Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Paragaea: A Planetary Romance by Chris Roberson

For Edgar Rice Burroughs, Alex Raymond, and David Gerrold

Chapter 1
Sparrow, Dawning, Seven

As the first-stage rockets ignited, a low-frequency rumbling somewhere far below her like the voice of the Earth’s discontent, it first occurred to Leena that she might die. At this hour, on this day, caught up in a fiery holocaust as the liquid chemical engines overtook their processes and burned all of Baikonur down to ashes. Fire had licked at her heels all her life, and this was the moment it would finally outpace her.

“Pjat’, pjat’, pjat’,” came the voice of the technician in the control bunker, calling the all-clear. Five, five, five. His voice buzzed in her ears, the sound from the speakers rebounding around her visored helmet like a shouted echo in a hangar.

Leena rechecked the seal on her gloves, squinting in the low light of the red bulb burning. Any minute now, she was sure. The technician would call out the warning—Three, three, three—and the flames that had burned at her footsteps since Stalingrad would finally be upon her. Her parents, and Sergei, and now Leena herself, all fuel for the fire.

The engines below her entered their primary stage, the low rumbling intensifying into the roar of approaching thunder that set her teeth on edge. Smoke and steam would be billowing out now from the base of the launchpad, Leena knew, though she could see none of it, the viewport blocked by the heavy nose fairing covering the module. She thought of the others in the barracks, listening in on radios wired to the walls, and the select few dignitaries joining Korolev and the technicians in the bunker. Yuri would be there, weighted down with medals, as would Gherman and Andrian, Pavel and Valeri. And Valentina, of course.

Valentina Leonidovna Ponomaryova would be nearby, sealed into her bright orange pressure suit, ready to take Leena’s seat in the event that a replacement was needed, determination burning beneath her thick brows. Leena couldn’t help but pity her. Twice a second, first for Tereshkova and now for Leena, at this rate Ponomaryova would never reach the stars.

“Pjat’, pjat’, pjat’,” buzzed the voice of control in her ears.

Leena could stand the anticipation no longer. Either she would launch, and serve the Soviet as few before her had, or she would die in a fiery conflagration, there on the pad. There were no other options. Let the technician buzz Five, five, five until his lungs bled out all their air, damn him. Leena would not wait.

“Poyekali!” Leena shouted, not to the technicians, or to Korolev, but to the spirit of flame that had haunted her days. Let’s go! Not an eager cry for adventure, as it had been when Yuri had shouted it three years before, but a challenge to her pursuer to finally face her.

“Vorobyey,” came the voice of the technician in her ear, as the timbre of the engine’s roar crescendoed. “Zapuskat’.”

Sparrow. Launch.

Slowly, like dawn stealing softly over a wide plain, the rocket began to rise. So light was the transition from Earth to flight that Leena at first didn’t recognize it. There followed a slight shiver, and then the vibrations rippling through the metal sphere module shifting up the spectrum, becoming a high-frequency whine like a kettle gone to boil.

The pressure of acceleration pulled at Leena’s face, the g-load slowly climbing from Earth normal to roughly five times that. She tried to speak into the microphone fixed to the base of her helmet, to respond to control’s calls for status, but she found it difficult to talk, the muscles of her face drawn back taut against the bones of her skull.

All three stages of the rocket were firing now, pushing against the bonds of gravity, shooting towards the far horizon, and the curve of space beyond. Leena felt pinned to the seat like a butterfly on cork, unable to move even if the heavy straps were not still in place.

Without warning the strain eased, and Leena felt herself grow lighter. The pressure pushing her against the seat dropped suddenly, and it seemed to her as if something had separated from the rocket. Creeping silence followed, the high-pitched shrill of the engines growing ever and ever softer. The fairing, a heavy plating covering the module to protect against air friction during the steep climb, fell away. The viewport finally unobstructed, Leena could see outside.

Looking up through the circular window, Leena saw hanging above her the curve of the Earth, a kind of aura around the horizon bleeding from light blue into violet into the black of space beyond. The stars, hanging on the curtain of deepest black, were larger and brighter than Leena ever could have imagined possible. The Earth’s seas, passing overhead, were of a uniform gray from this perspective, the surface rippled and uneven like windblown sand dunes.

Only a handful of people before Leena had seen their planetary home from this height, the half-dozen cosmonauts who’d preceded her and a handful of Americans, if the reports from overseas were to be believed. They had all come for only brief stays, though, the longest of them no longer than five days. Leena, the second woman to come this far, would outlast them all: ten days spent orbiting the Earth as high as the lower Van Allen belt in the belly of Vostok 7.

Ten days, and then she’d return to the bosom of the Earth, Hero of the State, welcomed into the Party with open arms, and perhaps even given an honorary promotion in rank. Senior lieutenant, perhaps, or even commander, but never major. That was for Yuri and the others. The men. Poor Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, on her return, had not even been granted the slight honor of a senior lieutenant’s commission, still holding only the junior lieutenant’s grade that all of the members of the Female Cosmonaut Group had been awarded years before. Though she’d never risen higher than the rank of private in the Red Army, with her previous military service record Leena hoped for something better.

Senior Lieutenant Akilina Mikhailovna Chirikova, Female Cosmonaut Group. It had a certain ring to it.

Pulling a pencil and tablet from a zippered pocket at her side, she intended to take the requisite notes but became too engrossed in the slow ballet of the pencil spinning end over end in zero gravity. Leena smiled, muscles moving strangely without resistance, and laughed at her early fears. She’d come this far, this high, because the fire had never caught her, after all. She’d been silly to think that it ever would.

The mission plan of Vostok 7 was simple: a high-altitude flight into the lower Van Allen radiation belt for radiological-biological studies, lasting ten days, at the end of which the craft’s orbit would be allowed to decay naturally to reentry. That the studies were concerned primarily with what would happen to the human organism if exposed to the radiation of the lower Van Allen for ten days was a factor of the mission upon which Leena chose not to dwell. Having been obsessed with flight for so many years, she would now be flying higher and longer than any human before her. And after the first few hours of the flight, she was feeling no ill effects of the radiation exposure. The interior of the craft was holding steady at a reasonable 20 degrees centigrade, and though she’d not yet released the harness holding her into the launch chair, in the low-gravity environment neither the tight straps nor her cumbersome pressure suit were especially noisome.

Bykovsky was originally scheduled to make this flight, but in March of the past year the decision had been made to have him fly Vostok 5 in the place of Ponomaryova. She was certainly the most qualified, both technically and emotionally, of any in the Female Cosmonaut Group, more qualified than many of the men; but Ponomaryova was an agitator, always complaining about the treatment the women received, always saying that they were the equal to the men and should be treated as such. And she was not an ideologue, causing many to doubt her loyalty to the principles of the Soviet. Instead of women flying both Vostok flights 5 and 6, as planned, only Tereshkova was allowed to go, with Bykovsky pulled forward out of Vostok 7 to take Ponomaryova’s place. Initially, it was suggested that this was for safety purposes, and that Ponomaryova would be going aloft in Vostok 7, but in November when the flight crews for the next seven Vostok missions were announced, the task had instead fallen to Leena. Ponomaryova was on the list, but only as Leena’s second. Worse, when news arrived a few weeks later of the American president’s assassination, and with the chief designer making plans to begin Soyuz launch the following year, there were already talks about canceling any future Vostok missions, and going to the multicrew Voskhod configuration for all future flights, to compete with the American’s two-manned Gemini missions. Any three-manned Voskhod mission would be precisely that—three men. Korolev would never agree to send up three women in the same capsule, and decorum would not allow one woman to accompany two men. And so the chances were increasingly slim that Ponomaryova would get her chance at glory. And chances were good that Leena might be the last woman into space for some time to come.

