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Diamonds are Forever: Section Six

       Last updated: Tuesday, May 11, 2004 10:53 EDT



6. Voices of the Earth

    "Tell me again just how this is supposed to work, Clint?"

    I should have expected Mamma to ask again. I was never sure how much of her cluelessness was an act and how much was sincere lack of understanding. I compiled the subroutine, tested it with the main one, started running it on some test data. "It's what I do, Mamma. Signal processing is, well, it's teaching a machine to do some of the same stuff that we do naturally. If you figure out how, sometimes you can eventually get the machine to do it better than we do."

    She continued making sandwiches for Jodi and I. "Can you give an example your silly mother could understand, dear?"

    "You're not silly, Mamma." I thought for a minute. "Okay, try this. There's a big party here, everyone making a lot of noise. Evangeline spills hot water on herself and gives a holler. Do you think you'd notice?"

    "Well, sure enough I would! Don't you think I could tell when one of my own children might be in trouble?"

    "I know you could, Mamma. That's what we can do with our built-in signal processing. You've got twenty voices, all making a ton of noise, but somehow our brains can sort out the different voices and notice when one specific voice is doing something unusual, like shouting in pain, even if the actual volume in the room should, by rights, be drowning that voice out."

    She nodded slowly. "Never thought of it that way, but you're right. A mother can hear even a small sound by her baby over a powerful lot of noise."

    "Right. So we can program a computer to do that, too, if we know how to tell it the tricks of the trade. Turns out there's a lot of different ways to do that.

    "For what we're doing, the important thing is that there's different kinds of sound, what we call frequencies; high frequency sound's high pitched, low frequency's low pitched. I had a project I was on, once, that had to sort out human voices that were whispering at a distance of, oh, about three hundred yards. The kinds of signals I got from that looked a lot like some of the ones I was getting from Jodi's sensors, except that these were up in frequencies you only see bats screeching on. So I'm guessing the Nomes talk way up out of our hearing range. This converter setup will shift ultrasonic frequencies down to our range, and kick ours up to the ultrasonic."

    "And I hope you've got everything set, because I don't think our neighbors are going to wait much longer." Jodi set down the heavy packs.

    "Got everything?"

    "Steel weapons in case they stay hostile, three sources of light-caver's lamps, flashlights, candles and matches-radio relays, walkie-talkies, food, clothing change, rope and all climbing gear, hey, you name it, plus the stuff we cobbled together out of our gear. This isn't the first of these hikes I've been on, you know. Just that this mishigas changes some of the extras we need to bring. You got the code for our little universal translators, Geordie?"

    "Mr. Scott, please. You know Next Gen was a weak pale imitation. Yeah, the code should work. It's not all that complex and I could adapt a lot of the code I already had. But it ain't really a translator, remember; we're not going to understand them." I took two smooth alloy cases in rubberized jackets from her. "Oh, that's right, we already had some of these set up for long-term monitoring."

    "What else could I use? We don't know how long we'll be out or where we'll be, so it's a good thing we had ruggedized, sealed cases for this kind of thing." Jodi was right-in the cave environment we expected, the gadgets we brought had darn well better be awfully tough.

    "I've got the code just about set. You've got extra battery packs?"

    She patted me on the shoulder. "Hey, have a little faith in your techie fiancée, neh? I pirated all the batteries from our stuff. Taking no chances."

    She glanced over at the rest of the family. "I admit, all the gadgets you people have not only surprised me, they'll come in handy. Wouldn't have expected you to have short- range radio repeaters."

    Grandpa laughed. "Hain't much difference twixt this adventure of yours and some of the ones we've thought 'bout doing over the years. Never had to use 'em yet, but Adam durn near did for this last trip. If most of us come with you an' provide relays with our own radios, those relays should take y'all a good long ways in before we gets out of contact."

    Radio, of course, would be attenuated real fast through all that water-soaked rock, but relays could really stretch that, especially if we used the family to stretch it farther. Evangeline, Grandpa, Mamma, and Helen would be staying topside; the rest would follow us down. We knew the Nomes hadn't-and couldn't-come up through the Slade entrance, not with all the iron around and below the entrance. The only question was whether they'd try to kill us when we got out of that area.

    I transferred the code into our equipment and spoke into it. There was a faint sideband of whining high-pitched noise, but the instruments showed most of the output centered around the same waveband as the signals I thought were the Nomes' voices. I put the outdoor headphones on and walked out into the night, pointing a parabolic mike in the direction of the besieging force.

