The Bats of Elvidner
by Danielle L. Parker
On the harsh world of Elvidner, a third generation of colonists struggles for survival. Their conditions are primitive, and they are menaced by a native life form: intelligent vampiric bats.
The colonists are largely ignored by the scarcely human “immortals” of the original starship — the “wizards” and “crew.” But a reborn crewman and a wizard who loved and lost a mortal wife have formed a bond with the mortals, one that offers hope for a better life for all.
They had no way of telling the passage of time in the endless night, but enough digging had been done that the farmer now rested slumped against the door, snorting like a foundering horse. But the woodcutter dug on like an automaton. The old man, pressed against greasy bare skin and smoothly working muscle as he gouged the iron buckle and his bare hand into the earth, could not resist a shudder.
“It's me nails. I've gouged off two of 'em. I'll be back at it... just let me wrap up, first. I thought I felt air, there, almost... I think we're getting close, old man.”
“We're there, pig man.” There was a silken rustle as earth collapsed. Loeske's fist punched through to air. But the feelings of panic and suffocation were growing stronger in him all the same. The wall had proved a foot and half thick, and not all of it had been earth. How much time had passed? Not for the first time, he yearned for his ancient mind-to-mind connection with Ship. He never missed time, there. “Keep working! We need to make it large enough for the boy. He's got to lift the latch for us.”
The farmer grunted. “Out of the way, then, old man.”
Loeske heard him attack the wall with renewed vigor, muttering curses as he gouged his torn fingers into earth once more. With the noisy snorting, panting, cursing, and scrabbling of stone and earth, it was fortunate they had not already attracted attention. But who knew whether the Silent Ones even heard the same sounds humans did? They knew so little about the creatures. Who would have dreamed, even in nightmare, that the Silent Ones kept human slaves alive, in the eternal underworld of Lichtlos?
“Aye,” the farmer panted at last. “Think I can kick it through. Give room... give room...” Breath rasped harshly in the fetid, hot air. The big man grunted and gasped. “Oh aye. There's that, now... Let the boy try.”
The boy squeezed his hand. Loeske patted the tightly clenching fingers and opened his mouth to speak. But the reassuring platitudes froze unspoken on his tongue. The boy squeezed his hand again. Squeeze, pause; squeeze, pause.
The old man felt his heart slug hard against the wall of his chest, like a trapped falcon trying to burst outside the cage of flesh.
“Get away from the door. There's one out there.”
He heard the farmer hitch away. The woodcutter made a deep animal sound — not a word. Breath sawed raggedly in the dark. There was a fouler edge to their mingled sweat now, sharp and acrid: fear. The silence, broken only by their breathing, went on and on.
“Right,” the farmer said suddenly. “Maybe it's gone on. Let the lad try. The longer we wait, the surer the mother'll be drinking our blood.”
“There's something out there,” Loeske whispered, staring futilely into stygian dark. “I can feel it.”
There was another long, long silence.
“Maybe it's gone on. I ain't heard nor smelled nothing.”
“It hasn't. It's there.”
“Oh aye, do we just sit and wait all trembling and mindful, then, till they knock on the door, and ask us please to come out? I say it's worth the chance.”
The old man gnawed his lip and bit the rims of his dirtied nails in agonized indecision.
Then he sighed. The pig farmer was right.
“Bram,” he patted the boy's knee with his free hand, “I'm going to have to ask you to do a brave thing. Do you think you can do it?”
The thin fingers crushed his. No signal, now: the child was hanging on for dear life. But Loeske felt the boy nod jerkily.
“You'll have to be quick, Bram. Quick as you can, so we can help you. It may have a latch, or a bolt, or something else. We're going to pass this twine through with you. If you can't find it, because you can't reach it, or something, you give the twine a pull. Once for trouble and twice quick for yes, good, hear me?”
The boy squeezed his hand. The old man coughed. There was wetness leaking out of his eyes again.
“Go on. You're a brave boy, Bram. Your mother would be proud of you. Go, now. Help him, Hagar! Give him the end of the twine.”
The boy crawled past him. Loeske, straining his ears, heard various scuffling and straining sounds, and the scrabbling of more dirt and stones. The boy made an effortful grunt.
“More room here, aye,” the farmer said, and scraped vigorously in the dirt. “Now get yer arms straight out before ye, lad, like a piglet comin' out the sow's rear... that's it, now... ye're a brave lad. Push! Push! Aye, ye're going through. Good lad!”
Feet scrabbled in the earth. The boy made another groan of dire exertion, like a newborn struggling out of the birth canal.
“I can't feel the lad's feet, now,” the farmer said after a moment, his breath harsh. “Aye, he's through. He's through! There! He pulled the twine, twice.”
“There's still something out there,” the old man breathed, his fingers to his wet cheeks. “Can't you feel it?”
There was a tiny vibration through the door, and the scrape, as they listened intently, of the boy's fingernails across stone.
Then another sound: an inarticulate, high-pitched mewl from a throat that could not form speech or screams. There was an inexpressible horror in the wordless, frantic gabbling that came, muffled, through the stone.
The old man lurched to his feet. “Bram!” he screamed. “Boy! Boy!” The farmer crowded beside him, straining with all might at the recalcitrant door — as the sounds continued, pounding, with two futile, furious fists.
Something outside whined. It was not the boy's sound. The hairs on the back of Loeske's nape stiffened. The farmer froze.
There was no more mewling outside. The boy was crying, instead, then finally sniffing and panting as if trying to catch his breath, and whatever outside with him still whining, now and then.
“”Tis old Trap,” the farmer said, and gulped back great choking sobs of his own. “Aye, it's me old mastiff, followed me into hell. He were ever a brave dog, Trap. I thought he were dead. Brave Trap! That's me dog, or I'm no pig farmer!”
“That's no dog,” Loeske whispered.
There was a silence outside now; the silence inside was sick with tension. Then came a renewed scrabbling upon the stone, and the boy's grunts of almost silent effort, once more.
“The door! The lad's gettin' it. Give room!”
Loeske felt outward in the dark as he stepped back. His fingers closed on flesh. He squeezed a muscular forearm as hard as he could.
“Listen to me carefully, Hagar. That's not your old Trap. I think I know what that is, now. Who that is. We have a chance, now, Hagar — Markin — but we've got to be careful. There's a beast outside.”
“A beast? Aye, so? Dogs are beasts, so?”
“It's a wolf, not a dog. It kills. People, perhaps. Don't forget.”
There was a puff of fresher air. Something struck his legs, rocking the old man back on his heels. The boy wrapped his thin arms around his waist as tightly as a python's squeeze. Loeske patted the boy's head and sniffed back more foolish tears. He felt the woodcutter's hand settle tentatively, shyly, upon his shoulder.
“Boy,” the old man croaked. “You done real good.”
Copyright © 2008 by Danielle L. Parker