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Books by Quantum Muse contributors and friends.
Piñatas From Space!: Crazy Games With Cards And Dice

by Jeromy Henry
Stormcastle: And Other Fun Games With Cards And Dice

by Jeromy Henry
The Tooth Fairy War and Other Tales

by Jeromy Henry
The Wizard's House

by Jeromy Henry
The Dreaming Fire

by Jeromy Henry

The Jewels of Zendeira

by

Jeromy Henry



Melt a spaceship.  Sculpt the interior walls into elegant fronds like the arms of a coral reef, pointed inward at you like a million accusing fingers.  I can't tell you why the aliens built our prison this way.  Nothing about them makes much sense to me.

My hand hovered over the wall.  I didn't want to dream another dream of alien ghosts, a million years dead.  But if I didn't, we were all going to die.

"Sandra?  You ready?"

I glanced over at Sean.  Pimples stood out like spots of blood on his white face.  I could tell he was scared from the way his eyes darted around.  His hand trembled and made the pillow he held shake.  He lifted his other hand and brushed a shock of straw blond hair away from his eyes.

"Yeah," I said.  "Catch me if I fall over, all right?"

I turned away before he could answer.  I touched the wall.

I felt history beneath my hands, like layers of canvases stacked on top of one another.  My mind dived through those pictures.  I pushed through an eternity of ringing silence.  My God, it was hard to believe the age of this place, it looked so pristine.  Finally, I slowed down as I caught a glimmer of thought.  I fell into a memory.

My stomach lurched as I saw the corridor through three eyes instead of two.  The eyes of a ghost.  I felt dizzy as the weird sensations ricocheted around my brain.  I felt my tail strike the wall as I turned, and the metal rang with a faint, pure note.  The world blurred as I turned my head.

I reached out a claw and grasped the head-sized green jewel that fitted on the end of a thick metal stalk.  Mercifully, I closed my eyes.

Deep within, I felt as if gates and pulleys, winches and gears and other mental machinery worked in the guts of my consciousness.  The sick feeling returned, along with the sensation of an ice pick sliding into my cortex.  I groaned.  I couldn't understand the alien thought processes, not really.  Like water flowing down an aqueduct, the alien let loose a stream of emotion, aimed at the jewel.

It felt like... glee?  Regret?  Disgust?  I couldn't interpret the blast of feelings.

A green glow started on my hand and travelled up my arm.  Where the light touched, it felt as if a hundred tiny knives stabbed into my flesh.  I keened in pain...

I wrenched out of the memory, screaming.  The world blurred in sick, psychedelic colors as I saw it again with my own eyes and not the eyes of a long-dead Zendeiran.  Something soft pushed against my back.  The pain in my head faded to a dull throb.

"Sandra?  Sandra?  Should I get the doctor?  I... " Sean babbled something else that I didn't catch, and I feebly waved a hand at him to shut up.

"Water," I croaked.

Sean held a bottle to my lips.  I sipped, feeling the cool manna flood down my throat.

"Is it a way out?  Did you find it?" he said.

My vision stopped blurring.  Now I could see the eagerness and hope in his eyes.

It felt like kicking a puppy, but I had to tell him the truth.  I shook my head.

"It seems to be a device to cause intense pain," I said.  "Why the aliens built something like that, I don't know.  Maybe they were masochists."

Sean really did look like someone had kicked him.  At least he didn't lie down on the floor, whine, and look at me with accusing eyes.

"Help me up.  We need to report," I ordered.

Sean sighed and stuck out a hand.  He leaned back and hauled me up.  I groaned as my back popped.

"Don't worry," I said.  "There are still a dozen more jewels to try.  And so far, at least three aren't for killing or torturing people.  We'll figure this place out eventually."

He didn't look convinced.

"Any idea what this place is for?" he asked.

I shrugged.  "I guess it could be a prison.  Maybe the inmates were supposed to torture themselves until they repented enough, or kill themselves if they didn't deserve to leave.  Maybe it's an alien amusement park and they tortured themselves for fun.  How should I know?"

"It could be a trap," said Sean.  "I mean, it waited for all of us to land the ship and explore for a day in various buildings.  Then one of the corridors turned into a solid wall.  Andy told me about it.  Happened right in front of his face."

"If it's a trap, where's the cheese?" I joked.

Sean laughed.

I didn't bother to look at the scenery.  The whole place looked like tunnels filled with coral.  At first the alien shapes had fascinated me, and I wondered why the Zendeirans spent so much time sculpting their walls into plant-like shapes.  Now I could care less.  I regretted the day I signed up for the Space Exploration Service.  Then again, it's not like I had a choice.