Leena didn’t spare time to worry about such hypothetical eventualities. She had mission operations to consider; so far, however, the flight had been far easier on her than anticipated. Leaving aside any radiological fears, it seemed to Leena that the potential hazard of low gravity, too, had been overestimated. Once the initial stress of launch was passed, the flight hadn’t been nearly as bad as Leena had feared. The rumor was that Tereshkova had been so ill and nauseated from turbulence and the subsequent low-gee that she was virtually incoherent for much of her seventy-one hours in orbit, and it was whispered that even Gagarin had been unable to control his rioting stomach on initial launch. Leena thought the orbit itself was much easier to endure than the interminable training that had preceded this day. Hot mock-up—whole days and nights spent in full pressurized space suit in the ground spacecraft simulator—had been more grueling than this by far. Yerkina, who was to have been Ponomaryova’s backup on Vostok 6, had been excluded from the mission after removing her boots one day into the hot mock-up simulation, having eaten only three rations in the three days of her test. It had reflected badly on all the Female Cosmonaut Group that Yerkina had failed so miserably . . . though Leena could not help but notice that similar failings by the male cosmonauts did not cast a shadow over their entire groups.

The orbital path of Vostok 7 would carry the module over the northern reaches of the Soviet Union, across the Pacific Ocean and the southern Atlantic, then over the length of Africa, over the Atlantic, Turkey, the Black Sea, and then back over the Soviet Union.

The orbital period was just under two hours, and the module had nearly completed one complete orbit, passing over northern Africa, the Mediterranean just coming into view. Leena knew that, in the coming days, it was a sight that she would see countless times again.

From the radio came a sudden burst of static. The module was approaching the broadcast range of Star City itself, and the operator at the Baikonur ground station might be trying to contact her. Leena adjusted the gain and frequency, trying to regain the signal.

“Povtorjat’, pozhalujsta,” Leena said, confirming that the tells on her transmitter showed active. Repeat, please.

Just then, the interior of the module was filled with a blinding white light, and squinting against the glare Leena leaned up to the viewport to look outside. There, just before her, hung an object that shone like the sun. It was impossible to judge size or distance, but it seemed small and close enough that she might reach out and snatch it up in her hands. A sphere, it glinted like a mirror, reflecting back the light of the sun behind her.

Could it be another satellite, some early Sputnik prototype the authorities had not publicized? Or an American counterpart, positioned over Russia for the purposes of espionage? Whatever it was, it was directly in the path of Leena’s module, the distance between them closing with every heartbeat.

“Centr upravlenija?” Leena whispered into the helmet microphone. Control center? Before she could go on, before the ground crew in the Baikonur facilities could answer, the module was upon the object, only bare meters away.

Leena gritted her teeth, anticipating a jarring impact. She closed her eyes and felt a wave of unease flood over her. There came no jolt or bang, nothing to indicate the object had struck her craft.

Tentatively, Leena opened her eyes. Through the viewport, the mirrored sphere was nowhere to be seen. What she did see, however, was impossible.

Where before there’d been only the gray sand dunes of the Mediterranean with the southern edge of Turkey just visible on the horizon, she now saw mountains surrounded by lush green forests, blue ribbons of rivers slipping down to the seas, tan deserts stretching out across the far distance.

Leena knew her geography. She’d studied the projected path of Vostok 7 in its orbits until she could have drawn maps of the continents from memory, had pored over the photos snapped by the earlier cosmonauts until they painted her dreams, and at no point, in all of those months and years of work, had she ever seen anything like the vista stretching out before her.

Wherever she was, whatever had just happened, she was no longer orbiting the Earth she knew.

Chapter 2
Falling Star

The whisper of static bled from the speakers in her helmet, no voice from the ground station calling alarms or the all-clear, but Leena hardly noticed. She didn’t have the luxury of confusion, no time to stop and reflect on the impossible situation in which she found herself. With unfamiliar vistas stretching out below, the Vostok module began slowly to rotate out of true, falling out of orbit toward the strange planet below.

Below her on the cabin floor, just visible past the edge of her helmet’s visor, the eight ports of the Vzor periscope device flashed the story of Leena’s coming doom. When the craft’s attitude was positioned correctly, the module centered perfectly with respect to the planet’s horizon, all eight ports would be lit, the sun’s light reflected through an elaborate mechanism worked into the hull of the sphere.

As Leena watched in growing horror, the ports began to wink out and go dark: first one, then three, then six. Then, as the rotational force dragged at her insides like a fist, the ports lit again, then grew dark, then lit, strobing in increasing frequency as the module began to spin faster and faster.

There followed a faint tolling, like distant bells, the automated onboard systems indicating a rapid increase in velocity and drop in altitude. A high-pitched scream began, at the edge of hearing, the upper reaches of the atmosphere clawing at the surface of the module as the craft dipped ever lower towards the planet’s surface.

The temperature within the cabin started to climb, and even nestled within her insulated SK-1 pressure suit Leena began to feel the heat.

Leena would have cursed if she’d had the chance, would have screamed herself red with rage at the injustice of it, but this was another luxury she could not afford herself. She would have to do something, there being no one now who could help her, or in very short order she would be dead.

The controls of the Vostok module were all set to automatic by default, any necessary course changes controlled remotely by technicians on the ground in Baikonur. The chief designer had been concerned since the beginning about the fallibility of those chosen for service in the Cosmonaut Corps, and had put as many safeguards between the effectiveness of an operation and the potential breakdown of the cosmonaut as possible. The authorities had relented, though, in the face of continued opposition from the cosmonauts themselves, by allowing manual control in emergency situations.

This situation was an emergency, if any could be, so Leena had no compunctions against initiating the appropriate protocols.

Unfortunate, then, that the combination needed to unlock the manual controls was transcribed on a slip of paper in an envelope kept safely in a zippered pocket on her left thigh. Unfortunate in that the rotational forces whipping the module ever faster had left Leena feeling too sick even to blink, her arms pinioned against the walls of the cabin as securely as if they’d been glued there.

The manual controls, just centimeters away, would allow Leena to fire the attitude rockets, stop the maddening spinning of the craft, and eject the service module in preparation of ballistic reentry. With too much longer a delay, the craft would descend too far into the atmosphere for the rockets to be of any use, and with the service module still attached to the reentry sphere the whole of the craft would burn to a cinder in the resulting friction.

The fire would finally have her, at long last.

Unable to move, vision swimming and stomach in revolt, Leena plummeted to her doom.

She was going to die; she was dying; she would be dead, her life ended —burned down to particulate matter at the heart of a cold steel sphere, to rain down as dust and ash on the surface of an unknown world. She would die with questions left unanswered, left even unasked, mysteries she would never solve: Where was she, and what had brought her here?

The curiosity that had led her from Stalingrad to Moscow to university, then sustained her through years in military service, then driven her to excel when first selected for the cosmonaut program, burned within her hotter than the red tongues that now licked the outer surface of the module. In a sense, Leena had been an explorer since childhood, blazing a trail alone through a strange and hostile world since the day the firebomb had taken away her parents. Now, a whole new world of discovery before her, the thought of surrendering to the doom that had dogged her heels was unacceptable. Whatever the cost, whatever the risk, she would survive. She simply had to know.

The module was now spinning on three axes, the rotational forces pinning Leena to the inner surface of the module. Her hands and arms were unable to move more than a few centimeters; her head was forced to one side with her ear pressing hard against the helmet’s lining. Metal clamps on the floor of the cabin held her booted feet in place, but Leena felt the centrifugal pull working against them, dragging her knees up and towards her chest.

If her left boot could be worked free, the force of the rotation would be enough to bring her left knee up almost to her breast, the zippered pocket on her thigh only centimeters from her left hand. The inside of the module was growing hotter still, hazing like the air over hot desert sands. If Leena was going to act, she would have do it now.

