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Diamonds are Forever: Section Seven

       Last updated: Tuesday, June 1, 2004 23:35 EDT



7. Underground Understandings

    Neither Jodi nor I really know precisely what we did in that moment. That clearly spoken English sentence stunned me so much that all I know for certain is that we stood there for a while, staring at him with our mouths literally hanging open. Just as we started to recover, the King suddenly began to emit a series of whooping noises which, after a moment, we realized must be laughter.

    "Hoooo Hoooo Hoooo Hoooo! OOOOoohooohoooohooo! You really do appear that way! Pardon, I mean, look like that-when surprised."

    "You speak English?!" I finally got out, rattled enough to slide into dialect. "What th' hell's goin' on here? Weren't four hours ago I first heard a word of your language, an' from their reactions I'd thought was the first time y'all had heard ours!"

    That sent him into another fit of laughter. Jodi and I exchanged glances. This wasn't even vaguely what we'd expected. It didn't help that I actually recognized the voice. Well, not really recognized it, exactly, but I knew I'd heard that voice before many times.

    Finally he settled down. "In a way, you are quite right. And in another way, no, I do not speak your language. That"-he gestured to the twisted structure behind him- "speaks your language, through me."

    That brought all sorts of icky possibilities to mind, just looking at the thing.

    "Are you the ruler here, or is it?"

    The shrieking snort seemed equal parts amusement and annoyance. "I am the High Spirit here. That is a ..." He seemed at a loss, finally saying, "makatdireskovi. There are several words in your language which seem to partly apply, none of them actually meaning what I am trying to say."

    "So what do you mean by saying you hadn't heard our language before?" Jodi asked.

    "Never before have we heard your voices speaking in our manner," the Nome King-well, High Spirit-said. "But there were those of us who ventured into Tennatu-the Land of Fast Changes-who, in past cycles, began to turan certain signals which we realized were not natural. We made this makatdireskovi to help us understand what we sensed, and eventually did. But we never realized it was your people who were doing the speaking."

    It took some considerable back-and-forth exchanges before we finally realized that they'd managed, over a period of many years, to derive our language from television broadcasts. That explained the voice-it was a combination of several TV anchormen, most notably Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw, with a hint of Walter Cronkite. They had realized that part of the transmissions could represent a depiction of objects in some way. But because they didn't see at all the way we did, and within their own "sight" spectrum had a different arrangement of seeing intensities and "colors," they could translate the signal but the "image" they got did not resemble the "image" their regular senses got of us at all. So they had no idea that the babbling in the air came from the same people that sometimes raided their caverns. That was also why it had taken the King several moments to verify that we really did look "surprised" in the same way as the images they had previously extracted from the signals. The makatdireskovi and he had needed to find the translation between the signal-images and what he was seeing.

    "Okay," I said finally, realizing how much time had passed, "I think we need to at least cover a little business before we go back to this discussion, sir. We came down here to see if we could try to fix up the bad blood that's been built up between us over the years."

    He sat still for a moment, head tilting in that birdlike fashion again, and then gave a nod. The gesture was clearly deliberate, something he must have learned from the transmissions they monitored. "I had hoped this was true. You do not seem to be suicidal or hostile, despite the formidable reputation you have among my people. What do you propose?"

    "Well, first off, you've got us in your power, so if you'd be so kind as to pull your people back off our land topside, and then I can tell my folks to relax-that we're talkin'?"

    He considered that for a moment, then raised his staff and barked out several commands in their own language. "It is done. Tell your people that mine shall bother them no more, at least so long as we remain in council."

    I keyed up the mike. "Father?"

    He responded instantly, even though it must've been a good hour and a half, maybe two hours of nothing but waiting before he heard anything. "Yes, Clint?"

    "We're having a good conversation here and might be here a long time. But we're able to talk together-don't ask me to explain the ins-and-outs right now-and the King has agreed to pull back his people. Can you check that for me?"

    "Hold on, son." A few minutes passed, then: "Clint, all disappeared a short time back. Looks like everyone's playing on the level."

    I relaxed. The situation could still get bad, but it looked like we were past the worst. "Good, Father. You guys pull back too, then. Me and Jodi can find our way back if we have to, and I don't think we're in any danger here."

