker leaves, another eventually comes to take her place.”
As the aliens pulled their helmets back on and the drills and chisels resumed their terrible racket, the red-haired elf pulled Citlally towards another corner of the room. The human protested the entire time, but was not listened to by any stretch.
“Scouting? But I thought they had technology that can see exactly where it is!”
“Are you a fool, child?” Allanah hissed, tugging her arm harder. She stood close to Citlally, speaking into her ear from between gritted teeth. “Jalingan went to a lot of trouble to get you down here. If you ever want to see your mate again, you will pretend that you have half the brain that got you off of your home-world.”
Shocked that the elf was actually yelling at her, Citlally nodded. Then they looked into the corner. It had a wide crack in it, and when Allanah held a lantern up to it, she saw that it was quite deep. The elf crouched down and slipped inside first, then reached her hand out to beckon the human.
Nervous as she was, Citlally knelt down and slipped into the shadowy crack in the wall. Her last glimpse at the other two aliens was of them carving stone away from the green crystalline element. On the other side of the crack, Allanah knelt in the sphere of her lantern’s light.
“This is the only chance you will get. If you don’t make it out, your body will be hidden here forever. If you get caught…” she shook her head, wincing at the though of it. “Don’t get caught. You don’t want to know what they’ll do with you.”
“But how –”
“I doubt that you’ll be caught. This tunnel is long and winding, but it will take you to the surface. None of the chambers that it opens onto are used anymore, but do not veer off the path. When you get to the surface, make sure there are no Wilang nearby. Do these things, and I don’t see how you could be caught.”
“You sound like you’re not coming with me,” Citlally replied, worry edging her voice.
“How could I?” Allanah asked her. “Once you’re outside, the lion will be there to escort you to safety. If I went with you, I’d be out of the mountain, but then I’d have nowhere else to go.”
“Then where am I going?”
“You will have someone waiting for you,” Allanah reminded her.
“Why can’t you come with us?”
Allanah shook her head. “Sometimes I wonder how your kind ever got off the planet. Listen, Citlally, I have to get back to Lorata, and you have to get to Earth. I need my soldiers back, and you need your man. One bleeding human will not matter to them, but two missing slaves? This only works when we don’t call attention to ourselves.”
“Just stop! You have to get moving.” Allanah helped her unzip he coveralls and remove the heavy cloth from her body. “If the lion thinks you’re not coming, he will leave. Start walking, and don’t stop. Even if you keep bleeding, you have to get to the surface. He will not come down to get you.”
“Wait, a lion…?”
“You will understand when you see him.” Allanah reached into her pocket pulled out a fistful of something, then slipped it into Citlally’s pocket. “Take this with you, in case you have need of it later. Now go!”
Allanah shoved the lantern into her hands and gave her a gentle push along the path. Then, without another word, she balled up the coveralls, shoved them behind a stone, and slipped back into the main room. Citlally could faintly hear her voice, and then the noise of the tools, as she held the lantern in front of herself and gazed upwards. Past the sphere of light, it was pitch black. How long did the tunnel go on? How deep down was she?
There was only one way to find out. Fortunately for her, it also meant escaping from the mountain. Having no other direction, Citlally forced herself forward. Her bleeding hadn’t started off too bad that morning, mainly because she had been able to rest while the others worked, but as she pressed on, her legs working hard to carry her up the steep, jagged path, she felt her bandages soak through. Another hour, and there was the dripping on her leg, and the metallic smell of the iron in her blood. A little longer, and her hunger combined with the blood loss, forcing her to lay her hands on the rocky walls to support herself as she climbed upwards.
She stumbled when she came to a staircase, cursing the weakening light in her lantern as she came down. When she moved to clutch her wounded leg, wincing at the pain, the lantern tumbled away. She heard the shatter of glass, the clink of metal on stone. When she opened her eyes again, there was only darkness, the faint ember of the light dying away as it laid on the cold rocks.
In the darkness, Citlally laid crying. It took her several minutes to force herself back up, reminding herself that the only person who could get her out of the mountain was herself.
“I will not die alone!” she cried.
Slowly, she got her legs back under herself and rose against the wall. It may have been dark, but she knew which way to go. Even if there was pain, even if she was weak, she would force herself to keep moving. The only other option, after all, was death, and to that she refused to give in.
She wondered, as time began to elude her, whether she was leaving a trail of blood behind her. Would it matter? Would the Wilang one day find it and know that their slaves were escaping? Would they ever end slavery on their planet? It seemed like such a terrible thing to do…
Her mind was dizzy with random thoughts, and she couldn’t hold onto any one line of thinking for very long. She stumbled along the narrow path for what seemed like ages, but always made herself take another step. Keep going, keep going, keep going.
