Chapter Twenty Two

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Ayna kept watch for them, in the narrow, barely-lit stairwell by the station's outer wall. With no immediate rush Kiris worked her breaker carefully, on alert for any hidden safety features in the airlock's locking mechanism. She didn't comment on her task, but if there were any potential complications she resolved them without raising an eyebrow. The little red light switched to green, except to anyone potentially paying attention up in administration it would still seem to be red.

"I suppose there's nothing to wait for," Kiris said. "Although I really was hoping for a longer stop."

"That makes two of us," Gaylen said and stepped up to the door. "And more, I assume."

He pulled the handle and the door opened with a bit of a hiss. Sulphuric air blew into his face, and Gaylen sighed inwardly as he stepped out. A narrow flight of stairs led down from the station and down onto the enormous series of platforms that ringed the mountain and helped keep the station in place.

All about were pillars and maintenance walkways, covered in white stalactite-like formations caused by the volcanic fumes. Up above loomed the huge station, and down below were the slopes of the mountain. The air was damp, felt unpleasant in his eyes and on his tongue, and made everything just slightly slick.

Gaylen tested the walkway with the toe of his boot before risking a full-length step.

"It's this way."

They'd emerged at circa the middle of the old poor town. It had consisted of a combination of plopped-down prefab houses and old maintenance buildings, connected via sealed walkways and underground tunnels. The planet's elements had had decades to wear away at it all, as had scavengers looking for things to sell, and no few roofs had collapsed.

"Good place for a ghost story..." Ayna muttered as they walked among it all.

It was late enough in the day that she didn't bother with the dark glasses, but still light enough for the rest of them to see Chukata's fascinatingly bleak landscape.

"It really does look like Hell," Herdis said, gazing to their left as they walked. "As some religions describe it."

"The World of Fire and Fumes," Kiris quoted. "Heh. Yes, I had some nasty missionary from the Holy Union threaten me with it, in between calling me a harlot."

"Was that due to you being a Chanei or just a woman?" Herdis asked.

"Both, probably."

"Ah, those people," Jaquan said.

"He was very annoying," Kiris said. "Young and full of righteous vigour. A day later I had some time to spare, so I broke into their temple outpost in the night, took off all my clothes and lay down next to him in his bed while he slept. His superiors did not like that find in the morning."

Ayna guffawed, Bers chuckled, and Gaylen grinned. He hadn't heard that story.

"That's... petty," Herdis said, although through a smile.

"He was extra annoying," Kiris said.

"I didn't say it wasn't good. What happened to that guy?"

"In private, probably a whole lot. Officially, nothing. The priests of the All-God do not succumb to sin, haven't you heard?"

"Oh, I have heard so very much about those fellows," Gaylen said.

They passed beneath an overhanging maintenance bridge, and across a walkway over onto another platform. The atmosphere slowly picked away at Gaylen, shortening his breath and stinging his eyes. He would really savour today's shower, brief though it had to be.

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