“Natural grains of organic dust range in size from tens of millionths of a metre up to one ten thousandth of a metre.”
Four helms and lances cast sharply defined, dirty yellow beams through dust and darkness. Everyone held their lances at the ready, aiming their beams forward and down into the tunnel, though Prentyze’s thin arms and shoulders, still boyish and unmuscled, ached with the effort. The relentless downward, slippery slope was now pure torture. He tottered and slid behind the others, sweat pouring from his lanky frame into the already sodden padding. Of his companions, illuminated hazily by his lights, both the older men staggered wearily with pronounced limps, Zubin most of all. Flammia, directly in front of Prentyze, slithered onward with drooping shoulders – it was affecting her too.
His foot slipped again and he kept his balance only with effort. The smooth, sloping, rippled floor had become almost as perilous as uneven ice.
The adults ahead seemed to wade through knee-deep water, but with almost no noticeable resistance. So, no, not like water then. Maybe thick, cloying smoke was a better analogy? Yes: it rose in clouds from their passage much quicker and higher than mere spray from a wet road.
“Within the current limits of microscopy, all particles of atomic particulate (AP) –without exception– appear to be about the size of one atomic unit (AU).”
[Footnote: 1au is estimated to be four millionths of a metre with a confidence of three sigma. This unit of size appears to be indivisible and the smallest measurement physically possible.]
Why couldn’t he get his mind off the ‘dust’ around him? It was exasperating when he had so many other issues to deal with.
Another spasm of cramp joined the litany of pain in his body: his headache, chafed skin, trembling arms and aching feet.
He couldn’t think straight in these stupid conditions. Oh, to be anywhere but here – on this stupid hunt. He would give anything to be back in his beloved sanctuary – his study – at his writing desk strewn with books.
The vision of his study returned, as clear as before, overlaying his perception of the tunnel. He stopped in confusion over the conflicting, simultaneous experiences. He was ‘here’ – in a dark, dusty tunnel. At the same time he was also ‘here’ – in his study. The window was open, letting in a cool draught of air perfumed with the calm scents of Autumn. A musty aroma rose from where – stupid idiot! – he had left the banned book “The Complete Collected Historyes of Abbas Leonidas” open on his desk. A big, black, fly wandered across the ancient pages, tasting the vellum.
Flies. Urgh. Horrid things. And this was the biting kind. His mind must be out of control, deluding him like this.
Nevertheless, the room’s associations of peace, comfort, and security won out over the endless tunnel. It embraced him and dominated his senses, lifting his spirits ... until a sharp leg twinge banished the vision. The real world, with its darkness and pains, crashed back into solitary focus.
Damn! Vision though it had been, he preferred it to the real world.
Could the mind hallucinate due to stress and heat? He was too hot and couldn’t remember. But, if insanity meant imagining himself back in his study, it wouldn’t be the worst fate that could befall him. Not if his insanity was like Great Aunt Amani’s. The family confined her to her rooms, and so-called doctors did horrible things to her, yet she smiled through it all and said nothing. He liked to think she escaped in her mind to somewhere more enjoyable, beyond the reach of the real world. He could sympathise. Though his study was a delusion, he would welcome its return with joy – madness was preferable to his current predicament.
Normality was stupid.
Nothing in his stupid body felt normal, and much of it hurt. The stupid padding was baking him like a jacket potato yet, paradoxically, he sometimes shivered as if he had dived into a cold-water plunge-pool at the exclusive Baths. But instead of fresh water from mineral rich wells, he bathed in his own stinking sweat and, like a loofah, the coarse padding chafed his skin. It exfoliated his nose, face, and the inside surfaces of every joint: armpits, elbows, crotch, knees, and groin. In fact, walking had rubbed his crotch so raw that, just maybe, the suspicious wetness between his thighs contained blood?
There was more: blisters covered his sore feet, the stupid lance was unbalanced with a tip that was too bloody heavy, and the stupid quiver banged against his thigh, triggering more cramps in that leg than the other.
“Grains of organic dust are uniquely and irregularly shaped, whereas studies using advanced microscopy suggest that grains of AP may be uniformly spherical. More studies will be needed to confirm this, once better lenses are available.”
In the limping stakes, he was fast catching up with Father and Zubin. He stretched the spasming leg, bringing relief, then resumed his cautious slip-shuffle-slip-shuffle through the darkness after the others. The respite wouldn’t last.
And what about this piercing, major-stupid headache? Despite drinking so much, it had never fully gone away, and now it was back with a vengeance. The pain was excessive – he had not experienced the like before. A pain this bad, encompassing his whole head, must be significant, but he couldn’t remember anything relevant from his medical studies.
With so many ailments, no wonder thinking was difficult. The quiet predictability of his comfortable study, his own ‘happy place’, was tempting to dwell on. Were the visions of it related somehow to his mind dwelling on random memories about dust?
Why couldn’t he get dust and Atomic Particulate out of his mind? Was he delirious?
Or was he going mad?
Movement in the ceiling distracted him. Good, something else to think about.
Despite protests from his arms and shoulders, he lifted his drooping lance to illuminate the ceiling. The beam shook, betraying his trembling arms, but, yes, there was movement up there. The fused rock’s ripples were moving, flowing, and overlapping. Some moved forwards, down-slope, some back. Wavelets moved in opposite directions, like a breeze ruffling a pond’s surface.
Ripples moving across solid rock … That couldn’t be possible, could it? Or was it more delirium from his stupid headache?
The ripples now traversed the ceiling in unison. At first they lapped up-slope, back behind him, then they switched direction, moving forwards together down-slope. They reversed again and again, lapping back and forth, up-slope and down, in a hypnotic manner.
No, wait. He was swaying.
He was dizzy.