To distract myself from the throbbing headache, I asked Sean, "So, what's your talent?"

"Huh?"  He turned his head and looked at me.  "Oh.  Telekinesis.  And I'm a fire starter."  He snapped his fingers and a tiny flame danced above his hand.

I raised my eyebrows.  "That's rare.  I didn't peg you for someone with a temper."

Sean scowled.  "That's just an old superstition.  Fire starters aren't all red-heads with violent tempers.  That's how they always show us in movies, though."

I smiled.  "Yeah, and the psychometrists are always the boring people who memorize history books for fun.  Would you believe history was my worst subject?  It's not like I've wandered the Earth and touched every object to learn its past."

"You're not boring," said Sean.  "You just... keep to yourself a lot.  Nothing wrong with that."

My headache lightened.  "Thanks."

We reached the main staging area a minute later.  Sean and I saluted Captain Elisha Gordon.  The white-haired lady stood ramrod straight.  I couldn't see a single crease on her tan uniform.  I felt like a rumpled, sticky mess in comparison.

"At ease," she said crisply.  "Technician Smith, report."

I relaxed my salute and tried to avoid all the glares from everyone in the room.  Geez, you'd think they'd be more grateful to the only person with the right talent to, maybe, get us out of here!  I didn't understand why they all looked so mad.  I dismissed them from my mind and focused on the brass pips on the captain's lapel.

"The jewel seems to cause intense pain.  I couldn't identify the emotions needed to activate it."

The captain sighed.  "Alright, link with me.  It's probably not important, but I want to study the memory anyway.  Lower your barriers, please."

I closed my eyes.  I felt the captain's dry hand touch mine.  It took a minute to work through the headache and find my mental shields.  I pictured them thinning from a steel bathysphere into a transparent soap bubble.  The bubble popped.

A gentle finger touched my mind.  I gasped as the alien memory replayed. But this time, it felt as if I watched it like a movie, instead of participating directly.  I still winced when the green light stabbed my hand.  I jerked away from the captain.

"I'm sorry you had to go through that."

I looked up.  The captain regarded me with more warmth than usual.  Usually her rough face reminded me of a granite cliff, impassive and strong.  I knew she had to be a powerful xenotelepath if she could make sense of the confused memories I pulled from this ancient prison so easily.

"I'm up for one more," I said.

The captain shook her head.  The kindness in her blue eyes turned to worry.  "You're running a low grade fever and you've barely slept.  I could feel that much when I linked with you.  Rest."

I shook my head and looked at her.  I thrust out my jaw.  "How much food do we have left, Captain?"

"Two days."

My stomach plummeted into my boots.  "We're running out of time, Captain.  I'll do one more tonight, then rest.  We'll tackle a few tomorrow."

"Take the doctor with you.  Just in case."  The captain turned and said, "Doctor Wright.  Go with Sandra this time.  Don't let her overextend herself.  Sean, why don't you take a break."

Sean nodded and slouched off towards a roll of blankets in the corner.

The big shadow of the doctor loomed over me.  I kept my head down.  I wasn't the best telepath in the word, but even I could feel the waves of hate running off the doctor, like a river of black sludge.  Everyone else's feelings hissed in the background like a pit of angry snakes.

Why were they all so mad at me?

I recoiled.  Mentally, I hunched down beneath a stone wall and tried to ignore the seething emotions around me.  I hated it when people broadcast feelings all over the place.

"C'mon.  Let's go to the big blue jewel up Corridor C.  It's the closest," I said.

I saw him nod from the corner of my eye.  As we walked out of the main area, I felt like a big, black spike bored its way into my back.  I wheeled around.

"Doctor, I don't know what the hell your problem is, but quit projecting your feelings at me or I won't be able to concentrate.  Everyone is glaring at me for no reason, but you..."

The doctor's face twisted in a snarl.  He raised a hand.  I backed up until the coral fronds on the wall brought me up short.

"Control yourself!" I said sharply.  A thrill of fear stuck in my spine like an icicle.

The doctor lowered his hand.  The feelings of hate faded, and I knew he must have blocked himself off properly.

"What do you mean you don't know?  You are so damn secretive.  If you hadn't hidden your talents, Jake and Renee would still be alive!  Not even the captain knew you were a psychometrist."

I gaped at him.  "Are you crazy?  I wasn't even there when Jake tested one of the jewels.  Or Renee.  I was in a completely different corridor trying to take metal samples.  None of us knew how dangerous they were!  What do you mean it's my fault?"