To release the clamps on her boots, without her hands free to aid in the process, Leena had to force her feet down and forward, and then pull up at her heel. Opposite the forces pulling her body the other direction, with her weight feeling as though it doubled with every centimeter she moved, she inched her painful way towards her goal. Drawing on her last reserves of energy, Leena managed to work her booted foot fractionally forward in the clamp. Centimeters like kilometers, eyes closed against the maddening gyrations of the craft, she crossed the small distance.

Leena’s skin began to prickle, an instant sunburn spreading over her like scalding water. With teeth gritted she managed to angle her heel up the slightest fraction of a centimeter. That centimeter was all it took. As soon as the grip of the clamp was loosened, the rotational forces pulled her foot away from the cabin floor like a rocket, her knee forced up and slamming into her sternum with a thud.

Knocked breathless, Leena could not afford elation. With every passing second the craft spun faster, hotter, and nearer disintegration.

The fingers of her left hand were bare centimeters from the pocket on her thigh, now forced against her abdomen. Once the envelope was free, she’d have to mangle the contents out, read the combination, reach nearly thirty centimeters along the wall to her right and unlock the emergency controls, then manually fire the braking and attitude rockets.

Seconds to go, and she’d only come a fraction of the way.

Straining, her mind and will almost to the breaking point, Leena fell into a kind of fugue. With one portion of her being concentrating on the task at hand to the exclusion of all else, another smaller part of her conscious mind walled itself away, seeing events unfold as a detached observer. Like watching an actress in a play, Leena saw herself struggle against the bonds of force to wrest the envelope from her pocket, watched the mad fumble as she brought hands together from left and right to tear and claw at the envelope’s seal, watched herself fighting to lift her head forward far enough to read the combination typewritten on the paper clutched in a vise grip in her hands.

Throughout it all, watching herself slowly dying, Leena could only think how sad it was that there would be no one back at home to mourn her. A plaque somewhere, perhaps, if she was lucky; a cryptic and official notation in the government files back in Moscow if she was not. But no statues, no parades to the glorious dead. Those back in Baikonur would not know how she had died, only that she was dead, and the grand work would continue, the march into the future of the Soviet Man continuing without her.

As Leena watched herself batter at the combination tumbler, spinning the last number into place, she was strangely disappointed. She had been quite involved with imagining her own funeral in absentia, and now plans would have to be delayed.

Her last erg of motivation draining, Leena stabbed at the switch that initiated the braking procedure.

She slammed forward in her harness, thrown towards the center of the module, as the braking rocket fired. The g-load reversed, then increased, the straps biting into the fabric of her pressure suit, bruising her skin. The rotations of the module increased, and then after forty seconds of thrust the rockets petered out. With a resounding bang, the service module broke free, and the reentry module continued its descent.

The module began again to spin, this time back and forth, ninety degrees to the left and to the right. Leena felt herself being tossed back and forth in her harness like a rag doll, the g-load steadily increasing as the craft dipped farther and farther into the atmosphere.

Leena caught a glimpse of the instruments, the hand of the altitude dial spinning like a propeller, and then everything began to grow fuzzy. A blanket of gray falling over her, Leena could only trust in the automated systems to take over for her.

There came a whistling of air, and flashes of red from the viewport overhead, stars dimly visible through the burning curtain of sky.

At seven thousand meters, the first explosive bolt on the hatch blew like a shot, then another. Leena blinked, her eyes for the moment sightless, unsure whether she was yet free of the craft or not. The forces on her relaxed, and she lifted her head, hoping to make out her position through the haze that blurred her vision. At that moment, her chair shot up through the hatch with such force that she bit down hard on her lip, blood streaming out onto the helmet’s visor. She and the module, now separated, fell on parallel courses towards the planet below, the service module burning up somewhere in the atmosphere above them.

The ejection chair, Leena strapped firmly in place, spun end over end, tumbling like a falling leaf through the cold blue sky. A cannon fired, jarring Leena with the shock of it, and the stabilizing chute shot out from the top of the chair, dragging behind and straightening her descent.

Leena rotated slowly to the right in the chair, blinking back tears of panic and exhilaration, trying to see something of the land below her. To the south there were mountains, purple and tall, to the east an endless expanse of oceans, and below her a carpet of forest stretching out to the western horizon, a wide river ribboning through it.

The next parachute opened, blossoming orange and huge above her, then the next, both dwarfing the miniature stabilizer that had opened first, hanging small and white above them, a moon to their twin suns. The chair’s rate of descent slowed, and looking down past her feet Leena saw the river and dense foliage below her. Unable to direct the motion of the chair, she could only watch as touchdown grew nearer.

Fluttering down beneath orange canopies as if on a slight breeze, Leena’s chair dropped slowly and directly towards the wide river below.

As the chair touched down, Leena’s feet disappeared below the surface of the water. The water burbled up to her waist, the weight of the steel chair dragging her down, and Leena couldn’t help but think that she might have her funeral in absentia after all.

With a splash of finality, the chair disappeared beneath the swift currents, the three parachutes floating on the surface like fallen leaves until they, too, were drawn under.

The ejection chair sank like a stone into the murky depths of the river, drifting slightly with the strong undercurrents. Strapped securely in place, Leena experienced something very near a state of shock while breathing up the last of the oxygen reserves left in the pressure suit. The air hose, which should have sealed off when separated from the life-support systems of the Vostok module, had failed to close completely, and a hiss of water spilled with slow but relentless finality into the helmet. The silty water had filled up to the level of Leena’s chin, and it would be a close race whether the helmet filled first with water or with exhaled carbon dioxide.

The chair touched down on the soft bed of the river, kicking up clouds of silt that were drawn away downriver by the current like smoke in a strong wind. Leena, head tilting ever farther back to escape the rising level of the inflow, moved her stiff fingers in slow motion through the water to reach the strap releases.

The straps ran across her shoulders, chest, and waist, and she had the first of them released when the riverbed drew up slowly to embrace her. The three parachutes, still attached to the chair, floated on the river’s surface, and were being dragged downstream by the strength of the current. Tethered like an anchor on the riverbed, the chair was being towed along behind, but the chair’s weight was too great for it to move far. In the tug-of-war between gravity and river flow a balance was struck, and the base of the chair remained firm on the silty bed while the top end was dragged forward and down, swinging like a door closing shut, face-first into the ground.

Leena found herself trapped under the heavy chair, the faceplate of her helmet pressed into the loam of the riverbed, mouth and nose trapped in a growing pool of water with the last pocket of air trapped behind her head. The design of the chair, pressed into the riverbed, left her hands and arms free to move, but she had only her last gasp of air to sustain her.

Eyes stinging and nearly blinded by the murky water, she hammered at the catches on the remaining straps, releasing first one, then another, her pulse pounding in her ears and her lungs feeling as though they would at any second explode. Drifting on the edge of unconsciousness, exhaustion threatening to overtake her, Leena slammed open the last of the strap releases. Pushing forward with arms thrash­ing, she frantically attempted to get free of the chair, beating arms and hands and head into the soft surface of the riverbed, sending up massive clouds of silt. Free from the waist up, though, she found that her legs below the knees were still trapped below the heavy weight of the chair.

Turning on her side, twisting painfully from the knees, she managed to angle her head far enough to let out a sputtering cough and take in another lungful of air. Then she turned her attention back to the chair, trying to push it up off the riverbed far enough to pull her legs free. The surface of the riverbed was soft and yielding, though, and the harder she pushed, the farther her hands sank down into the soil. The chair had not moved a centimeter.

The air pocket was shrinking fast, the helmet filling faster and faster, and unless she was able to extricate herself from the chair and reach the surface, Leena had only minutes left. She was trapped, and drowning.