Prentyze dropped his head in a hurry, into his habitual slouch, and focussed on where his legs disappeared into the densest layer of dust. He forced himself to overcome the hammering pain in his head to think about what his new dizziness meant. One thing was certain. This was no ordinary headache. Nor was it a migraine: not with vertigo, and his sight playing tricks on him, adding to his growing list of symptoms.
A partial memory surfaced. Headache, vertigo, confused vision … Together, these were indications of … Oh. What was it? Heat … heat something.
The complete memory failed to come. Dammit! Perhaps he should have spent more time studying medicine before this trip.
Against Father’s orders, he shouldered the lance to rest his trembling arms and resumed shambling and sliding down the slope. Of the others ahead, he could see only their light beams in the dust-laden air.
“Grains of organic dust are inhomogeneous and naturally form agglomerates. In contrast, atomic particulate (AP) remains a metastable and homogenous cloud of elemental atoms. Biological and geological processes can agglomerate AP, resulting in usable amounts of minerals, but this takes significant periods of time. Geological processes can be simulated artificially through complex catalytic or energetic laboratory procedures, often including great heat and pressure.”
“Not again! Stop it!” But what should have been a peevish shout came out only as a croak.
His mouth and throat were dry; desiccated. The large ceramic flask of dirt-flavoured water came to mind again. How long ago did he drink it? Had only two hours passed since he emptied its contents? He was so thirsty, he could drain another right now, quicker than before, matching Flammia’s single, long gulp with ease.
For all the liquid he had drunk this afternoon – surely almost a litre, and all in one go – why didn’t he need to pee? How long had it been since he had last pissed? He thought back through the fog of his headache. He last relieved himself before he boarded Zubin’s battered airship … how many hours ago? After choking down that flask of water, he should have needed to ‘go’ quite soon afterwards.
In his armour.
The very thought made his lip curl and his stomach heave. As if on cue, his nose reminded him of the compost-like smell of his sweat, now turning acrid. By its strength, there was plenty of it in his suit.
Oh. Of course. Why had it taken him so long to realise? The answer to his parched condition and his inability to pee was literally marinating him.
All his liquids had left his body as sweat, drenching the padding, likely leaving his organs as dry and brittle as charcoal! His sandpapery mouth and throat supplied the evidence. Maybe his thirst explained his terrible headache, and perhaps the vertigo and confused sense of vision too?
Another memory: many of his symptoms matched a published description of dehydration.
Was that a dangerous condition? He couldn’t remember.
He sucked forcefully at the helm’s wet padding near his lips. The moisture gained was minimal; it eased his parched lips and mouth a little, but it was salty and left a disgusting after-taste.
“Though of similar size, the smallest grains of organic dust are agglomerations of anisotropic materials, whereas each grain of AP is believed to be an atom of a single element.”
By the gods! Why was his stupid mind dwelling on atomic particulate?
Deep in misery and reflection, he crashed into someone in front. The shock brought him up short.
Absorbed in his anguish, he hadn’t noticed everyone had stopped.
He tried to move back from the other person – who was it? – but their stupid armour fairings had become tangled, trapping his shouldered lance between them. The coupled suit of armour twisted, shuffling on the slippery floor, which risked both of them falling. Armoured hips swivelled, achieving nothing but dislodging Prentyze’s lance and swinging him around like a rag toy in a dog’s mouth.
Prentyze caught his breath while his unwilling partner paused their movements as if considering their next tactic.
Their gyrations had been athletic and strong. Was it Flammia?
Lit at close range by his helm’s light, the glittering, linked suit dazzled him. Maybe it seemed less bulky than his father’s and shorter than Zubin’s? There were two other suits nearby that fitted those requirements, bathing the coupled pair with their helm lights. The linked suit shrugged, drawing his attention to scorch marks on its upper torso, then it emitted a feminine sigh of annoyed irritation.
“Get off me! You … you baby bookworm!”
Even if he hadn’t recognised the muffled voice, the mild insult, delivered with vehemence, would have confirmed it. There was no doubt that …
Gods above and Planes below! He was coupling – spooning – with Flammia! The close proximity of their hips was embarrassing.
“You’re not helping!”
With a sharp up-and-down motion, she shrugged him off and moved away to the right, sliding her feet like a graceful skater. Her armour dazzled, despite the dust, returning glaring reflections from three helm lights. She slithered to a halt some metres to one side.
Wait. What? The tunnel was wider now, by metres?
And what was that deep background rumbling? Where was that coming from?
It wasn’t from his father and Zubin, who were trying to argue quietly, like parents having a row outside the nursery.
“A slight miscalculation, what?” Father sounded flustered. “I can amend the boot design to –ah– include a sole that will grip even through dust, what? Yes. That shouldn’t be too hard.”
Zubin’s voice hissed with frustration. “Design Master Brassard. I do not relish skating into a dragon’s lair in poor physical condition and in slippery footwear! Caution should be our watchword. Perhaps even a retreat is …”
Oh. Were they near the lair, then? They must be, if the tunnel was widening out.
And the deep rumbling ... What was it? He turned to Flammia and tried to effect a stage whisper. “That noise ... is it ... a snoring dragon?” But she kept her back towards him and gave no sign she heard.
“A minor inconvenience, what? The creature is short of fire and wounded. We have weakened it enough for –”
“We’ve trapped it in a dead end! There’s a reason for the saying ‘like a cornered dragon’, you know.”
“All the better to finish the beast now while it sleeps. A sleeping dragon cannot fly away, what?” Father straightened into a commanding pose. “This is no time for discussion, priest. We must act. I’ll go left, leading my son. Miss Anluan, you go right, Zubin following. We’ll strike together in both flanks – what? – before it wakes. Hurry now, before –”
“MAY - A - MERE - DRAGON - INTERRUPT?”