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Seven Miles Down
In theory, if your aunt had nuts she'd be your uncle.
Judging from our rate of descent, my guess was that I had about two minutes to convince the strato-launch to follow directions before we did our best impression of an Acapulco cliff diver. Hell, that was assuming we didn't just explode in mid-air, but for some reason the shooting had stopped. I presumed they'd written us off as goners.
I finished my good, long healthy shout. I got out all the most awful words I knew, and even glued some together in permutations never before heard on Earth or Mars. Then I took a deep breath, gagged again on the smoke, and concentrated all of my senses on the three words no sensible pilot ever wants to resort to in mid-air... trial and error.
Two joysticks, both alike in dignity, in Violet's cockpit where we lay our scene. It seemed senseless that they should both do the same thing, so the trick was sussing out their functions without making our situation any worse. I nudged the right-hand stick forward, and we tilted deeper into our dive. But that could have been coincidence. Now came the real proof. I pulled back on the stick. . . glory halelujah, we nosed up! I still had pitch control.
"Pardon the intrusion," shouted Avila, "but I just realized you probably can't read the displays! Would you care to have me translate them for you?"
"Hell yes," I shouted back, and then I realized why his voice was so loud. He was standing at my left shoulder. "Avila, you goddamn lunatic, get back in your seat and strap yourself in!"
"I can't see as well from back there. This smoke--"
"Avila, I'm in charge of this bird. You don't get a say in anything. Now buckle your skinny ass into your seat this instant!"
I know it was crazy, refusing directions from someone who could read the controls. But damn it, if I braked us by accident, we would decelerate hard, and then one of the only two friends I had on Mars would be a bleeding pancake on the inside of the windscreen. It was simple physics.
I began fiddling with the left-hand joystick. It was hard to detect the results, but I was an old hand at reading aircraft. It's something you do with the soles of your feet, the palms of you hands, every single inch of you in contact with the airframe. A pilot is like a seismograph needle, responding to every vibration. Those vibrations told me the engine was cycling up and down in response to my experiments. Left joystick was my throttle, then, though it was backwards by earth standards. . . forward would kill our thrust and backward would pile it on.
"Avila," I yelled, "I've got basic controls, but I need to know one thing. How do I kill the engine?"
"Forgive me, Violet, but I fail to see how that could possibly help our situation!"
"Not now! It's for when we land. . . if I can't turn the engine off all sorts of really colorful goddamn things are gonna happen!"
"Thonal dunfllg. . . flen reg glllbllll. . ." murmured Gathris.
"Throttle down full. . . find. . . black panel. . . directly forward. . ." His head lolled again, and if he managed to say anything else I didn't catch it.
Directly forward. I desperately searched the instrument board directly forward of the throttle, and found a square black panel about three inches wide. I flipped it up and saw that it was guarding a red mushroom-shaped button.
"A kill switch," I coughed. "I hope. Thank you, god."
The most elementary controls were in hand, then. Now all I had to do was get us into a proper crash attitude, shed some airspeed without stalling out, and pick a good place to scrape our smooth belly on the ground for a few thousand feet. Standard procedure on earth would have called for a survey loop of the chosen landing zone, but I didn't think that was wise. If we called attention to the fact that we still had control, we'd be begging the All-Sovereign's interceptors to pile more hot lead on us. Or hot Incendium, or unobtainium, or allotropic iron, or whatever.
The valley was spread out before us now, visible in astonishing detail. It made the Grand Canyon look like a sidewalk crack. I realized with a start that we had already fallen well past the level of the distant cliff tops on either side-- they were literally miles high. Unfolding between them was a layered world of verdant jungle, thick forests of alien greens and blues floating up from a sea of shifting gray mist. At the center of it all was a wide blue-gray river.
That made my next decision easy, in one sense of the word. Landing on water was crazy as hell, but landing in trees was completely out of the question.
"Can you swim, Avila?"
"I haven't been trained," he shouted, "but the theory seems perfectly straightforward."