If she could not lift the chair, and lacked the strength to pull her legs loose, her only option was to shovel away the silt beneath her, freeing her legs from below. The air remaining in the helmet slipped out in a steady stream of bubbles through the partially sealed hose, replaced by cold and murky water. The pounding of her heartbeat in Leena’s ears increased, until she was sure her eardrums would burst. She had very little time to act.

Forcing herself to remain calm, Leena pressed back into the semblance of a sitting position on the overturned chair. This provided her space to move, with less than a meter between her head and torso and the soft floor of the riverbed. Then, tucking her head down, she bent at the waist, reaching down to her knees. She began to scrape furiously at the soft loam beneath her legs, like a dog digging to hide a bone, sending up flurries of silt.

It was like trying to dig a hole in wet beachsand as the tide rolled in. As soon as Leena scooped away a handful of the soil, the water pressure would push more in from all sides. Alternately scooping away with her hands, and pulling with all her strength at her legs, she managed to work her legs centimeter by centimeter out from under the heavy chair. After the first few seconds, she rose back into an inverted sitting position, tilting her head back and to one side to catch a quick breath, but there was so little air left in the helmet that she drew in as much water as oxygen. Racked by coughs, she steeled herself and returned to the task at hand.

It couldn’t have taken more than a handful of seconds, far less than a full minute at any rate, but it seemed to Leena like an eternity before the ground gave way sufficiently for her to work her feet free.

Survival training winning a war of attrition with her mounting panic, Leena remembered the survival kit strapped to the side of the chair before pushing away to the surface. The clouds of dirt and silt she’d kicked up with her digging still hung around the area like a low, black fog, but Leena was able to feel her way to the airtight metal case clipped to the chair’s side. Her hand closing over the handle, Leena began to feel a glimmer of hope. The kit’s contents—emergency rations, signal flares, compass, medical supplies, knife, pistol and rounds—made her feel equipped to handle whatever challenges this strange world might present. She’d survived the siege of Stalingrad, the state orphanages, several years of military service and cosmonaut training; she could survive anything.

Pushing away from the riverbed, Leena’s vision was almost completely obscured. A combination of exhaustion, lack of oxygen, and the current-borne silt clouded her view. Fortunately for her, the designers of her pressure suit had anticipated the possibility of a water landing, if perhaps not the possibility of being trapped by the chair. Around the base of the helmet, which could not be detached from the suit, was a rubber collar. Leena pulled the release tab, and the collar inflated, pulling pressurized gas from a small reserve tank fixed to the back of the suit. Floating blind, Leena let the collar drag her to the surface, the current pulling her downstream from the chair.

Before reaching the surface something brushed past her, almost knocking the heavy metal case from her grip. Her limited vision couldn’t make out many details of what the thing had been, but she’d gotten the impression of something huge, something with massive teeth and a thick, leathery hide. Clutching the survival kit protectively to her chest, she thrashed the waters with her legs violently, desperate to reach the surface and air.

It wasn’t until she’d kicked her legs twice against hard, unforgiving rock that she realized that she’d reached the shores of the river. Scrambling over the stones, seconds from passing out due to oxygen deprivation, she splashed her noisy way to the surface.

Throwing the metal case onto the ground, lying from the waist up in dry air with her legs and feet still resting underwater and painfully on the rocks, Leena worked frantically to open the helmet’s visor. Encased in wet leather-palmed gloves, her fingers fumbled at the latch, useless. There was some irony in this, a small part of Leena noted, to drown only after safely reaching the shore. And after everything else that had happened to her.

In the last instants before losing consciousness, Leena managed to slide the visor open, and the water trapped inside spilled out in a rush. She collapsed forward onto the rocky shore, sputtering coughs shaking her, drawing in ragged breaths until her pulse slowed to something approaching normal. Rolling onto her back, she drew her knees up, feet dragged out of the water, as though afraid the current might take revenge and drag her once more under. The strange sun was high overhead, and Leena closed her eyes, lying in red-lidded darkness while the rays of light warmed and soothed her. She was still alive, and grateful for it.

A shadow fell across Leena’s face, the backsides of her eyelids going from red to black. She opened her eyes, and immediately wished she hadn’t.

It stood upright on two legs, with two arms and a head, and in a dim light might have been mistaken for a human being, but with the bright sunlight behind it there could be no question. It was some sort of cat-thing, standing some more than two meters tall, spotted like a leopard or jaguar. Black lips curled back over wicked teeth under its pronounced snout, and while its hands were shaped like those of a man, the fingers were tipped with curved black claws that glinted like obsidian in the bright light. A collection of straps and belts crisscrossed its chest, arms, and legs, and an abbreviated loincloth hung at its waist. Otherwise it was naked, the golden-yellow fur with the black and white spots its only covering.

“Mat’ata’rrom,” the thing snarled, pointing a clawed finger at Leena’s nose. “Mat’ata’das’ul.”

There came from all sides the sound of low growling, and angling her head from one side to the other Leena could see another half dozen or more of the creatures approaching, encircling her.

Chapter Three

Leena felt less the jaguar men’s prisoner than their fallen prey. Remembering their long curved incisors, and the long tongues that unfurled to lick black lips between guttural grunts, it was not too hard to imagine them feasting on her remains.

She was bound hands and feet, and hoisted on a long pole carried on the shoulders of two of the creatures, one on each end. If she relaxed her back and neck, her head lolled back, seeing only the ground passing beneath. By tensing, and pulling herself up a fraction against the rough wood of the pole, she could see a bit from side to side, though the position was too much a strain to hold for long.

One of the creatures had retrieved her survival kit, and carried it in a mesh bag slung over its wide and muscled back. This creature walked directly in front of the foremost of Leena’s bearers, and from time to time she would catch a glimpse of the sunlight glinting off the polished metal of the case.

Any one of a number of items in the case would be sufficient, Leena knew. Had she believed in any higher power besides the State, she might have prayed; as it was, she only hoped that the universe herself might be watching, and would be willing to lend a hand.

With the chrome-plated Makarov semiautomatic pistol, snugged in its nylon holster inside the kit, Leena might have held the creatures at bay long enough to make her escape, back at the banks of the river.

With the signal flare, she might have been able to call for some assistance, or else set fire to one of the creatures, for all the good it would have done her.

With the kit’s folding knife, she might now be able to cut her bonds and free herself, possibly even making into the forest’s wilds far enough and fast enough to elude her captors.

With the emergency rations, she might not be as damnably hungry as she now found herself. When her stomach had first growled, hours before, she’d thought for a moment it was the call of the strange creatures.

But the survival kit was carried on the back of one of the monsters, and Leena saw no clear way to freedom.

They were taking her somewhere; that much was certain. If they intended to eat her, whether alive or cooked and prepared after her death, it appeared they didn’t plan to do so immediately. From time to time one of the jaguar men would growl a few syllables, curt orders to the others Leena assumed, but for the most part the group traveled in silence. They padded along the forest track single-file, making hardly a sound. With her eyes closed, Leena found she could scarcely hear even the breathing of the creatures at her head and feet. The jaguar men moved through the forest like ghosts.

Leena could not say with any certainty how long they’d been traveling. Her awkward position, hanging uncomfortably by bruised numb ankles and wrists from the pole, and the pounding of her pulse in her ears as the blood rushed up each time her head fell backwards, left her oblivious to the passage of time.

There was only Now: this moment, with the pain, and the anxiety, and the fear of her imminent and unknown death, surrounded by the silent figures of the strange catlike creatures.

After an eternity of that moment, something happened, and the tenor of her pain changed key. Leena had been on the edge of consciousness, straddling the border between delirium and sleep. Something changed, and she struggled to clear her thoughts enough to understand what.

She had stopped moving, no longer gently rocking back and forth with each silent step of her bearers. The party had come to a halt.

“Tar’elmok,” she heard the creature in front say.

It was dark, the bare moonlight painting the forest in indistinct grays. Some hours had passed then, at least, if not more. Was it still the same day? How long ago had Leena first glimpsed this strange world of monsters? How long since she’d lifted off from Baikonur towards the heavens and glory?

“Alal’kasen’lak,” answered the creature behind, barely above a silent breath.

The creature in the lead, who carried Leena’s survival kit in the bag at its back, held up one hand, palm forward. Leena strained to see in the low light, and could just make out the glints of the retractable claws extending up and out from each fingertip.

“Tar’tamedt,” shouted the lead creature, and in an instant the configuration of the party shifted. The two creatures at Leena’s head and feet released their hold on the pole, jumping one to the left, the other to the right, letting their captured prey fall unceremoniously to the cold ground. Leena struck the ground spine first, the breath punched from her lungs in a painful sigh, and looked up dazzled to see the strange creatures circle around her.

Eight muscled backs of black-and-white-spotted golden fur confronted her, dimly seen in the gray light. The party’s full complement faced outward, hands raised defensively, some holding long staffs, some knives, but most with their hands empty, their only weapons their extended claws and bared fangs.

Leena could hear the jaguar men now. They were no longer silent ghosts slipping through the forest. There was a low rumbling noise, like distant thunder, climbing slightly in pitch and volume with each passing second, that sounded from somewhere deep inside the creatures’ chests. Their breathing was louder, too, sounding closer to panting.

Above these rising sounds, Leena heard the noise of some movement from the dark forests beyond the circle. Still bound hand and feet, still crippled by pain-numbed limbs, she tried to lift up on one elbow to see farther through the legs of her captors.

The sounds of movement from the trees increased, and were joined by similar noises from the opposite side of the circle. The creatures tensed, and began to roar.

Leena understood at last. Her captors, somehow, were afraid.

Just then a figure, white in the moon’s low light, burst from the trees and rushed towards the circle, metal glinting cruel and long in his hand.

The jaguar men were under attack.

The attack was swift, concentrated, and confusing. Leena, lying hands and feet bound on the unforgiving ground, perceived it only as a series of sounds and obscured images. Metal on metal, metal on flesh, flesh on flesh, and the quick ballet of shadows and shapes dancing fatally over her were all Leena managed to follow.

The pole from which she’d been suspended lay across her, pinned between her legs, pressing down into her stomach, and resting against one side of her helmet. Her hands were tied together, but only looped over the pole, so as she flinched away from the sounds of battle first on one side, then the other, she found herself inadvertently working her hands up and over the pole’s end.

The attacker, a blur of white and metal in the moonlight, was joined by another from the clearing’s far side, a hulking shadowy figure who plowed the leader of the jaguar men to the ground, snarling and bloodthirsty.

While the jaguar men’s leader and his shadowy foe thrashed across the rough forest floor, the other attacker moved like a shot from one end of the clearing to another, shouting and laughing by turns.

The first of the jaguar men to fall collapsed backwards over Leena, a gruesome rent opened across one side of his neck and down his chest, a black bubbling ribbon in the moon’s low light. Leena’s breath was knocked from her, the pole pressed harder against her chest, the helmet forced to one side, with her legs from the waist down trapped beneath the insensate hulk of her captor.

Leena struggled to free herself, working her shoulders and hips from side to side and reaching her hands back and over her head for any hold. Snaking her way out from under the jaguar man’s bulk, her hands slipped loose over the top of the pole without warning. Pausing for breath, the fierce struggles continuing all around her, Leena brought her bound hands down and against the fur and muscle of the jaguar man’s side and pushed for all she was worth.

The fallen form would not budge. Leena fell back, the jaguar man immobile, and took a deep breath. Gritting her teeth, her parched dry lips splitting from the effort, she pushed again, harder and longer, and slowly the jaguar man began to move. Angled slowly up on one arm, rolling up on his side and pressing into her knees, the senseless form lifted off her waist and stomach.

Leena paused in her exertions, unable to continue without rest. A glint of moonlight caught her eye, from below. Dazed from hunger, exhaustion, and the shock of her present circumstance, Leena looked with slow-blinking eyes to the unconscious jaguar man’s back and saw the mesh bag still hung over his shoulders. The mesh bag, and the metal glint of her survival kit within.

Her hands, bound and encased in their thick insulated gloves, lunged for the kit. Leena’s first thought was just to retrieve the kit, to take back that which had been taken from her. It was only as her hands brushed against the hard metal corners of the case, and brought to mind the contents and their uses, that she saw a more immediate purpose.

With gruesome luck, the strap holding the mesh bag in place had been almost completely severed by the blow that had felled the jaguar man, so it was a matter of relative ease to pull the bag away from its back, and the kit away from the bag. It remained, then, to open the kit.

A dark figure flashed before Leena’s eyes as one of the combatants leapt over her, whether jaguar man or attacker she couldn’t say. Leena ignored their threat, and concentrated on the kit.

She battered at the simple metal latch, her fingers useless in the thick fabric of the gloves. She dragged the kit up onto her chest, angling her head up within the helmet for a clearer view, trying for finesse. It was like threading a needle with a plumber’s wrench. The sturdy catches on either side of the case’s lid both had to be opened, but in opening one her exertions seemed always to shut the other.

The melee continued, and someone kicked Leena’s side, almost knocking the survival kit from her grasp. As she scrambled to maintain her hold on the kit, inspiration struck, and she turned the case on its end, leaving the two catches positioned one above the other. Holding the kit in place with one hand, she could angle the other up far enough to flip open the latch. Sliding her hands carefully down the case, she then repeated the procedure, and the lid flipped open with a snap.

There was a shout and an accompanying groan from somewhere to Leena’s right, but she ignored the sounds. Pushing the kit back onto its base and down onto her thighs, careful that the lid not close again, Leena pulled herself painfully into a sitting position, the deadweight of the jaguar man still lying across her knees. Breathless, she pawed with bound hands through the contents of the kit, finally closing her thick-gloved hands on a piece of nylon-wrapped chrome and steel.

She lifted it to her mouth, and unsnapped and pulled loose the nylon holster with her teeth. Then, carefully, she worked one gloved finger into the trigger guard, and thumbed off the safety.

Her wrists and ankles were still bound, her hands still encased in insulated leather and an unconscious monster still pinned her to the ground. With the chrome-plated Makarov semiautomatic in her grip, though, Leena suddenly felt more in control of the situation.

Leena looked up, and her grip on the Makarov tightened.

A man stood over her, breathing heavy with exertion, naked to the waist and gored black with the blood of fallen jaguar men. In one hand he held a curved sword, in the other some kind of pistol.

Leena aimed the Makarov at his chest.

“Maht elmok,” he said, smiling, and Leena pulled the trigger.

Chapter 4
Traveling Companions

The pistol’s hammer fell on the empty chamber, hitting only air, and Leena was out of options.

Her instructors in the Red Army had drilled into her the three basic laws of small arms care: always keep the safety on when holstered, keep the clip fully loaded whenever possible, and leave a round chambered at all times. It seemed that whatever support technician at Baikonur had provisioned the survival kit had not had the same instructors.

With her wrists bound, Leena could not position her hands to pull back the slider, was unable to rotate a cartridge into the chamber. The Makarov was useless, deadweight.

The man standing over her slid his own pistol into an ornate holster at his waist, and angled his sword away and to the ground. He seemed to smile, through the grime and sweat and splattered blood freckles across his cheeks, and chuckled slightly. Leena tightened her grip on the Makarov, hoping he might bend close enough that she could slam the barrel against his grin.

“Kestra,” he said in surprisingly tender tones, reaching his free hand to her, palm up and tentative. “Mitra,” he added after a short pause. “Kare. Caraid. Amicus.”