    "Will do. Be back every few hours to check on you, though."

    "Okay, Father. Take care."

    "You take care of that girl, hear me?"

    "Yes, Father."

    "Good luck."

    I put the transmitter away. "You know, I think we've forgotten all our manners. I'm Clinton Slade. This is my fiancée, Jodi Goldman."

    The Nome King had apparently seen plenty of introduction scenes. He rose up on his slender pipestem legs and gave a low bow. "A pleasure, Mr. Clinton Slade, Miss Jodi Goldman. I am Rokhasetanamaethetal, the High Spirit of the Nowëthada."

    We returned his bow. "Rokasta..?"

    "Rokhasetanamaethetal," he repeated. Jodi frowned, and I caught the impression of sounds involved in that name that I couldn't even describe.

    "I'm not sure I can even say that properly, sir," Jodi said.

    "Ah, yes. I recall that the vibrations that formed your language did seem to have, relatively speaking, great simplicity. We can reproduce any such vibration very easily, but you seem to be more limited. Choose another name for me, if you wish. I will see if it suits me."

    I was strongly tempted to call him Ruggedo and see if he'd take it, but it was time to drop that line of thinking. "Let's just shorten it a bit, sir. How about Rokhaset?" The name sounded vaguely Egyptian, said that way, and the tube- beard did kinda look like the tight little beards you saw on the Egyptian statues.

    "That will do well enough. Come then. You have stood long before my throne, and in the images your people send through the air the makatdireskovi has noted that you prefer to sit, as do we if the time is overly long."

    He gestured with his great scepter, and the other Nomes parted along the line of the gesture. It was a smooth and well-practiced movement that simultaneously gave me great respect for their attentiveness and reaction time, and a bit of wariness about our so-far genial host. That kind of coordinated, instant obedience I'd only seen in humans when the boss was a pretty hardassed tyrant... or in a very heavily drilled military establishment.



    At the far end of this pathway, a passage was visible in the light of our lantern. Noticing the beam again for the first time in a while brought something urgently to mind. "High Spirit, sir?"

    "Just call me Rokhaset, as you have named me. Might I call you Clinton Slade and your friend Jodi Goldman, instead of by formal terms? Yes? Very well, then. What is it?" The High Spirit led us down this new course.

    "Your people see using senses we don't-I guess the word you're using for it is 'turan'-and we see using ones you don't. The problem is that our light's going to go out in not too many hours, and we'll really be pretty helpless without it." This was something of an exaggeration, as we had several light sources on us which would enable us to manage some kind of illumination for quite a while, but I wanted to see what his reaction was.

    He tilted his head. "Rather as I am matturan near you and your iron and steel, eh? Give me this lantern of yours for a moment."

    "Be careful with it," Jodi admonished him.

    "As though it were a child, I assure you."

    Reluctantly she handed him the lantern. He took the hard- plastic cased giant flashlight and examined it carefully, running his fingers across it. "How do you activate it?"

    Jodi indicated the on/off switch, then had to physically place his fingers on it, as he couldn't actually see the gesture. While his people often gave the impression of sight like our own, things like this constantly reminded us that what we were seeing wasn't what they saw.

    Rokhaset moved forward. As we went to follow, he stopped and held out a hand. "Wait a moment, please. I wish to be able to examine this clearly, and your presence with all of your iron makes that impossible."

    We waited as he moved about thirty yards on, then stopped and examined the light again. There was a click and we were in darkness. "Hey!" I said.

    "Just testing. So it is now no longer giving you illumination?"

    "It's off."

    He verified this by switching it on and off several times, then brought it back to us. "I believe I can arrange something, if I understand the operation correctly." Rokhaset screeched some orders to his people, and then gestured for us to follow. "There are many things for us to discuss, I believe, but first it is time for us to speak together as friends. It has been a very, very long time indeed since my people and yours spoke as one people."

    "I wondered about that. There are legends among our people about spirits who live in the earth and who fear the sunlight or who are vulnerable to iron."

