Dirck sat at the comcon, staring blankly at the various messages hovering before him, mind faraway in the unexpected quiet. ‘Merama had gone to visit Zahra at the comcenter, ‘Merapa was working, as usual, and Deven was outside somewhere, doing whatever little kids do.
He was having a difficult time adjusting to the schedule shift, his body clinging to its former rhythms while his mind struggled to function. In such moments that bad feeling about the heat exchanger inevitably gripped him again, as always, and his stomach tightened on cue with the thought. He could tell his father was worried, too, expressing more than once that a cavernous gap existed between understanding the principle and producing a working model, especially when the preferred components weren’t available. There were only 139 days left before High Opps, adequate time for a design study, but not to build the actual hardware.
But they had to try, the results of failure too dire to entertain.
After growing up on Mira III Dirck could almost comprehend the dark chill of winter, but this heat was like nothing he’d ever imagined. He still hadn’t completely figured out Cyraria’s numerous seasons due to the complexity of its binary star system. Including High Opps there were sixteen separately defined periods, temperature extremes matched by wildly divergent lengths of day and night. All this because the planet not only orbited its two stars in a lemniscate or figure-eight pattern, but also rotated on its side, poles parallel to its orbital plane rather than perpendicular, which was more the norm. Thus, Cyraria had two things working against it, both resulting in climate extremes.
He recalled that ‘Merapa had once commented that the lemniscadian orbit was extremely rare and likewise unstable; what the implications of that might be he didn’t know and was afraid to ask given that things were bad enough already. He did know that the planet’s passage between its two suns was a precarious time, not only from heat but opposing gravity. Fortunately it only occurred approximately every twenty standard years. Unfortunately their arrival time placed them there just in time for their latitude’s most lethal seasonal band.
On impulse he brought up Cyrarian Climate Central to see if this time he could figure out how the seasons played out. The combined calendar and almanac, or calmanac, showed the immediate situation but didn’t provide the particulars, which he felt a need to understand. The message board dissolved and a virtual image of the Cyrarian system resolved in the space before him.
Currently the planet was entering the corridor between its two suns when it was closest to both simultaneously, the equator perpendicular to both. Thus, for their mid-latitude location both Zinni and Zeta were above the horizon all the time in a lopsided circumpolar orbit. That he could follow because he could see it, day in, day out.
He changed the view from the top view of the entire system to what was visible from their location. The path of both would continue to tilt until again they would rise and set, but only barely; each would linger beneath the horizon for only a short time and daylight would still be constant. That made sense, too, because he’d noticed that as the days progressed it was higher on one side of the sky and lower on the other, the difference increasing. Unfortunately, the higher it reached, the stronger its effects. He advanced the animation to Up Opps, when Cyraria began to orbit Zeta, leaving Zinni behind. At that time both Zeta’s and Zinni’s respective paths would rise and set, at which point, thanks to their 45 degree latitude, at least they wouldn’t be directly overhead. That alone reduced their heat, while one chased the other across the sky, meaning one or the other would be visible at all times.
Ironically, cooling came quickly not long after that as first Zeta disappeared below the horizon, then Zinni sank lower and lower until it, too, was gone as well as distant, resulting in a period of utter darkness during which time their lives would depend on staying warm.
Too bad they couldn’t save some of Opp’s heat for Dead Drop Winter, he thought.
Now that he had a better understanding of the dynamic dance between Cyraria and its two stars he switched to the end results in the form of specific weather projections.
Anteopps, which was where they were now, was bad enough, with daytime temperatures already 43 degrees centigrade or 110 degrees Fahrenheit and increasing daily. High Opps, when it would reach at least 101C (214F) was incomprehensible. Temperatures were given for ambient, or air temperature. Objects exposed to continual zetalight got even hotter. Sodium was known to melt at Peak Opps and its melting point was documented at over 97C, nearly the boiling point of water. As a prelude, a dribble of sweat coursed from his temple to his chin and he switched off the image, less than comforted by the confirmation of everything his father had said.