He kept on, slowly repeating one set of syllables after another, watch­ing her closely in the low light. Leena narrowed her eyes, suspicious.

“Amiko. Ami. Amigo.”

Was this madness, or some sort of test?

“Freund. Friend.”

The syllables were resolving themselves into words, familiar but certainly not Russian. English, perhaps? It had been years since she’d heard it spoken, not since her days in the army at the listening post in Berlin.

“Drug,” the man said. Friend.

Leena’s eyes widened.

“Vy . . .” she began, uneasily. “Vy govorite po-russkij?”

Do you speak Russian?

The man nodded slowly, and smiled sheepishly.

“No, I’m afraid not,” he said, and Leena struggled to bring her rusty English up to speed. “Not very well, at least.”

Leena relaxed her grip on the pistol, her arms lowering. Was he American? Where precisely was she?

“Kto?” she began, and then shook her head violently as though to loosen long-dormant skills. “Wh-who?” she finally managed, snaring the appropriate pronoun as it raced through her thoughts. “And where this?” she added uncertainly. She inclined her head to one side in the dome of the helmet, indicating the mysterious surroundings.

“So you’re a new one, as I’d assumed,” the man answered, cleaning his sword’s blade on the fur of one of the fallen foes, then slipping it with a steel whisper into a hanging scabbard opposite the holstered pistol. “Did you hear that, Balam?” he shouted to one side, out of Leena’s line of sight. “She is new after all. You owe me a drink at my earliest convenience.”

There came only a growl in response, but from her awkward position, pinned beneath the insensate form of the fallen jaguar man, she could not make out the source. She was able to follow the man’s English better and better with each passing moment, the ancient engines of her forgotten training slowly revving to life.

“I’m sorry we don’t have time for formal introductions,” the man said, leaning down and grabbing the unconscious jaguar man by his harness and hauling him bodily off of Leena’s legs. “But more of the Sinaa will be on us in numbers shortly, if we’re not quickly away.”

Leena’s lower body unencumbered, the man stepped forward and, reaching down, slipped his hands under the pits of her arms and drew Leena to her feet.

“We’ll have enough time for questions and answers soon enough,” the man said, gingerly pulling the Makarov from her grip and snugging it into his belt, “but for now, it’s enough for you to know that this is Paragaea, and that you are far, far from home.”

Leena looked on, still dazed, as the man untied her wrists and then ankles with a few deft movements.

“Are who . . . ?” she began, struggling with the syntax. “Who . . .” She paused, moving her arms in glorious freedom, shifting painfully from leg to leg. “Who are you?” she managed.

“My apologies,” the man answered with a slight smile, giving her a shadow of a bow. “My name is Hieronymus. Hieronymus Bonaventure.”

He stepped to her side, taking her elbow, and steered her towards the far side of the clearing.

“And this is my friend, Prince Balam.”

Leena looked up, and before her towered the hulking, shadowy figure she’d glimpsed tussling with the leader of the jaguar men before. It was another of the jaguar men, but with black fur instead of golden. His clawed hands and the lower half of his broad jaws were spattered with shining red blood, shimmering like strings of rubies in the faint moonlight. He wore a leather harness with gold fittings, a loincloth of deep forest green draped between muscular thighs, and one of his ears was deeply notched, an emerald dangling from the other.

The black-furred jaguar man smiled, teeth like sabers glinting wickedly in the low light, and Leena was not sure whether she’d been rescued, or had fallen into the hands of an even darker threat.

They traveled through the darkened jungle tracks not making a sound, the English-speaking man in front of Leena and the black-furred jaguar man following behind. The going was difficult, with Leena still swaddled in her pressure suit with its helmet and heavy boots and gloves, but they pressed on without pause. Only when they had gone several kilometers did the man and his jaguar companion seem to lower their guards, and they drew finally to a halt.

Minutes later, Leena sat near a fresh-kindled campfire, soaking up its warmth, her eyes fixed on the two figures sitting on the far side of the flickering flames. Neither she nor they spoke, though a strange smile peeked from the corners of the man’s mouth.

Her shoulders and neck ached from the long hours spent wearing the heavy visored helmet, but to rid herself of the weight she had no choice but to remove the whole suit. The helmet on the SK-1 pressure suit could not be removed, another safeguard on the part of the chief designer, out of fears his cosmonauts would panic in their capsules and remove them while still in flight.

Leena removed the heavy gloves, awkwardly loosening the clasps holding them connected to the oversuit and then shaking them to the ground, her bare hands luxuriating in the free air for the first time in hours, if not days. With her hands free, she began working at the fasteners and fixtures holding the oversuit in place. In theory, the suit was designed for a cosmonaut to remove without aid, since the Vostok capsules were intended to land across a broad and sometimes unpredictable range of terrain. Even so, Leena had never removed a suit on her own before, always able to call on the Star City technicians when necessary.

Now, as she bent and twisted into uncomfortable contortions to reach inaccessible fasteners, she wished she had a few of those technicians on hand now.

“Do you need any assistance?” asked the man from across the fire.

It took Leena a moment to sift through her long-disused English vocabulary and parse out the man’s meaning.

“Net,” she answered, and then quickly translated, “No.”

The man replied with a shrug, and sat back to watch. The black-furred jaguar man at his side made a noise back in his throat that might have been a growl, or a chuckle, Leena could not say which.

Finally, Leena managed to strip off the orange nylon oversuit and attached helmet, and the heavy leather boots, and was left standing in the grey-checked pressure liner. It was form-fitting and warm, too warm for the humid night air, but it was lightweight, and that at least was some small comfort.

Suddenly, the black-furred jaguar man was on his feet, bounding to Leena’s side. She shrank back, raising her arms defensively, wishing her Makarov was in her hands and not still snugged at the waist of the other man. The jaguar man’s attention was not on Leena, though, but on her discarded oversuit. He grabbed it up in one claw-tipped hand, removed a wicked-looking knife from a sheath at his hip, and with three sure moves cut loose the helmet from the material of the suit.

The jaguar man tossed the helmet to the ground by the fire, and proffered the orange nylon oversuit to Leena.

“It is warm,” the large figure said in his baritone grumble, his English laced with an indefinable accent. “Wear this instead; it will be cooler.”

Warily, Leena reached out and accepted the oversuit.

“Spasibo,” she said, thanking him. The jaguar man nodded, solemnly, and then padded back to the far side of the fire.

All modesty forgotten, she stripped out of the pressure liner, naked for the briefest moment, shivering even in the humid air, and then put back on the orange nylon oversuit and the heavy leather boots. When she had done, she sat back cross-legged on the ground, and opened up the case of her survival kit.

As she inventoried the contents, working out what was useful, what was damaged and what wasn’t, the English-speaking man on the far side of the fire kept watching her, that strange half-smile peaking the corner of his mouth. He wore a loose-fitting white shirt, a pair of dark trousers, and high boots that came almost to his knees. Across his lap lay his scabbarded sword, while at his side rested a satchel.

And still he didn’t speak.

Finally, Leena could stand it no longer.

“Kto . . . ?” she began, then stopped herself, dredging up the necessary vocabulary. “Who are, and . . . how you here come?”

“I already told you,” the man said with a smile, his teeth flashing white in the firelight. “My name is Hieronymus Bonaventure.”

“Hyr-ronn-eye-mush,” Leena repeated, taking each syllable in turn, with some difficulty.

“Call him Hero,” growled the jaguar man. “Trust me, it’s just easier.”

“Hero,” Leena said, trying out the sound. Much better. “But why? Come you here how, to what place is this?”

The man called Hieronymus tilted his head to one side, trying to work out the meat of her question. Then he nodded, and crossed his arms over his chest, his eyes on the middle distance.

