Almost Endless City - Chapter 1
Xaviera was in too much pain to sleep. Last night’s mild aches she had attributed to the stretching and shifting of the start of her third trimester. Something was definitely wrong now though. Her abdomen was cramping, and her lower back was throbbing. She tried to ignore it, but the pain came in waves every 15 minutes or so. Each wave was more painful than the last until the tightness became almost paralyzing.
“Something is wrong.” She muttered to herself, still half asleep.
“What?” Heijan responded. He was surprisingly alert for 3:30 in the morning.
“Something’s wrong,” her words became more real. “Something’s wrong, something’s wrong!” She was almost screaming now and becoming panicked.
Heijan turned on the light and slowly pulled the sheets down past her hips. Laying prone, she couldn’t see beyond her belly, so she stared at Heijan’s face waiting for a reaction to confirm the inevitable. Heijan winced, Xaviera smelt it too.
“Lay back down for a minute,” he said as he gathered the sheets into a bundle and threw them off the bed. He ran to the closet and returned with an armful of clean sheets. He wrapped her hips and legs carefully picked her up and placed her squarely in the desk chair. He piloted it swiftly around the tight corners and doorways of the master suite. He then turned left down the main hallway.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“We’re taking my skiff,” he responded almost before she had finished her question.
Fine, she was obviously not driving and Heijan would feel more comfortable in his own skiff, but they were headed for the stairs and Heijan wasn’t slowing down.
“Heijan!” Xaviera felt herself falling backwards down the stairs. She braced for impact but was spun around and landed softly at the bottom of the steps. Her hands dug into the armrests and she clenched her teeth. She gasped for breath. Pain interrupted her thoughts. Moving backwards away from the house she became frightened. It looked more like a haunted military bunker than her home. Maybe it was just the pain talking. She tried to focus on her breath, but she was panicking. All she could muster were short choppy sips of air through her teeth.
They arrived in the skiff-port loft. Heijan hovered the chair across a cluttered floor and over to the lift. Xaviera squirmed in pain and caught a brief glimpse into a closet. Something strange was in there, dim green light, just a rock in a tank of liquid, but it was moving. She tried to look closer but,
Aaach! sharp pain inside her cervix. They were getting more intense.
Heijan locked the chair into the lift and they were slowly lowered to the skiff-port.
Xaviera tried to think about anything but the pain.
“Why’s your skiff so dusty?” she asked Heijan.
“The accumulation of filth tells a story.” He responded with oblivious calm.
Not helpful, not fucking helpful at all! She needed chit-chat right now, not philosophy. She closed her eyes tightly and tried to focus on her breath. Heijan pulled the chair around the skiff and opened the passenger door. The seat slid out and Heijan placed Xaviera carefully in, then slid her back in and closed the door. Uaaghh! Another sharp pain, made worse by the look of the cabin—control panels everywhere hanging by wires. No rhyme or reason. Does this thing even fly?
Heijan got in, powered up, and engaged one of the larger levers. There was a loud clank and the skiff shuttered. The turbines were attached. This wasn’t going to be fun. Xaviera tried to swallow but her throat swelled up. She flailed and grabbed Heijan’s elbow until she finally was able to breathe. Heijan gave her a canteen of water. She took a few sips and calmed down a little but remained clenching her jaw rapidly and involuntarily.
Heijan punched a few more levers, then set some functions on his watch which disengaged the tracker-transponder. That killed any shred of calm.
“What the hell are you doing?” Xaviera asked, her heart pounding even harder and faster now.
“I need to get you to the hospital,” Heijan replied, “I need to be able to fly.”
“Have to go to ZMS…” Xaviera said, wincing through pain. There was no time to get to Khamaiu. She didn’t even think they’d make it to ZMS in time.
“OooKaaay,” Heijan said in a patronizing tone.
What the hell is wrong with him? Xaviera thought. His irreverence and her pain. She began to cry, but every sob put more pressure on her abdomen and caused more pain. Back to breathing. She closed her eyes, lifted her legs, and curled up on her left side facing Heijan.
Heijan set off slowly at first but picked up speed as he piloted along the curving driveway headed towards the main surface roads. He approached the curving intersection but made a sharp right turn onto a winding untreated road out towards the Black Basin.