He then covered his eyes wearily with his hands as if to hide from the vicious realities settling on his mind, one of which was how long it was taking Merapa to calculate how much heat energy they’d have to remove to keep the ballome at a “comfortable” 29C (85F). His rising frustration was evident due to the fact that everything was taking longer than expected. Technical information sources which were at his fingertips on Mira III now were either inaccessible or difficult to find, forcing him to either draw from memory or in some cases derive the data from scratch.
He’d gotten the c-com when he and Jen visited Esheron, and he hadn’t downloaded everything he needed before they’d left Mira due to the fact the dire situation they were in now was entirely unknown. Thus he had to baseline it with his own knowledge then command it specifically how to expand the data, which sometimes involved excursions down divergent paths, wasting time and effort. Finding substitutions for the ideal materials and components which met system specifications was the worst part with such a problem entirely unheard of on civilized worlds. His frustration was contagious and so was his anxiety, no matter how much Dirck believed in him. He’d never seen his father out of his element before and the prospect was unsettling.
Since there wasn’t much Dirck could do other than get in the way or obsess on their problems, which wasn’t helped in the slightest by what he’d seen on the comcon, he switched it off, paced the room nervously for several moments then finally decided to do something useful such as check the still for leaks. He grabbed his sweatband off the counter then exited through the back door and climbed up the service ladder they’d constructed from leftover pipe and a network of T-fittings, rails and rungs hot to the touch in spite of being somewhat shaded. He worked his way along, checking all the plumbing joints and elbows and the seal on the polymeric sheet. The entire system passed inspection, though the covering was already warping from the heat.
He sighed, wondering if it could withstand all it would have to endure, then shaded his eyes with his hand and took advantage of his vantage point to scan the barren landscape as if to see something he hadn’t before. It stretched in every direction with equal desolation marred by minor differences in terrain. Toward the back of the ballome he noted what looked like several large outcroppings of rock a hundred or so meters away and a few dark smudges against the red earth, possibly vegetation. It was hot, but not yet scorching; ‘Merapa had been right about working with Zeta down. Maybe he’d take a walk and check it out.
He went back inside, the relative cool reminding him again how much hotter it was going to get. Hopefully ‘Merapa was making progress on the heat exchanger; once the outside temperature exceeded the ballome’s capabilities it would be extremely uncomfortable. Frowning as what he’d seen in Climate Central came back unbidden, the back door slide up and Deven wandered in. The boy went directly to the sink, stood on tiptoe to reach his tumbler, then drew himself a drink and gulped it down.
“Good water, Dirck,” he said, smiling.
Dirck grinned back, pride easily aroused, yet knowing humility would replace it soon enough. “Thanks, Dev,” he said.
Of course he couldn’t have built the still without his father’s detailed instructions but the fact he’d had anything to do with it at all was gratifying.
Deven set his tumbler on the shelf and headed back to the door. He took off at about this time every day and for the first time Dirck wondered where the boy went. He’d usually be back before Zeta rose and the heat set in, but never said anything about his activities. Dirck realized that was partly his own fault, since he hadn’t had time to be sociable while he was working on the still. Actually, due to the age difference, he never socialized with him much on Mira III, Creena either, except for recreational fighting, because most of his time was spent at the Academy or with his friends. This would be the perfect opportunity to catch up.
“Hey, Dev—where you going?” he asked. “Okay if I join you?”
The boy hesitated only a moment before breaking into a huge grin. “Yeah! That would be great. I'll show you around.”
Dirck could tell his brother had been itching to share his discoveries for a long time. When he and ‘Merama first arrived she’d humored him for a while until she became engrossed with other things, like food and whether she’d ever see her bondling or other two children alive again.
“Let me get my visor, okay?” Dirck asked.
“Okay. I’ll meet you outside.”
Dirck returned moments later, the light-sensitive visor in hand that he’d traded the spare spanner for at the SD. On the way by his parents’ sleeproom he stopped.
