- Naught for Hire
- Manuscript Format
John E. Stith's REUNION ON NEVEREND Excerpt
Reunion on Neverend Copyright © 1994 by John E. Stith. All rights reserved.
Kentin Farlon turned swiftly toward the chamber behind him and cocked his head in hopes of hearing the sound if it came again.
Except for the quick echoes from his own scuffing feet, the interior of the museum was quiet. As it should be. He listened intently as he took several deep and controlled breaths, willing his heart to slow down. Nothing.
Nerves, he told himself, feeling embarrassed even though no one had seen him flinch. He was entirely too jumpy lately. Nothing was going to happen.
Kentin Farlon resumed breathing normally and turned back to lock the museum's entrance, the door he had just let himself through. He needed to be open for the public in an hour and still had his morning routine to finish. He switched the overhead light-strips from "dim" to "full." The chamber he was in and the two adjoining caves filled with light. Kentin felt better. He'd been born in the underground city of Neverend and had lived there all his life, but he still felt reassured by the bright light.
He moved to the right-hand cavern network and began his morning rounds, inspecting the displays in each of eighteen caves. Dark basalt walls and ceilings reflected a dull gleam through the clear protective coating. He heard no more suspicious sounds.
Kentin moved from the level floor in the early tool display room, up three steps, and onto the irregular, nearly level floor of a smaller cave containing artifacts from a site on Ooberhallew. No holograms here--here were actual artifacts, lifted carefully from their shroud of compacted soil on the distant planet, gently cleaned, catalogued, recorded, and then sent on display. Sent on display the way history should be displayed--with tangible, physical, real objects. No visitor to the museum could look at these mortars and pestles and decorated shells even older than early human life and not feel humbled. Sitting on cushioned supports inside transparent display cases, they seemed to say, "Be careful. Whoever made us thought the culture would last forever, and it didn't. Yours may not, either."
Kentin removed noseprints deposited on the display case by young visitors, visitors about the same age Tessa had been when she had made her own noseprints on the displays. At first she had been terrified when she realized what she had done, and she had almost panicked as she searched for a cleaning cloth to remove the evidence. Kentin had comforted her and told her she didn't have to worry, without ever mentioning her first father. He had felt such anger at the man he had never met, the man who had filled the child's heart with fear, that he was afraid his anger might show in his eyes.
Letting Tessa learn for herself that Kentin was not like her first father was a slow process that made gardening seem like a frantically paced activity, but when she finally understood that no harm would come to her from Kentin, she looked happy enough for any ten children. Kentin had felt a satisfaction then that had never been matched by anything else in his life. It wasn't until that day that Tessa had begun speaking more than a few words a week. Sometimes she even had the strength to talk about her mother, who had obviously been driven away far too long before Tessa had been taken from her abusive father.
Kentin normally remembered Tessa's happiness the most clearly, but right now what seemed most fresh in his mind was her early fear, perhaps because he felt fear now himself. He made frequent backward glances, wishing he knew exactly what he was afraid of, and wondering if Tessa had ever felt the same.
He circled through the remaining caves, making sure they were ready for another assortment of people to file through, looking into windows to the past. Kentin had reached the next-to-the-last cave on his journey, almost back to where he had begun his inspection, when he noticed something wrong.
He hadn't owned and run the museum as long as he had without developing a cataloguing disposition, an almost instinctive awareness when things were out of their proper places. The display case near the far cave wall had been shifted. Someone had moved it too close to the wall. Visitors ran the risk of knocking their heads on the irregular cave ceiling with the case that close to the wall.
Kentin walked slowly toward the display case. Its contents were intact, all in their proper places.
So why had someone moved the case?
Crouching slightly to avoid hitting his head, he moved to one side of the case, meaning to get a grip on the back so he could pull it into its proper place. As he leaned toward the wall, he caught a glimpse of something even more wrong than a disturbed display case.
For just an instant, he saw four electric blue eyes, a central pair looking generally in his direction, and a wider-set pair on the sides of the small furry head. Kentin jerked his hand back. "What the--"
One pair of eyes blinked, followed quickly by the other pair blinking, and then all four vanished. Kentin heard a scurrying, scrambling noise like a pet clawing on a smooth floor, and whatever had been hiding behind the case was on its way, vanishing into the network of caverns. He swung around and saw nothing but a fast-moving ball of green and brown fur. What was going on?
Astonishment held Kentin motionless for a brief moment, then he followed. The clicking against the hard cave floor grew more frantic before he caught another glimpse of the creature inexplicably trying to reverse its direction again. It was now racing back at him.
An instant later, Kentin saw what had spooked the creature into turning around. Another intruder was in the locked museum, this one human, wearing a blue jacket. But now things really made no sense. The man was stepping through the solid rock wall as if it didn't even exist. The man held a weapon, and he turned menacingly to face Kentin.
Despite his confusion, Kentin recognized the man's face, the face of the man responsible for the worry Kentin had been feeling for weeks.
Kentin fled, bumping into a display case and pushing through the narrow opening into the cave where he had surprised the creature. If he could reach the entrance and get through the door, he might have a chance. His breath grew ragged, and a pain stung his ribs.
