Dirck returned to the SD right before closing, using delivery of the day’s =CC= water as an excuse when ‘Merama asked where he was going when it was time for their modified sleepzone. Exhausted but hyper over Win’s fate, he had to know, one way or the other. When he got there he entered slowly, bumping through the door with the boxcart of bottled water, mind paralyzed with his most gruesome fears. No one was at the counter so, terror rising, he looked to the back and to his great relief saw Win, stocking bins.
“Hey, Dirck, what’s happening?” he asked. “Crjlx-IM told me you were in early, looking for me.” Dirck met his eyes but couldn’t speak. Win glanced over his shoulder and lowered his voice. “What’s wrong? Something happen last night?”
Dirck nodded, searching for words. “He’s gone,” he forced out, sound catching in his constricting throat. “Commandos. They took him.”
“Who?” Win asked.
Dirck’s rising emotions precluded an answer.
“Not your father!” Win gasped.
Dirck swallowed hard and nodded. His friend uttered what sounded like an alien curse then came out from behind the workdeck, yelling over his shoulder to Crjlx-IM to lock up, that he was leaving even though the shift wasn’t over.
“C’mon,” he said, steering Dirck outside. “Let’s go for a ride.”
Dirck was so embarrassed he wanted to die. He was too old to cry and now Win would think he was either a wimp or an idiot. He followed him out back reluctantly, wiping angrily at the moisture leaking from his eyes. Win palmed open the canopy on his ‘cruiser and pushed him inside.
“W-where were you this morning?” Dirck asked shakily, trying to be cool. “I didn’t need a scare like that, you know.”
Win coaxed the ‘cruiser to life. “I was late to work. ‘Cruiser broke down, halfway in. Blew the impeller.”
Dirck nearly choked on the irony. “I blew one once, back on Mira III,” he said.
“How’d you fix it?”
“I didn’t. I replaced it.” He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as the memory rushed back of when he’d pilfered ‘Merapa’s, only confessing such a short time ago.
Win eased the ‘cruiser around the corner of the storage building in the rear then took off in the same direction as before. Several kilometers of dry, red earth passed before Win broke the silence.
“How can I help?” he asked.
Dirck sighed heavily. “I don’t know where to start. Everything’s on me now. Everything. The heat exchanger, digging a safe, ‘Merama, Deven, Creena, helping ‘Merapa, you name it. I wish they’d taken me, too.”
“Hey! Don’t talk like that! No, you don’t. Don't even think things like that!” His tone softened. “Don’t look at everything at once. Take it one thing at a time, okay? Just like when you’re building something. What’s most important?”
“Find my father and getting him back.”
“That may take a while. Be realistic. What’s next?”
“The heat exchanger. I need parts. Important parts. Without them it won’t work. And you know our =CC= situation.”
“Aha,” Win said triumphantly. “With that I can help.”
“How? You think someone’s going to barter them in, like the hair clippers?”
“Hardly. There are other ways. You can trade directly, you know. There’s a certain degree of risk to both parties, but it can be done. Everything’s supposed to be processed through the system so they can track and tax it, but like the clippers, we have workarounds. What do you need?”
“Some ‘ducers, regulators, check valves, that kind of stuff. And ammonia. We were going to make it, but he never got around to telling me how.”
“Not a problem,” Win said, smiling. “I may even be able to find you a compressor. I’ve been working on that, anyway. How soon do you want it?”
Dirck looked solemnly at his friend. “Hold it, Win. I don’t want any more trouble. I’ve lost enough people to last a lifetime. I feel responsible for what happened to my sister, and now my father. I don’t want to feel responsible if something happens to you, too.”
Win pulled back on the controls and settled the ‘cruiser to the ground, canyon before them bathed in dust-provoked reds and pinks as Zeta rested just above the horizon.
“No, you hold it. You didn’t ask me to do a thing. I volunteered. And I won’t get caught. I do this all the time. It’s fun, gives me something to do besides stocking bins. So don’t worry. Where’d you learn to worry so much, anyway?”
Dirck smiled weakly. “Probably my mother.”
“Well, unlearn it, the sooner the better. Nothing will hold you back more than fretting over stuff that may never happen. Just do what you have to, one step at a time. Hear me, pal? One step at a time.”
They got out and stared across Guipure Canyon where it faded in atmospheric haze at the curvature of the horizon. Even though he’d been there before the impact of its unexpected beauty remained with the odd twists and turns of its lacey gorges. The main branch with its numerous tributaries lay before them like a huge fossilized impression of a delicate fern. Something about it made his problems seem almost insignificant, at least manageable. No wonder Win liked it there. Coming here was a good idea.
The wind was rising, sweeping through the gorges and vast plateaus, disturbing the desiccated dirt in swirling eddies of evening change. It whistled through dry vegetation, propelling a rattle of flockweed to another location, back toward the settlement. The gusts intensified, and Dirck barely rescued his visor as it lifted from his head as it had before. Movement caught his eye and he stopped, squinting into the distance at a quivering light. It was growing larger. And closer.
“Hey,” he said, grabbing Win by the arm. “What’s that?”
Win responded with the same curse he’d uttered earlier. “Could be a patrol veke. It’s probably past curfew.”
“Curfew? Since when do we have a curfew?”
“Two days past. C’mon, let’s get outa here.”
Dirck hopped into the ‘cruiser and pulled on the straps, hoping it had enough power to get back before getting caught. Mercifully, it started on the first try. He wanted to believe that Win’s ‘cruiser was no more than an anonymous bleep on the veke’s scanner but instinct told him otherwise. More likely they’d already been identified by the transponder code required on all privately owned vehicles. They were as good as dead.
“Hold on,” Win said, “I know how to lose these guys.”
With that he set his mouth in a grim line and banked sharply toward the canyon.
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