“‘Merapa,” he said. “I’m going for a walk with Deven.” His father nodded without looking up, apparently communicating with the c-com, and Dirck suspected by the time his mother returned from the comcenter he wouldn’t have the foggiest notion where they were; it happened all the time back home. The main thing was that he’d told him, he decided, and promptly left. His little brother was drawing pictures in the dirt with a stick, grin returning when he saw Dirck, almost as if he were surprised he was actually going. The two started walking, Dirck deferring to the boy to lead the way.
It was hot already, Zinni at perigee a few degrees above the forward horizon, Zeta still low and skirting the one behind them. After an initial nasty case of zetaburn, Dirck’s skin had darkened to the same shade as his brother’s, his hair bleached blond. He set the visor in place, holding back his hair with his other hand to keep from trapping it in front of his face. He still needed a haircut, now worse than ever, and he made a mental note to ask ‘Merama for one when he got back.
Deven turned left after several meters and climbed nimbly over some red sandstone boulders that cluttered a slope where scrubby bushes grew in sparse patches of shade. The sky was dusty gold, Zinni’s orange disk casting ghostly shadows only slightly compromised by Zeta’s waning light. When both suns were equally high in the sky shadows were canceled, giving the landscape an odd, dimensionless appearance. Mira III’s lack of direct light precluded them entirely so the concept was similar. Thus using shadows to estimate time or direction was difficult at best and impossible at worst, given that both suns looked about the same during this phase of the circuit when they were about the same distance away.
High above their heads a trio of heliaria darted in erratic paths, their broad wings spread while rotating tails directed their flight. Heliaria were scavenger birds and common to other worlds. What was there to scavenge there, besides dirt and rocks?
Probably regionists, like them.
He shuddered at the thought, eyes fixed once more on the ground as they continued their trek across zeta-parched ground dodging rocks and occasional scrawny patches of vegetation. Massive red and brown rock formations, sculpted to unlikely shapes by sand-laden winds, towered before them. There wasn’t much to talk about other than incidentals but even that ended abruptly when Deven motioned him to silence.
His brother stood perfectly still at the base of a steeper ascent, Dirck beginning to wonder whether or not he should panic when ever so slowly Deven pointed toward a six-legged lizard about a half meter long poised on an outcropping a few meters away. Red, orange and green geometric designs painted its body as well as the flimsy collar around its neck. The creature flicked its tail and blinked its deep-set eyes, apparently oblivious to their presence.
“That’s a yraglian lizard,” Deven whispered. “We need to stay back. They smell really bad if you upset them. I mean, really, really bad.”
Dirck nodded, unsurprised that the first native creature he encountered on Cyraria represented it so well.
Deven turned right then ducked through a short windswept tunnel between the rocks which opened on a flat stretch of land. A grouping of phynques huddled below, making soft, smacking noises. Hundreds of tiny feet-like roots, capable of transporting the entire plant, wiggled at each base. The phynques had located near a flasher mound and several parades of the tiny insects were marching to their sticky fate.
Dirck stared at them in wonder. Cyraria not only had flora and fauna, but flauna, species with both plant and animal characteristics. The phynques were undoubtedly in that category and brought back wary memories of Verdaris and Mira III’s biodomes. There was something about living plants that creeped him out.
“C'mon, Dirck,” Deven prodded. “Let's go.”
To his relief, no flora were more than a few meters tall, at least until a bulky, pale green monolith towered through the brush straight ahead. As Dirck drew closer he could see its surface was not only textured with numerous bumps but pocked with small holes. Curious, he tipped back his visor a few degrees and stepped closer.
“Don’t!” Deven warned, arm extended across his path.
Dirck halted dead in his tracks. “Why not?”
“It’s a spickle tree. Watch.”
Deven crouched behind a rock, gesturing for Dirck to follow then chucked a stone at it, leaving a moist bruise at the point of impact. An instant later hundreds of spikes launched in their direction, clattering to the ground in a chorus of vain impacts.
“Holy holocubes!” Dirck gasped. He picked one up, frowning as he examined a potentially lethal green shard about the same length as one of his fingers. “That, that, plant, or whatever it is, could kill you! How’d you know it would do that?”