Hell, I couldn't fault him for that. That was exactly the philosophy I was clinging to as I brought us in.
"I'm gonna spill some velocity," I yelled, "and try to put us down near one of the river banks, so we won't have to swim very far. This is gonna be ugly, though! Butt-ugly. Hey, wait a minute. . . doesn't this bird have any of those inertial adjustment doohickeys?"
"Scientific craft don't rate inertial dampers! They're for Military Section, Loyalty Section, and Executive Section only!"
"Damn." My hopes died as suddenly as they'd flared. "Well then, we're gonna have to take whatever comes next John Wayne style."
"Just clench your butt and keep smiling, Avila."
Nose up, nose up. I tilted us by degrees at the same time I feathered the throttle down a few notches. The vast river was looming beneath us, filling the windscreen. I squinted-- I was having some trouble telling river mist from cockpit smoke. If I could manage to skip us like a stone across that lovely Martian river, we'd be in good shape, but if I failed to spot a rock or some other large obstacle, we'd peel ourselves open in the blink of an eye.
Nose up, throttle back. Nose up, throttle back. It certainly would have helped if I'd had control of the airbrakes, but we were out of time. Any button I hit was just as likely to pop the windshield wipers as it was to save our bacon. Nose up. . . I could hear the growing roar of the water just below us as we plunged into a corkscrewing haze of mist.
We hit the river hard enough to rattle my teeth. It felt as though a giant, invisible hand had just slapped us all on our backs. And then we skipped, several tons of "stone," again and again and again. I just barely managed to kill the engine as we jounced across the water. Everything that wasn't nailed down inside the strato-launch cabin did an aerial ballet, including the dessicator pistol that had relieved our qualified pilot from duty.
I didn't quite black out, but when I realized we'd stopped moving, I was momentarily groggy. The view out the windshield was now just above the surface of the river, but the water was washing up against us and rising fast. Fumbling in haste, I unbuckled myself, groaned at the dull ache in my back and neck, and turned to help Gathris out of his chair. The smoke around us seemed to have thickened.
"Avila," I coughed, "get the door, get the door!"
I didn't see the controls he touched, but he folowed my orders explicity-- unfortunately. The hatch blew open with a sound that left my ears ringing, presumably some sort of emergency explosive bolt. An instant later, the river began pouring into the cabin, and Avila was swept back into his seat.
If only I'd had the brains to take a few seconds to get us into escape position before the cabin flooded, imaginary reader! As it was, the water came on in a torrent, silty and cool and gray, and Avila and I had to fight like hell just to drag Gathris' limp form out through the rush. Foam bubbled around us as we swam clear of the rapidly sinking strato-launch.
We'd ended up about seventy yards off one of the river banks, which wasn't too shabby, considering the whole thing was about three miles wide. A long, drifting trail of black and gray smoke marked the line of our descent from the clouds. Our pursuers were nowhere in sight, but my eyes were in a bad way from the smoke. I gulped down the fresh warm air gratefully, and floated, content for a few seconds just to enjoy the marvelous sensation of swimming in Martian gravity.
"Bring on the loaves and fishes, boys," I said, watching our formerly beautiful aircraft slip beneath the water, leaving only steam and smoke in its wake. "For her next miracle, Violet DeVere will--"
Something big and fast-moving brushed against my feet.
"Swim," said Avila. "Swim for the bank now."
Heart racing, I took this very sensible advice. Avila and I hauled Gathris along between us, kicking and splashing awkwardly. Avila's wild dog-paddle was something to see, and I massed more than he did, so we kept veering to his side and threatening to go around in circles. By frantic shouting and correction we somehow managed to avoid disaster.
There was another sensation of movement just beneath me, a tug like a strong current in the water. Whatever it was was a good dozen feet long, a sleek gray shape that set off every instinctive alarm-bell in every dark corner of my brain. It just figured. . . there were no loaves on this Martian river, but there sure as hell were fish.
