Death’s Bright Day – Snippet 18


DaSaenz Estate on Jardin

DaSaenz flew the aircar well. That was a relief to Daniel, though it hadn’t crossed his mind before they took off.

He’d ridden with some very bad drivers without worrying particularly about it. An aircar ride, even with Hogg driving, didn’t make the top ten most dangerous experiences of Daniel’s normal life. Miranda was sitting beside him this time, however.

“Would you like the top up?” daSaenz called over his shoulder.

Daniel looked at Miranda. “No, I like the breeze,” she said.

After a moment she added, “This is a wonderful way to see the country. I’ve, well, I’ve never ridden in an aircar before.”

Daniel squeezed her hand. He hadn’t realized that, though it shouldn’t have surprised him. Miranda and her mother had lived in Xenos where trams made personal transport unnecessary and flight was banned save for emergency vehicles. Daniel didn’t own or drive an aircar, so he and Miranda had always taken the monorail when they visited Bantry.

They were swinging around the hill above Cuvier. DaSaenz stayed about three hundred feet up and kept his speed down to fifty miles an hour, though the car was obviously capable of going much faster — especially with the top up to smooth the airflow.

“That house on the peak is where you live?” Daniel said, leaning closer to the driver. They got only occasional glimpses of the building’s buttresses through the tops of the native trees. The foliage grew from a base of filaments which rose in a slender cone over a hundred feet above the ground. The road at the bottom of the valley was the only other human construction now that they had left Cuvier behind.

“Yes, we just call it the manor,” daSaenz said. “It’s Starscape Manor in town, I’m told. There’s an elevator down from the house, but we’ll enter at the bottom and go up to mother when you’ve seen the caves.”

Ahead was a twenty-foot high rock face too sheer for vegetation to take root. In front of it was a graveled parking area onto which daSaenz sent the car in a descending arc. A sturdy kiosk was built against the cliff. Nearby a metal door was built into the rockface.

“That’s the entrance to the caves?” Miranda said. “It looks like the door of a bank vault.”

“Supposedly my ancestor Captain daSaenz had the door made from the colony ship’s sheathing,” daSaenz said. He flared the aircar neatly, hovered an instant, and settled the last six inches to the ground in front of the entrance. “The caves are dangerous to people without an experienced guide.”

He shut off the fans and turned in his seat. “I suppose there was a certain amount of pride of ownership too, of course,” he said. “And initially I don’t believe the colonists realized that the glowworms were confined to this cave system. At least in seven hundred years, no other occurrence has been found.”

Close up, what Daniel had thought of as a kiosk looked more like a pillbox. The walls were of closely fitted stone; the windows were small and now covered with armored glass which appeared to have replaced the original bars, as the slits in the masonry had been widened slightly. The door on one side was of the same heavy metal as that of the cave entrance.

DaSaenz was coming around to Miranda’s side of the car before Daniel could get there. She hopped out on her own and smiled at their host. Miranda still practiced with school hockey teams to keep fit — which she certainly was.

The kiosk’s door opened. A middle-aged man got out and bowed. His uniform was the same shade of red as the aircar, and it was piped with gold.

“Good evening, sir,” he said. The guard didn’t have a gun, but the baton hanging from his belt was a meter long. “How may I help you, sir?”

“Open the cave for me and my guests, then close it after we’ve gone in,” daSaenz said. “We’ll leave through the manor. Oh — and we’ll need one of the lanterns.”

The guard trotted obediently back into the kiosk. The cave door — it was four inches thick — began to open with the high-pitched whine of a hydraulic pump.

A moment later the guard returned with a flat six-inch lens of yellow crystal. It had a loop handle on top, but there was also a strap which daSaenz hung around his neck. The power supply must be part of the backing plate.

“I’ll lead,” daSaenz said to Daniel. He completely ignored the guard who was waiting for further orders. “Keep with me. That shouldn’t be difficult since I’ll have the light.”

Daniel and Miranda could have walked abreast through the cave entrance, but he took the lead so that he was between her and their guide. The worst you could really say about daSaenz was that he was brusque, as aristocrats by birth often are.

Daniel smiled faintly. As I have been in my time, particularly if I’ve been drinking. I still don’t like daSaenz.

The entrance started as a tunnel, clearly artificial. It was high enough that Daniel could walk upright but daSaenz ducked slightly. He probably would have cleared the ceiling also, but his caution was an instinctive response.

“According to legend there was just a narrow fissure here,” daSaenz said. “A boy, one of my distant ancestors, crawled in. When he came back with stories about the lights — the glowworms, of course — his father blasted the rock wide enough that he could get in himself. The present entrance was built within that first generation.”

The outer door closed and blocked the final leakage of sunshine, daSaenz switched on the lantern he carried. Its deep yellow light flooded the tunnel ahead — they had almost reached the end — and spilled out into a much larger chamber beyond.

DaSaenz stepped aside so that the others could join him. “Why is the light this color?” Miranda asked.

“It doesn’t harm your night vision,” daSaenz said. “And it doesn’t seem to affect the glowworms either — ultraviolet is fatal to them. But I’ll turn this out in a moment after you’ve had a chance to view the cave itself.”

The chamber was a hollow spire rather than a dome, reaching higher than the lantern could illuminate even when daSaenz pointed it straight up. The base was a near oval measuring seventy feet by a hundred at an eyeball estimate.

Lowering the lantern again, daSaenz tapped an object with the toe of his boot. “Notice this?” he said. “It was a plastic food container. And that –”

He tapped a wrinkled rectangle about eight inches square.

“– was a piece of paper, a wrapper I think. Though there may have been writing on the upper side, which of course can’t be viewed now.”

Daniel squatted and tapped the second item with his fingernail. It was a sheet of metal, just as he had thought from its gleam in the lantern light.

“Look at the bottom,” daSaenz said.

Daniel raised the piece between his thumb and forefinger and turned it over. The underside was paper. The top had been plated with metal.

“There are other bits of human trash here,” daSaenz said, gesturing toward the cave floor. “These are enough to show you what happens. Now I’ll show you how it happens.”

He switched out the light. Daniel grabbed daSaenz’ arm by reflex; his other fist was cocked for a memory-guided punch to their guide’s belly.

Before Daniel swung, his eyes noticed irregular pastel blotches all around. The larger blurs contained scatterings of bright points.

“It’s what Daddy described,” Miranda said quietly. “Like being in the Matrix, surrounded by stars.”

It’s nothing like the Matrix! Daniel thought, but Miranda’s hand touched his hip. He quickly released daSaenz and edged toward Miranda.

“Sorry,” he said to their guide, embarrassed at his reaction. “I was startled.”

The glowworms ranged in size from the pad of his thumb to a few that were the size of his palm. There had been no sign of them before daSaenz turned out the lantern. A number clustered close by on the floor, including a pale blue patch under Daniel’s right boot. In fact —

He jerked his foot back. The blotch came with it.

“It’s on my foot!” Daniel said, hoping he didn’t sound as panicked as he felt. He bent to release the closures and kick the boot away. Could he hop back to the entrance without stepping on another with his bare skin?