Illustration: Neben


Illustration by Taurin Fox of the planet Neben, from my novel Dangerous Thoughts

A scene from inside a crystal cavern on the planet Neben. These crystals shoot electricity at anyone nearby. They also grow and stretch and reach out. Deka is trying to obtain a sample for study while his fox tries not to get shocked. Qan (not shown) is the Archeon for this planet. She's a giant pangolin.

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***

A sphere opened into shimmering darkness. It held position as a solid sphere for a moment and then started to shiver. Kylac stepped out of it and stood to the side to make room for the other two. Qan stepped through next and stared ahead. A moment later, Deka stood next to her.

They were in a cavern about forty paces wide by one hundred long. Hundreds of crystals covered the floor, ceiling, and walls, each no bigger than Kylac’s hand, all arranged in perfectly straight rows with one claw’s reach between each of them. The crystals gave off faint blue light, bathing the entire cave in a subtle glow.

The portal was positioned over the spot where their stone had landed. The area directly under the shaft was one of two places where the crystals were not. The other was a winding path down the middle of the corridor. It led into a dark spot within the glow, a passageway further into the cave.

No cut stones here. The walls, floor, and ceiling were solid bedrock. The water had just recently receded, as the cave floor was damp and flecks of moisture still clung to the crystals.

Qan muttered some expressions that had no translation in the Relian language. Deka and Kylac were thinking of a few of their own.

“Do you feel that?” Deka said.

Kylac and Qan paused.

“Flowing electrons,” Qan said.

The fox approached the nearest crystal and knelt down to be at eye level with it. “It’s coming from the crystals.” He sniffed it. “Smells like...” He scented harder. “I’m not sure what mineral this is.”

Qan knelt beside Kylac and gazed at the crystal Kylac was scenting. The Nebens were not scent-based creatures, so she did try to smell it.

“Where are the electrons coming from?” Qan said.

Deka bent down near a crystal and scented it up close. A bolt of energy snapped from the crystal to Deka’s snout. The raptor yelped and hopped backwards.

Bolts of energy streaked from the two crystals closest to Kylac and Qan and struck them in the face, one bolt on Kylac’s muzzle, the other on Qan’s shoulder plate. They stumbled backwards a few steps and straightened up.

Kylac glared at the raptor. “Deka!”

“Sorry. Ow.”

Kylac turned and walked down the path, surveying the cave top to bottom. It was carpeted with the uniform crystals, floor, walls, and ceiling, all full of energy.

“Crystals don’t just hold energy no matter what they’re made of. What is this place?”

He looked down at his paws. His red and black fur looked strange in the pale blue light. He kept walking toward the end of the path, looking up and down at the walls and ceiling. The uniformity of the crystals was hypnotic, and the hum of the electricity took his breath away.

Deka and Qan walked abreast down the path a few paces behind the fox. The armored Neben looked so out of place here in the dark cave. The raptor kept his hands tucked in and his tail straight out.

A bolt shot from a tiny crystal and struck Deka’s foot. He shrieked again and hopped backwards a few steps. Another bolt leaped up and struck his tail. He jumped forward a few more steps, bumping into Qan, knocking her forward. Several bolts reached out and struck her. They passed through her, through Deka, out Deka’s tail, and into another crystal. The shock sent both of them stumbling around, crystal after crystal zapping them from every direction, raptor and Neben yelping. They bounced back and forth from bolt after bolt, and then Deka held still on the center of the path, holding both himself and Qan in place.

Kylac stood at the end of the path, facing them. “Are you two done?!”

His tail wagged wildly. It waved off the path, over a few crystals. A bolt of energy struck it. Kylac’s fur coat puffed out, and he stumbled to the side. His arm passed over the crystals on the other side of the floor, and energy struck his middle finger. His fur billowed even more, and he stumbled backwards into the cave opening.

Deka clicked his claws together extra loud so the fox would hear, keeping his hands very close to his chest.

Kylac was staring at something behind them, mouth open, tail between his legs.

“Deka... Qan...”

They carefully turned their heads. Several of the crystals closest to the portal were now as tall as they were, and expanding. Kylac recognized the ones that had first shocked himself and Qan. A separation formed, and the crystal branched out, growing larger, taller, and thinner around the base as it stretched silently, save for the increase in the humming. The base touched the surrounding eight crystals.

Kylac turned to his side. The crystals that had shocked him just now were rising out of the bedrock as well, growing in his direction. A bolt of energy reached out from one of them and struck Kylac on the nose. Kylac yipped and backed further away, and the crystal altered course toward where it had shocked him.