Fifty yards, forty yards, thirty yards-- we thrashed our way steadily on, closing the gap. My feet struck something unyielding and I choked out a scream before I realized we'd reached the shallows. Another few yards and the water was down below my elbows. Barely thinking, I heaved Gathris onto my left shoulder and surged forward, running for all I was worth. One more sinister movement close behind nearly bowled me over, and then we'd made it. The water was below my waist, below my knees, below my ankles. I let Gathris drop without much delicacy and I threw myself onto the soppy, dull red sand of the beach, gasping huge breaths of relief.
I rolled over just in time to see the vague shape of our friend, no doubt disappointed at the escape of his free lunch, as he-she-it vanished back into the murk of the sluggish gray river.
"Well," said Avila, half-laughing, "that was disagreeable."
"Any landing you can swim away from," I said. "How's Gathris?"
No sooner had I spoken his name than he rolled slowly forward, clutching his head.
"We nearly died," he muttered. "That was damn close. Damn sloppy." Blinking, he seemed to recover himself, and glanced at me and Avila. "I. . . why. . . a water landing, yes. I suppose the launch sank. My gratitude for dragging me clear."
"Ah, you barely weigh anything," I said.
"Did you manage to secure the emergency kit, Avila?"
"I'm-- afraid not, Gathris. There was no time, between the smoke and the water."
"What about the dessicator pistol?"
"I didn't pick it up," said Avila.
"Nor me," I muttered sheepishly. In fact, all I'd rescued from the strato-launch was myself, my clothes, and my flight jacket, all of which were now thoroughly soaked.
"Damn," hissed Gathris. "That severely complicates the matter of our survival."
"It can't be all that bad," I said. "Look, a few minutes ago we were falling out of the sky with our asses on fire. If we can get past that--"
"This is the Valley of the Emerald Night," said Gathris. "Seven vertical miles of sloping walls covered in the densest, most predator-haunted jungle on this world. Nothing here is friendly, there's no civilization to speak of, and once the sun goes down I can assure you we're going to be sampled for taste and freshness by all kinds of fascinating creatures."
"What about your friends?" I said. "Your resistance buddies who were supposed to be out looking for us?"
"I'm sure they are," said Gathris. "However, by my best reckoning, we're six hundred miles west of our intended rendezvous area. Six hundred miles west, and seven miles down."
I stared across the river at the settling hulk of our aircraft. It looked to be sunk in just a few yards of water… the forward section was completely immersed but the steaming tail still pointed skyward. Light-headed and probably light-witted, I resolved to do something awfully stupid.
"Boys, if we're dead without equipment we might as well die trying to get it." I took two steps back into the water and felt that cool, silty flow around my ankles.
"By the tribes, what are you doing?" said Avila.
"If I go first," I said, "and splash around and attract attention, you two might be able to make it back to the ship. Get in, get your hands on a desiccator--"
"Your brain has gone into some sort of malnutrition shock!" Avila darted across the wet red sand toward me.
"Blueworlder, you can't fight a--" shouted Gathris. The last word of his sentence was garbled; I caught hints of "lurk" and jaw." The translation fungus must have tripped hard over whatever the Thoraveds called our friendly river monster.
"Well, if you've got any better ideas, I'll give you five seconds--"
"Cover," bellowed Gathris. "TAKE COVER!"
There was a tree-sized stalk of dark, spongy wood a few yards up the beach. Gathris turned and dove for it without another word. Avila followed, and it was his wordless panic that shocked me out of my attempt to martyr myself. I executed a passably skillful leap and hit the blood-red grit beside the two crouching Martians, and as I landed I heard the scream of jet engines from the churning grayness overhead.
I squeezed up against the yielding, mushroom-smelling surface of our cover, exposing only the top of my head to view. A sleek delta-winged interceptor craft whooshed out of the clouds and made a leisurely pass over the wreck of our sky-launch.
A few seconds later, a second interceptor followed, made a shallow dive straight at the wreck, and hammered it with a burst of screaming golden fire.
