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Diamonds are Forever: Section Nine

       Last updated: Wednesday, July 7, 2004 00:24 EDT



9. Too Little. Too Late?

    "We might be 'bout four days from Armageddon, or leastwise that's how it's going to seem around here," I started out.

    The whole family was gathered around the table this time, from Evangeline through Helen and Adam on through Grandpa.

    "But you said the Nomes isn't our enemies, right, Clint?" Mamma asked anxiously.

    "Right, Mamma. But it turns out they've got relatives of their own that there's a feud with. These boys play on a bigger scale than we ever figured, and we Slades have gummed up the works but bad." Jodi and I went on to summarize what Rokhaset had told us. "So unless we can do something to help 'em out, in four days the New Madrid's going to cut loose with a Big One and ain't nothing going to be left standin' for hundreds of miles, least of all the Slade homestead."

    The family sat there in silence. It was an awful lot to take in at once. And somehow it sounded a lot more fantastic here, in the comfortable electric lights of the family room, than it had in the blue-white glow of Rokhaset's domain.

    "You think they can do that?" Father said finally.

    I exchanged glances with Jodi. "It's hard to say, Father. But... yes, I guess I have to believe it. What reason would they have to concoct such a silly story if they had a more reasonable motive for wanting the diamonds? We sure didn't show any sign of needing anything that outlandish."

    "Well," Evangeline pointed out, "y'all did say they learned how to talk with us from listenin' to the TV and radio. Lord only knows what they think is normal, Clint."

    I chuckled despite my worries. "You got a point there, Evvie. Jodi?"

    She tossed her dark hair back, then shook her head. "I think Rokhaset's pretty clear on how we think. No way he'd waste his time making up some bobbe maisse like that one; he's got more important stuff to do."

    "Well, then, we give 'em all the diamonds we have left and hope it's enough." Mamma said.

    "Do more than hope, Mamma. Pray. If this doesn't work, those destructive cousins of the Nomes are going to cause the biggest disaster the States have ever seen."

    "What can we do, Clint?" Adam demanded.

    "Grab our tools and get out there for when they start trying to get the road back. It's easy enough to wreck something, but they don't drive cars, and I'm not sure they'll know what has to be done to really make it driveable. And shut off the fence. They're not going to come after us now that they know us." I felt my eyes trying to shut. "But me and Jodi have to get some rest."

    "Lord, of course you do," Mamma said. "Why, it's been almost twenty-four hours you've been up, and most of that either hiking the caves or facing Mr. Rokhaset, which must have been about as scary as anything!"

    "Get up to bed," Father agreed. "Need your strength later."

    Jodi and I didn't argue. We knew there wasn't any way we were staying awake much longer. I stumbled up to bed, feeling my feet get heavier with every step. The clothes I peeled off seemed to be made of lead, and I don't really remember hitting the mattress.




    I woke up with a hoarse shout, as the ground quivered underneath the house. "JODI! "

    "A CHORBN! " I heard the Yiddish curse echo all the way down the hall. "What? Did they move up the schedule?"

    By then, I was out of bed and down the hall, bursting through Jodi's door. The shaking was already over. "No, no, that was just a little one. But Holy Mother, did that scare me!"

    "And I was calm, you think? Oy!" She was still in the bed, nude from the waist up since the sheets had slid down when she sat up abruptly. The view was on the spectacular side. Her long, curly, lustrous black hair was spilling over her shoulders, framing her chest. Jodi was basically a slender woman, but not everywhere. I was a little transfixed, for a moment. Memories...

    She looked me up and down, suddenly grinning. "You look as nice as I remember, too, neshomeleh. But you might want to put some clothes on before your family decides we caused all that shaking and bouncing around."

    I looked down. I was nude from the soles of my feet up.

    "Oops. Hey, look, I was startled. Gimme a second."

    By the time I got back to her room, with my bathrobe on, Jodi was already out of bed and wearing her own robe. In that respect, if nothing else, she certainly didn't fit the stereotype of a Jewish-American Princess. Jodi was always punctual and could get dressed faster than a fireman. How she manages that, I'll never know, because the end result was never sloppy. Every item of clothing was on right, buttons square, zippers zipped, hair brushed, the works. Even the many times I'd watched her do it, I'd never really been able to figure out her secret. She just seemed to pour herself into her clothes, shoes and all-hell, work boots and all-and she had the kind of magic hair that, despite its length and thickness, immediately fell into place at the touch of her fingers.

