From the deepest of all silence Dirck opened his eyes. He was dizzy and light-headed, but nothing compared to the timebump, which had been forced on his physical body without his mind’s consent. The giddiness dissipated and sounds of life resolved. Uncle Jen’s Physical Assistance and Remediation clinic was before him, exactly as imagined, an architectural wonder of rock and plasiglass peeking out from the harsh Cyranian wilderness surrounding it on all sides. To his left was a plainer but similar edifice where he somehow knew his mediveke reposed.
“Whoa!” Win exclaimed, unlinking his arms from Dirck’s. “Hey, not bad. Good job, buddy, your image was right on.”
“What counts is we’re here,” Dirck replied. “C’mon, let’s go.”
“Yes and no,” Win replied. “We may have to transport ourselves to places where we have a less detailed description. I wonder how that would affect arrival? The last thing we’d need is to wind up caught in whatever timewarp we’re traveling through because we don’t give the Universe clear directions.”
“Good point. We’ll have to ask Enoch. I suspect we can use the Think Tank to conjure up an appropriate image,” Dirck mused, then headed toward the entrance. “C’mon, let’s find Uncle Jen.”
Dirck couldn’t help noticing the paved walkway, remembering his father’s attempt to formulate cement when they were setting the frame for the purification still to get the silt out of their drinking water. As much as he’d tried it wouldn’t hold together but shattered under the slightest strain. How the ancients had managed to figure out the means for fabricating adobe bricks was beyond him though ‘Merapa had thought it was probably just dumb luck that their soil had the appropriate mix of sand and clay. If they had dug the safe first they would have come to a layer of clay in short order. Dirck sighed as another wave of his father’s imperfections washed over him. Was he really that blind as a child to think he was omnipotent?
Or was it the fact they were now on another planet in another part of the galaxy? Dismissing his ponderings as irrelevant to the task at hand, he focused back on the path leading to the entrance, fully assured that Uncle Jen was doing better than ever.
His thoughts faded when the entrance to a small heatlock spiraled open and a soft chime announced their arrival as they stepped inside. The chamber closed once more, followed but a rush of cool air. He doffed his helmet, then checked his feet, which were coated with dust and small gravel, so he stomped them on the mat, Win doing the same.
The other side opened on a curved downward sloping ramp that led to the heart of the PAR. Holographix reminiscent of Mira III colored the walls with swirling designs that reached out in welcome as they approached. Dirck couldn’t help but notice their similarity to the Think Tank, even though they were pretty pitiful imitations. Nonetheless, it seemed strange. Something had felt familiar from the moment he first followed Enoch inside so maybe it was related to having grown up with Mira III’s answer to emotional mitigation as opposed to some mystic form of déjà-vu.
On the other hand, holographix were designed to reflect the emotional state of anyone within range, its purpose to perceive and then calm accordingly, thus assuring predictability on a world purposely designed to be boring. What intelligence, either artificial or on the part of its inventor, had been able to come so close to imitating a natural phenomenon? Or perhaps they simply were reflecting his current state, having just been imbued with the Think Tank’s incredible energy. And suddenly he realized that was all it was doing, that it was actually one of his uncle’s many diagnostic tools to determine a patient’s condition emotionally to incorporate into his diagnosis.
Within a few meters they reached the waiting area which was empty, not much of a surprise for a clinic that frequently treated its patients in remote locations, often thousands of kilometers away, coupled with weather that precluded casual travel. Dirck noted the soft chairs, a holovid, even a holographic projection of a lush world that beckoned with multidimensional splendor. A door opened in the back and a female Erebusite came forward dressed in typical Miran garb consisting of a soft yellow unispan and overshirt.
“Can I help you?” she asked, speech polished and true, unlike Crjlx-IM.
“I’d like to see Dr. Brightstar,” Dirck stated.
She studied him closely through her videra, the Erebusite’s single visual receptor which comprised a series of stacked, vertical eyelids, all open in the comfortable light. “Whom shall I say is calling?”
He swallowed, hesitating. “Family,” he finally said, hoping that was vague enough to not threaten everyone’s security while still providing his uncle with some clue who was there. Not that he had any family other than them.