Then, just when she thought she could no longer press on, Citlally made out a faint glow. It was distant, and for a while she thought that it was only her confused mind playing tricks on her, but she remembered her two choices: keep walking, or lie down and die. Dying was not an option. Mirages? Why not, even if they were foolish. So she pressed on towards the glow.
It grew as she moved. Whiter, rounder, brighter. Her eyes adjusted to it slowly, but she had plenty of time. Eventually. It took on a familiar shape: a sort of half circle, except the circle was more of an oval – a lumpy one. There was an opening. The light poured in through some kind of barrier. At first she thought it was a gate, a portcullis of sorts, and worried that she was locked in. When she got closer, she could see that it was, in fact, the small mouth of a tiny cave, but that the barrier was more organic in nature. It was a thicket of bushes.
“Thorn bushes,” she whispered to herself as she got closer. “How am I supposed to get through?”
She scanned the bushes for a way through, but they were stiff and thick. The thorns were long and sharp, and she dared not push the branches aside for fear of rending her flesh. She was about to sink down to the ground in disappointment was she heard a rustling in the leaves. A furry creature slipped though, peered up at her, and then retreated back from whence it had come. It was about the size of a dog, but with the agility of a squirrel.
“How did it get through…?” She asked herself, and got down onto her knees to inspect the bushes. Near the edge of the mouth of the cave, the branches had been severed, and enough thorny limbs removed to make away for a narrow form. The outer edges of the bush were leafy rather than sharp, and the foliage covered the cavern enough that it would not be obvious to anyone who might happen to be on the other side.
Citlally crawled carefully through the gap in the thorns, her body pressing against the rock as she slid along. She pushed aside the leaves and felt the bright heat of Sardonia’s sun of her face. Rushing to get as far from the cave as she could, she hurried to her feet and moved as fast as her weakened body would allow her.
Her mind swirled with confusion as she ran, searching for someone – anyone – who could take her away before the last of her blood was lost. She realized after several minutes that her bleeding might attract some kind of carnivore, but it was too late to worry about that just then.
The trees provided a fair amount of shade, but they were thin and could hardly be considered a forest. As she kept running, the trees gave way to rolling plains and grassy hills. She came to the crest of one hill, panting, ready to collapse. That was when she saw him. The sight of him, standing just over on the next hill, made her gasp.
He was tall, his blond hair shining in the sun, His back was to her, covered by an old leather jacket, just like the one that Endan wore to keep warm on their voyage though the stars. And then there was the scarf. If seemed out of place out there on the warm hills, but the familiar sight of it, the way it sparkled so mysteriously, made her heart flutter.
“Endan!” She screamed, and rushed forward. She tumbled down the hill, scurried to her feet, and then hurried up the next mound of dirt.
“Oh, Endan!” she called to him.
He turned slowly as he heard her shouting. Her arms were open to embrace him, and he dared not refuse her need to be held. Her face sank into his chest, her arms clinging to the thickness of his body, and he returned the embrace.
“Endan,” she whimpered between sobs, “Endan it’s so good to see you again. I was so relie –”
Then she stopped short. Her eyes shone on an unfamiliar visage, and she was as ready to scream as she was to faint. It was not Endan after all. It was not even an Endan who had been through terrible, life-changing ordeals. How had she thought that it was him? But his face… was this the lion whom Allanah had spoken about?
“I am sorry to disappoint you,” the man said, his voice soft as he tried to reassure her.
“Wh –” her voice trembled as she felt the tears pouring from her eyes. “Who… who…”
“Who am I?” he asked for her, seeing that she was unable to speak. “Some call me the Lion. Personally, I prefer the name that my father gave me. I am Mannarius Klavernning III.”
He nodded, a wide grin on his face. “It sounds great to hear a woman say my name. But look at you! You’ve been through quite an ordeal.”
“I –” Citlally searched her mind for some way to explain what was happening to her. “I am bleeding!”
She could take no more. She didn’t care that she’d just met this man. Citlally buried her face in his chest again, and wept as loudly, as powerfully as she could. Again he held her, and he let her cry.
“The lavishta…” he sighed. “They told me about that. I ‘m sorry that it had to do this to you. Come with me, and I will get you to safety.”
“What does that mean… Why is everyone so sad for me?”
Mannarius only shook his head. He bent down and brought his arm beneath her knees. She felt her body being lifted off the ground as though she were in a dream, and offered no resistance.
“Let me take you back to my ship,” he told her, his voice deep and smooth. “I brought a medic with me.”
“Endan,” she whispered, the name weak and breathless on her lips.
“Yes,” he told her. “Yes, most importantly, we will get you back to Endan. Sleep now, little human. You are safe with me.”
And sleep she did. This time, when she dreamed, it was of being in the arms of her beloved, on a hill in the highlands of his beloved Ireland. There was an endless sea of clover, and the heather smelled so sweet. The wind blew through their hair, sweeping all of their cares away.