“Where are you going?” Xaviera yelled, “this road doesn’t go around!”
“Shhh.” Heijan gently placed his hand on her thigh. Why was he being such a dick? She was in too much pain to protest. A sharp contraction jolted her. She breathed through it and it turned into a dull ache in her lower back. She tried to watch the road to keep her mind distracted.
Heijan did not engage the propellers or the tires. The magnets kept the skiff hovering above the untreated road.
“Steal these from PMEq?” Xaviera asked, tense with pain.
“Ahh…you know…I just…got it done…” fumbling for random words, he didn’t want to answer. Xaviera couldn’t press him, she could only close her eyes and breathe.
They reached an old concrete bridge that traversed a shallow ravine, Heijan sped across it and onto a dirt road that ran straight down the middle of an ownerless mesa. He began pressing buttons and adjusting knobs. He was going too fast. Xaviera curled into a ball and closed her eyes, trying to breathe through the intense cramps. She kept her mouth shut. No more snide retorts. His hand remained on her thigh. The patronizing touch was now tender, but Heijan seemed more excited than concerned. He welcomed this challenge.
They sped onward over a shallow hill and down the swale towards a dead end. The dirt, sand, and desert brush reflected the light of the near full moon. Beyond the cliffs though, nothing was visible. The Black Basin was before them, and Heijan was speeding straight towards it.
The road disappeared about a mile from the Basin and the desert shrubbery became denser. Heijan pulled back on the steering wheel to keep the bottom of the skiff above the thicket. He wasn’t slowing down. He was going right for it. Why?
“The Basin…” Xaviera gasped “…the…the Transponder!”
“Disabled my love, you watched me.” Heijan replied, his eyes fixed on the precipice ahead. “We’re going to Khamaiu. Trust me. For once, trust me.” He was repaying her for 14 years of second-guessing in the most unbearable of ways. He was heading for the Black Basin. Xaviera felt guilt now along with everything else. She resented him for bringing that up. She resented herself for giving him a reason to bring that up, but she had to stay focused on her body. Her abdomen was rock hard now.
Aaagghhh! Another sharp pain. She closed her eyes tightly, from pain and because she couldn’t bear to watch.
Xaviera hated the Basin and that she lived so close to it. It wasn’t the rumored mysterious forces. It wasn’t the savage, murderous nomads. It was the sand she hated, how she would look out from her windows, beyond the mesas and ravines, into a pitch-black void.
Heijan worked for Black Basin Affairs, but never discussed his work. Xaviera sometimes wondered what he did, what kept him away for days at a time, or awake at odd hours. She realized though, as he sped down the steepening hill towards the void ahead, that he certainly didn’t sit at a desk all day.
Obviously Heijan had been to the Basin before. At the present, he clearly had a plan, and there was nothing Xaviera could do to detract from it. The pains came in more frequent, more extreme waves, battling for her consciousness with fears about her husband and the Basin. As the skiff sped seemingly out of control, towards the brambly, craggy precipice, fear won out over pain.
“Hold on,” Heijan said as they reached the cliffs.
“Shut Up,” she replied.
There was a loud crash as the skiff broke through the rocky edge of the cliff. Xaviera held her breath as the nose cleared the thicket. Heijan angled it upwards so the foliage acted as a cushion, yet he could still pick up speed down the curve of the large gully. The propellers were engaged at full power now, keeping the skiff airborne and chopping through bushes. The loud, angry rhythm of propellers and thicket was overwhelming. Xaviera closed her eyes and dug her fingernails deep into the armrests as the skiff neared the basin floor.
They landed softly at the base of the gully and were engulfed by the foliage. There was a moment of pause, but they were not stopped; inertia was simply transferring.
“Hold on again,” Heijan said.
“Shut up again,” Xaviera grunted through clenched teeth. Heijan snickered through his nose and engaged the turbines while retracting the hover propellers. The skiff shot out of the thicket and was instantly careening a few feet above the Basin floor.
It was a bit out of control at first, rolling, pitching and dipping at random. Heijan quickly deployed the magnets though. The skiff stabilized and embraced the terrain. Amazingly, the magnets made a purer connection with the Basin floor than they ever had with any paved and treated roadway.
“You can relax,” Heijan said, “We’re safe for now.”