His blue eyes bored into me.  A scowl still disfigured his handsome face.  I was glad I hadn't accepted his invitation to join him in his room all those weeks ago, the one time we dated.  I sure didn't feel the least bit of desire for him now.

"If the captain knew you were a psychometrist then none of the others would have been asked to investigate!  The captain would have asked you.  Sandra isn't even your real name, is it?  When they court martial you, I'll be happy to testify!"

I glared at him.  "Last I checked, hacking into my personal files is a felony.  And did it ever cross your tiny little mind that my record was changed because I was in the witness protection program?  If you'd looked a bit deeper, you'd have found that out, too.  You damn well better not spread that around, or you'll be the one in front of a judge."

Confusion crossed his face.  "I didn't think of that."  He glared at me, but not as hard as before.  "As your doctor, I had every right to access your files.  And you still should have told the captain.  You're still a murderer!  Jake was a friend of mine, bitch."

Tears leaked out of my eyes.  "Just do your damn job and stay out of my business."

I wheeled around so I wouldn't have to see him.

Had I been too secretive?  I shook my head.  Telling the captain my real identity would have been a bad idea.  The police told me not to.  The brass higher up knew, but no one else.  How could he hold my silence against me?

God, how I hated my talent just then.  When you can see the past just by touching, you can't help but tell that your husband cheated on you.  Again and again.  You can't help but see that your favorite cousin had gotten roped into organized crime.  You couldn't help but experience the murders firsthand, though the eyes of the killer.

I tried to block the memories of the trial that welled to the surface.  I tried not to think of that horrible night when the Syndicate found out my first fake identity.  I remembered the cop bleeding all over my lap.  The memory flashed forward to that small white room.  The smell of stale coffee suffused every surface, as if the room couldn't quite stay awake.  The sergeant looking down at the table and drummed his thick fingers on the scarred gray plastic.  He told me there was only one place left to go.  Space.

I tamped down my roiling thoughts behind my mental wall and tried to focus.

Up ahead, the blue glow of the jewel lit the corridor.

"If I fall and hit my head, we're screwed.  So keep the pillow handy," I said.

I touched the wall.  I wondered what kind of sick pain I would have to experience next.

Diving down through the ages, I touched a spark of memory.

I knelt by the crystal and placed both hands on it.  I poured out a stream of emotions.  Regret?  Sorrow?  Mischievousness?  Once again, my human mind couldn't fathom the alien feelings.

The jewel glowed and fountained with light that bathed me all over.  Warm, tickling sensations ran all over my scales.  I inflated an air sac in my stomach and let out a purring wheeze.  I admired my gleaming scales...

The memory slipped away.  I fell forward.  A hand caught my shoulder and kept me head from ramming headfirst into the jewel.  I saw at least three jewels swimming in front of me instead of the one I knew to be there.  I whimpered.

The doctor put his hands under my armpits and lifted me up.

"Lean on me," he ordered.  I couldn't read any emotion in his voice.

I felt the hum and click as he pressed something into my arm.

"For the fever," he explained.  "I couldn't give you any before because it can interfere with talents.  You should feel better in a minute.  Have some water."

Another water bottle touched my lips.  I leaned heavily on the doctor.  His arm circled me.  I knew I'd fall if he let go.  Water trickled down my throat.

"Did... did you find it?" he asked softly.

I shook my head.  "I think I found the shower.  It's kind of like a sonic bath.  Makes your scales shine."

He sighed.  "Let's get you to bed."

I was glad he'd put aside whatever hate he felt for a moment.  His voice sounded cool, professional, remote.

I barely registered the journey as I staggered along, leaning heavily on the doctor.  After an eternity, he lowered me onto a soft mat and I passed out.

The next morning started out wonderfully.  I endured one memory of an orange crystal that burned me alive and left me screaming and writhing on the floor for ten minutes.  Another one chopped my head off.

Nursing a head that felt like a giant lead ball, I knelt in front of a tiny purple gem set in the floor.

Sean caught my shoulder as I almost fell onto it.

"Thanks," I mumbled.

Seven more jewels.  I felt exhausted already, deflated.  Would any of these things open a door out of here?

I touched another memory ghost and slipped inside its skin.

I knelt in front of the jewel and placed both hands and my short feeding tentacle on it.  The sense of an inhuman mind flooded through me.  None of the thoughts made sense.  I felt like a kid looking at a complicated circuit diagram, with no idea of what any of the symbols meant or where the wires lead.  Emotions welled out.  Did I feel reverence, satisfaction, anger?  I hoped the captain could tell.

The wall in front of me split open.