    "The 'sunlight,' as you call it, merely confuses some of us, and can damage our eyes over time by causing them to fog. There are some beings that avoid your sunlight for more pressing reasons." Rokhaset spoke those words as we passed along a polished-looking corridor. "But I am surprised by your people even having legends, for the time when the Nowëthada and the Tennathada walked and spoke together is many generations past even for my people. Indeed, it was thought to be no more than legend by many of the Nowëthada, as none of them could even tell whether your people spoke at all."

    We emerged now into another large hall, but this one seemed oval and had what appeared to be a long table and chairs of odd designs in it, with many Nomes going back and forth. The others formed into an honor guard as we approached. The High Spirit seated himself in the center of one long side of the table, and indicated we were to sit directly opposite him on the other side. The table was about five feet wide or so, allowing for plenty of room. The chairs were a bit short for us-not unexpected-but after a few minutes of sitting in them seemed surprisingly comfortable, though my legs did feel that they had very little clearance below the top of the table.

    "I've been thinking about what you just brought up, Rokhaset," Jodi said finally. "The problem is that there's no way you could have talked with us before. It wasn't until the past, oh, fifty years or so that we could've built gadgets that would let us hear you, and you hear us."

    " 'Gadgets'?" Rokhaset repeated, puzzled. "Gadgets... Do you mean these 'machines' like the ones you carry that make your voices sound like ours?"


    "Ah. Well, in those days, there was no need of such things. As our legends and histories relate it, we were a much closer people in the ancient time; that is, you and I would have seemed less alien to one another, and we would have had ways of speaking together that would be considerably more simple. But then came the Makurada Demagon... the, hmm, what would make sense in your language... the 'Senseless Shattering'? Ah, no... Darkness? Hmmm... Perhaps the best expression would be something like 'Plague of Blindness.' But that implies a disease, which this was not; it was a disaster which struck the whole world and affected it in different ways for each of the peoples who then inhabited it. The Nowëthada lost contact with Nowë, who was sore injured by the Makurada, and with your people, and while apart, we changed."

    "Who is Nowë? "

    "You would call Nowë our patron deity, god or goddess of the Earth. That is what Nowëthada means, the People of Nowë. It is at Nowë's will that we exist. We are the servants of the Earth, made to oversee the interaction of the living rock with those other things that live upon it." He sat up a bit straighter. "Ah, tell me how this seems to you."

    Light began to fill the room, shining out from several staff-like objects being carried into the room by other Nomes. It was light of a brilliant blue-white color, not exactly what I'd have chosen for lighting; but it saved on batteries and our host had apparently had this whipped together just for us. "That's just great, Rokhaset!"

    "You had your people do that up now?" Jodi asked. "Well, I'm impressed. Can I take a look?"

    "By all means, Jodi." It was still pretty strange to hear such courteous and very well-spoken English coming out of that unmoving mouth. The only oddity to the sound was a slight hollow resonance, but in this cavern setting it was hardly noticeable.

    Jodi studied the twisted stony shaft, which ended in a crystal that produced the light. "How do you turn it on and off?"

    "I suppose I could instruct it to turn off, but do you not still require the light?"

    "Oh, sure, sure. What do you mean, instruct it? Is this gadget voice-activated?"

    Rokhaset tilted his head a few times. "There you are, using these words oddly. Tell me, would you call our pets gadgets?"

    "You mean those things we call rockworms? No, they're creatures."

    "Then what you hold there is not a gadget either, if I understand you correctly."

    Jodi nearly dropped the rod. "Are you saying that this thing is alive? "

    "As alive as I am," the High Spirit agreed. "Not, I confess, nearly as capable of other activities as I. We grew that very quickly for one purpose only, to make that crystal hevrat in the same gos as your 'lights'... how would that be in your language... hmm... Yes, we made it to glow in the same way as your lights do. It provides little for us to sense, but for you it appears to suffice quite well."

    I shifted uncomfortably, then glanced down at the chair. "And what about..."

    I almost got the impression of a broad smile. "Ah, you have noticed that they grow, have you? Yes, certainly! How else could we have chairs that all would be comfortable in, for my people vary in size as do yours?"

    Jodi and I exchanged glances. I could see her mind following the same path. We kept getting deceived by the Nome's human-sounding voice and his-or, to be more accurate, the makatdireskovi's-grasp of our language, derived from the past forty years of broadcasts. Clearly we had much in common with the Nomes, and there was no reason we couldn't be friends. But, just as clearly, there were some very, very alien aspects to their civilization. The thought that even the furniture I was sitting on, the lights I was seeing... "Is everything here alive?"