“For now?” Xaviera asked rhetorically, “You had to throw that in, huh?” Heijan smirked and put on some bulbous, dark driving glasses.
Xaviera felt an instant and overwhelming calm though, almost as if she had just been drugged. The pains subsided, the fears were dispelled, and the inner clamor was silenced. She became one with the skiff, gliding smoothly and beautifully over the gentle undulations.
The black sand was still invisible at night, even from just a few feet above. It was impossible to see exactly where the ground was. The silhouettes of cliffs at the northern and western border of the Basin were the only thing visible. Despite their distance, they were remarkably clear against the glow of the city lights beyond. Xaviera was mesmerized by the invisible land just below her though. She stared out the window into the void and noticed an occasional glimmer of light.
Was the sand reflecting the moonlight? The glimmers became more and more sparkly. Soon the sparkles were more like small flashes of light. They were not just in the sand anymore but all around her, even it seemed, inside the skiff. She turned around to Heijan. He had one hand on the wheel, and a smugly grinning gaze focused on the path ahead. He was holding out a pair of glasses for her.
“Nietle,” He said, satisfied with himself.
“What?” Xaviera said as an automatic response.
Heijan’s hand reached out for hers after she took the glasses. His touch was cool and very dry. There was love there though, faded but untorn.
Xaviera put on the glasses. The sparkles went away, and the Basin topography was visible. The cockpit of the skiff on all sides, above, and below, was eliminated from view and light green holographic terrain was whizzing by. The distant cliffs were now bright green and the city glow went from light to dark and smoky. Some terrain had obviously been mapped out and programmed into whatever system Heijan was locked into. The occasional ridge, tor, or outcropping was blurry or glitchy. It probably had not been programmed and the scanners were having trouble deciphering it.
"Nietle,” Heijan said again, as if he had just seen the same faulty holograms and was trying to explain them.
“Nietle?” She responded, shocked. “Here?”
“Virgin Nietle, everywhere here.” He responded with finality. Xaviera was silent.
Nietle, “Wise Matter” of the ancient world was mere legend at this point. The closest thing to virgin Nietle that existed in Nohon was the 2nd generation alloy in King Kol’s crown.
Xaviera had too many questions. What was the value? What were the dangers? How could you extract it from the Basin? What about the nomads? Does anyone even know how to forge 1st generation Nietle alloys anymore? And finally, How the hell does he know about this? That was the nagging thought that began to agitate Xaviera’s calm.
She returned to the moment though, as the terrain became dimmer. Specs of light, pale blue, deep indigo, and every color in between, began to appear all around on the horizon. They began to take on human forms as they drew nearer.
“Nomads?” Xaviera asked, frightened as she was enthralled.
“Clans of them. They don’t ever seem to sleep,” Heijan grumbled. He turned sharply and accelerated down the sloping southern pediment towards the Basin’s central ridge. Bright orange lights appeared and disappeared near the skiff and in the distance. Some came from the human forms while others seemed to shoot up out of the ground. Heijan was very careful to avoid them. He was a bit sterner now, still focused but not as relaxed as he weaved the skiff in and around the lights.
“Are they shooting at us?” Xaviera’s calm was all gone now. The pain was back. The fear was back. “What if they hit us?” she asked, scared and angry. “What the hell do we do? They’ll kill us?”
“Nooo they wooon’t.” He let her hand go, patronizingly pat her thigh a few times, and put both hands on the wheel. She was feeling tortured again and he was being a dick again. He pulled back on a large lever and the skiff kicked into an even higher speed. They were now barreling down the slope at top speed towards the central ridge.
Xaviera’s foot was pressed against the floor panel. Sweat was dripping down her forehead and stinging her eyes. She was clutching both armrests and fighting with herself to gasp for sips of air.
“Breeaathe.” Heijan said, very softly in his tauntingly condescending tone.
“I hate you.” She grunted. The pains were coming in sharply.
“Awwww,” Heijan said very obnoxiously now. “I hate you too!” He looked over and smiled coyly. “Noooo, I love you.” He grimaced. He just couldn’t help himself. He had to make a mockery of this situation.
If you knew the secrets I could never share, you wouldn’t find me so boring, she thought. She wished she could say, but even in these tortured moments she wouldn’t dare.