“I was an officer in His Britannic Majesty’s Navy during the recent troubles, the war against the French and later against their Emperor Napoleon, and through misadventure I was thrown overboard in a squall on the South Pacific Seas. I thought myself dead for certain, my sins caught up with me at last, but in the midst of a surging wave I found myself falling through a mirrored hole. It was a hole in the midst of the air itself, and through it I fell into other waters. I found myself in the Inner Sea of Paragaea, and was taken onboard one of the cities of Drift.” He paused, and smiled wistfully. “I was lucky to be taken in as a member of their community, as among the people of Drift, everything found floating on the waves is either Food, Fuel, Furniture, or Family. Nothing escapes categorization into one of those four classes.”

Leena looked at him, her eyes narrowed. She’d been able to absorb only parts of the man’s narrative, but those small parts had made little sense.

“Chto? The year, it is 1964,” Leena said sharply. “You are madman, think you battle Napoleon, buried last century?”

The man shook his head.

“No, I am not mad, or if I am, it is on other grounds entirely. Time moves differently between the two worlds, Earth and Paragaea, and not all doors open onto the same era.”

Leena kept her gaze steady, considering what he’d said.

“And he?” she said, pointing to the jaguar man. “How is such thing possible? Such man?”

“What? Balam?” the man answered. “He’s a native to this land, one of the nation of the Sinaa, the jaguar people of the Western Jungle. Once coregent of the nation, he was cruelly . . .” The man stopped, and looked to his companion apologetically. “I’m sorry, Balam, perhaps you’d prefer to tell your own tale?”

The jaguar man shrugged.

“No, you go ahead,” he said, through a saber-toothed smile. “I’m not the one in love with the sound of my own voice.”

The man seemed not to notice the jibe, but continued on, unabated.

“Balam, as I said, was once one of the rulers of the jaguar nation of the Western Jungle. His sisters, his former coregents over the nation of the Sinaa, ousted Balam and replaced him with his cousin, Gerjis, who had poisoned their minds against their brother with his twisted religiosity. The coregents of the Sinaa now argue for an alliance of some kind with the wizard-kings of the Black Sun Empire. Balam’s cousin is a follower of Per, the leader of the Black Sun Genesis, a religion among the metamen that preaches that the wizard-kings in their Diamond Citadel of Atla, with their science and ancient machines, are not just mortal men, but are in fact the creators and gods of metamankind.”

Leena’s English was growing stronger with each passing moment, like a long-dormant muscle coming back into use, but she still understood little of what the man said, and what little she comprehended she refused to believe.

“You say . . . I think you say, this some Sargasso Sea,” she said, hotly, “into which fall men and ships, to return never. Some Fairyland, with animal men and wizards and kings? Bessmyslica!” She spat in the dust at her feet. “Nonsense!”

“Fair enough,” the man said with an infuriating smile. “I leave it to you, then, to explain him.”

The man pointed at his animalistic companion, whose feline face split in an alarmingly toothy grin.

Chapter 5
Maps and Territories

The next morning, they dined on a meager meal of wild berries and some sort of rodent roasted on a spit over the embers of the campfire. When she had finished, Leena tied her pressure liner into a makeshift pack, and loaded it with the remains of her survival kit. All except the Makarov, which still glinted in the belt of the man sitting a few meters off.

“Hero,” Leena called out, grateful for the diminutive. “Pistolet moj?”

The man glanced over, confused.

“Come again?” he said.

“Pistol mine,” Leena translated, and pointed at the man’s waist. “My pistol.” She pointed again, and then at herself. “I want.”

“Oh,” the man said, glancing down at the Makarov as though he’d forgotten it was there. “Well, if you promise not to go pointing it in friendly faces anymore, I don’t suppose it would hurt.”

The man tugged the gun from his belt, and glanced at the jaguar man, who looked on warily with amber eyes. With a shrug, the man tossed the pistol to Leena, sending it arcing end over end through the air, glinting silvery in the morning light.

Leena caught it neatly by the handgrip, and checked the chamber and the action carefully before tucking it into a zipper pocket on her right thigh.

The man and his jaguar companion left off eating, and began to gather their things. In bare moments, they had fully packed, and began to head away from the clearing.

“Where you go?” Leena said, snatching up her makeshift pack and jumping to her feet.

“We are heading to relative safety in the north, away from the country of the Sinaa,” the man answered, pausing and glancing over his shoulder. “We have business in the city of Laxaria, and had we not encountered you and your furry fellows along the way, we’d be some hours nearer our destination.” He paused, and then added, “You are welcome to accompany us. However, remember that you are not our prisoner, nor are we yours, and if you want to strike out on your own, we won’t stop you.”

Leena was silent for a moment, considering her options. Her first duty was to return home, to report to her superiors her discovery of this strange otherworld. The successful launch of the Vostok 7 would pale in comparison to newfound worlds for the Soviet to explore and improve. There was no question now she’d be invited into the Party and given a rank, though now she had visions of a major’s insignia on her lapels, not merely those of a lowly lieutenant.

“Who knows way?” she asked at length. “Between worlds? Who knows way to travel between?”

The man and his jaguar companion glanced at each other, and turned to smile at her patiently.

“That is a large question,” the jaguar man said, his black lips curled back in a full grin.

“Most in Paragaea don’t even accept the existence of Earth,” Hieronymus explained apologetically. “How many in your country still believe in Fairyland as adults? It is no different here.”

Leena shook her head, determined.

“Net,” she said fiercely. “No. Someone in authority, I think, there must be. Someone knows this thing.” Leena was a firm believer in the power of authority, and in the wisdom of those in high places. A lifetime serving the greater good of the Soviet could lead her to no other opinion. “There must be place of study,” she went on, “a university, a school, where men and women of learning, they gather together?”

The man and his jaguar companion looked to each other, and consulted in a strange tongue, sounding a little like that of her jaguar men captors. They spoke for a few moments, smiling and nodding, occasionally casting quick glances Leena’s way. Finally, the man turned, and addressed her, his tone apologetic.

“Well, my colleague and I agree that the nearest place that meets that description would be the Scholarium in Laxaria, which city is luckily our destination. But I warn you now: you won’t like the answers they’ll give you.”

Leena shouldered her makeshift pack, and headed towards the track leading to the north, the way the two had started.

“For me to decide, I think, that is,” Leena said, passing them and heading back into the jungle.

The trio passed the rest of the day moving through the jungle, heading ever northwards, making tracks as best they could in that trackless wilderness. Hieronymus and Balam kept silent, the one taking the lead and the other bringing up the rear, ever vigilant, watching all sides, above and below, for any sign of danger. Whether they feared that the jaguar men would trace their steps and attempt some reprisal, or worried that some other jungle denizen lurked in the shadows, waiting to pounce, Leena could not tell.

As they walked, Leena busied herself in the attempt to reacquaint herself with English. She’d scarcely used the language at all since she was transferred from the East Berlin listening post to the flight training program of the Air Defense Forces. And even then she’d been primarily a passive receptor, listening to the language for endless hours, clammy headphones to her ears, pencil and paper in hand, but she’d rarely had occasion to speak the language. Not since the linguistic courses she’d taken at the Red Army facility outside of Moscow had she been forced to generate words and phrases in the convoluted English tongue. Now, seeing the vital urgency of complex communication with this Hieronymus and his jaguar man companion, she dredged up her every memory of the language as best she could. She recited old poems to ­herself, dimly recalled from copy-book pages. She conjugated verbs: He kills, he killed, he will kill. She strained her memory to recall the nouns and names for every creature and object that came into view. “Tree.” “Man.” “Stream.” “Monster.” “Mystery.”

And still on they walked.