    Surprisingly, that made Rokhaset pause; almost I could see him frowning in thought. "In a sense, yes... but not in the same sense as these things, no. The Earth itself is alive in its own way, but certainly there is a difference between the ordinary stone about us and ourselves, or these chairs or your new lights."



    Servant Nomes moved to the High Spirit, and other Nomes came in and seated themselves-leaving a respectful, and possibly fearful, distance between us and their leader. The servants placed several stony bowls, plates, and platters on the table. There was a quick discussion with some glancing at us, which Rokhaset resolved with a gesture. "I presume you have brought at least some of your own food, Mr. Slade, Ms. Goldman? For it is time for me to eat, but I suspect our food is not to your taste."

    "We've brought some stuff, yeah."

    Five huge covered platters were carried to the table, heavy enough to require two Nomes each, and placed carefully in front of the diners. The one in front of the High Spirit unfolded its top like a flower at his touch.

    In the brilliant blue-white glow, the dishes within shimmered with the colors of the rainbow. There were slices of some rich brown and yellow rippled stuff that looked almost like a chocolate and yellow swirled cake, some brilliantly red fruit-like things, some really peculiar transparent sticks, and other things like noodles, puddings, and crumbled croutons.

    "Are those... rocks?" Jodi asked tentatively.

    The High Spirit gave us a deliberate nod. "Properly prepared by the finest chefs, of course."

    "How do you cook a rock?"

    "Not using the trivial methods shown in your media, if I understand them correctly. Your people lost, in some ways, far more than we in the Makurada Demagon. "

    "So," I said, studying his plate, "What are those? The reds... garnets, maybe. The stuff that looked like cake slices at first must be layered limestone-the main rock around here."

    "You have an excellent eye for one of your people," Rokhaset said. "Though I am not sure of your first identification, your second is quite correct."

    Suddenly Jodi began laughing almost hysterically.

    "What's so durn funny?" She finally got a grip on herself. "You... you Slades! And the Nomes! All this time, you big, strong frontiersmen have been sneaking in and robbing the Nomes' pantries! You're nothing but overgrown mice with iron bars!" She went off into another fit of laughter.

    I blinked. Now there was a completely humiliating thought. "Is she right, sir? Have we been stealing your caviar- special food or something?"

    "In a manner of speaking, yes. I admit to having a fondness for H'adamant when I can afford to have some prepared. But I would hardly have sent out a legion of warriors to Tennatu just for my stomach!"

    "So why did you send your warriors after the diamonds?"

    "Not diamonds-H'adamant. "

    "Same thing."

    He shook his head, emphasizing his disagreement by using our own gesture. "Ridiculous. I have seen these 'diamonds' in your television advertisements. They are nothing like H'adamant. "

    "We weren't anything like what y'all got out of those broadcasts either," I pointed out. "There, Jodi's got herself a big diamond on her hand, you tell me that ain't the same thing."

    Jodi held out her engagement ring. Rokhaset studied it for a few minutes, then slowly raised his head and gazed at us with those weird crystal eyes for a long time in silence. Finally he reached out and placed one of the stones we'd returned to the Nomes on the table between us. "I return your question, Clinton Slade. You tell me that these two things are the same."

    "Shoot, I know they are. I've studied geology for years, and hell, it ain't hard to tell a diamond. Jodi's ring was cut from one of the ones we got down here."

    He stood bolt upright and shrieked out something that I couldn't make out because the transducers' volume cutoff killed it. Jodi and I jumped back, fumbling for the iron bars, sure that we were about to get mobbed.

    But no one else moved in a way that seemed hostile. If anything, they huddled together a bit more. Finally Rokhaset got himself under control. He sat down slowly and selected another morsel off the plate. I could see now that the mouth was located under the sound-tube he used for speaking-sort of where the chin-neck juncture would be in a human. He didn't seem to eat this with enthusiasm, but more like a man doing something while thinking.