She left and returned a short while later, motioning for them to follow down a sterile, finished corridor to Uncle Jen’s office. Again they waited. Meanwhile, he sat in the nearest chair, Win taking the one beside him, and studied convincing images of pseudo-vegetation reaching from curved walls, a workdeck of genuine wood, the chairs upholstered. Before long, hurried footsteps sounded in the hall. Dirck stood up as his uncle entered, taking him immediately in a firm embrace.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, concern shadowing his eyes. “Is everyone okay? How’d you get here?”
“It’s a long story,” Dirck said, sitting back down. Already his mind was losing the accelerated pace wrought by the caverns. Too bad, he could have used all the help he could get. His uncle took the chair beside him and urged him on as he explained about the heat exchanger, the bnolar and the caverns as briefly as he could.
“Do you want to move in with us?” Uncle Jen asked. “Can we get your mother and Deven here, too?”
“They’re fine, for now,” Dirck stated. “Right now we have a more pressing problem.” Cautiously he explained about the dream and their deep concern for his father’s safety. Without reservation, his uncle agreed. “Have you been able to find out anything?” he asked finally, hoping.
Uncle Jen sighed. “A little. I talked to Governor Woeyel. Prisoners are strictly under the jurisdiction of their own RG, or regional governor. The territory provides the prison and allocates space to each region, which the regions maintain in whatever way they see fit. Each is completely independent. They provide the guards, food, uniforms, everything. There are no territorial standards whatsoever. They just provide the facility, actually the building, and that’s it. Governor Woeyel can’t do anything about charges initiated by another region. Bryl could offer political asylum and a position in Delta region. But I don’t suppose that would do your father much good on Bezarna.”
Dirck stared into his uncle’s eyes, green like his own, knowing what he was about to ask not only went completely against his staunch Miran principles but everything he’d ever done in his life. His Esheronian roots were deep but invisible, his behavior undistinguishable from any Miran with the purest of pedigrees. He’d gained his education, started work as a healer and surgeon then dedicated himself to his family and mankind. He’d never come up against the system in his life.
“It’s our firm belief, Uncle Jen,” Dirck stated, “That it’s critical to rescue ‘Merapa before he has that meeting with Troy.” He waited until his words had settled, then added, “And we need your help.”
At first in typical Miran style Uncle Jen didn’t react. After several moments, about the time Dirck was wondering whether he really understood what he’d said, his uncle pinched the bridge of his nose, closed his eyes and sighed. As silence stretched between them, Dirck’s mind raced with alternatives. He tensed when his uncle finally took a deep breath and straightened in the chair. He said nothing for a moment, chewing his lip with his forehead ridged with thought lines while Dirck braced for the worst.
“You’ve put me in a very precarious position, Dirck,” he said finally. “I don’t remember ever being so torn between two choices in my life, both bad. But as I see it, there’s really only one choice here.” He took another breath, lost it in another sigh. “I haven’t always agreed with some of the things your father’s done. His methods, either. But his intent has never been wrong. I’m not sure what you want me to do, or my ability to do it. But count me in. I don’t think I could live with myself if they sent my brother to Bezarna and there was any way I could have prevented it.” He folded his arms and met his eyes, solid this time. “The only thing we have of infinite worth is our family. So what’s your plan?”
“We don't have one yet,” Dirck admitted. “We need to gather more information. Have you ever been to the prison?”
“No. I know where it is, though. It’s not far from the Cira City Advanced Life Support Intervention Center, or ALSIC, where I send my seriously ill patients. I’m licensed there as a medical practitioner.”
“Your RG sounds like a pretty decent person,” Win commented. “Does your region maintain a section at the prison, too?”
“As far as I know.”
“Could you, well, offer to check on the prisoners, or something?” Win suggested. “If you could get inside maybe we could figure something from there.”
“Most prisons maintain an infirmary which handles routine illnesses, diagnoses, and minor surgery. I don’t know what arrangements they have, especially with the regions being responsible for their own areas. I suppose they would provide for their own to have those services. With the ALSIC so close, I don’t doubt they have some agreement with them. I’ll find out. Maybe I could do some routine scanning, provide immunization patches or something. Or I could volunteer to be on call, for emergencies. Let me see what I can find out. Assuming I could get access to the prisoners, what would be next?”
Win almost smiled. “Ideally, we’d get them to call you because he was sick.” Uncle Jen’s face lit up, apparently encouraged it could be that simple.
“What could you do to make ‘Merapa sick enough to call in an outside physician, yet not harm him permanently?” Dirck asked.