    "Choura mon tosetta. Megni om den kai zom tazela ku," I heard, or something very much like that. The voice was tenor, with an odd, scraping quality to it.

    "Zom moran! Zettamakata vos bin turano," replied another, deeper voice. Chills went down my spine. It was one thing to have figured it out intellectually, another to actually hear the voices of nonhuman creatures. I pulled the headphones off and turned back. "I was right. Voices. Damn!"

    Jodi nodded. "Didn't have any doubt myself, love."

    Jodi and I each clipped one of the little boxes that contained the signal processors, memory, and whatnot that did the conversion to our belts, ran compact headphone wires up inside our clothing, and put on the slim-profile headphones that fit under our caving helmets. No one goes caving with a bare head, unless they want to end up with lumps or worse. We tested all the connections, made sure all the power packs and other gadgets-repeaters, lights, and so on-were well distributed, and then turned towards the door. "Let's do it. Time's getting short. They've started testing the fence again."

    I led, Jodi followed, with Father, Jonah, Nellie, Adam, and Grandpa bringing up the rear. In the darkness the huge grating seemed even more grim and forbidding, and opening it was like watching a mouth opening up in the earth. We turned on our lights, checked all our equipment again, and descended the iron ladder set into the living rock; as agreed, Grandpa stayed topside to keep the exit secure, just in case, and to be the topside relay.

    It's a long, solemn climb at the best of times; the iron ladder drops straight down into pitch blackness that first muffles the sounds of the outside and then starts amplifying the echoes of your descent into a cadence of solemnly echoing drumbeats. Ninety feet down, my feet touched stone. I looked around, saw nothing in the immediate vicinity, and stepped away to let everyone else get down. The sounds of people and equipment echoed through the tomblike silence of Winston's Cave, silence normally only broken by water dripping from the ceiling.

    "Okay. Everyone ready?"

    "Ayup," Father answered. "Nellie?"

    "Yes, Father. I'm first relay. I'll be right here at the base of the ladder." She took out her iron truncheon, swung it around, and leaned back against the iron ladder. We heard her checking reception with Grandpa topside as we moved down the Snake's Belly, a twisting passageway with scalloping where swift-moving water had carved it out. The lights glinted brightly off water-slick rock, giving back highlights of yellow, brown, and white from the flowstone that coated parts of the wall. We moved cautiously, waiting to make sure we could see as far ahead as possible.

    A flash of light ahead. I stopped, then turned one of our Mag-Lites on and aimed it down the corridor.

    Across the tunnel, just where the Snake's Belly exited into the Crossroads, five Nomes stood, weapons aimed at us, rockworms waiting at their feet. By now, only Adam and Father were with us, Jason having stayed back about halfway down the Belly because the signal was starting to fade. We'd probably have to leave Adam at the beginning of the Crossroads. I took a deep breath. "Guess this is it."



    I put on the headphones; Jodi did the same. We walked forward, Father and Adam following some distance back. As we approached, I heard "Turano! Turano zom ku! " in a sort of whispered voice, and the figures tightened their grip on their weapons.

    When we were within twenty feet, I stopped. My heart was pounding awfully fast, and for a minute I couldn't convince my hands to let go of my trusty iron bar. At this range, in this light, the Nomes and their rockworms were too creepy to contemplate for long. I forced my grip to relax and handed the weapon to Jodi, then took another slow couple of steps forward. They muttered something and gathered themselves. Something about the tone of voice and the way they almost bunched together actually heartened me. Why, they were afraid of us too!

    "We don't want to fight you," I said, the microphone taking my normal voice and catapulting its sound to seventy-five thousand cycles higher.

    The reaction was everything I could have hoped for. They literally jumped backward in startlement, and I couldn't even sort out separate word-sounds from the gabble of Nome- talk that erupted from the headphones. Finally they settled down and one of them stepped slightly forward, stone sword still in his hand but lowered to a much less threatening position. "Rennka ku? Mondu okh wendasa hottai rennka?"

    I shrugged. "Hey, I don't understand you, but I get the idea you're surprised I talk. We just found out that you did ourselves." I reached very carefully inside one of my pockets and took out a small bag. I put the bag down on the ground and backed up a few paces to where Jodi waited.

    Whatever senses they had, they'd been able to tell I did something there, at any rate. The spokesman came hesitantly forward and stopped, staring at the bag with his weird crystal eyes. Then his face snapped up, looking at me with a very human startlement visible in his pose despite the stony immobility of his features. "H'adamant! H'adamant huran zom!"

    Jodi and I looked at each other, startled. "Adamant?"

    It clapped fists together in what was somehow an exultant or agreeing motion. "H'adamant! H'adamant!" It scooped up the bag and emptied the three diamonds into its palm-last of Winston Slade's original cache, saved for sentimental reasons in our safe-and held the palm out to us. "H'adamant, vu!"

    "I'll be damned," I said. "Wonder if they got that word from us, or we got it from them?"

    Jodi shrugged. "Don't have any idea. But he looks like he's coming down from his ecstasy."

    Indeed, the spokesman was now looking in his palm, and loosed a steady stream of words which included "H'adamant" as a frequent occurrence.

    "Sorry, sir, but we don't have any more of them." I tried gestures to get the point across. "Maybe we can reach some kind of understanding?"

    He finally seemed to realize no more diamonds were forthcoming. He then pointed down the corridor-clearly, whatever senses they had must have some analogy to sight, at least when used for that purpose-and made emphatic motions that I couldn't interpret as anything except "Come with us."

    "Well, it's what we wanted," I said, not feeling all that comfortable with the idea.

    "So long as what they want isn't to cut us open to see if we have the rocks inside us."

    "You just had to bring that idea up, didn't you?"

    "Clint. Best get along now."

    "Yes, Father." We started following the Nomes. Adam stayed behind at the beginning of the Crossroads. When we reached the entrance to the Corkscrew, Father knew he would have to stay behind also. He gave me an unexpected hug. "Be careful."

    "We will, Father."

    The Nomes talked with themselves in low undertones. They'd clearly realized we didn't understand them, and at this point had stopped trying to talk to us. We followed farther into the bowels of the earth. After a while, I keyed in the radio. "Father?"

    The Nomes and the rockworms spun around at that, staring at me again.

    "Hear you, son. Getting faint. Figure a few dozen more yards."

    The Nomes relaxed slowly, then continued on, but they were now talking with great intensity and animation. "Something about the radio really set them off."

    Jodi nodded. "Well, makes sense, doesn't it? You said they must sense things in the electromagnetic, and that's why the iron throws them off. That radio might be like a flashbulb or something to them."

    I dropped one of the relays. The rearmost Nome stopped, turned, and came back towards us. It picked up the relay. I stepped towards it, it backed up, studied the relay for a moment, then put it back down and glanced at me. I let it move away and then continued walking.

    Soon we were entering areas of the cave that even Winston had never seen, past the Hall of Mysteries and obviously deep into what was the Nomes' territory. Now I really started to get worried. We were seeing other Nomes around us, who would stop and point and start to gabble amongst each other, just as prisoners being marched through a city would start to see the citizens point and whisper.

    There were only two of our eight relays left. We were now in an immense cavern that I couldn't even see across. The Mag-Lite hinted at its great expanse, reaching the roof overhead, bearded with stalactites that were twenty feet long or more and still ended with well over a hundred feet of air between them and the ground. When we lowered the light it touched on more wonders: gargantuan columns, dozens of tunnel openings, flowstone curtains that glittered translucently, a shaggy forest of helictites beneath a high-up opening that obviously vented air into this area.

    Since the cavern was effectively open air, we wouldn't need a relay until we were all the way across it. As we reached the far side, surrounded by the eerie rusty-gate hissing and screeching that was the audible-edge component of the Nomes' speech, something massive came slowly into view. We slowed down and stared for a moment in awe.

    If we'd had any remaining doubt that this was a civilized species, we would have lost it then. For the first time we saw an undeniably artificial construct in the depths of Winston's Cave. Towering before us, over sixty feet high, were a pair of what could be nothing but titanic doors. In a way they still seemed to belong here, their surface as smooth yet naturally flowing as the rest of the caverns. They were composed of what looked like marble, but with strange, almost interwoven components of a semitransparent black stone which looked like obsidian. They were covered with shimmering alien symbols that appeared to have been grown there as a natural part of the stone. We could not grasp what the symbols meant, though they were clearly the work of intelligence.

    None of our guides made any attempt to open the door. There was a sound of rushing water, and the great slabs simply pivoted up and rose smoothly out of sight as we approached; almost noiselessly, without any visible sign of the truly impressive force that must be needed to move. I saw the thickness as I passed ... four-foot thick slabs of stone. I did a quick mental calculation. Mother Mary, together those doors must mass over a thousand tons! I dropped the next-to-last relay just outside the doors.

    Jodi evidently decided that it was time for a clearer look, because she pulled out the big electric lantern and turned it on.

    Beyond the huge doors was...the Throne Room.

    Even if I hadn't been half-expecting it since I was a kid, there was no way I could have called it anything else. The penetrating beam of the portable lantern barely made its way across the room, maybe over a thousand feet in diameter. Circle upon circle of Nomes, each with its weapon and companion rockworm, stood in what looked like a military attention pose, with a narrow gap through which we marched. The great domed cavern sparkled everywhere with the same alien designs. I wondered, vaguely, how they saw such designs, and what they "looked" like to their eyes; surely what we saw was at best only a part of their symbology. In the center of the cavern, a series of concentric terraces were laid, with rough-surfaced ramps curving in a spiral fashion to each level. And at the top of this raised formation, on a perfectly circular polished dais of stone over fifty feet wide, was a throne, hewn from the living rock it sat upon, with a single Nome seated in it.

    This was the meeting I'd half-dreamed about, half-feared for almost twenty years. I couldn't think of this Nome as "it." He looked down at us from an elevation of fifteen feet, counting the height of the throne itself. His crystalline crest seemed finer and higher, the fluting on his chin longer, and he looked to me to be somewhat larger than the others around the room, or those escorting us. In the shadowy light of the stupendous throne room, with my overexcited imagination working at doubletime, I could almost see the halo of white hair and long beard. This was Ruggedo, sometimes called Roquat, the Red, the Nome King.

    I shook my head to clear it. I might not be able to keep from giving him the name in my mind, but there wasn't any other connection. This was a first contact between humans and whatever this race really was, and I wouldn't help matters any by letting kids' stories influence my behavior. And whatever they were, they had a lot of things in their civilization that we hadn't the faintest clue about. Behind the throne we could see bizarre and distorted shapes; things that looked like they might have been living things of the same general sort as the Nomes and rockworms, but jammed together, intertwined and almost sculpted in ways that hurt my eyes to look at.

    "Father," I said into the radio, "We're about to meet the Nome King."

    "Then mind your manners, son."

    Ruggedo (as my mind still insisted on calling him, lacking any better name) had leaned forward with interest as I talked with my father. He leaned back slowly and studied us as we were brought up the ramps until we stood before him, a mere twenty feet from the being who was clearly in charge of this entire underground world. His head tilted slightly, as though he were a bird trying to see us with one eye, and then another. Now I could see there was, in fact, one strong similarity between the real and the fictional Nome King: Ruggedo did, indeed, hold a heavy, elaborate scepter with a great glittering red crystal at its end.

    "That thing gives me the creeps, Clint." Jodi spoke in an undertone, having wisely shut off her high-frequency transducer.

    I just nodded. She wasn't talking about the King, but about the shapes behind the throne which we could now see much more clearly. This was not a good thing. It was something inherently unsettling, seeming a blend of the living and the living rock, shapes almost like attenuated Nomes blending into rockworms and other... things of even less familiar outline, like an unholy blending of Bosch and Giger. My earphones hummed and murmured with whispered sounds of the Nome language and with other things, like barely-audible whines, interference, and subliminal voices.

    We stood there a moment, each side regarding the other in motionless silence, broken only by the sounds that even our transducers couldn't render into recognition. I took the time to study the King closely. Even though he was clearly larger than his subjects, the Nome King still wouldn't stand taller than Evangeline; I guessed him at no more than five feet tall. The body was almost spherical, with variegated geometric patterns of black, green, brown, and yellow making it look almost as though he wore clothing, at least from a distance; up close, it was much more a natural mottling of the skin. Round, slender arms and legs, with rocky sheathing that had the appearance of thin clothing on their bodies, completed the resemblance to Baum's Nomes, as envisioned by John R. Neill. The crystal growths on the head, up close, didn't really bring hair to mind. They shimmered with multiple colors-the King's seemed predominantly violet, amethyst perhaps-and the immobile eyes and stony tube jutting from the chin emphasized the alien nature of the creature.

    Finally, the Nome King leaned forward on his scepter and spoke.

    "So, you are the people who speak in the air!"

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