But he would never reach freedom. He wasn't fast enough to outrun the intruder's weapon. Even before he reached the entrance to the next cavern, the fire from the weapon caught him high in the back, as if he were a bug being pinned to a specimen box. Fire boiled out of his spine.
Kentin lurched forward, and another kick of pain slammed into the small of his back. He fell. One knee bounced against the rock, and he slid on the floor. Despite the incredible pain, he tried to pull himself back up to face his attacker, but a final shot caught him in the back of the head. The flaring pain obliterated all hope of escape and stilled the last indications of life.
"She probably won't be there, you know."
Lan continued reading the news sheet for a moment before he glanced up, his concentration broken. His gaze took in the empty seat next to him, then rose to the stocky man standing at the aisle.
Lan scanned the man's expectant face and said, "Parke? Parke Brenlek?"
"Have I changed all that much?"
Lan smiled at the not-quite-familiar face. Parke's hair had lightened slightly and he had grown a mustache clipped so short the hairs could have been just an ill-advised tattoo above his upper lip. He had put on maybe twenty kilos. Parke's ruddy cheeks were more rounded than they used to be. Despite the changes, he looked fit and strong rather than overweight. The faint pinch in the skin between his eyebrows gave an impression of cunning and maneuvering that was uncomfortably close to the image Lan still had of his friend.
Still smiling, Lan said, "No, not really. I'm just surprised that you're still alive. I thought by now some jealous husband would have vaporized you." He moved to extend his hand and began to rise, but the seat belt bounced him back into the cushion.
"Same old Lan Dillion," Parke said, grinning broadly. "You haven't changed a bit."
Lan unsnapped the seat belt. He turned off the news sheet and returned it to the pouch beside the seat, then stood up and shook hands. His hand felt small in the grip of Parke's large fingers, and his ring cut into his fingers. "I can't believe ten years have gone by so fast. You have to be on your way back for the reunion, too."
"Sure. I can't believe it either. You really haven't changed at all." Parke glanced at the display screen at the front of the cabin. "We've got plenty of time before changeover. How about a drink in the lounge?"
Lan nodded. Together they followed the aisle to the back of the circular chamber. Ignoring the shuttle's shiny zero-gee risers, they took the stairs leading upward, Parke in the lead. The spongy treads muffled the sound of their footsteps.
"I looked through every level," Parke said as they passed the passenger cabin above Lan's. "I didn't see anyone else familiar. It must be just you and me."
"Maybe the rest of them found out you were coming back for the tenth reunion and decided to wait for the twentieth. If I'd known, I certainly would have reconsidered."
"Take a long walk with a short bottle of air," Parke said good-naturedly.
They edged along the curved wall to make room for a cheerful trio of fast-talking, blue-scaled Merentos heading downstairs, then reached the landing on the lounge level. Thick viewports broke the expanse of walls curving around the dimly lit lounge, and directly opposite the doorway was a large screen similar to the one downstairs. The upper-right corner counted the time remaining before changeover and read,
TRANS SYSTEM SHUTTLE 2245
SEAT BELTS: MAY BE UNFASTENED
NEXT STOP: NEVEREND
Occupying the center of the screen was the image of a dark, slightly off-round planet that from this distance appeared to be banded with fine black circles. Through the edge of one filtered port showed the dim arc of the nearby sun. Most of the other ports were totally clear, admitting light from a star field so dense that it seemed to be an uneven expanse of white, veiled with a scattering of black specks. Surrounding the black specks were individual stars far enough from their neighbors that they showed blue and yellow and red and orange.
They found an unoccupied table on the sun side. Lan settled into a chair and swiveled to face his friend. "It's really good to see you. So, what have you been doing with yourself these last ten years? At one date a night, that would put you in the three thousands, but a schedule like that would take a lot of stamina." He used the tabletop controls to order a drink and Parke made a quick choice, too.
Parke looked up from the tabletop. "I've pursued lots of things besides women. School at Technigrad. I manage a materials production lab on Algontin. Did a little growing up." Parke's gaze flickered over Lan's shoulder. Lan turned to see what or who had attracted Parke's attention.
Lan grinned. "She's very pretty. How much growing up did you say you did? Maybe all you did was age."
Parke returned the grin, unabashed. "A little growing up doesn't mean I'm a little dead. But I'm more of a looker than a toucher nowadays."
"This is probably a stupid question, considering your old habits. Did you ever get married?"
Parke shook his head. "I don't think I'm ready to settle down. What about you?"
"No. Never seemed--" Lan paused as the waiter arrived to deliver their orders. "Let me." Lan retrieved a couple of coins, checked the displayed balance on each, and placed them on the waiter's tray.
As the waiter departed, Parke winked and said, "You know, you never did answer my first question."
"Well, not a question, actually. I said she probably won't be there."
"Who's that? That's a stupid question. We haven't been gone that long."
"You mean Tessa?"
"Of course I mean Tessa. Come on, Lan. This is me. Parke. You're not fooling anyone."
Lan let his gaze slide past Parke and rest on the veiled image of the sun, its mottled sunspots giving the impression of some ultra-large-scale disease. Because the ferry slowly rotated, the sun had slowly moved since they sat down.