“My friend told me,” Deven said.
Friend? What friend? Dirck hadn’t seen a kid Deven's age since the Aquarius. “Who?” he asked.
“You’ll see,” Deven replied with a mischievous smile.
Vegetation thickened around them, including the gnarled, black branches of a large bush tangled with creeping sage. Deven explained that it was an atsna tree, its massive roots useful for getting rid of “that bad taste”everything had on Cyraria. A different plant flowered beneath it, its huge, pink flower shaped like a bowl.
“It’s called a bowlbush. When the flower dies you can dig it up and eat the root,” Deven said. “It tastes pretty good.”
“How do you know?” Dirck asked, curiosity growing. Where was his brother learning this stuff?
“I toldyou,” Deven replied. “My friend told me.”
“Can I meet your friend?” Dirck asked, more mystified than ever.
“Sure,” he replied. “That’s where we’re going.”
It wasn’t quite as bad as Verdaris, but Dirck still had an eerie, uncomfortable feeling given some vegetation was openly hostile with others possibly smarter than humans. The thought that the bowlbush was edible fascinated him. Anything would be better than genour, the desiccated rations they’d lived on since leaving Mira III.
A bush rustled beside them, followed by a clicking sound similar to the noise his ‘cruiser made with an unbalanced impeller. Before he could even ask, his brother mimicked the sound and started in that direction.
“Hey,” Dirck said, grabbing his arm. “What was that? Where you going?”
Deven turned and smiled, his missing front tooth contributing to his widening grin. “C’mon,” he said. “You can meet my friend.”
Dirck had grown up on a world where aliens were commonplace and little surprised him. Size, number of limbs or eyes, color, eating habits and strange odors were all part of an intergalactic society. Dirck really believed he’d seen it all. But even by those standards, Deven’s friend was the most bizarre creature he’d ever seen.
It was bulky as well as large and stood upright as they approached, making it slightly taller than he was, with two massive legs and six arms, each with scoop-like hands. Its bulbous eyes were deep set with multiple eyelids beneath a protruding brow, its mouth wide and probably huge, if opened to capacity. Its tail was almost as long as its body, and nearly as heavy.
But its most outstanding feature was its skin.
At least he thought it was skin. Whatever it was, it rippled in the breeze, like a translucent, gold-spun cloak. Several other layers beneath reflected a rainbow of color. Even dulled by Cyrarian dust, it shone and sparkled. And strangest of all, in spite of its size and odd appearance, the alien emanated a feeling of welcome that Dirck had never sensed in any culture, including his own.
“What is it?” he whispered.
“A bnolar,” Deven replied. “I call him Enoch. They live in underground caves and like people, but some people are mean, so they usually hide. But he knows we’re his friends and isn’t afraid.”
The creature resumed the clicking sounds, which Deven seemed to understand. Dirck followed them down a path flanked with atsna bushes, sudden reverence quieting his mind as he watched the two unlikely friends in an unfriendly world. After they’d walked for about a hundred meters Dirck noticed the smell of sulfur growing stronger. A short time later they walked through another cluster of rocks to a bubbling fumarole where yellow-tinged mud boiled from thermal energy generated deep within the planet’s crust. As if there wasn’t enough heat on the surface, he thought grimly, they even had it coming from below. Great.
Beyond the mud pot was the entrance to a cave, the ground around it littered with a dry and scratchy vine Deven called pubescent crawler, warning him that the delicate, air-filled vine emitted an offensive odor if stepped on. Dirck broke off a piece, noting the ground beneath it was cool. The stench was worse than expected, but nonetheless he suspected it could serve as more than a scratchy, fetid vine given its obvious insulation properties.
Not far from the fumarol a small spring gurgled in a rock-confined pool. The bnolar scooped up some water with a shallow bowl and handed it to Deven. The liquid looked clean and pure. His brother took a small sip, gave it back. The bnolar set it down by the fumarole and dragged three claw-like fingers through the steaming mud, plucking out several short, fat, sticks.
Except the wrinkled, brown cylinders were moving and undoubtedly alive.