The hypersonic shells threw up white fountains of water in a hundred-yard line bracketing the ship. There was a curiously hollow sound like an air rifle pellet rattling inside a tin can, and an instant later the whole thing blew sky-high. I flinched away from the heat of the blast, then ducked as I heard the shriek and the soft pelting noise of fragments tearing up nearby sand and vegetation.
I watched from my prone position as the two fighter craft flew on, not even bothering to circle and double-check their handiwork. If it was possible to fly smug, those sons-of-bitches were indeed flying smug. They vanished into the mist and clouds a few miles downriver, and even the rumbling echo of their engines faded quickly.
"Well," said Gathris, rising carefully to his feet, "that concludes the aeronautics portion of today's curriculum. Let's arm ourselves and find shelter before the biology lesson begins."
Mars receives about half the sunlight Earth does, and any plant that wants to grab a piece of that sweet solar pie had best be as ornery and evil-tempered as possible. This explains the Valley of the Emerald Night.
Up top, hundreds of yards above the heads of visiting air-crash survivors, you'll find thatched layers of gleaming, sharp-edged leaves as black as asphalt. Black chlorophyl rules on Mars, elbowing other varieties aside with its ability to absorb light across the broadest spectrum. Dark blues and jade greens keep up only by fighting dirty; those pretty reminders of earth tend to denote plants that are parasitic, or carnivorous, or some thoroughly horrifying combination of the two.
Moving down, layer by layer through the circles of Dante's biological hell, you'll discover that the Valley isn't one system of life but dozens, stacked and stratified, as distinct from one another as the deep-sea zones of earth. Some of them are lively, raucous, lit by soft constellations of fungal lanterns and bioluminescent critters. Other layers are silent as library cloisters, where one instant of clumsiness can bring death from a hundred lurking sources.
It's an amazing place, a hothouse canyon as long as a continent, where the depths lock swirling moisture safely away from the cool aridity of most of the surface. Imagine the secrets bound up in that deadly jungle, the million unknown forms of life, the mysteries of their chemistry and physiology.
My advice is that the best place to admire it all is from a stable, slow-moving aircraft a few thousand feet above everything.
If you can't swing that, of course, you can also study it in the firsthand account of someone who was unlucky enough to offer herself up as the belle of the banquet on her very first visit.
Gathris took the lead, and we Mars-hopped along the rust-red beach, bounding in shallow arcs.
"We'll need spears," said Gathris. "Good hard lengths of something we can sharpen. And we should find some sort of enclosure, a space to defend. Perhaps with a spike stockade if we have time. It's about three hours to dusk, and then even the banks of the river won't be safe."
"God, I wish you boys hadn't confiscated my cigarettes and matches," I muttered, quite unfairly. "We could have had a fire in no time."
"Friction fire!" Avila clapped his hands together excitedly. "We can experiment with wood and fungal scale. . . I've read accounts in the sciences archives!"
"Fantastic," I said. Mentioning the magic word 'cigarettes' had darkened my spirits. "We can write the first edition of the Mars Scouts Handbook."
I tried not to think of the many obvious hurdles that lay between us and a comfortably torch-enclosed jungle patio. It was an awfully moist environment, for one. And even on earth there were countless woods that simply couldn't be rubbed to incandescence, on account of their saps and oils. And once I started dwelling on that pessimistic speculation, it was just a short mental hop to. . .
"What if they send troops down after us?" I shouted at Gathris, who'd increased the pace at which we were rabbiting along.
"They won't." His voice had the venom-drenched good cheer of someone who'd accepted that he was behind the eight-ball. "The resistance doesn't have any forces in the valley, and we know they know it. If we died with the ship, that's very well, and even if we didn't, stranding us here is as effortless a death sentence as they'd ever find."
"You keep insisting that we're doomed," said Avila, "and yet you seem anxious to keep fighting."
"My survival urges are as primitive and dim-witted as anyone's." Gathris veered toward the edge of the jungle cover. "Here's just the thing for them!"