Tessa. Tessa Farlon. Even now Lan had trouble admitting his feelings to Parke.
If Tessa truly wasn't coming to the reunion, then Lan had wasted the trip. It was fun to see Parke again, and he could think of a few other people he'd like to see, but Tessa was the reason he'd taken time away from his job.
As the time of the reunion had grown nearer and nearer, Lan told himself he wouldn't go, that it made no sense to torture himself. Lan hated the closed-in feeling of the caves on Neverend, and Tessa wouldn't leave. Lan was just as stubborn as he had been, and surely Tessa was, too. But then again, maybe her feelings about staying on Neverend had tempered. Lan doubted that, but at the last minute he realized that he had to find out. Too, he might find that being back on Neverend wouldn't make him feel as trapped as before. Maybe he would be able to forget or ignore the need for sunlight, for open air overhead, for the sense of freedom he had when he was far from Neverend.
But maybe all these questions were for nothing. Tessa could have married years ago. Who would blame her? Or she could have found a way to let go, to let her father have his own life and to start one of her own.
Lan looked back at Parke. "That was a long time ago. We were kids."
"We're not all that old right now."
"Why do you say she might not be there?"
"I hear from Toko Yinda occasionally. My folks left Neverend about a year after yours did, and I like to know what's going on. Toko says she hasn't seen Tessa lately. She thinks Tessa might have left Neverend."
"That would be too bad," Lan said finally. "I would like to see her again."
"Now we're getting some honesty here. I wouldn't mind seeing her again either. And maybe doing a little more than just seeing. From what I hear, she's gotten even prettier since school."
Lan grimaced and took a sip from his drink bulb. "Is that what you remember? Her looks were more a liability than anything else. I would have preferred her plainer, to keep guys like you away."
Surprise magnified the small folds in the skin between Parke's eyebrows. "What are you talking about? There's nothing wrong with beauty."
"Nothing more than there's anything wrong with loud noises or flashy clothes. They just distract people from what's really important."
"All right, mister wise old man. What is important?"
Lan was silent for a moment. "Do you remember the time when some caverns caved in, a couple of levels up, and south from Marrotto Junction? Maybe four or five people were killed."
"A young girl, I think her name was Meccer, was orphaned. Falling rock damaged one of her legs pretty badly. Even after they found a family to adopt her, Tessa spent time with her, helping her relearn to walk, and keeping her spirits up by reading to her and just being a friend."
Parke took a gulp from his drink. "I never knew that."
"I'm not surprised. Tessa never bragged about the things she did. She just went out and did them." Lan drummed his fingers on the table. "She used to go down to the museum after school and help her father with whatever exhibit he was setting up, more to be with him than because he needed the help."
"I'd figured she was always meeting you or one of the girls after school. Whenever I asked her if she wanted to go hiking or go for a meal or do anything together, she just told me she was too busy."
"I don't know if that was the only reason. I think Tessa was wary of people she thought were interested in her just because of her looks."
"Yeah, but I didn't just want to look," Parke said, leering broadly.
"You're disgusting." Lan grinned. "And incorrigible. You know, I still remember the time you and Valma got caught in the lagoon in Optner Grotto. You had told her if you stayed close enough together, you wouldn't trigger the alarm system. I bet she didn't speak to you for half the next term."
"It was worth it."
Lan shook his head in reproof.
"Please secure your seat belts and your belongings," said a voice from overhead. "Changeover is in two minutes. We are now halfway from the gateway to the Neverend dock." The voice droned on, asking people to be careful with their drinks.
"Did you bring anything for changeover?" Lan asked.
"No. But I'm sure someone did."
Lan looked around the lounge. At least two people, one child and one adult, both making fists, seemed to be holding small objects. Changeover, the brief period of no gravity, had long ago acquired traditions. Maybe people figured if the law of gravity was temporarily suspended, so were some other rules. Shortly the voice said, "Changeover is beginning. Please remain where you are until the maneuver is complete." As soon as the voice died, Lan felt his stomach lighten as gravity began to disappear. He clasped his hands to keep them from floating. Before twenty seconds passed, he was weightless, held in place by only his seat belt.
The child Lan had noticed, a boy with flaming red hair and freckles, pushed his hand into the air and flung his fingers open, releasing an insectoid. From Lan's left, another insectoid joined the first.
The little powered toys rose toward the ceiling. One bounced off the ceiling and began to fly in a slow arc.
From behind Lan's head came the faint whine of another insectoid. The black-and-yellow gadget whistled past his neck, then it, too, soared toward the center of the lounge, moving in large circles, occasionally darting one way then another, seeming to be genuinely alive. Several people laughed when the device started generating a noise that was a mixture of nasal buzzing and a moronic happy humming. This one was obviously more advanced than the average insectoid.
As the toy buzzed around the lounge, a smooth pressure pushed Lan briefly against the seat back, and the ferry began its 180-degree turn to aim the propulsion system toward Neverend. Directly ahead of Lan, the star field panned slowly from the bottom to the top of the window. In the window to his right, the star field pivoted. The insectoid careened off a passenger's head, prompting chuckles from the people around the victim.
A minute later Lan felt pulled away from his seat back, then weightlessness lingered several seconds before the ship began to decelerate and he felt himself pushed down into the seat cushion. The almost unnoticeable vibration Lan had felt before changeover resumed as the thrusters began to slow the shuttle enough for it to match orbit at Neverend.
The black-and-yellow insectoid had been freely cruising in the low gravity, but now it had to struggle against the increasing force, and finally it crashed into the floor a few meters away. The instant after it hit, it generated a programmed sound Lan hadn't heard before, an undignified splat followed by a sudden loud buzz that trailed off, as though a large, smart bumblebee had said "awwwwwww" and then died. Lan joined in the laughter at the pitiful wail.
Over the laughter came the droning voice telling people they could release their drinks and unfasten their seat belts. Two adults and the redheaded boy retrieved their insectoids.
At the table next to Lan's, a man, still amused at the insectoid's performance, either squeezed his drink bulb too hard or drank at just the wrong moment. He managed to get some of the fluid up his nose and proceeded to spray the woman sitting across from him.
Parke started laughing loud enough that the man glared at him. The woman wiped her sleeve with a napkin.
"I'm sorry," Parke managed, his voice high and tight. "It's just that we made it all the way through changeover without an accident and--and--" He started laughing again.
The man and woman studiously ignored Parke as they left the lounge.
Lan looked at his laughing friend and said, "That's what I like about you. You take everything so seriously. You know, I was wrong to say I thought you might have been killed by a jealous spouse. I put way too narrow a definition on the possible murderer."
Parke laughed even louder, and several people looked their way. Lan turned to one of the nearby men and said, "You'll have to excuse him. He's always been a big fan of nasal spray."
The man gave Lan a puzzled look, and Parke's laughter grew even noisier.
"Stop." Tears glistened at the corners of Parke's eyes and his cheeks bulged. He always had been an easy victim for this kind of torture.
Lan waited a second until he caught Parke's eye again and smiled at him. "You know, I remember the time you tried to convince Shirl that the earlier you try sex, the more you'll enjoy it when you're older. And then she asked her mother if that was true. And then her mother had a talk with your mother."
"Please--stop." Parke's face was turning red.
Lan waited a few seconds until Parke had to drag in a deep breath. In the relative quiet, Lan said, "Mr. Tendals. You remember how you altered the picture database for the annual--"
Parke started laughing again, gesturing for Lan to stop. Parke's eyes squinted shut.
"--and inserted eye-stalks coming out of his forehead? Is nothing sacred to you?"
Parke managed to put his hands over his ears, but he was shaking so hard that his hands didn't stay in place, so Lan was sure Parke could still hear.
"And that time he was answering questions after a session. He said something like 100,000 of our brain cells die every day, and wouldn't that be a problem if they weren't being replenished?"
Parke shook his head, as if denying the memory would stop Lan, and started shaking harder as Lan continued. "And you said it sure would be a problem unless you wanted a teaching job."
By now, almost everyone around the two men was staring at Parke, several of them grinning at Parke's discomfort. Parke's face had turned a painful shade of red, and he began to cough.
Lan let his friend calm down until he stopped laughing. Parke hesitantly looked in Lan's direction.
Lan simply gave him a sudden broad grin, and Parke was laughing again.
When Parke's laughter subsided, he looked back at Lan.
Lan put on a serious expression for a second or two as Parke took some deep relaxing breaths. Abruptly, Lan said, "You remember the time--" and Parke was once again out of control, quaking for a time before he finally regained control.
"You're going to kill me someday," Parke wheezed at last. "I wish you wouldn't do that."
"One does whatever one does best. I'm glad to see you haven't changed, either."
Parke finally began to breathe more normally. "What do you do, anyway? Besides tormenting people. We never got to that."
Lan carefully squeezed his drink bulb and took a sip. "Nothing special. I work for an import-export consortium. My job is to help balance the two wherever they send me. If I'm on a world that imports more than it exports, I help them find markets for more of their materials or products. Or help them match something they could be providing to a market need somewhere else. Dull work, but the travel makes up for it." Lan's story was a complete fabrication, but Parke seemed to accept it.
"So, have you been back to Neverend since we graduated?"
"No. If they've had any need for the kind of work I do, someone else must have handled it. And my parents migrated to Merohive not long after that. It will be fun to see the old place. See people I haven't seen for a long time."
"I warned you she might not be there."
"Right, you did. There are other people I want to see. The Newtons--they lived near us--Carrie, Eddar, several others." "And Tessa," Parke added.
"And Tessa. If she's there. And her father."
"Somehow I--I thought you might have known." Parke was suddenly sober.
"He's dead. He was murdered in the museum. A few months ago. Toko told me about it."
Lan was silent for a long moment, staring at the mottled sun. Tessa's father had been one of the kindest men Lan knew. Harsh words from him were rarer than pearls in the desert. He was a master of self-deprecating humor that could defuse almost any situation, and he was someone who avoided confrontation to begin with. What a blow to Tessa.
"I'm sorry," he said finally. "She was really close to him. And I liked him quite a lot. What happened?"
"I don't know."
"You mean Toko never said?"
"I don't think anyone knows. Except maybe the killer. Tessa's father didn't have any enemies. They found him in the museum, but there wasn't any indication of theft." Parke's eyes widened. "You were always interested in mysteries. Maybe we could find out what happened."
"I think you landed on your head too many times falling out of bed."
"No really. We could make a great team. You're intelligent and I'm strong."
Lan nodded. "Right. I can see it now. I figure out which questions to ask, and you punch whoever we're questioning until we hear an answer we like. We could call ourselves the brains and brawn brothers."
"Bad idea, huh?"
"Let's put it this way. I think you had a better idea when you organized the scavenger hunt that almost got us kicked out of school."
"We had fun, didn't we?"
"Yeah, but it was just asking for trouble to have an escalator tread on the list."
"Lan," Parke said, suddenly serious. "For your sake, I hope Tessa is going to be there."
"Thanks. But even if she is, she's almost certain to be married to somebody. It's stupid, but I don't know if I'll want to stay around if I find that out."
"The planet hasn't changed a bit," Parke Brenlek said. He peered out the cable car observation port at the surface of Neverend far below.
Lan said, "I bet nothing's changed down below either."
The two men had made the transfer from the ferry to Neverend's orbital dock, perched atop an invisible column extending from the planet's surface. There, they were ushered through zero-gee corridors to the beanstalk cable car ready to descend to the ground.
Lan glanced at the barometer gauge on the screen near the center of the cable car. According to it they were almost halfway down. The faint tug of gravity was finally beginning to make him feel that he was looking down on Neverend from a high observation point, rather than floating near it in space.
Below him lay a chain of safety reflectors stretching all the way down to the dark surface of Neverend. Faint narrow bands around the planet's actual surface were just beginning to show. Between the bands were the wider, dark and dull surfaces of enormous strips of solar panels, each individual section sucking up the sunlight so efficiently that little was reflected into the wispy atmosphere. The thousands of latitude lines made Neverend resemble a decorative paperweight.
"I almost decided not to come back," Parke said.
"Oh, come on."
"No, I'm serious. I wish I had done more since I left. I wish I was clearly on my way to being a company president or an explorer or something."
"You've done all right. You've still got your sense of humor, and most of your looks. What are you really worried about? That some of the folks we knew won't respect you? Or some of the girls you never slept with still won't? What?"
"I don't know. I suppose it's the girls."
"The girls. They're women now."
"Yeah, I know. But I still see them as girls. I still see the holos in the annual. I see myself grown up--no comments--and I still see them the way they were. Maybe I'll be more comfortable when we get there and I see faces as old as mine."
"They aren't going to judge you the same way they judged you back then, you know. They've done some growing up, too."
"I'm not convinced yet. Nothing ever seems to change on Neverend."
Lan looked back down at the surface. "I know what you mean."
Not far below them was a rising cable car. At its current distance, it seemed to be heading directly for the car carrying them to the surface. Both men fell silent as they watched the approaching vehicle. Moments later it flashed past them so closely that for an instant it blocked half the sky. Someone nearby gasped.
To Lan something didn't feel right. A second later he realized that if they had just passed a tube car in the night, he would have heard the Dopplered roar of air. The silence here didn't fit the normal experience.
Parke said, "What do you want to bet that Lissa Tirn still has that high-pitched giggly voice?"
"I don't take no-win bets."
"Talk about things never changing. Good old stable, conservative Lan. You probably still don't go out on dates unless you've already heard the woman is interested in you."
Coming from someone else, Parke's words might have irritated Lan, but Lan felt no resentment. "I'll bet I don't hear 'no' as often as you do."
"Yeah, and I'll bet you don't hear 'yes' as often either. That's what I can do while I'm here. Work on you. You need to learn to take a few risks, live a little more."
"I take all the risks I need. I'm sitting here with you, aren't I?"
"Maybe opposites attract in friendships, too. Maybe that's why we're friends. You've probably always wanted to be bolder, more daring."
"And you've probably always wanted to be more careful, more painstaking, more discriminating."
They scrutinized each other for a moment, then both men laughed.
Lan looked down at the slowly approaching surface, now seeing small square equipment shacks edging the solar panel strips. He looked back at Parke and said, "It really is good to see you again."
Parke nodded and looked embarrassed.
"You're incredible, you know that? You probably pursue a woman you've known for less than a minute without giving it a second thought, and you get embarrassed when an old friend tells you he's glad to see you again."
"Yeah, well, you're not that old."
Lan smiled and let the subject drop.
As the planet's surface grew wide enough to become the horizon, Lan finally began to get the feeling he was home again, no longer a voyager. The horizon kept flattening until the rows of solar panels extending into the distance made the view suggest a crystallized field, with row after row of cultivated metallic plants. Both men watched as the cable car sped toward the ground. While the car began to slow, one of two circular hatches on the ground slid slowly open.
The car crawled as it entered the chamber. The edge of the hatch cover rose past Lan's head, cutting off the view of outside. Columns of soft blue lights in the docking bay rose slowly and then finally came to a gradual stop. Overhead, the hatch slid slowly closed, cutting off the view of the stars, protecting the subterranean world from the rest of the universe. Lan's stomach felt queasy for just a moment in the changing gravity, or from being sealed inside, then recovered.
"Welcome to Neverend," the generic monotone announced. "At the chime, the local time will be 11:42. All passengers please proceed in the direction of the moving arrows."
Lan and Parke merged with the other passengers following the lighted arrows in the ceiling. The exit door met an accordion-pleated pressure seal, and a spiral corridor led gradually down to the baggage level where the circular baggage compartment was ringed by a wide hallway. Lan found his bag under the panel reading "D," released it with his ticket, and slung it over his shoulder. Above the lighted alphabet was a display reading "1,228 passenger-parsecs without any lost baggage. If you are headed for Alpha Centauri, so are your belongings."
Parke joined him, swinging his bag to show Lan he was ready.
"Lucky your bag got here all right," Lan said, pointing to the display. "With a record like that, if you reported anything lost, they might kill you to keep the word from getting out."
"Or send you wherever your bag went."
Together they followed the green arrows to Customs. Parke's bag passed inspection, and then Lan's was on the conveyer. Lan swallowed as the bag passed through the scanner. The inspector gave Lan an indifferent glance as he handed over the bag. Good.
A moving walkway carried them into another tunnel, moving toward the waiting area.
"Looks just the same," Parke said.
Lan nodded. "Yeah, we haven't been gone quite long enough for civilizations to rise and crumble."
A dull and transparent protective layer coated the high rock ceiling and irregular walls. A sun-spectrum light-strip ran directly overhead, filling the passageway with diffuse yellow-white light. The walkway turned and twisted, rose and fell, as it moved through what was far more like a large tunnel than a corridor. From space, Neverend had looked inhospitable with next to no atmosphere, but, below the surface, ancient volcanic bubbling had turned much of Neverend's outer layer into a porous maze of pockets, caverns, tunnels, and grottoes.
Lan didn't know whether the tunnel they traveled through, with its black pitted walls and ragged twists and turns, was artificial or natural. Either way, it always gave him a touch of claustrophobia.
A soft breeze met them. Despite all the filtering and purifying stages in the recycling plants, the air still smelled faintly musty and dusty. They passed a low-slung litterbot on a programmed search for waste to suck up.
Parke said, "It's nice to be in low gravity for a while. But I'm not looking forward to the first few days when I get back."
The nature of the echoes ahead changed as the walkway began to curve downward and to the right. Added to the prompt echoes of occasional loud words and the clamor and clatter of many people moving, was a multitude of delayed echoes, some much softer than the prompt echoes, some almost as loud. Turning a final bend in the passageway brought them to where the tunnel mouth met the side of Majilly Cavern, a brightly lit, enormous chamber crowded with people, edged by shops tucked into small caves around the perimeter. The anti-glare, poured floor was perfectly level and transparent, allowing a view of the natural contours below, and giving the illusion that the entire populace walked on water.
Holograms of large aquatic creatures moved beneath the surface, including a large fast-moving shark cutting its silent path through the pseudowater, leaving no wake, oblivious to the strollers overhead. Or oversnout.
Lan said, "You know, I can still remember the first time my folks brought me here. I was sitting, playing with a toy, and I caught sight of something moving down there, one of the holograms. Except I didn't know that's what it was. I jumped up and I was peering back down through the surface when I heard my folks and their friends. They were all watching me. Probably they'd been watching me ever since we arrived."
"So did they tease you?"
"No. They just wanted to see how I'd react. I don't remember them being condescending. I told my mother I was afraid of falling through the floor. I must have been really flustered, because I don't remember thinking that the adults were much heavier than I was, and so I shouldn't have been worried. Sometime later, I came back with them, and I brought a light so I could get a better view. And then I was mystified when it didn't help at all."
"That reminds me of one thing I never did that I wanted to do," Parke said. "If I'd had the equipment and some good images, I would have added a few more holograms."
"Don't tell me. Let me guess. You would have put some holograms of dead fish, all bloated and floating belly-up just below the surface."
"I don't have any secrets left at all, do I?"
The walkway carried them farther into Majilly Cavern. To the left were groups of people saying good-bye. To the right, where the ramped walkway followed the curving wall gradually to the floor, were people looking expectantly upward at the new arrivals.
Feeling annoyed at himself, Lan couldn't help scanning the crowd to see if Tessa Farlon was among them. A waving arm caught his attention and he heard a woman's voice call, "Parke. Lan. Over here."
Parke saw her, too. He pointed toward the waving woman, then waved back. "Toko's here to meet us."
Toko made motions indicating that she would wait for them.
The walkway moved them slowly down toward the main floor. Lan kept looking for other familiar faces.
They reached the fanout section of the walkway and had to keep adjusting their positions to stay together as the walkway mechanism spread into a 180-degree semicircle with spokes moving out from the center and growing as they traveled. Lan felt his feet trying to move in diverging directions and repositioned himself.
Near the edge of the walkway, the surface gradually slowed down. Lan and Parke threaded through the crowd and reached Toko Yinda. She gave Parke a big hug. She turned to Lan, and Lan could see that she was a little unsure whether to hug or shake hands. He spread his arms. Toko smiled brightly and hugged him, too.
