I’m writing to you from the distant past of yesterday afternoon, when Mrs. Dave was still with us (instead of out gallivanting about the country at Uncle Sam’s request). Before I was required to escort Wee-er Dave to the dreaded Outside, where at least one pumpkin shall be acquired. We may gather more, to properly celebrate the season in a couple of weeks. I can’t see that far into the future, myself. Still waiting for the guy to come fix the black bars on the crystal ball. “Between birth and death” is not a terribly specific timeframe.
Nothing happened. The metal felt cool to the touch, and unnaturally smooth compared to the scarred and pitted surface just a few centimeters to either side. Unconsciously held breath exploded from my lungs, momentarily muffling the growing commotion. Maybe if I talked quickly enough, I could convince Jaems that since I wasn’t exactly being held legally, he wouldn’t have to share any money with me, since the value of a Tartarium find was factored into how much remission of sentence occurred.
“Right, I’m sure that’s all it’ll take.” the bitterness dripping from my words shocked me. I thought I’d been taking my downfall and imprisonment fairly evenly, all things considered. Evidently not. “Sure thing, Dare,” I said to myself, a habit I’d picked up before I’d put together a crew, when I’d spent long hours alone in my ship, “Jaems and Pers will be so thrilled to learn who handed them this jackpot.”
I could distinguish individual voices in the approaching cacophony.
“Subdue him, and isolate him. I don’t want this getting out any more than it’s already going to.” Evidently, Jaems wasn’t going to kill me out of hand. I’d wondered. Though shouting like that wasn’t going to still the rumor mill any. Evidently, he agreed.
“What? No, I can’t just kill him. His Highness would have me broken, and if Her Majesty found out, that would look like paradise.” My heart skipped a beat. Even if Jaems was completely wrong, the idea that Andy still felt something for me was … intoxicating. Dammit.
Broken sandstone shifted and crumpled as I shifted my weight to step across the tunnel. Laying down well away from whatever this actually was seemed the best bet. I tried to stand, and almost pulled my arm out of its socket.
For a split second, I couldn’t process what was happening. I looked at my hand on the touchpad, and wondered thickly when I’d put on one of my gloves. And when it had turned a gleaming silver from the utilitarian drab gray synthetic. My skin tightened and my hair stood on end as the “glove” continued to grow up my forearm. As it passed my elbow, the touchpad began to glow, getting brighter as the Tartarium crawled up my arm.
I was frozen, unable to move. Unable even to scream, which I very much wanted to do. My heart thudded against my ribs as all my hair tried to stand on end. It felt like my skin was shrinking, squeezing muscles and organs against bones. I watched, helpless, as the gleaming metal slid over my shoulder, plastering my jumpsuit to my skin. I felt the tendons standing out on my neck as I tried to pull away from the slowly enveloping stuff.
“Sir,” I could hear Crind’s incongruously mellifluous voice as the Tartarium touched my neck, cold and alien. “Prisoner Avendur is unshackled and armed. I insist you let me go first.”
“What? What’s that?”
The touch pad glowed bright enough to compete with the harsh chemical lights set into the tunnel supports. I turned my head away, squinting against the light as a cold band encircled my neck and spread down across my chest. The Tartarium felt … it actually felt like nothing more than a heavy blanket.
Right up until I felt it completely wrap around my chest. The cold metal pulled against my left side. I pushed against it, and for a moment nothing happened as I held. Then the force gripping me increased, and began to pull me bodily toward the now-brilliant metal surface.
Crind, the warden’s beast, slunk around the closest bend, his control rod held before him like some primitive talisman. Or, like a high-tech, directional nerve-exciter which could incapacitate or kill, given the wielder’s choice. It was almost worth everything that had happened to see his face go blank with shock as he looked at me. Almost.
Crind’s arm dropped to his side, and he stood up, though rather slack-jointed. It didn’t make him any prettier, unfortunately. My boots skidded over the gritty sandstone as they slid slowly, inexorably toward the Tartarium face. A small part of me was grimly amused that there was actually something that horrified the vicious prison guard. I’d have been more amused if it hadn’t horrified me, too.
I glanced toward the touchpad, and though the glare stabbed my eyes, the light from the pad limned the mirror column of my arm. My hand had been absorbed into the Tartarium. The stuff still dragged me toward it. And in near silence. My right boot thudded against the uncleared sandstone, and I braced against it and pushed away from the Tartarium. It felt like I was trying to pull a foot out of mud up to my hip, but my arm inched out of the metal. The light dimmed, and then a muffled pop sounded. Crind jumped.
Another sharp report, and then another, and more and more as the face of the stone around the exposed Tartarium shuddered and crumbled. At first, dust slipped over the glowing metal to drift in motes in the still air. Then, larger chunks broke off, to clatter to the floor, more and more until the square meter patch I’d exposed had enlarged to the size of an open ship hatch.
Then the stone face against my foot cracked, and tendrils of shimmering silver slipped out and wrapped themselves around my ankle, merging into each other to form a thick band. The slight backward motion I’d managed halted, and reversed, accompanied by the snap and crackle of breaking rock.
“Crind,” I gasped. I stretched out my left hand toward the brutal guard. “Help me!”
Dead-eyed with stunned disbelief, Crind looked at my hand. His gaze slipped up to meet mine, and his face twisted into rictus snarl as he saw his rightful prey stolen from him. His arm swept up, delicate fingers white-knuckled on his control rod. I was certain he meant to end me.
Time slowed and Crind’s darting movement abruptly crawled. I’d heard of the phenomenon, but never before experienced it, myself. The hollow crack of the breaking sandstone thudded heavily as Crind’s arm leisurely drifted upward. I tensed in reflex to throw myself backward, my body ignoring the strange material wrapped snugly about it. I knew I couldn’t dodge the control rod’s impulse, but my body didn’t. Even so, everything moved so, so slowly.
Except the Tartarium, which slithered over itself as it wrapped around my left arm in spiraling tentacles. The liquid metal moving much faster than it had to envelope my left arm down to my hand. The heavy blanket sensation spread down my torso faster than I thought possible, especially through the odd sense of time dilation. A deep shuddering made itself felt through my boot soles.
The universe abruptly sped up, and Crind’s arm stretched out level, his hated control rod aimed at my face like a short, blunt sword. His snarl melted into a grin of horrible triumph. Then his eyes registered the Tartarium even then slipping up over my face, cold on my skin.
Everything paused for a bare instant, Crind with his control rod and me with my Tartarium-clad arm stretched out toward each other. Crind depressed the initiation stud, but he was too late by far. A sense of immense power shivered through me as the Tartarium itself seemed to tense, and then I felt a sensation of instant movement as the weird stuff snatched me out of the world and into itself, closing over my face before I could even gasp.