    When I walked in, she was muttering something to the effect that the much-vaunted stability of the nation's conservative inner regions compared to decadent Manhattan was obviously a be-damned lie. About a third of the words were in Yiddish so I didn't catch all of it. But the last phrase came through clear as a bell: "-least the ground doesn't mug you!"

    "C'mon," I chided, "what's the big deal?" I imitated her accent. "'The trucks on Fifth shake my apartment harder than that!'"

    She giggled despite herself. "Okay, wisenheimer, you'll get yours. But only after I get a shower."

    We both needed showers badly after the last day. If I hadn't been so dog-tired I'd have showered before going to sleep, but collapsing in a shower isn't the best idea.

    So, half an hour later, we met downstairs. A frustrating half-hour, since Jodi and I like to take showers together which maybe accounts for why we usually take such long ones. I was finding this be-proper-before-the-family routine was getting old really fast. Even the prospect of continental catastrophe in four days wasn't enough to squelch all my normal I-want-Jodi enthusiasms.

    I guess I muttered something to that effect. "Stop whining, Clint," Jodi instructed me, as we headed for the kitchen. "Look at it this way. Soon enough we'll either be dead or we'll be married and either way you won't have to worry about it any more. Getting laid, I mean. You'll still have to scrub my back-don't think for a moment I'll let you off the hook on that just 'cause you're my husband. Or a corpse."

    Her stern and stoic words would have been more effective if she hadn't goosed me as I started through the kitchen door.

    Mamma was in the kitchen, looking exhausted herself, but with enough food to feed four of me laid out. "Nice to see both of you up, Clint dear, Jodi. Father and Adam are up to the road, along with Helen and Evangeline. Everyone else just went to bed, which is where I'm going now."

    "How's it going up there?"

    She gave a tired smile. "Lord, they're devilish looking things, but those rockworms and their keepers can work miracles. We just might get this done in time, Clint. Might could. Best eat up and go see for yourselves."

    I gave Mamma a hug, which she returned-a little tighter than usual. She kissed Jodi on the cheek and then headed upstairs. I turned to the table and dug in.

    "We slept ten hours, Clint. Down to three and a half days or less now. We have to get into town, get back with the diamonds in less than a day."

    I nodded, wolfing down some ham. "I know, I know. Let's get up to the road, see what they're up to."

    It wasn't a long hike, and in the sunlight it was less eerie, though no less strange, to see the hurrying pipestem-limbed Nomes and their centipedal assistants. As we came to the edge of the huge scar in the earth, I sucked in my breath. Buttresses of limestone were forming, curving in rippling bands to create supports for the stone that would lie atop them. It was the rockworms which were doing most of the work, chewing up rock in one place and depositing it, changed and molded, in another. I looked around and saw Adam, Father, and Rokhaset under a large spreading oak at the far edge.

    We hiked around to them. Looking down, I could see that the rockworms came in differing sizes, from the little ones about two feet long up to one nightmare-inducing monster nearly twenty feet long, with horns and spikes of crystal adorning its head and a mouth that looked more like a rock- crusher than anything living.

    "Father, Adam, Rokhaset." I said in greeting.

    "It is good to see you again, Clinton Slade, Jodi Goldman," Rokhaset acknowledged us.

    "Clint. Jodi. Work's going."

    "And fast, too." Adam said. "Their... what was the name again, sir?"

    "Seradatho H'a min, or you might call them simply seradatho for short."

    "Seradatho, yep, they just make the rock as we stand here. Ain't maybe as fast as a full construction crew, but it's plenty fast enough. I think."

    "Is it safe for me to go down and look?"

    Rokhaset gave a deliberately human shrug. "The seradatho will not harm you on purpose, Clint. But some may not notice you immediately, even with their handlers present, so take care."

    I slid down into the pit and walked carefully up to one of the medium sized seradatho, which was starting to put some kind of joining stone between some of the buttresses. I examined the resulting stone carefully, then climbed back up. "Sir, that looks just like standard cavern limestone! I swear, if I took that back to a lab I wouldn't t be able to tell the difference!"

    "And nor should you. We are part of the Earth, Clint. How many times must I say this before you truly understand? Nothing that we do may be apart from her. Except in our own dwellings, it must not even be recognizable as our work, but be fully in harmony with Nowë, as much a part of her as we are."

    I shook my head, still trying to comprehend it. "But it looks like standard flowstone-deposited over thousands and thousands of years. How the hell can you possibly replicate that?"

    "I could attempt to explain it," Rokhaset said, after some consideration, "but in truth, without taking much time indeed to instruct you, all that I could tell you would boil down to saying 'it's magic,' a most unsatisfactory explanation. Suffice to say that this is the way it must be for us."

    "So some of those natural-seeming caverns we see around the world are really your doing?"

    "Undoubtedly. Sometimes your people intrude upon us by exploring what you think are natural caves and are, instead, our dwelling places. Only in the great cities and central places of the Earth do we build places such the Throne Room and its nearby environs."

    I rubbed my temples. Running into the Nomes themselves, well, I'd always known they were there. So it was more like just meeting some aliens. This, though, was magic-a kind of magic that affected stuff I really did know a lot about, and direct enough to hit me in the gut. The threat of the Lisharithada's great quake was real enough, but too huge to grasp, really. Seeing stone that, by rights, ought to have taken a million years to form be spat out in seconds by some crawling centipede-thing, that was different.



    I remembered, suddenly, the rushing water I'd heard when the great doors to the Throne Room opened. "You don't even use machines like we do. You just channel water and maybe use levers or something to move those doors and other things."

    "Correct. In nature, sometimes water does move great boulders, so we can construct a device that takes advantage of that."

    "Well, Clint, now we know why we've never seen any traces of these things before in caves around the world."

    I nodded to Jodi. "Ayup. We did see traces, more'n likely. Problem is that there was no way to tell the traces from the original stone. Y'all even make stalactites and stalagmites and all the trimmings, right, and make sure the water's there to keep it alive?"

    Rokhaset seemed pleased that I'd picked up on the last part. "Exactly right, Clint. I see you have finally penetrated the significance of your original ancestor's find."

    "In a cave, water flowing represents life to you just like to us. So you keep your diamonds and other stones in those pools so they stay a part of Nowë's essence, right?"

    "Very good. Yes, precisely so."

    I noticed Rokhaset was staying carefully in the deepest shadows under the tree, and remembered his prior comments. "Hey, you said your eyes might suffer in the sun. I could get you something that probably will help." "Indeed?"

    "Yeah. I've done some work with multispectral optics, off and on, and you mentioned your eyes get messed up slowly. I'll bet the crystals are being affected by the ultraviolet rays, which you'll never run into underground." I handed him a pair of UV-blocker sunglasses.

    He put them on and glanced around with his odd sight. "Extraordinary. There is minor interference from these glasses in how well I turan, but I can tell that the faint pain from the light here is considerably lessened."

    "I wasn't sure if the plastic would interfere with your own senses, but the fact that it blocked UV made it worth a try. UV's generally the culprit in most damage sunlight does."

    "I believe you are correct in this case. Thank you." Rokhaset glanced into the pit. "I do not suppose you have a few dozen pairs of these?"

    I chuckled ruefully. "Nope, and can't get any until we get to town."

    "Then let us arrange that as swiftly as possible."



    The next few hours passed quickly. Rokhaset drove his people and their seradatho twice as hard, pausing only to listen when we clarified how the terrain would have to run in order to permit the cars to pass. Before our eyes, the landscape healed; it was the only way to describe that incredible sight. Stone and soil literally growing up out of the bowels of the earth, a foundation of limestone covered by soil, and trees and brush somehow moving in over the scar through careful manipulation of the soil and roots.

    Finally, the hillside was solid again. "Now, Clinton Slade, it is time for you to fulfill your part of this bargain."

    "I'm on it. C'mon, Jodi, we've got a withdrawal to do up to the bank, and darn little time to do it in. We've gotta get to town in less than an hour or the bank will close!"

    We dashed to the truck and got in. "Strap in tight, Jodi- y'all's in for a hell of a ride!"

    Fountaining gravel, we pulled out of the gateway and thundered downhill, plowing over the newly-laid earth and leaving its first set of tire tracks. The new road around the first gash slowed me down some, being as it had to make a sharp curve, but I opened her up again and had all four wheels off the ground at the first drop on the straightaway. We jolted against the harnesses and even with the heavy shocks she nearly bottomed out. "Oy, Clint, slow down! We can't make any withdrawals if we're dead!"

    "Ain't no slowin' down, sweetheart. Iff'n you remember when we drove through last time, takes all of an hour and ten minutes to get to town. And we can't take that long nohow."

    "Your accent's getting worse, Clint."

    "Yeah, I know. It's 'cause o' th'truck," I said stoutly. "A pickup jest naturally brings out th' inner hillbilly in a man."

    Pavement, albeit pretty crappy, was now under the wheels and I opened her up as much as I dared. There's places where you can make over 70, and others where even a nutcase wouldn't go past 30 on those roads, unless he was stone drunk. I drove like a stone-drunk nutcase and Jodi just hung onto the doorframe and said nasty words in Yiddish.

    We came screaming down the main street with me riding the brake to get down below the limit as we passed the town line; I think Sheriff McCloskey almost lit off his lights before he saw it was me. I skidded us into a spot in the parking lot and jumped out for the doors, just as I heard the soft but final click of the bank door being locked for the day.

    "Son of a-" I couldn't quite stop in time to keep from whomping the doors. Arlene Ebsen, the manager, gave me a stern look, but turned around. "Clinton Jefferson Slade, I've known you since you were in diapers, and I know your mamma raised you better'n that!"

    "Sorry, Miss Arlene, really sorry, but I've just gotta get into the deposit vault. Please!"

    She pursed her lips. "Clint, you know we like the Slades as our customers, but I can't just go openin' and closin' at someone else's convenience."

    "Please, Miss Arlene, I'm beggin' you. I'm right here on my knees, I mean it." And I was. We just couldn't miss it by this much, we just couldn't!

    She rolled her eyes. "Well, Lord, if it's that all- fired important... just this once. But don't try this again!"

    The sound of the door unlocking was like the whole weight of my truck lifting off my back. "Hurry up, y'hear?" Arlene said. "That there vault's on a time-lock. Locks itself down in half an hour after closing, less'n someone's in it, but if someone is in it, it screams fit to wake the dead."

    "Don't you worry!" I said, racing ahead of her, key already out. "Be gone so fast you'll think I wasn't even here."

    Jodi waited back by the doors. After Arlene took my key, matched it with hers and opened the safety deposit box, she marched out of the vault heading for the phone. She was probably going to call Father to make sure there wasn't some reason I might be trying to make off with the family treasures in secret. It didn't take me long to get out the diamonds, since they weren't loose but stashed in three little bags. I slammed the box shut again, locked it hastily, and hurried out of the vault toward the outside door. Passing Arlene, who was just hanging up with a slightly bemused expression, I said: "Thanks a million, Miss Arlene!"

    I took a bit more time on the drive back. It'd be awfully stupid to get us both killed now that we actually had the diamonds Rokhaset needed and weren't racing against a specific deadline. But it wasn't easy, because my foot kept wanting to hammer the gas, and from her expression I think Jodi felt the same way. We were going to be in good time overall, but still, it felt like every second counted. It was getting dark by the time we made it back to the homestead. I parked the truck and jogged to the front door.

    I then faced what might have been the oddest sight I'd ever seen in my life: Rokhaset was sitting at Mamma's big table, everyone else eating her cooking and him with slices of some kind of stone on his plate, as though he was no stranger a dinner guest than some new neighbor. Strange, yeah, but I felt a huge swell of pride in my family. Okay, so we Slades had been barbarians to these people, but damned if you could call us barbarians now. I wouldn't bet that one in a thousand families could have a Nome at the table and treat it-him-like proper company.

    Rokhaset stood as we entered. "The H'adamant-do you have it?"

    "Right here. Hope it's still alive, like you call it."

