Augustus Troy’s office on Cyraria was a lot different than the luxurious one he had onboard the Aquarius. Located mid-depth in the Territorial Tower in Cira City, it was spacious but spartan, the workdeck and fixtures government issue. The windowless walls were dull with dust and littered with plaques bearing a holographic image of the Epsilon territorial crest. His uniform was black as before, plain except for green bars on his shoulders, with no collar, and no hat. He rocked back in his chair, hands folded on his chest and heartless eyes riveted on the holographic image before him. He was logged into the PLED, the Planetary Law Enforcement Database, which contained the criminal records of everyone on the planet.
Across from him sat ‘Merapa, straight in his chair with arms folded, expression blank other than a hint of impatience lurking around eyes rimmed with dark circles. His hair was over his ears and streaked with grey. He looked as if he hadn’t slept in weeks. The prison uniform was drab green, too short, and baggy through the shoulders. He’d lost weight, lots of it, and his color bore a strong resemblance to the clothes.
“I hope you realize, Brightstar, that if you’d taken better care of my TL-87 we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Troy said. “Furthermore, you accessed sensitive information. Looks to me like it’s either sign up or a one way warp run to Bezarna. It’s all up to you.”
The room was warm, but not hot, the air charged. Troy studied his prisoner, reached over and opened a bin in his desk where he removed some Lemitini. He proceeded to unwrap it slowly, peeling back each fold with careful, deliberate motions as if to emphasize its value and the fact he could enjoy such luxuries.
“I could use someone of your caliber in my organization,” he said, then looking ‘Merapa straight in the eye, broke off a piece of the prized morsel and popped it in his mouth, closing his eyes and savoring its tantalizing flavor dramatically before continuing.
“And it won’t stop here,” he went on finally. “This is but child’s play. Going through the motions for appearances, that sort of thing. But not for long.” He folded his arms and set his gaze once more on his captive. “You won’t be bothered with political worries, though. That’s my department. But the planet, quite literally, will be yours. Challenges and opportunities beyond your wildest dreams.”
‘Merapa’s expression hadn’t changed, the same look of detachment, even disinterest, lining his features, though his overall countenance was gaunt with strain.
“You could move your family into a roomy subterre, here in the City. No more dirt, heat, all that physical labor business. A proper education for your children, a well-deserved social life for your wife. Everything you expected when you came to this forsaken place.” Troy leaned forward, searching his eyes. “Interested?”
‘Merapa didn’t hesitate. “No.”
Troy leaned back and raised his eyebrows. “I’ll give you more time to think about it, if you’d like. Would you like to reconsider?”
“I’ll make it worth it, for you and your family.”
“You’re a bit less talkative than onboard the Aquarius, aren’t you?” he taunted. “These charges are rather serious, you know. Attaindered prisoners don’t warrant a trial.” Troy picked up the last piece of Lemitini, held it out as a final taunting gesture, then shrugged and took a long, careful bite which he savored as before. When his eyes opened they were cold and hard.
“Nice knowing you, Brightstar,” he snarled. “Next ship to Bezarna is in a week.” He palmed the side of his desk to summon a guard. Within moments the door dissolved and a commando appeared.
“I’ll be sure your family is properly notified,” Troy went on, voice bearing a razor’s edge. “In fact, maybe I’ll do it personally. I do believe I’d like to meet your bondling.”
The chronometer on the wall read E-59.
Dirck bolted awake, confused by the dark and the cool sound of water. He sat up slowly, drenched in a cold sweat, gradually remembering where he was amid the lingering smell of Lemitini and the heat from Troy’s office. He got up quietly to get a drink then sat in the pale light of the great room’s single uncovered luma, trying to shake the image and effects of the dream.
He covered his face, pressed his fingers to his eyes, but the picture remained, undarkened. If only his father wasn’t so stubborn. If only he’d listened. Then he wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. As always, blaming didn’t work. Any vestige of anger that had survived the transition to the cave evaporated, like a splash of icy water. While still elusive, understanding his father’s motives had been glimpsed, except the plane was higher than his reach. Somehow his father had done it for them, not to them. By not compromising his principles he’d given them everything, in spite of the consequences. But honor at what price?
The soft shuffle of footsteps sounded from his mother’s sleeproom and a moment later she was beside him, trembling. She’d had the same dream. He just knew it. Like he knew Enoch wouldn’t make any sudden appearances.
What’s going on? he thought. There’s something weird about this place, even weirder than Win can imagine.
“There’s a lot more he hasn’t told me, isn’t there?” ‘Merama asked softly. Dirck nodded. They discussed their respective dreams only long enough to determine they’d been identical. “We have to do something,” she said. “Before that meeting happens.”