I woke up with my head on the pillow.  Kaleidoscope colors danced in front of my eyes.

"You're not screaming," said Sean.

I laughed.  "No, I'm not screaming.  It's the door!"

"Oh my God!"  Sean and I looked at one another.  I hugged the kid.  Well, young man.  We beamed at each other like idiots.

We ran down the corridor, boots ringing on the metal.  It sounded like an angelic chorus wowing the crowd during a footrace.

"Captain!"  Even as I shouted, I let my mental shield fade away.  I slid to a stop and saluted in front of her.  "I found it!"

From the corner of my eyes, I saw people leap to their feet.  A couple groaned and sat up from their bedrolls.

"Splendid!"  The captain smiled and took my hand in hers.  I felt her gentle touch as she felt around my psyche.

"Hmmm... hmmm... yes, I think I have it.  Oh, dear.  We might have some trouble."  The captain's voice sounded sad.

"Captain?"  The doctor's voice broke into my thoughts.  I half turned, startled.  I hadn't heard the big man come up behind me.

"Everyone, gather over here," snapped Captain Elisha.  "I want to go over this once."

Gray eyes swept over all of us.  "I've interpreted the memories that Technician Smith recovered by the crystal in corridor B5.  She felt the mind of a Zendeiran who touched the crystal and opened the door."

"We've ventured many guesses about this place, but the most obvious interpretation appears to be correct.  I believe it is a correctional facility."

"Now, from the memory I witnessed, the only way to leave is to demonstrate an understanding of yourself... to rid yourself of feelings of guilt and fear and hate.  To feel balanced, whole, at peace.  That's how I interpreted the alien feelings.  That said, the alien emotions are so different from ours, I don't know if this crystal will let us leave or what exactly we need to feel to activate it.  I don't believe it will harm us if we fail, but we can't know for sure."

The captain tapped a few keys on her pad.  She looked up.  "I put all our names in random order.  We're going to try one by one.  Sean, you're first.  Andy, you're second.  Pack up your things.  Dismissed!"

I saw a few people shoot Sean dirty looks.  For once, no one glared at me.  A few even looked... happy?  Thankful?  I guess I'm no better at interpreting human emotions than I am at reading aliens.  I sighed.  For all that we'd shared a ship for a year and a half, they might as well have been faceless strangers.

Ten minutes later, we lined up in the corridor with the purple jewel at its end.  My bedroll and shoulder bag rested against my boots.  Sean knelt by the jewel, a couple dozen paces in front of us.  I could see him wiggle his feet.  I guessed he felt almost as nervous as I did.

Sean touched the gem.  A purple glow bathed him.  I couldn't see his face, but I could feel him radiate hope.  I tried to block out the stray thoughts and emotions from the people around me.

I almost leapt out of my skin when someone behind me spoke.

"Sandra, I'm sorry."

I whirled to face the doctor.  Luckily there were no flies to catch.  I'm sure my mouth hung open.

"Look, I completely projected all of my hate and fear onto you.  It wasn't fair to blame you for Jake.  All I can say is, he was my best friend and I wasn't thinking straight.  And I get the feeling that if I don't let it go, that jewel won't let me out of here.  For what it's worth, I'm sorry."

His blue eyes held mine.  He'd pissed me off and really said horrible things.  But he did radiate sincerity.  I sighed.

"Accepted," I said.  I stared levelly back.  "I... I guess I did hide from everyone.  I don't even know any of you.  I've been running for years.  But the police told me not to tell anyone my real identity.  Not even the captain.  You understand?"

"I do now," he said.

I looked back over my shoulder at Sean, bathed in purple light.  The wall opened.

Everyone cheered.  Andy, next in line, raced forward.

"Sergeant Simmons, back in line!"  The captain's voice cracked over Andy like a whip.  The man stumbled to a stop and turned around.  His black moustache only partially hid a sheepish look on his face.  He walked back toward us.

Sean got up slowly, dragging a duffel nearly as big as himself.  When he reached the doors, he turned and waved.

"It's really easy, everyone!"

The two halves of the wall snicked shut.  Voices erupted in conversation all around me.  Andy walked forward and knelt.  Soon he glowed purple and the way out opened for him, too.

"Simmons, take Renee with you," said the Captain quietly.

Andy grabbed the handle on one of the long, thin bundles that lay by the other supplies.  I looked away, trying not to think of the crisped remains of Renee Skylander resting inside.

Doctor Wright knelt for nearly twenty minutes before the wall opened.  I broke out a ration bar while I watched the show.  An evil little voice inside rooted for him to fail and stay here forever, but I quashed it.