"You two are really looking good," she said finally. "You guys look--I don't know--lived in."
Parke turned to Lan. "You know what that means?"
Toko shook her head in mock exasperation, then grinned lopsidedly. Even when she quit grinning, a faint crease in her cheek remained as evidence of frequent smiles. She wore her brown hair straight and long; it fell back over her shoulders and almost reached her waist. Her wide-set dark eyes made her seem relaxed, unlike the energetic, almost furtive girl she'd been in school. Her outfit, a zipped-up, one-piece garment with long sleeves, made of a thin tan material, fit her snugly.
"You look good, too," Parke said appreciatively.
"Come on. Let's get out of here," Toko said. She pointed to the largest exit.
Lan fell in behind Toko and Parke as they walked toward the exit. Near a group of adults, a young girl sat on the floor, her head just off the surface, her hands cupped to the sides of her face as she peered into the shallow pseudowater. The image of an octopus slithered close to the bottom surface. Not far from it was a portwesseb, rolling itself along with its clawed appendages. Near the top surface a small school of glitterfish weaved to and fro in unison. Probably no aquarium owner had ever owned an assortment of creatures that got along so well together and didn't even soil the water.
Toko looked back at Lan. "I don't know if Tessa's still here."
Lan's gaze snapped away from the crowd near one of the cave shops. For an instant he looked at Parke, who had also looked back, and Parke just shrugged his shoulders.
"What is it with you two?" Lan asked lightly. "I'm just here for the reunion."
Toko walked backward for a few steps as she watched Lan. "Yeah, but--" She looked quickly at Parke who had just nudged her in the ribs.
Toko held up her hands and smiled helplessly. "All right. All right."
Lan hesitated. "Have they found out who killed her father yet?"
Toko sighed. "Not as far as I know. It all seems so senseless."
"I'd like to find whoever did it and settle the score." He was still angry at the idea of someone harming such a kind man. Toko was right; it was absolutely senseless.
"Easy there," Parke said. "If you want to go settling scores, make sure I'm with you."
Lan nodded silently and tried to force the image of Tessa's dad out of his mind.
Toko turned back to face the direction they were moving. She tipped her head toward Parke, and Lan busied himself looking everywhere.
"What happened to Thonsdol's?" Lan asked a moment later, looking at an unfamiliar sign over a nearby cave.
"They retired," Toko told him. "And they apparently didn't want to sell the name, so the port set up a lottery. Obviously Wilkerrok won."
"It's amazing how some things haven't changed one bit, and others are totally different. I thought for sure that shop over there--the exotic food shop--would have gone out of business long ago. They don't have any more customers right now than the last time I was here. Parke probably goes out with more women than they have customers."
Parke said, "And they don't have to pay."
"You really haven't changed," Toko said and shook her head. "This place has probably changed more than you, if you can believe that."
"How?" Parke said.
"Expansion south of Arapiton Cavern. There's a whole new area for homes and some new shops. The main thoroughfare going up from Mepitas is temporarily closed because they're strengthening that section. There's a brand new extension from Trinity. I'll give you the guided tour when you're ready, but are you in sync yet?"
Lan said, "No, but I could probably get by if I can get a short nap in a few hours. And Parke's tough."
"I'm all right for now. I'll let you know if I get too tired."
"I bet you will," Toko replied.
Their walk carried them past shops selling a variety of fragrant foods. Occasionally Lan would smell something that brought deeper memories. The McPhetter shop sold small, chewy wafers that could last a half-hour when a small boy was judicious. The aromas made Lan hungry, but didn't seem to affect Toko or Parke, so he said nothing.
Neverend still had its small-town atmosphere, which was hardly surprising since the effect was deliberate. By Neverend's very nature, growth was more limited than on planetary surfaces where more room was available. Neverend had been founded by a group who wanted to create a perpetual close-knit community. They had succeeded only too well.
A central services area was the focus of a number of arteries leading out to smaller communities, like small towns all within commuting distance of a moderate-sized city, so the residents could have the benefits of local communities and the occasional trip to a larger metro area that was still a manageable size.
Due to the nature of the limited-growth design, most people held jobs that didn't rely on population expansion--simple shops that did a steady business, stores that anticipated a regular turnover of perishables or non-durable goods, schools that educated the sons and daughters of the previous generation. The occasional small spurt of growth was inevitable, but Lan felt he could take a time-lapse sequence of views of Neverend and an outsider wouldn't be able to tell the progression showed centuries instead of decades.
Nearing the west exit, where Majilly Cavern narrowed, they passed shops selling tourist clothing, map datapacks, snack foods, subscriptions to the local newscasts, hiking boots, lamps, emergency rations, first-aid kits, locators, toiletries. A few young boys and girls lounged near the shops, keeping their eyes open for newcomers in need of a guide.
Lan followed Parke and Toko through the funnel leading out the west exit, and they stepped onto the moving walkway. Through an irregular portal wide enough for ten people standing abreast--five going in and five going out--they found the uppermost cavern in Main Slope: Cavern 1.