“Qan! Deka! Come on!”

The crystals that had shocked Kylac were growing over the path and the exit. Deka dashed straight for it. As soon as he was near, he dropped to his side and slid under them. They shocked him as he passed by, and new branches of crystal grew underneath the main branch, following the lines of electricity that had connected with Deka’s body.

Qan looked back at the portal. Crystals all over the cave were growing, reaching out, touching each other, weaving in and out of each other, joining up, sharing bolts of energy.

She faced the Relians and saw more crystals growing over the path, and even more on the way. Then she dashed down the path, dove under the crystals, and slid into the entrance. As she passed beneath, the crystals shocked her and adjusted their growth, following the bolts and angling their way to the door.

The crystals by the portal were reaching out to it. Deka released the equations, and the portal winked out of existence just before the crystals touched it. They collided with the wall and stopped. By the time they reached it, they were thin enough to be nearly invisible.

From floor to ceiling they grew. Hundreds of them quickly merged into a lattice. Bolts of energy streaked between them. New branches formed from nearly every crystal at once, and these new branches extended toward the three Archeons. They backed up and ran down the tunnel.

Deka stumbled on the uneven floor of the cave. “What was that?!”

“I’ve never seen anything like that before!” Qan said.

“I’ve never seen cave crystals do that either!” Deka shouted. “Any ideas, Kylac?”

Kylac’s fur was laughably puffy, and it billowed as they ran. “I have no idea.”

The tunnel curved to the right, and they emerged inside another chamber covered in tiny, glowing crystals with another thin path on the floor waving through them.

Deka’s neck curled backwards at the sight. “What are these things?”

“If we could examine one, we might be able to figure out what they’re made of,” said the fox. “Maybe find out where the electrons are coming from.”

“Good thinking.”

Deka stepped forward, flexing the killing claws on his toes. He approached one crystal. It launched a bolt of energy at his foot. Deka gritted his teeth and kept walking. He was close enough to the other crystals that they launched energy at him as well. Deka grunted and growled and hooked his killing claw around the base of the crystal. He tugged and pulled as electrons washed over him, but the crystal wouldn’t budge from the stone floor.

The crystals nearest him grew into the energy bolts streaking up to Deka like fingers. The crystal Deka was working on wasn’t moving, but it was growing up to meet where it had shocked his foot.

Deka dropped to one knee, reached down with both hands, and grabbed it. The energy flowed over him like water. Deka howled and shrieked and cursed in multiple languages. The crystal had stopped growing, but the ones around him were making their way toward him.

Deka twisted and pulled and twisted and pulled. The crystal cracked, and Deka threw his whole body into it, snarling. Finally it broke free from the ground. Deka fell backwards, and Kylac and Qan grabbed him and dragged the raptor away from the branches.

“Deka, that was incredibly stupid!” Kylac said. “Well done!”

Qan sped past them. “Run!”

Half a dozen crystal fingers grew straight for them, humming with electrons. Qan stayed in the center of the path, but it didn’t matter how close or how far she was from them. Bolts of energy shot from the ones near the path, and those began reaching for her. A few crystals found each other, exchanged bolts, and merged into a single, thick stalk.

Kylac pulled Deka up to his feet and led him down the path, receiving shocks every step of the way. The crystals adjusted course and followed them, and the Relians kept running until they passed through the exit on the other side. They turned around. The crystals grew and reached in all directions. Some of them met and merged together. Eventually no crystal in the room was asleep in its bed; all were growing, touching each other, sharing snaps of electricity.

Then, all at once, they seemed to decide where to go, and new branches formed, reaching straight at the exit from the cave. Qan led the way into the tunnel, Relians on her heels, and they ran until they could no longer feel the hum of electricity.

They sat down on the cave rock. Deka still held the broken crystal in one hand. It was large, heavy, and solid as rock. It wasn’t glowing anymore. A dark piece of cave crystal. Nothing more. Shaking from the voltage he absorbed, Deka handed it to the fox.

“There. Examine all you want.”

Kylac took it from him, scented it, tasted it, listened to it.

“It’s a mineral. Perhaps many minerals. I can’t tell what it is.” His tail wagged and his ears perked. “But it has all the properties of a Relian reptile: durable, nearly unbreakable, full of energy, occasionally destructive, and prone to sudden changes in mood. With your permission, Qan, I want to name this stuff Dekanite.”

“I like it,” she said, shaking her head from side to side in laughter.

Deka was still shivering and twitching, but he did manage to rub his claws together.


***

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Thank you so much, Taurin Fox, for capturing this moment.

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