Deven rinsed them in the spring, placed them in the bowl then set it in the fumarole until the water steamed. A while later he poured off the water, let it cool for a few moments then broke one open and, to Dirck’s horror, ate it.
“Deven!” he cried. “What are you doing?”
“They’re good, Dirck. They’re called wiittiins. Here, have one.”
“They’re better than genour,” his brother taunted, and with an exaggerated flourish popped another one in his mouth.
Dirck tilted back his visor and gingerly picked one up. He pulled off the skin, sniffed it, took a timid bite. Deven was right, it had an odd texture but tasted great. He quickly ate the rest of that one and reached for another.
Deven and his friend conversed in their curious way a while longer, then Deven indicated it was time to leave so they started back to the ballome.
Dirck’s mind rattled with a thousand questions, the heat nearly forgotten. When they reached a space between the towering stone pillars, he could stand it no longer, so picked up his brother and set him on a rock.
“Hey! Whatcha doin’?” Deven protested, squirming to get free.
“That’s quite a friend you have there,” Dirck said, trapping his escape.
“I know. Isn’t he neat?” Deven replied, quickly settled and swinging his feet.
“Yeah, he is,” Dirck answered. “Have you told anyone about him?”
Deven frowned. “Like ‘Merama?”
“Yes. Exactly. Like ‘Merama.”
“Are you kidding, Dirck?” he said, eyes wide. “She’d ground out if she knew! She’d never let me leave that crummy ballome again for as long as I live! She’d killme, Dirck!”
Dirck rested his hand on his brother’s knee to calm him down. “No. Listen. I don’t think she would. Your friend has taught you some really great stuff. They need to know about this.”
Deven’s hair usually covered his eyebrows, but not when he scowled. “No!” he said. “I’ll get in trouble. I’ll be in time-off until I rot and die and smell worse than a yraglian lizard. No.”
Dirck sighed with frustration, wondering when he got old enough to start running interference between his little brother and their parents.
“Deven, they have to know. I’ll do everything I can to keep you from getting punished, but I don’t think you will. This is important. I mean it—they have to know. I’ll tell them if you like, or I’ll go with you, but we have to tell them. Okay?”
In response Deven’s lower lip quivered and eyes filled with tears. “But I promised.”
“Enoch. I promised him I wouldn’t tell. He said if I did people would come and hurt him and the others.”
“’Merapa and ‘Merama wouldn’t hurt him or anyone else.” He stopped, realizing that his father would probably hurt Troy, given the chance, but that was beside the point.
“But I promised,” Deven insisted. A tear broke free and slipped down his cheek, leaving a muddy trail.
Dirck reached over and wiped it away with a gentle finger as he struggled for an explanation, vaguely recalling his father’s lecture on higher laws what seemed so long ago.
“Look, Dev. It’s like this. We’re a family,” he said. “Families stick together. If one of us makes a promise, we’ll all keep it. And when there’s something important, you have to tell ‘Merapa and ‘Merama. At least ‘Merapa. That’s just the way it is. There’s absolutely nothing you can’t tell him, understand?”
“Have you always told them everything, Dirck?”
Dirck looked deep into his little brother's dark, trusting eyes, guilt rising like steam from the fumarole.
“I guess not,” he admitted.
“What did you do?”
Dirck wasn’t sure whether to tell him or not, then finally decided if he shared one of his secrets, Deven might feel better.
“Okay. One time I sloughed classes at the Academy with my friends so we could goof off downtown. . .”
He told him the entire story, holding back nothing, figuring it would make Deven realize the bnolar was mild by comparison. When he’d finished, Deven scuffed his heels on the rock, then looked Dirck squarely in the eye.
“Okay,” he said. “I'll make you a deal—I’ll tell if you do. But I want you there to protect me.”
“Okay,” Dirck replied grimly. “As long as you’re there to protect me, it’s a deal.”
Deven laughed, then leaned forward and gave him a hug. “You’re a pretty neat brother, Dirck,” he said.
Yeah, right, Dirck thought. I’ll be a pretty dead brother after this.
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