“The illness would have to be genuine enough to pass whatever diagnostic scanning equipment they have in the infirmary. I imagine prisoners make themselves sick all the time in the hopes of getting out, or at least out of their cell. The equipment I have is sophisticated enough to pick up just about any phony medical emergency I could induce, safely or otherwise.” He rubbed his jaw and frowned. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with making someone that sick, especially my own brother, even if I had access to him.”
“We don’t have much time,” Dirck reminded him. “We’ve got to figure something out, and fast.” He stopped suddenly, realizing how foolish it was to wrack their brains there. “I think we have a good foundation, but lots of research to do,” he went on. “Win, I say we learn what we can at the SD then go back to the caverns to plot this out. Then we come back and check with Uncle Jen in a day or two, to see how his side has shaped up. By the way, is there someplace here we can, well, land, next time? Especially if something comes up where we have to get here fast, or without oppsuits?”
Uncle Jen took them to the end of the hall and palmed open a supply closet. “How’s this?” Dirck and Win stepped inside and studied the shelves, the bandages, vials, scanner probes and various other medical paraphernalia for reference as well as the amount of space available to move around.
Satisfied, Dirck gripped his uncle’s hands in his own. “It’s perfect,” he said. “We’ll be back, in a day or two.”
Without further conversation he and Win donned their helmets and went back outside the way they’d come in, not wanting to arouse the receptionist’s suspicions. They walked around the side, down by where the mediveke was kept and resumed their travel position, psiing to Enoch and Weird El to transport them back. The operation took less than a minute.
Once in the Think Tank the pair didn’t even unlink arms. “Back room, by the door, okay?” Win asked.
“Right. Let’s go.”
In another instant they were inside the darkened SD. Heat had warped the front door, opening a large gap where dust-laden light streamed inside. The cooling system was running, but not keeping up with the heat load. Dirck checked the temperature on the wrist of his oppsuit; cooler than outside, but not enough to remove their helmets.
“I hope the computer’s still on-line,” Win muttered over the helmet’s radio. To their relief, the territorial crest blossomed in the space before them as soon as they powered it up. Win logged into the PLED, the process laborious with the oppsuit gloves. ‘Merapa's record was unchanged, including the location of block eight-forty, cell twenty-nine fifteen.
“I wonder if they ever leave their cells?” Dirck mused.
“I doubt it. They don’t like socializing between prisoners, especially of your father’s caliber. I don’t doubt that the only time he’ll get out will be on his way to Troy’s office.”
Win exited the database and after numerous tries finally was able to bring up a map of the prison. They found ‘Merapa’s block and cell, not pleased with its location on the eighth sublevel of a twelve story tower, all below ground. Access to all floors above the ninth was secured with scanners, electrified gates and most likely guards with lasoclear weapons serving as a welcoming committee. ‘Merapa’s cell was near the center, surrounded on all sides. According to the schematic, the walls were constructed with a thin lining of lead. They checked the map for the infirmary. It was on the lowest level steeped in security.
Dirck recorded the information on the c-com then Win exited the PLED and logged into the netline for the region’s secretarial workstations. Before Dirck could ask what he was looking for Augustus Troy’s appointment schedule was on the screen. He scrolled forward to E-59. His father’s name was already there. The dream played back unbidden in gruesome detail. Was it prophetic, the meeting inevitable? The only hope he had traced back to the very thing that kept Enoch from being omniscient—choices and the fact they could change fate.
Win logged out and turned off the screen. “Let’s recharge while we’re here,” he said, finding a tank and filling his own and Dirck’s to capacity.
Once back in the caverns, the difference in reasoning ability was immediate.
“I want to go back to the ballome and get the transponder and radar,” Win stated. “I’ll piggyback them into the mediveke in case we have to change our identity on the way back.”
Oppsuits quickly removed, the pair started for the grotto. “We have to figure out how to make ‘Merapa sick enough for them to call in an outside doctor,” Dirck said. “We can’t just haul him off without permission.”
“But we’d better plan for that, just in case,” Win stated grimly. “In order for this to work we need a contingency plan for everything that could possibly go wrong. Absolutely everything. Remember what Enoch said about details being the key. We can’t miss a thing. There won’t be any second chances on this one, pal.”
Intuition and logic had conflicted numerous times since Dirck’s arrival in the caverns. But as Win’s words settled in his mind he couldn’t help noticing that this time they didn’t.
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