As the sun set, they stopped for the night. Hieronymus set about starting a fire, gathering branches and dried bracken to use as tinder, setting them ablaze with a flint-and-steel from his pack. Balam slipped into the darkening woods for a few short minutes, soundlessly, and then returned with a bloodied coney in either hand. The rabbits were feral, and somewhat lean, but when Hieronymus objected that they’d present a poor repast, Balam insisted that with proper seasoning they’d be more than filling. Hieronymus, as though it had been his intention all along, dusted off his hands and stepped away from the cook-fire, wagering Balam that he couldn’t make the coneys palatable. The jaguar man, it seemed, could not resist a challenge, and so fell to preparing their rustic evening meal with abandon.

Hieronymus came to sit beside Leena, where she warmed her hands in the heat of the flickering fire. He kept a respectful distance between them, but when Leena glanced over favored her with a companionable smile.

“You look confused,” Hieronymus said pleasantly. “It’s hardly surprising. I could scarcely credit the evidence of my senses when first I arrived on Paragaea.”

Leena scowled, tilted her head to one side thoughtfully, and then nodded in reply, almost as an afterthought.

“This world,” she said, carefully arranging her words and meanings. “What you called it?”


“Pair-ah-gee-uh.” Leena repeated each syllable slowly, shaping the word in her thoughts. “Paragaea.”

“That’s it.” Hieronymus nodded, like a headmaster pleased with the progress of a student.

“What is this Paragaea? How it comes to be?”

Hieronymus took a deep breath through his nose, and then sighed contemplatively. “Would that I could tell you, little sister,” he said. “All I know is that, in some regards, it seems that Paragaea is a more ancient twin to the Earth you and I once called home. Where civilization’s recorded history on our world dates back only a few thousand years at best, going no further than the earliest days of the pyramid builders and the flowering of the Euphrates, Paragaean history goes back many hundreds of times further. There are beings in these lands” —he indicated the jaguar man with a jerk of his head—“who can measure their family’s lineage back many thousands of years, and whose cultural records and writings go back countless millennia further.”

Hieronymus glanced from Leena to Balam, and then to the stars just beginning to wink in the darkening skies overhead. When he spoke again, it was as though a hint of fear and wonder had crept into his voice. “And there are still older races, who linger at the edges of the known world, stranger and more ancient still.”

Leena mulled over what he had said.

“But twin?” she asked, and then paused, restructuring the sentence in her thought. “Why you say twin?”

Hieronymus reached into his shirt, and pulled out a necklace of solid metal links, from which depended a small round pendant. The pendant was spherical, a little over two centimeters in diameter, and covered in dyed-blue sharkskin. Around the circumference of the sphere ran a line of brass, like an equator, with a sickle-shaped latch on one side and brass hinges on the antipodes.

“Observe,” he said. With a practiced maneuver, he unlatched and opened the sphere, revealing within an ivory ball, covered in engraved and stained representations of familiar continents. Tipping the open hemisphere carefully to one side, he caught the ivory globe in his outstretched hand, and proffered it for Leena’s inspection. “Recognize this?”

Leena took the tiny globe, and turned it over in her hands. The craftsmanship was evident, the lines and curves of the continents remarkably accurate, given the small size. Its only principal errors were the lack of some detail in the western shore of South America, and the complete absence of the Antarctican continent. Leena glanced from the miniature globe to Hieronymus. If he was truly from the early nineteenth century, as he claimed, his conception of the world’s geography would not include Antarctica, not discovered until long decades later. His madness, if madness it was, could be said to be self-consistent, at the very least.

“Earth,” Leena said. “It is Earth.”

Hieronymus nodded, a wistful expression passing fleetingly across his features. “It was a gift from my mother. A long . . . very long time ago. My grandfather had been a cartographer, employed by Dutch traders to chart the passages to Japan, and my mother grew up in his household as something of an amateur cartographer herself. Before she died, while I was still a student at Oxford, she commissioned the London firm of James Newton to produce this diminutive globe, that I might be able to carry it with me always.” Hieronymus’s voice trailed off as he stared into the middle distance.

Leena smiled uneasily, not sure how to respond.

“In any event,” he went on, reaching into his pack and pulling out a metal tube capped with some sort of rubberized plug on either end, “finding myself here, in this strange land, I eventually felt called to pursue this ancestral avocation of mine, and set about measuring the limits of my newfound world.”

Unstopping one end of the tube, he slid out a curled sheaf of papers, and laid them before Leena, careful to position them out of the range of sparks popping from the cook-fire.

“This,” he said, not without a hint of pride at his workmanship, “is Paragaea.”

Leena looked over the map in the flickering firelight. It was an unusual projection, all of the landmass of the planet enclosed inside one ellipse, the lines of longitude curved rather than straight. An equal-area projection, of the Mollweide or Sinusoidal varieties, instead of the more typical Mercator projection.

“Chert voz’mi,” Leena muttered under her breath. Damn it.

She shook her head. Back at TsPK in Star City, when they’d studied maps and cartography as part of the regular cosmonaut training regime, Leena had often found herself more involved in the mathematics that created the map than with the territory it described. Now, here she was looking at a map of an alien world, and her thoughts raced over which projection the strange man at her side had used in calculating its dimensions.

“Note the shape of the continent,” Hieronymus said, pointing at the large landmass dominating the map’s center.

There was but a single continent on the Paragaean map, ringed on the north, east, and west by tiny islands and archipelagos. In the middle of the continent was a body of water labeled “Inner Sea,” and bordering the landmass on all four sides a vast body labeled “Outer Ocean.”

“At first blush,” Hieronymus went on, “this world bears no especial resemblance to the Earth you and I know.” He reached over, plucked the globe from Leena’s hands, and held it just above the map’s surface. “But regard how the western coast of the continent resembles in gross detail the western extremity of the North American continent on Earth. And how the jutting peninsula of Parousia shares a remarkable similarity to the shape of India on terrestrial seas. A few short years before I myself was translated here to Paragaea, I chanced to reach a monograph by a German naturalist named Alexander von Humboldt, who noted a congruence between the bulging shape of South America’s eastern shore and the bight of Africa, and conjectured that the lands had once been joined. But now, if the continents of the Earth are mobile upon the planet’s surface, and can move about like ice floes in a melting lake, then so too might they continue to migrate, moving out of their familiar arrangements into ever stranger configurations. And if they did, mightn’t the resulting globe resemble in large part the shape of this Paragaean continent?”

Before Leena could answer, Balam called from the other side of their campsite.

“The rabbits are as palatable as they’ll ever be, Hero, and I fully expect that you’ll concede our wager with the first bite.”

Leena did not have the opportunity to answer Hieronymus’s theories on continental drift, nor Hieronymus to sample the jaguar man’s culinary treatment, for at that precise moment the trees to their immediate south exploded with a thunderous sound, and some massive shape thudded to the jungle floor only a few short meters away.

Hieronymus was on his feet at once, expertly stowing his map back in its tube and his globe back in its case in a matter of heartbeats, his hands then flying to the saber at his side, all before he’d even had a chance to register what the danger might be. By the time Leena had reached a standing position, Balam was at her side, knife drawn, and fangs and claws bared.

It took Leena’s eyes a brief moment to adjust to the gloom, having stared so long in the direction of the firelight, but the dim illumination cast by the still-flickering cook-fire aided somewhat.

There, only a few meters before them, hulked the massive form of a sloth, but not like any sloth Leena had ever seen, in life or in photograph. Laying supine on the ground, its muzzle pointed towards them, eyes blazing in the flickering firelight, this sloth was easily two meters from belly to back.

“What is?” Leena said, almost unable to breathe.

The sloth climbed slowly to its hind legs, standing almost as high as the surrounding trees, and brandished claws almost as long as Leena was tall.

“Trouble,” Hieronymus said simply, and tightened his grip on the saber.

Paragaea: A Planetary Romance © Monkeybrain, Inc.


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