    Finally he looked back at us. "I must beg your pardon. It is hard for someone such as myself to suddenly realize how alien your people are. I had foolishly permitted myself to think that because your words are translated to ones I understand by the makatdireskovi that we are really essentially the same, aside from a few minor differences." I got the impression of a long, shaky breath being drawn, though all I could see was a faint movement of the stony skin on the rounded torso. "To give you something you might understand, telling me that the... stone in the ring that Ms. Goldman is wearing is the same as this H'adamant would be the same as my holding out one of your skeletons and telling you, in all seriousness, that I could not tell the difference between the skeleton and the living, breathing Tennathada before me."

    He shuddered, a movement rather similar to our own. "Your people have lost more than I had ever imagined. This"-he indicated the natural diamond-"is a living stone, Clinton Slade, Jodi Goldman. The H'adamant is precious because of that living essence within it. Now that I know your people cannot see the difference, and that you call both by the name 'diamond'..." He shook his head again. "What a terrible waste. You cannot even see what it is that you destroy by cutting the stone in the way you do. We had foolishly thought that you needed the ... diamonds for the same reasons we did, for their special properties."

    "Well, since we're on the subject," I said, after a moment's pause, "we'd like to come to a more peaceable arrangement. Maybe a trade, something you'd like for stuff we'd like. Maybe we can bring you stones like aren't around here?"

    Rokhaset nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, there are possibilities-many crystals and minerals that we know of, yet cannot find here. But we would have to give you some way of making sure you brought us live stones, not ones whose essence had been damaged or destroyed. However, there are more pressing matters. You returned these few stones as a gesture of your goodwill, and so I have accepted it. But it is essential that you return the ones you took recently."

    I shifted in my living chair. "Well, sir, we can't exactly do that. For two reasons."

    "That would be extremely unfortunate. What reasons are these?"

    "Well, firstly, your people kinda wrecked our road. Really bad, this time. It'll take a week, at least, before we have a chance of getting out of here and making it to the bank where we keep the stones."

    Rokhaset's eyes flickered-literally-but the tone of his voice was warm and perhaps slightly amused, so I guessed that the flicker might be something like a smile. "What the Nowëthada can destroy, the Nowëthada can rebuild, and just as swiftly, Clinton Slade. If that is all that stands between us and the H'adamant, lay your fears to rest."

    I sighed. "Sorry, sir, but that's the smaller problem. Y'see, most of them are already sold. We've got some left, but not even a tenth of what was took."

    The whole room seemed to go silent. Rokhaset sat utterly immobile, as did the other Nomes, and for a few minutes it looked like we were stuck in some lunatic sculptor's workshop, surrounded by macabre statues.

    When the silence broke, it was by a hurricane of sound, gabbling Nomish voices all talking at once, with one alien word repeated so often as to be recognizable even in the Babel of noise: lurizata. The Nomes had risen from their seats and were now shouting back and forth at each other, sometimes gesturing unsettlingly in our direction.

    Just as it reached a new crescendo, Rokhaset's voice boomed out: "RATCHOTAI! "

    Dead silence fell again. It only lasted a split second, however, because the quiet was instantly broken by the High Spirit talking to his people. Well, I say "talking", but it sounded more like a lecture-or a tongue lashing. He laid into them but good. We couldn't understand it, of course, but we could pick out "lurizata," "H'adamant ," and some of the other words we'd heard before. His people shrank back, just like humans getting bawled out by the boss, as he continued his tirade. It must've lasted a full five minutes before he stopped, seemed to take a breath, and turned back to us.

    "My apologies, Clinton Slade, Jodi Goldman. Your news is very disheartening, and it seems some of my people were unready for such bad news. We had always believed you kept the H'adamant on your property. With all the H'kuraden that underlies it, we could not of course sense the crystals at any distance to see if they were in fact there. I should have realized the truth once I understood the diamonds of your transmissions were what became of our H'adamant. Unlike some of my less courageous subjects, however, I refuse to view the situation as hopelessly lost."

    "I think," Jodi said, "it's about time you told us just what the real problem is, neh? What's so vital about this particular batch of diamonds that you've just got to have them?"

    The High Spirit looked over at her, then gave one of his deliberate nods. "Yes, you are correct. But let us finish our meal first. A few more minutes should make little difference, and the story is long and not entirely pleasant."

    I was never so anxious for a meal to be over.

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