The exit walkway transformed into an escalator with short, almost unnoticeable steps. Lan adjusted his footing so he didn't straddle steps, and within a few seconds the steps grew taller until the path of the escalator angled down at almost a thirty-degree grade following the angle of Main Slope.
Toko was saying something to Parke, but Lan didn't listen. He lost himself in his surroundings, paying only enough attention to the two people ahead of him to make sure he didn't get separated.
The top cavern in Main Slope slanted down toward the point where it met a still lower cavern, which in turn connected to the next in a rough series of caves and caverns that cut a generally straight swath, sloping downward through the heart of the unseen city, a string of extraordinarily large irregular beads stretched in a haphazard line.
The cavern ceiling had been turned into a dimpled mirror, reflecting a distorted view of the shops lining the walls as the escalator dropped them deeper and deeper. They passed near a six-arrowed hologram showing the four compass points and up and down. In the box surrounded by outward pointing arrows were coordinates that Lan found he could remember:
Main Slope 1
Lan could see two more distant grid holograms in line before the cavern wall blocked the view. They passed a platform level leading to a storefront cut into the cavern wall. The unfamiliar display above the door read "Benkton and Crossheld Investments, 20.141 N, 87.330 W, 0.213 D. Main Slope 1."
People on the up escalator to their left passed them indifferently, and Lan saw no familiar faces among the array of smiles, frowns, and preoccupied expressions.
The escalator turned to the right once, then again, and the step height increased for a short steep section, as the path through Main Slope angled through the junction between Cavern 1 and Cavern 2. From that vantage point, Lan could see one of his favorite views. The next five caverns were aligned closely enough that parts of each were visible. A string of grid holograms cut a straight line sloping down into the distance, in one of the longest possible views inside Neverend. The view had always given Lan the feeling that the maze of caverns never ended, that the visible parts were merely the outermost irregular cavities cut in a galaxy-wide honeycomb. Even though most large caverns retained much of their original open space to minimize the closed-in feeling, this was one of the few places where Neverend didn't feel so claustrophobic and static to him.
The escalator continued making occasional course adjustments as it carried the trio. Near the center of Cavern 2, Toko led them into a lateral tunnel and stopped in front of one of the down chutes. "Let's drop to Rockville."
She and Parke managed to squeeze onto one of the slowly falling platforms. The transparent cylinder rotated ninety degrees so the doorway sealed. As their heads dropped out of sight, Lan stepped onto the next platform and turned to watch the tunnel behind him as his cylinder door shut. The platform continued to fall slowly until his eyes were about level with the floor. Chutes were among Lan's least favorite aspects of Neverend. Even by himself in a chute, he felt the claustrophobia as an almost physical pressure from every direction.
When the cylinder began to accelerate, it dropped almost fast enough to make Lan float. The smooth shaft walls made gauging the speed impossible, but the strong acceleration lasted almost half a minute and then reversed, so Lan felt his weight almost double and his knees flexed against the pressure. When the chute wall opened to reveal the next stop, Lan swung open the curved door and hopped out to join Toko and Parke.
Lan said, "One of my biggest worries used to be that I'd get stuck in one of those things between levels."
"I don't know." Parke leered at Toko. "It might be fun."
Toko punched him lightly on the arm. "Let's go."
Lan reoriented himself. On this level, the chutes were totally exposed, three ups and three downs. The six transparent tubes, with a dark, hand-width runner inside the back of each, joined circular cutouts in floor and ceiling. A nearby grid hologram said they were 1.2 kilometers beneath the surface and were on Rockville Boulevard, cave six.
This stretch of the boulevard was fairly level compared to Main Slope, but smaller and more uneven. Lan looked both directions and at the nearest businesses, and was instantly sure he was on the axis near the corkscrew. Not more than three or four caverns to the north, Rockville Boulevard began to follow a spiral path through a jumbled network of caves.
Here he saw fewer changes. Lan recognized most of the shops they passed. MacMetver's home-making shop still carried everything from poured-floor compounds to drills, grinders, shapers, wall-thickness sensors, lighting compounds, blower tubes, wall-sealing resins and pigments. He wondered if they still had the sign that read, "If you don't see what you need, are you sure you really need it?"
Adjacent to MacMetver's was the same old antiquities dealer displaying ancient eyeglasses, pill-boxes, jewelry, and calculators in the case at the front of the narrow store. Lan could see all the way to the back of the fissure that formed the dealer's shop space.
Next to the antiquities dealer was the entertainment store that Lan's parents had loved to visit. Their leisure time had been full of novels and vids from a variety of worlds and periods.
His parents had come to Neverend partly because they saw it as a good place to raise a son, but mostly for work. They were a team, specializing in trouble-shooting for small businesses. Sometimes they'd go to work as employees and then provide feedback and recommendations to management. Eventually they saturated the business market on Neverend. As soon as Lan graduated, they moved on to New Phoenix.
As the three continued walking along Rockville, Lan began to feel for a moment that he had never left. Memories of the old days came more frequently and more vividly. With the nostalgia came the recollection of the camaraderie he had felt back then. But moments later he realized he felt uncomfortable.
More than that, Lan felt angry with himself. Lying had become all too easy since he had left Neverend, and he found himself hating the fact that he had lied to Parke.
End of Excerpt
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