I peered uneasily into the mangrove-like concatenation of scaly, fungus-slippery surfaces at the base of the forest. Branch settled on branch in a cross-weave that faded into green and purple shadows, where pale lights flickered and bobbed. There were gaps and holes aplenty, dark places to hide a hundred nasty things. It was like peeking into H.P. Lovecraft's closet, and I held my breath while Gathris rooted around in a pile of chitinous debris much like the "log" we'd used to hide ourselves from our pursuers.
"Yes, these should adequately reinforce our delusions of effectiveness." Gathris twirled a gnarled, knobby branch over his head. It was about fifteen feet long, thick as a broom-handle, and mothlike lavender insects fluttered frantically away from the debris pile as he disturbed it. "Come, gather all of this. We'll work on it in the open."
It sounded like an awful lot of work, until I watched Avila plucking up dark branches and was reminded that Martian gravity is the friend of those that toil. It was ticklish balancing and moving with that much mass, of course, but in just a few minutes each of us had a load of vinegar-scented "wood" across our shoulders that would have pinned us immobile on earth.
I stared up into the canopy of the eerie jungle, expecting to see it rise to total darkness and impenetrability. To my surprise, I spotted several irregular patches of bright blue sky and soft white clouds.
"Amazing," I said. My sense of wonder temporarily got the best of my fear. "It has to be, what, half a mile to the top of this jungle? Maybe more? The sky looks so lovely from down here."
"That's not sky," said Avila. "Look more closely."
I stared upward for a few moments, breathing the moist musky scents of the alien trees, hearing the soft hoots and rustles and flutters of alien life. A small dark speck flew below one of the bright sky-patches, was briefly visible in contrast, and then-- the sky patch vanished in an instant, closing almost like a sphincter, disappearing into darkness. I blinked.
"What the hell was that?"
"Chromatomorphs," said Avila. "They can form the most complex camouflage patterns on their undersides, and even generate light. They hang there like. . . tent canopies, pretending to be patches of open sky. Eventually something edible will accept the invitation. As you just saw."
"Behold a true Synthesist of Sciences Section," said Gathris. "Thirsty for irrelevancies! A sponge for trivia. Seconded to the archives in a desperate, headlong flight from any practical competencies."
"Actually, I joined Sciences Section because I'm fond of science," said Avila with prickly dignity. "How did a creature like yourself ever acquire the patience for high-energy physics, anyway?"
For an instant I thought Avila had offered some deadly Martian insult, something too subtle or technical for my limited experience to grasp. Gathris flew at him, makeshift spear-branch clutched in both hands, the rest of his load of wood crashing back to the ground as he shrugged it off gracelessly. I opened my mouth to shout something incoherent.
That's when the dull, carapace-like tree-trunk closest to Avila unfolded itself with sinister elegance.
It was no tree-trunk at all, but a spindly Martian man-killer, something vaguely analogous to a barn spider, black as coal and six feet high.
Segmented legs speared out with the speed and precision of pneumatic machinery, and two shorter probosces plunged toward Avila's back. These bore ominous sharp tips, curved like stylized daggers from an Arabian Nights painting.
Gathris hit the creature hard and hit it well; more's the pity that he hit it with an unsharpened makeshift spear. The Martian wood flexed, splintered and snapped. The creature's fangs missed Avila by inches, but Gathris' Tars Tarkas act was sadly incomplete. Rather than a triumphantly impaled monster, we now had one that was frustrated and very, very pissed off.
Screaming, the three of us leapt for the beach, scattering black branches in our wake. Damp red grit sprayed as we fled, and behind us the nightmare spider came on like a deadly engine, its legs a blur, its pumping fang-arms slicing the air a scant half-yard behind us.
Two more leaps would land us in the water and bring us hard up against the threat of the lurk-jaws once again-- but even that dubious fate seemed too much to hope for. The thing from the forest was too damned fast, and at least one of us wasn't even going to get two leaps.
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