When the wall finally split open, I sighed in relief.  After all, if that bastard could make it, I shouldn't have a problem.  Right?  He left, dragging Jake's remains with him.

An hour later, only the captain and I stood in the hall. She gestured forward and smiled.  I knelt.  I placed both hands on the jewel.

A presence filled my mind.  I let out a shaky breath and let my mental shields dissolve, the same way I did when I shared memories with the captain.

It felt like tentacles stroking every ridge and whorl of my gray matter.  I shuddered.  Random scenes popped in my mind.  I smelled popcorn.  I smiled at my ex-husband and heard the surf crash and the warm sun kiss my shoulders.  I saw myself, huddled in the darkness behind a wall made of rough gray stone, a thousand foot high wall that stretched to infinity both right and left.

A hand gently pushed on my mind.  It felt like someone squeezing a sponge.  I gasped and opened my eyes.

"Are you all right?"

The captain peered down at me.  I looked up at the solid wall and felt a crushing sense of horror.

"It's been two hours," said the captain.

I staggered to my feet.  Pins and needles danced all over my legs.  I shook my head.

"You... you go ahead, captain.  I need a rest before I try again."

Elisha frowned at me.  "I should go last.  It's my duty."

I shook my head again.  "Everyone out there is probably nervous as hell and wondering why we're not out yet.  You need to take charge.  Maybe you can find the entrance we came in at the start of this mess and throw some rations in."

She stared at me for a minute.  "I don't like the situation, but I agree.  Maybe we can find a way to free you from the other side if you can't make it."

"I'll make it," I said.  I tried to sound confident.  I stepped back and let the captain kneel by the stone.

 After two minutes, the wall split open.  The captain glanced back at me for a long moment, and then stepped through.

"We'll be waiting for you," she said.

The wall closed.

Why couldn't I convince the jewel to let me out?  The image of myself shivering in the darkness behind a wall hit me again.  Was it a crime to be afraid of people, after all the horrible things that happened to me?  I wasn't guilty of anything!

I frowned.  Maybe this place was more like an insane asylum, not a prison.  Now how could I prove I was sane to some crazy alien gem?  I growled in frustration.

I wrapped my hands around the jewel, and it wrapped itself around my mind.

I found myself back in that dark place by the wall.  The wall that cut me off from the world.  The wall that I built stone by stone, year after year.

I floated to the top of the wall.  I grasped one of the stones and lifted it above my head.  In real life I could never have lifted a boulder as big as a car.  In the dreamscape of my mind, throwing that stone into the darkness above and watching it disappear into nothing was as easy as flinging a pebble.

I lifted stone after stone and flung them away.  I started lifting two at a time.  From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of two clawed hands made of purple light lift stones and toss them into the night.

I don't know if I spent hours or days, but my hands reached out to the wall... and touched nothing.

I glanced up, startled.  The sun shone.  Instead of a wall, a white road stretched from my feet, over green hills, to an empty horizon.

I should have felt sweaty, dirty, and sore.  Instead, I felt ready to pick up a mountain.

"Can I go now?"

A faint purple outline limned the air.  A head with three eyes nodded.  Two arms and a small tentacle gestured.  I understood the nod, anyway.  I hoped.

I opened my eyes.  The wall in front of the jewel slid open.  Beyond, Sean and the captain and the rest of the crew waited.

"Come on already," called Andy.

I laughed and jogged forward.
 


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2014-01-02 05:07:54
micheledutcher - I like: the clashing use of mental gifts among the imprisoned; imaginative use of descriptions; the unknown culture reflected in a sci-fi situation; the basic concept of being trapped and not knowing why or how to get out.

2014-01-02 05:05:47
micheledutcher - mark211 wrote: Encounters and communication with incomprehensible languages and cultures is always a fascinating theme but I liked the way that you went a little further by having the human characters also be enhanced (and so in a way alien) from those of today. There’s quite a ‘pop art’ tone and feel to the story over all, by which I mean some of the features of the story, while fresh, were still familiar to SF with echoes of Star Trek and X-Men and others. There was a great deal of potential for this story to have gone very deep and dark but avoiding this was in-keeping with the happy ending.




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Books by Quantum Muse contributors and friends.
Piñatas From Space!: Crazy Games With Cards And Dice

by Jeromy Henry
Stormcastle: And Other Fun Games With Cards And Dice

by Jeromy Henry
The Tooth Fairy War and Other Tales

by Jeromy Henry
The Wizard's House

by Jeromy Henry
The Dreaming Fire

by Jeromy Henry


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