    As I put the bags in his hand, he nodded. "I can hear it. Weakened slightly by time away from the heart of Nowë, but still there." He fumbled with the bags a bit, examining what was inside; he didn't need to open them. I wasn't an expert in Nome body language, but it seemed to me he slumped a bit.

    "My thanks to you for a valiant effort, Clinton Slade," he said finally. "But it is as I feared. There is not enough here-not nearly enough-to provide us with a force to overcome what the Lisharithada will have to defend them. We shall do our best, of course; it is our calling and destiny. But we shall never triumph."



    I stared at Rokhaset. "No. We can't let it end like that."

    "Of course we can't, Clint dear. And we won't," Mamma said tartly. "Mr. Rokhaset, we've come invisibly into your homes and taken your diamonds; it's about time we made it up to you. How do you think a few Slades might change the odds, down there in your little war?"

    The High Spirit turned around to face her. "You would fight for us?"

    "Well, it's for my family too, isn't it? And it's our fault, as Jodi showed us. Now, I only married into the Slades, but what I was taught was that a Slade admits when he's wrong and fixes it until it's right."

    "And that's the God's honest truth," Grandpa said forcefully. "Damn this bum leg! I'd come if I could, but I'd slow y'all down."

    "Only a few," Father said. "Not like Nomes; can't live without light, need lots of spares."

    "I'm going," I said.

    "And so am I." At the reaction of the others, Jodi snorted. "What? You think I'm not tough enough? I've lived in New York for years, that's more than tough enough to take care of some shlemiels who think they can just start an earthquake whenever they want to. I'm tough enough to keep Clint here in line. You just try me."

    Debate in this argument wasn't going to last long. We knew we had to field a pretty strong team, but a lot of the family had to stay behind, both because of the limits on equipment and because if we failed the rest of the family had to stay behind to get everything out of the house and save as much of the homestead as possible when the Big One hit. So it was me, Jodi, Father and Adam.

    Rokhaset nodded slowly. "It may work. Never in all these centuries have your people helped us, and with your ability to use the H'kuraden as both weapon and cloak... yes, it could be enough. I-"

    He froze suddenly. I was puzzled for a moment, then realized that he must be getting news through the same kind of link he had with the makatdireskovi. A few moments later, he looked back at us, and I could tell just by the way he stood that it wasn't good news.

    "It appears that the Lisharithada want to make sure we are not able to interfere." Rokhaset sat down slowly. "They have deliberately sealed off Nowëmosdet between our area and theirs. While we can, especially with the power of H'adamant, pass through, they will doubtless have forces waiting there to slow and harass us. There is no way that a Tennathada could possibly reach them."

    The room that had been optimistic a moment ago now seemed utterly sunk in gloom. After a few moments in silence, Rokhaset forced himself to his feet. "I must take the H'adamant to my people. It may not suffice, but I must at least make the attempt, and none of my people can come here to fetch it. It requires quite extraordinary efforts by myself and the makatdireskovi to maintain my communication at all. Others of my people would be crippled in the attempt. Farewell, Clinton Slade, Jodi Goldman, and all of your kin."

    Something was nagging at me as he left, but it refused to gel. The door closed.

    Grandpa slammed a hand on the table so hard it upset three glasses. "Damnation! So close!"

    Mamma sighed. "I suppose we shall have to prepare for the worst now. If only there was another way."

    Suddenly it clicked. Another way! I raced out the door. "Rokhaset! Wait!"

    He turned, a dark shadow with faintly glowing eyes. "What is it, Clinton Slade?"

    "Listen, some people have had a theory for a while now that most if not all of the caverns in this state, maybe farther, are connected somehow. Would you know if that's true?"

    He nodded. "It is true, Clinton Slade, though finding the connections could be difficult for your people, and not all connections are direct. Why?"

    "Then we come at them from a different direction, if you can tell us the right route to take! Mammoth Caves, Rokhaset-if there's a route through there, we can hit 'em from behind!"

    He stood very still for a moment. "It is possible. Barely possible, Clinton Slade, for the route shall be long even if I can find such a route that you can pass, but... it is worth a try. Get out all the information you have on these 'Mammoth Caves' while I deliver the H'adamant. I shall return and we will see if, perhaps, there is one last chance for us all."

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