“I don’t know. But someone or something does. We’ve been taken care of so far. And whoever or whatever it is certainly knows how to help your father.”
“But it’s already E-74! We only have fifteen days!”
‘Merama got up, expression unreadable. “If that meeting takes place, he’ll be sent to Bezarna. As you surely know, no one can come back from a blackhole. If we weren’t supposed to intervene we wouldn’t have been told.”
He shrunk from the words, knowing she didn’t mean we at all. Then she kissed him on the head and returned to her sleeproom, leaving him to ponder the impossible.
The protective role of parent and child had reversed at his father’s arrest, something he still hadn’t fully accepted much less been ready for. Even when he’d been building the heat exchanger or digging the safe, the fact she was there had urged him on, as if she could bail him out if he ever got stuck. It hadn’t been Win, or ‘Merapa’s detailed plans, or luck, or lack of it. It had been her confidence, not his own, that had enabled him to do what had to be done. But he wouldn’t be able to break his father out of prison on borrowed strength.
He remained in the great room’s pale light, too agitated to go back to sleep and trying to figure out what to do first. That came easily, yet introduced another uncertainty, how to tell Win. There was definitely something strange about the cavern. Win had picked up on it all along, but in a different way. It had given his friend the creeps, whereas Dirck had felt serenity. But evidence was building that there was indeed more than that. His mind was clearer and sharper. Bits of knowledge flashed in his mind, source unknown. He wondered if it had any connection with the message he’d received about Creena still thinking he was a snurk. Maybe it wasn’t the cave at all, but related to that. It was as if bits of consciousness which had previously been asleep were suddenly waking up, his awareness expanded beyond anything he ever imagined before.
And then there was the dream. But it was more than a dream. It was too clear, too detailed, too lucid. ‘Merama’s version was identical, right down to the territorial crest and the time on the chronometer. It was as if someone or something had shown them both the same holovid. But for what purpose?
Rescuing his father was a formidable task. He didn’t even know where the prison was. They had no transportation and simply deleting the charges from the PLED was not an option. He needed Win’s confidence and planning skills, but how would he tell him about the dream? His friend was paranoid enough without finding out something was affecting his psyche. He probably wouldn’t even believe him which, he suddenly realized, was the very reason ‘Merama had seen the same thing.
Win would believe her even if he wouldn’t believe him.
And getting weirder by the moment, the more he thought about it.
Dirck closed his eyes and listened to the quiet cadences of flowing water. His father had often talked as if the Universe were alive and that there was a creator, a grand architect, who kept an eye on things, albeit from afar.
If there’s anyone out there listening, help us, he thought.
He didn’t have a clue what to do, yet intuitively knew he had no choice but to do something. But what? He took a deep breath and buried his face in his hands, trying to force his thoughts into logical Miran mode. Maybe then he could at least identify his options. The fact they were there with the bnolar seemed a bit magical in itself. Maybe they could help. He wondered where Enoch lived, how many bnolar were there, what kind of culture they had. Footsteps interrupted his reverie, soft, but distinct. He opened his eyes. Win’s form silhouetted the archway briefly, then headed in his direction.
“What’s going on?” he asked, looking around anxiously. “Why are you out here?”
Dirck sighed, unprepared to tell him, but somehow knowing now was the time. Whatever had come upon him the last little while embraced his senses again and set him at peace. Yes, now was the time. Furthermore, they only had a few days, anyway, to pull off the impossible. Win would just have to deal with it.
“Sit down,” he said.
Win complied, nervousness controlled, but still apparent.
“Something happened to me and my mother tonight,” he began, staring at the luma across the room as if it could coach his words.
“What?” Win asked, voice tight with renewed anxiety.
Dirck took a breath, let it out. “We both had the same dream. And I mean more than same. Identical. Right down to the remotest detail.”
“About what? Was it some kind of message?”
“Definitely,” Dirck stated, eyes still straight ahead. So far so good. Maybe Win would believe him after all. “But I’m not sure how to proceed,” he added.
“What was it about?”
“Is he all right?” Win asked, tone softening.
“Not really. And not for long.” He faced his friend and met him eye to eye. “Remember what you told me, that Troy would make him an offer?” Win nodded. “Well, that was it.”
“Did he accept?”
“No. Of course not. And Troy told him that was his last chance, that a ship was leaving for Bezarna in a week and he’d be on it. He said we’d be notified. Personally. Which ought to be interesting, given that now we’re here.”
“Yeah. Just what we’d need. So your mother had the same dream?”
“Exactly the same. Right down to the E-59 on the chronometer. I don’t know what, but we have to do something.”
Win’s eyes were wide, breathing irregular. “Do you have any idea what you’re suggesting? Any idea? I’ve heard a lot of wild tales, lived a few myself, but I’ve never, repeat never heard of anyone breaking out of a territorial prison. Impossible, man.”
“I’m not talking about him breaking out,” Dirck stated. “I’m talking about us breaking him out.”
“Still impossible,” Win declared, swearing under his breath. “More than impossible. Incomprehensible.”
“’Merapa always said nothing was impossible.”
“Yeah, right,” Win said. “But I’ll just bet he’d never been in prison before, either, had he?”
“I suppose not,” he replied and set his jaw as if it could stop his slipping confidence. Without Win’s help it would be impossible. “But he also used to say that without hope there’s nothing. And his only hope for getting out of there right now is us. Us or Bezarna. So can I count on your help or do I have to do it myself?”
Win stared at him long and hard, expression gradually softening. “All right. I suppose we’re in this together. But we have less than fifteen days to get him out. Fourteen, actually. Whew! A few days more than two lousy weeks!” Win swore under his breath again then sighed. “All right, here’s what we need to do. I’ve been thinking about this place and the underground tunnel network. We need to find out where it goes. We also need to contact your uncle and find out if he’s been able to do anything to help. Going to see him would be best, so there’s no message trail. If somehow he got any of the charges reduced maybe your father wouldn’t be in such a secure area, which would help a lot. If these tunnels go as far as the SD, we may be able to accomplish quite a bit. Our biggest problem is transportation. Let’s check this place out and see what it has to offer. I suspect there’s a lot more than we think.”
Dirck stifled a smile as Win returned to normal, the strategic planner in action. Getting to the Supply Depot would help for a variety of reasons. Impossible or not, at least he’d regained his sense of control or at least purpose. “I can’t imagine having a dream like that if there was nothing we could do. I think you’re right about this place. I can see why it gives you the creeps. But it doesn’t give me a bad feeling, only a strange one. You’re right. We need to investigate what’s right here that may be able to help.”
“Including Deven’s friend. Where’s he been, anyway? I would think he’d be all over us, checking us out, after letting us move in like this.”
“They’re not like that. In fact, I think it was you who kept him from coming around.”
“Me?” Win asked, genuinely surprised. “Why?”
“They’re empathic, thus sensitive to feelings and emotions. You were upset, so they wouldn’t bother you until you were ready. They didn’t want to upset you more.”
“Well, I'm ready now,” Win said.
“In that case we can probably expect to see him soon. My mother hasn’t met him, either. Do you feel like going out and looking around?”
“Should we leave your mother and Deven here alone?”
Dirck wondered if Win would ever understand why he felt so secure. Maybe after he’d met Enoch. “They’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ll just tell her we’re going, though, so she won’t worry, especially after having that dream.”
When he entered her sleep area, she stirred on the mat then propped herself up on an elbow, form barely visible in the luma’s gentle light. Deven was but a darker shadow curled up beside her, breathing even with deepest sleep. “I’ve been listening,” she whispered. “I’m glad he’s doing better than before. Go ahead. I know you can figure out something. And good luck.”
With a grim smile he waved goodbye and returned to Win, hoping her confidence was not tragically misplaced. They put on their boots then stepped outside their grotto and past the Great Room to the other side, where they’d never been before. They followed the nearest pathway for a short distance until the trickling of an aquifer echoed around them, a gentle but persistent reminder of what water could accomplish over time. A few more steps and they were in another massive cavern, a stream twisting and splashing amongst the stalagmites.
Dirck stooped to get a drink then eyed the various multi-colored stone columns and other formations preventing a clear view of what lay on the other side.
“Which way?” he asked.
Win looked toward the direction they’d come in from, then around the cavern’s perimeter. A shadow of apprehension flitted across his face then disappeared. “We can either investigate any other tunnels that branch off from here or go back to where we came in, where those other branches start.”
“Let’s see how many branch off from here first,” Dirck said.
Win agreed, and they continued down the path away from their private grotto, further into the depths. Gradually the ceiling lowered and tapered to another tunnel. It was wider than the outside entrance, had a steeper downward pitch, and the walls were a different type of stone, greyer and smoother, eroded by rushing water rather than small aquifers like the one that comprised their waterfall. Live luma grew in available crevices and holes, but the way was brighter, the rock a shimmering calcite with phosphorescence of its own.
“What d’ya think?” Dirck asked, pausing before going any further.
“Let’s check it out,” Win said.
Echoes of limestone crunching beneath their feet followed them as they proceeded deeper and deeper, Dirck trying to make as little noise as possible, yet knowing bnolar perception was not keyed on sound, anyway. The tunnel continued downward, twisting from side to side, until it eventually split in two. He stopped, Win likewise.
“Are you absolutely certain these aliens are friendly?” Win asked, “All of them, not just Deven’s friend?”
Dirck frowned pensively. He’d never considered that the entire race wouldn’t be of the same sentiment as Enoch. Not all humans were equal on the friendly scale. Maybe bnolar had varying degrees, also. But no. That was logic speaking. What he felt with his entire being was that yes, they were all like Enoch. In fact, they all were Enoch. And then he wondered where that thought had originated and what it meant.
“They’re all friendly,” he said. “At least peaceful. And they all know we’re here. We probably shouldn’t call them aliens, either, since they’re indigenous to Cyraria and we’re not. We’re the aliens.”
Win looked at him strangely. “You’re right,” he agreed. “I hadn’t really thought about it that way.”
With that profound thought, they started down the right-hand branch. A few steps later they both stopped simultaneously. There was no audible sound, nothing discernibly different, but Dirck knew they should go no farther. Win apparently did, too.
“Do you feel that?” his friend asked, puzzlement marring his expression.
“What?” Dirck asked, “The feeling we shouldn’t go on?”
“Yeah. That’s it. So you have it, too, it’s not just me?”
“No,” Dirck agreed. “It’s not just you. We shouldn’t be here. Let’s go back and try the other way.”
They turned and ran back to the split, then proceeded down the left branch instead.
“What do you think was down there?” Win asked, a hint of nervousness returning to his voice as he looked back over his shoulder.
“I don’t know. It was as if it screamed ‘No!’ or something, yet without words. It almost felt like some kind of energy field.”
“Yeah, but it was more like mental energy, not physical,” Win went on. “Have you noticed how your memory’s better here, how you can think more clearly? It’s weird.”
Dirck laughed with relief. “I have, but I didn’t know if you’d picked up on it, and wasn’t sure how to bring it up. I’d sure like to know why, if it’s just getting away from the ballome and Opposition so we feel safer or what."
“I would, too,” Win replied. “Besides, we only got a few hours sleep yet I’m not tired.”
“Me, either. I thought it was adrenaline.”
“Maybe some, but this is different. More stable or something. Can you imagine if a place like this got into the wrong hands? The strategic advantage it would be?”
“I’m not sure I want to,” Dirck said. “But I can see why they swore Deven to solemn secrecy.”
The feeling of the alternate passageway was the complete opposite of the other, its climate welcoming and friendly, beckoning them forward instead of driving them back. Without fear or reservation they continued for a kilometer or more through the stone concourse, path alternately dipping and falling or rising before them, another branch formed by an inrush of water as opposed to long-term dripping and limestone buildup like their grotto. Eventually the ground leveled out, widened then suddenly opened into an expansive vestibule with a nexus of continuing passages diverging on every side. There were still no drip formations, just varicolored stone worn smooth, height of the vaulted ceiling lost in darkness above.
With so many choices before him, Dirck sat down on a rock to think. For one thing, they couldn’t forget where they’d come in or they might not get back. But the thought of getting lost had barely materialized when he knew it was wrong. Rationally, it made sense, but he knew he didn’t have to worry. Of course they’d get back. They couldn’t get lost if they tried. And it didn’t matter, anyway, because they were supposed to wait right there. He watched a similar thought dawn on Win’s face as a frown. His friend sat down beside him.
“This is too weird,” he muttered. “They’re meeting us here, aren’t they?”
“I know,” Dirck said. “What do you know about telepathy? Have you ever had anything to do with it before?”
“A little.” Win’s eyes grew distant, thought lines slashing his brow. When he spoke his tone was somewhere between awe and suspicion. “I knew someone once that was a Ledorian. You know, that religion?” he said. “He told me that thoughts have substance, that energy and matter are different forms of the same thing, and there are different kinds of matter. Supposedly we can transmit our thoughts. They’re more powerful than electromagnetic radiation. You know, like radio waves, which are limited to the speed of light. Thought energy, I think it’s called psi waves, is not only instantaneous but can reach anywhere in the universe instantaneously.”
Dirck frowned, remembering that his father had said the same thing, though what he initially had in mind with his question was that weird message he’d received back in the heat-assaulted ballome. That had been distinct words, in rhyme, no less, whereas these impressions lacked specific words, yet still delivered a strong message of what to do, almost as if the thoughts were his, yet he knew they weren’t. Or were they?
“Do you believe that?” Dirck asked, not sure whether he did himself.
“I’m beginning to. I didn’t then, but this place...” Win stopped in mid-sentence when Dirck held up his hand.
“It’s Enoch,” he said quietly, watching for a reaction. “He’s just down that passage.” He took a deep breath. “I hope you're ready for this.”
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