Passenger Level Seven
A WORD FOR PANIC DIDN'T even exist on Mira III. It wasn't needed. On a world of perfect order it was meaningless.
The fact that Mira III was several hundred lightyears away, however, was beginning to register hard and strong. Something was wrong, really wrong, and Dirck Brightstar could feel it. Maybe it was no more than the unhappy flux between Mira III's security and Cyraria's unknowns.
More likely it was the fact that Creena was missing without a trace.
So what's new? Dirck asked himself. Trouble was Creena's middle name. He plunged his hands deep into the pockets of his Code Blue uniform and scowled deeply. How could anyone be such a total nuisance?
Their starship cabin was one of thousands in what was once a vast cargo hold, a virtual prison compared to the vaulted spaciousness of home. Meanwhile ‘Merapa, known to the rest of the universe as Laren Brightstar, was at the comcon by the door extracting data from the Aquarius' datalogs and passenger sensors while everyone watched in silence.
An emotion flickered across his father’s face, something so fleeting, that Dirck wondered whether he'd seen it or not. His father lacked the flawless composure of native Mirans but having spent most of his life there he'd mastered the facade. As evidenced by the look he bore now, washed with no more than a hint of concentration.
At seventeen Dirck couldn't remember ever seeing his father, or any other adult for that matter, beyond the bounds of flawless control. Only when an emotion's intensity defied instantaneous checking would his father’s roots surface, usually as a certain look in his dark Esheronian eyes. Ironically, Dirck had never noticed it until Creena had pointed it out. Like when his father had gotten word he'd been commissioned to Cyraria.
But now—had he seen it or not?
Dirck didn't know.
He sighed with frustration.
There wasn't much he did know anymore.
Leaving his naterra, or home world, hadn't been easy. He liked Mira III. Not only had they lived in an exquisite spiral tower but he'd earned numerous awards for his behavior and was progressing well. Unlike Creena who was reprimanded so often he wouldn’t even admit he knew her much less that she was his sister. What was so hard about keeping The Laws? They were clear, explained regularly and posted everywhere.
Choices were few and far between and he liked it that way. It was easy. That was the beauty of The Laws—no decisions, no worries. Creena didn't see it that way. She saw them as bondage, not freedom, and criticized their reasoning constantly. No question she was bright but at fourteen had already earned an alarming reputation.
Dirck's compliance left nothing to fear for himself but he worried about what her future might be if she kept collecting NCR's. Noncompliance reports were serious. Yet whenever he tried to talk some sense into her she'd close up tighter than a biodome during a radiation surge. What was the matter with her, anyway? If only she weren't so defensive. Like she'd been earlier when she'd slipped away. That was more than a decichron ago, the equivalent of over two hours. The evening zone had begun and she was late.
Way to go, Creena. Another NCR.
Apparently she'd even eluded the sensors. Why else would they be so consistently wrong, insisting she wasn't on board? She was smart, especially in technical applications that shorted his synapses. Could she have coded herself into oblivion? Impossible. Not even Creena could do that—could she?
His father pointed to an entry halfway down a column of numbers suspended in the space before him.
“Look at this, Dirck,” he said. “Before departure they had a malfunctioning inhibit in the failsafe mechanism on one of the escape pods.”
Dirck stared at the data.
And your point is? he thought, trying unsuccessfully to fit the facts together while his father sifted through more numbers.
Moments later ‘Merapa stopped, frozen in another nameless emotion. He swallowed hard, looked at his bondling, his brother, Jen, then Dirck, finally returning his electric gaze to his bondling. Dirck held his breath, expecting the worst. His father was never speechless, at least not like this. His mother, likewise sensing something was very wrong, moved closer, green eyes searching his.
“What's wrong?” she asked, grabbing his arm when he didn't answer. “Laren? Talk to me. What's wrong?”
‘Merapa closed his eyes and took a deep breath, mouth tightening in a grim line. “That escape pod. The one with the bad failsafe. It fired. About a decichron ago.”
Dirck’s blood ran cold as his father explained and everything began to make sense. The time and location matched and of course it explained why the sensors came up blank.
Creena had really done it this time.
Really, really done it.
Leave it to her to find the only escape pod on the entire ship with a bad failsafe. If that girl knew anything about compliance this never would have happened. She always got so fired up over nothing.
What was the matter with her, anyway?
Dirck sighed when the rationalizations failed. True, Creena had a way of finding trouble. Always had. That's why he should have known. Instead he'd deliberately provoked her. He stole another look at his parents. His mother’s eyes met his, wide in her pale, frightened face. Now both parents were watching him expectantly. Guilt struck like a chunk of Miran cement had fallen on his chest. He knew and so did they.
So much for past behavior. Even though there was no way he could have known, somehow this entire mess was all his fault.
Every muscle in Dirck’s body stiffened as his father’s steady gaze locked on his, posture and expression in command mode, used rarely but effectively when someone—usually Creena—was in big trouble.
“We have a problem. A serious one,” he said. “Do you have any reason to believe Creena could be somewhere besides the galarium?”
His father’s dark, serious eyes bore into his then gradually clouded. No one moved or spoke. Everyone just stood there, 'troid-like, gripped by escalating fears in a dark unknown.
“Okay,” his father said, questions still directed at Dirck. “What should we do?”
Multiple stares were upon him like ionizing radiation: His mother and Deven near the door, Uncle Jen and his wife, Para, his young cousins, who were huddled against the sleeping cylls by the far wall, unsure whether the crisis was enough to delay their imminent sleepzone.
Dirck’s mind stalled, finding no Law to recite, no Prediction, no Precedent. Original solutions were like choices and the part of his brain needed to process them was sadly stagnant. Instead, unconnected thoughts popped like short circuits.
“Well?” his father prompted.
“I, uh, don't know, sir,” Dirck stammered.
‘Merapa folded his arms, face suddenly weary. “Why not?”
Dirck blinked, devoid of an answer. “I, I just don’t know. This situation, uh, hasn't been presented before. Ever.”
Another fleeting emotion shadowed his father’s eyes. “We're not on Mira III anymore, Dirck. Where we're going will present more unprecedented questions than you can possibly imagine. If you can't find answers based on reason you won't survive.”
Dirck sagged beneath the added weight, questions still firing in an empty void. How could he retrieve something that wasn't there? He squirmed uncomfortably, his father’s gaze still hard upon him then realized that its focus was more through him than on him, ‘Merapa’s thoughts in some far-distant place. The stern expression was gone, the look that took its place almost weird and far from comforting.
He’d been that way a lot lately, since the transfer notice at least, and even more so since he and Uncle Jen had made that trip to Esheron. Something had happened there, something serious, but whatever it was his father hadn’t seen fit to share it.
At least not with him.
All Dirck knew was that ever since that trip ‘Merapa’s spells of solemn distraction had increased steadily to the point that he wondered if maybe he were sick or something. Maybe he’d contracted some weird disease while visiting his naterra.
A few moments later ‘Merapa exhaled deeply, covered his face with both hands and rubbed his eyes wearily.
“All right,” he said, dropping his arms heavily to his side. “C'mon, Jen. You, too, Dirck.”
“Me?” Dirck gasped.
“Why? Where are we going?”
“To start your off-world education.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish