Dirck was just donning the opps cloak to go empty the boxcart when a sudden pounding echoed through the ballome. Everyone gathered in the living area, staring at one another nervously. Dirck tuned into the humming of the heat exchanger, wondering if something was wrong.
The pounding repeated, this time obviously from the front door. ‘Merama’s horrified look chilled him more than the heat exchanger at top efficiency. At least Win had rigged the palmlatch to keep everyone but them out. Bracing for the worst, he herded her and Deven into their sleeproom and told Win to stay out of sight.
He opened the door to the front entry which served as a heat lock, closing it behind him. Heat and the scent of ozone took his breath away. He peered through the window in the outer door. The silvered helmet of a full-service oppsuit was visible outside. It bore no markings. Whoever it was had arrived in a veke with no territorial crest or other identification. Shards of light reflected from its dimpled skin, a feature reserved for increased lift in rarified atmospheres. Heat closed in and dizziness began to fog his brain as he strained for a glimpse inside the helmet beyond the window. Reflections shifted and a pair of familiar eyes met his.
Gasping, Dirck palmed the lock, then burst through the inside door to the living area, struggling for air as the visitor followed. By the time he’d caught his breath, the helmet was off and the caller had him in a firm, back-pounding embrace.
“Uncle Jen!” he exclaimed, grinning.
Within moments the others had joined him to share the hugs and excitement. Dirck introduced Win, and gradually the chatter ebbed.
“Quite a place you have here,” Uncle Jen commented, looking around. “I’ll say this much, it’s cooler than my place, which has the best cooling system I could get in Cira City.”
“’Merapa designed it, but Win and I put it together,” Dirck said proudly. “So far it’s working great.”
Uncle Jen was trying hard not to stare at the trail of dirt on the floor. Dirck could well imagine that especially with the cleanliness standards he held as a surgeon, he probably was wondering mighty hard what it was doing there.
“We’re digging a safe,” he explained. “Not only from the heat, if necessary, but as a hiding place. We’re not going to get caught in another raid, if we can help it.”
His uncle nodded approval. “Good idea,” he said, then turned to ‘Merama. “So how’s Laren?”
She swallowed and shook her head. “No one knows. We’ve heard nothing, absolutely nothing.”
Dirck debated whether to open up about the PLED right there, or get his uncle alone. He decided on the latter, playing along with the conversation until his mother and Deven went to fix something to eat and drink.
“Come see how far we’ve gotten with the safe,” he said, nodding urgently toward the sleeproom. Uncle Jen took the hint and followed.
“So what’s going on?” he asked softly.
Dirck gave him a quick summary of the PLED. His uncle sighed, holding his temples with his fingers. “I was afraid something like this would happen. I didn’t expect it to be this serious, though.”
“How could he let this happen?” Dirck asked shakily. “For days, even since we left the Aquarius, all he talked about were choices and thinking things through. How could he leave us like this? How?”
Uncle Jen shook his head. “I don’t think it’s something we could easily understand, Dirck. He loves all of you more than life itself, I know that. But you’re right, he’s also never done anything in his life without full knowledge of the consequences. Nonetheless, when your father and I were on Esheron they told us something about mistakes that’s worth remembering, especially when it comes to situations like this where innocent people get caught in the crossfire.”
“Oh, yeah?” Dirck replied, somewhat defensively. “And what was that?”
“There are no mistakes, only detours. In other words, we’ll get where we’re supposed to one way or another. We’re free to carve our own destiny and no one can stop that without our permission.”
And that was as far as it got before Deven arrived with drinks, the venting a brief episode of pressure relief that prevented what could have been a devastating explosion.
“How have you been?” ‘Merama asked when they’d returned to the living area. “How are Para and the children doing?”
Uncle Jen sat on the floor and leaned back, stopping as the oppsuit tanks hit the wall. “Let me get out of this thing,” he said, removing his boots, unlatching the front and slipping it off. The shirt underneath was clean and colorful, a soft shade of aqua. Dirck tried not to stare, wondering what it was like to have clean, colorful clothes instead of mud-stained rags. Uncle Jen dropped the oppsuit in a heap beside him and relaxed.
“We’re doing quite well, after getting over that pressure vortex,” he explained. “There were so many injuries, about a hundred fifty deaths, and damage like I’ve never seen before in my life.”
Dirck swallowed hard, the scene in his mind abruptly punctuated with other recent deaths.
“The only residences that made it through were the subterres, since they’re below ground,” Uncle Jen continued. “Some of them lost power when zeta arrays blew away, but generally they survived fairly well. All ballomes in its path were utterly destroyed. In some cases, you couldn’t tell they’d ever been there, any sign completely gone.”
His expression darkened with unpleasant memories as he went on. “We were just getting ready to move into our subterre at the clinic when it hit. I never heard such a racket before in my life. Ever hear one?” Everyone shook their head. “The noise is overwhelming, a deep, pulsing roar, real low pitch, almost beyond audible range. You feel it more than you hear it at first then it gets so loud you think your head will explode from the pressure changes. This one wasn’t even that big. I hear they get more frequent during Peak Opps, so be careful. Get that safe dug at least four meters deep, with good ventilation. And if you hear anything that sounds suspicious—anything—don’t wait to get to cover. They can form in a matter of seconds.”
Dirck hadn’t thought of the safe as a PV shelter before, but it made sense. “Where’d you get the veke?” he asked. “Is that yours?”
Uncle Jen nodded. “You could say that. It’s mine to use, however I want, but technically it belongs to the clinic. We have a mediveke, too. There’s auxiliary power for surgical procedures, full life support, and so forth. It even has a holophonic sound system. We use it to transport patients to the ALSIC in Cira City, or pick them up, when necessary. It’s pretty impressive, if I do say so myself.”
It was obvious from the silence that followed that Uncle Jen’s listeners were impressed, too. He smiled a little awkwardly then pulled what looked like a small grafix generator from one of his pockets. “Listen to this,” he said, and switched it on. No lights or graphical representation were projected, but the sounds that filled the ballome were such as Dirck had never imagined. The tones of grafix were pleasant, even soothing, but never stirring or emotional like this.
“What is it?” Mother asked, fascinated.
“Esheronian music,” Uncle Jen replied. “It was illegal on Mira III. One of my patients bartered it for my services a while back. Best deal I ever made.”
Dirck listened intently, wondering at the feelings invoked by the multidimensional sounds. “Why was it banned on Mira III?” he asked.
“Its effect. They were afraid of its power, that it would generate too many uncontrolled feelings and self-expression. Mira III’s goal was to suppress emotion and individuality, not stimulate it. I grew up with this and missed it, a lot.”
“I can see why,” Dirck commented, absorbing each rising strain and sensing something he’d never felt before. “That’s pretty potent stuff.”
“I know,” Uncle Jen agreed. “Isn’t it great?”
“Yeah. I like it.”
“So do I,” Mother said quietly. “I think. It does get to you, though, doesn’t it?”
Uncle Jen studied her a moment, then switched it off. “It can do that, all right. The entire spectrum, from joy to despair.”
“So what brings you here?” Dirck asked, changing the subject when he noticed his mother was obviously shaken.
“I was checking on a patient I transferred to Cira City before High Opps. While I was so close I felt compelled to see how everything was going. You’re still welcome to join us, if you want. We have plenty of room.”
His mother looked tempted, but for some reason known only to herself, she remained quiet. “It looks like you’ve done very well, Jen,” was all she said.
His eyes held hers. “We’ve been lucky,” he replied. “It’s kind of embarrassing, actually.” He looked at the floor, arms resting on his knees, as if debating whether or not to explain. “Our RG, or regional governor, Bryl Woeyel, has a niece about Deven’s age who was seriously injured during the PV,” he went on. “I was able to fix her up. Bryl has seen to it that I’ve had everything I needed ever since.”
Dirck didn’t know whether to be happy or jealous. So that was what the other side of Cyrarian politics was like: They like you, prosperity; they hate you, prison.
“I don’t suppose,” ‘Merama said hesitantly, “that you could help Laren?”
Uncle Jen’s expression darkened. He pinched the bridge of his nose a moment then sighed. “I don’t know,” he said. “Governor Woeyel is the same rank as Troy. I suppose it depends on who has the most influence at the territorial level. The main problem I see is Laren’s probably under regional jurisdiction. But I’ll see what I can do. Don’t get your hopes up, but I’ll do what I can. Maybe I can at least get the charges reduced.”
“What charges?” ‘Merama asked quickly. “Is there something other than the weapons violation? Is there something else he’s been charged with?”
“No,” Uncle Jen replied quickly, trying to cover the slip. “I don’t know. But I’m sure they’re exaggerated, knowing Troy.”
“That’s better than we have now,” Dirck said, slipping his uncle a look. His uncle nodded knowingly.
“How long can you stay?” ‘Merama asked.
“I can’t. I need to get back to the PAR. As you can imagine, this is our busiest time.” Uncle Jen had been chartered to organize a Physical Assistance and Remediation Center before they’d left Mira III. His plans on Cyraria had come to fruition, but in a different region than originally intended.
“There are six times as many deaths during Peak Opps as the rest of the circuit, even when it’s cold,” he went on. “It’s easier to insulate against cold. People don’t take the heat seriously enough, much less the UV or ozone, until it’s too late. If their cooling systems break down, most people don’t know what to do. They usually don’t have emergency plans, supplies, a safe, or other way to survive. What they don’t seem to realize is that you can literally cook out there. And there’s not a whole lot anyone can do if that happens.”
“Can you at least stay for a meal?” ‘Merama asked.
It wasn’t hard to tell how badly she wanted him to stay. Uncle Jen looked at her and smiled, that patient, kindly smile Dirck remembered so well. He meant a lot to him, too. All those times when his father had been gone with work, he’d always been there.
“I’d love to,” he said. “But then I’ll have to go.”
‘Merama fixed their family favorite, wiittiin stew, and explained how she made it while they ate. Uncle Jen was truly impressed.
“Laren would be very proud of all of you,” he said. “Dirck, you and Win did a terrific job with the heat exchanger. I’m proud of you, too. Keep up the good work and when your father and Creena get back, the family will be in good shape. Have you heard any more from her?”
“Not since we talked to her in the comcenter,” ‘Merama replied. “But I feel as if she’s okay, that we’ll be together again, eventually.”
“You hang onto that,” Uncle Jen said. “And Laren will be back, too. Just don’t give up, okay?” Dirck nodded along with his mother and brother, almost believing it himself.
They’d no sooner finished eating than Uncle Jen embraced everyone then got back in his oppsuit, saying he had something for them in the veke. Dirck waited in the heatlock while his uncle removed five boxes from the cargo bay then carried them back into the living area.
“What is it?” ‘Merama asked, child-like anticipation animating her expression.
“Oppsuits,” he replied. “I thought it might be a good idea for you to have them, just in case. There’s about a one-day supply of air in the tanks.”
“We can refill them at the SD,” Win said.
“Good. I still wish you’d come stay with us, at least until Peak Opps is over.”
The smile froze on ‘Merama's face. “We’re fine, Jen. But thanks so much. For the suits and everything. And we’ll keep in touch.”
Another round of hugs, then the mood became more solemn as they joined in the Miran grip. They held hands a bit longer than usual then Uncle Jen wished them well one more time and was gone. Everyone crowded into the heatlock to watch him get into the veke then soar skyward and disappear. One by one, the others left, leaving Dirck alone by the oxidized window.
His uncle had his own veke. He could hardly believe it. His own veke. Economically, Uncle Jen’s family and his own had been equals on Mira III. In fact, his father’s compensation had actually been higher, by quite a bit.
But that was then. They certainly weren’t equal now.
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