Why’d we stop?” Win asked.
“It quit,” Dirck replied. “And look.”
Everyone’s attention followed his silhouetted finger to green tracer lights near the horizon.
“C’mon!” he said, nodding toward the open door through which cool air rushed inside in a frigid gust. “Let’s get outa here!”
“Wait!” Win replied, raised hand barely visible in the shadows. “Let’s think this through.”
“There’s no time!” Dirck insisted. “C’mon! We’re in no position to mess with a patrol veke.”
“We’re not in any position to run, either,” Win said. “The transport is probably the safest place we can be. It’s getting cold, there’s no place to hide, plus who-knows-what’s out there.”
“Like shackle snakes,” Dirck recalled grimly, thoughts turned backward on a distant time.
“Exactly. They’re probably in hibernation by now but who knows what’s taken their place? Besides, patrollers could find us with little effort, anyway, and running would be incriminating. Our IDs should be in order. We didn’t have any problems in Cira City. As far as we’re concerned, we were on our way to Dununda when the transport went psycho. Chances are good they’ll believe it. If they even show up.”
The light in the distance didn’t seem to be getting any closer, yet lacked lateral movement, the usual indication of a head-on trajectory. Undoubtedly they’d been spotted. Meanwhile, Win and Aggie tried vainly to get some response from the transport.
“The storage battery’s drained,” Win concluded. “The suns’ incidence angle is too low to charge it and the battery probably only stores enough for the final trip to the terminal. Looks like we’ve run it dry.”
“Wonderful,” Dirck muttered, eyes still fixed on the approaching veke.
“How far are we from the caverns?” Creena asked.
“About eleven kilometers. A long but feasible walk except our footprints would be a dead giveaway,” Win replied. “They wouldn’t only find us but the caverns as well. To say nothing of the S3s. Not good.”
“Perfect,” Dirck muttered sarcastically. “Plus the dead transport. Nothing like leaving a hot trail.”
Creena squirmed, enveloped by a sudden sense of doom. Maybe she’d never make it to see ‘Merama and Deven after all. “So what are we going to do?” she asked.
Dirck’s armor squeaked, divulging his shrug. “Not much we can do except wait and hope we regain some power from what little light there is. Meanwhile we sit here like bushbirds waiting for a phynque migration.”
Ignatius, or Igni, as Win now called him, spouted the expected confusion from his translator while Thyron, who’d been uncharacteristically silent, fluttered briefly. Creena caught a breath of green and waited for his rhymed words to follow, but he held his peace. Still the tracer lights persisted, the separation of blue and yellow now discernible as it came closer.
“Looks like we’re in for some company,” Win said grimly. “Let’s at least get our stories straight. Me and Dirck were on our way to check out a local disturbance. How about the rest of you?”
Igni responded with a sustained burst of static, his usual response to unexpected situations.
“All right, listen,” Win said. “You were going to visit local authorities about a satellite HIO office. Aggie came along to check demographics from the datalogs.”
“Concede,” Igni responded.
Creena felt everyone’s attention shift in her direction. Feeling the scrutiny, Thyron huddled closer and she gently tucked one of his leaves away from her face. Except for that one brief stretch outside the Dununda dome he hadn’t left her arms since the CSF.
So. What could she possibly be doing out there, alone? Taking her vegemal for an evening stroll? Before her muddled mind could come up with a suitable alibi the compact, disk-shaped craft was there, flood lights blinding them as focused beams grilled the transport. Two patrollers disembarked, their veke bedecked with the banners of Sigma/Epsilon. The pair walked slowly toward the transport, lasomags leveled.
Win stood at attention, hand poised to palm open the door. “Okay, ready or not, here it goes,” he said grimly. “I’ll stall him as long as possible, so think of something, Creena.”
“Hey, are we ever glad to see you,” he said, the fallacious greeting falling heavily on Creena’s ears. “I don’t know what got into this thing, man, but it sure never made it to Dununda.”
The floodlights revealed an intimidating, armor-clad figure cast in harsh shadows. Without a word he motioned them off the transport toward his companion, who extended a palm board.
“Palm in. All of you,” he ordered.
As soon as everyone exited the other trooper climbed onboard to search the transport. “You gotta permit for the ‘troid?” he asked Igni.
“Concede,” Igni replied, apparently comfortable with his implied procedures as he pulled the coin-like purchase order from his belt. “Loan from Delta/Epsilon Minister of Regional Development.”
The officer scanned it on the palm board, then grunted satisfaction. “What about you two?” he inquired, directing a beam of radiant light in Win’s, then Dirck’s face.
“We’re checking on reports of local disturbances per a personal directive from the RG,” Win replied.
“What kind of local disturbances?”
“I can’t tell you that, sir.”
“Why not?” the trooper replied.
“Because I’m under orders not to, sir,” Win said, polite but firm.
“I see.” Apparently satisfied, he turned his light on Creena. “And what exactly are you doing out here, young lady?”
“I’m, uh, sort of visiting, sir,” she answered, totally lost for a more coherent reply.
“And who exactly are you sort of visiting?”
“My uh, m-my aunt. I haven’t seen her in a, a long time. She was, uh, supposed to m-meet me. At the t-t-terminal.”
“Why the vegemal?” he asked, eyeing Thyron suspiciously as he huddled closer in her arms.
“He always g-goes with m-me, sir. E-everywhere.”
“What’s your name?”
Creena didn’t answer, only stared back with wide, frightened eyes as the patroller studied the palm board.
“You’re a runaway, aren’t you?” he said, light dropping from her face to the ground as he squinted harder at the backlit display. “Who are you? You’re sure as Bezarna not a jendak. Who fixed up the phony ID?”
As if equally disturbed by their plight, the ground shuddered beneath them, transport rocking precariously. Everyone froze.
“What was that?” the second patroller asked.
“I don’t know,” the first replied. “Call in and see if any new excavations or mining ops are licensed out here. It’s the tail end of quake season, so that’s possible, too. Meanwhile, all of you back in the transport.”
Creena beat the others back inside, the patroller securing the door before joining his partner in their veke. Still clutching Thyron, she sat on the nearest seat, grateful to be out of the cold and scrutiny. Aggie clamped onto a handrail from sheer habit while the others stood awkwardly near the front. Igni’s translator popped a few times and Win gestured to turn it off.
“What's going on?” Aggie asked quietly. “Is Cyraria seismically stable?”
“Not really,” Dirck whispered back. “It’s the worst during High Opps passage but should be phasing out by now. ’Merapa has never said anything to the contrary, and he ought to know.”
As if mocking his reply the ground rumbled again, harder this time, knocking the transport even further askew as its keel dipped forward.
“I don’t like this,” Creena said.
“No kidding,” Dirck agreed, shifting his weight to keep his balance.
A protoplasmic prelude from Thyron gathered around her but before words could form the transport lurched violently. It teetered back and forth a moment as a fissure split the ground then abruptly tilted forward and dropped into nothingness. Creena screamed as she and everyone except well-secured Aggie scrambled desperately to grab something solid. How a vehicle that size could descend so suddenly into an empty void was unknown but the fact they were falling stole everyone’s breath and composure alike, a variety of yells and shrieks echoing throughout the interior as the vehicle dropped like a rock.
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