DIRCK CLEARED A SMALL PATCH of condensation from the shuttle’s window with a gloved hand, startled yet again by how frigid it was. He’d never dreamed anything could be worse than dual suns at Peak Opps, but Dead Drop Winter offered stiff competition. The bone-chilling cold was as lethal as heat, draining resilience from everything, be it batteries or people but, as the season dragged on, what gripped him most tightly in the icy fingers of gloom was the darkness. He stared past his own troubled reflection to the frozen waste beyond, unable to see anything save the distorted image of Nifeir, stars long lost to a persistent haze as the atmosphere’s moisture precipitated from sub-freezing temperatures. The window fogged anew then flash-froze to etched crystal.
It didn’t take long for the cold to penetrate the vehicle’s conductive structure then move through the interior in icy waves that threatened to suck the will from Dirck’s weary body. He folded his arms close, the black, navy and grey shadowed fatigues well-insulated against normal temperature inversions, yet didn’t protect against those invading his heart. The transport shuddered as Win activated the fuel cells, both to charge the batteries and throw some heat to defrost the window. The defogger cleared a small arc that edged upward by millimeters then reached steady-state just below eye level, refusing to progress any further.
He didn’t know what he was watching for, only that something wouldn’t let him leave. Deven’s directive had made sense, that they’d use the Tank and meet at Apoca Canyon, but something wasn’t right. He couldn’t identify it, only knew a deep and ominous fear churned inside.
The past week or so had been rough. With all the resources they had his predominant impression of Apoca Canyon had evolved to that of acute entropy. There were too many people that didn’t know what to do. On top of that, there were different opinions, different cultures, different languages and even different equipment incompatible with the rest.
There were plenty of Cliquers, such that they should have been a formidable opponent but instead it was a covey of confusion, contention and contradictions. Even he and Win had been swept into it, disagreeing more than ever before, primarily over the weapons issue. Nearly two-thirds promoted the development of offensive weapons, the others preferring an emphasis on defensive. Dirck could see the necessity of both, and was thus in trouble with everyone, more often than not. The constant arguing had driven Igni to distraction and he hadn’t seen the Arcturian in days. Storm did well supervising operations yet lacked the ability to instill unity within the troops, something his father had done effortlessly.
“What are you beating yourself up over now?” Win asked, arms slung behind his head.
“Nothin’,” Dirck replied, not moving his eyes from their distant focus. “I’m just worried, that’s all. I should have never let them stay, alone like that.”
“They wanted to, remember? As I recall, they refused to leave. If anything goes wrong, it certainly won’t be your fault.”
Dirck didn’t answer, the issue of blame far removed from his greatest concern. What had really gotten to him lately was loneliness. He’d never thought much about it before, but he’d never been away from his family like this, ever. There’d always been someone there, either ‘Merapa or ‘Merama and Deven, and for the first time he had a glimpse of what Creena must have experienced when she’d jettisoned in the pod. No wonder she couldn’t accept the fact ‘Merapa was gone. A deep and poignant longing had begun shortly after his arrival at Apoca, one he’d dismissed previously by telling himself they’d be together again soon. Now he wasn’t so sure, loss creeping through him like the frigid air beyond the window.
He couldn’t stop thinking about Creena. He’d never made peace with her, as ‘Merama had requested, which nagged him constantly. What if he never saw her again? His excuse that he’d been too busy and distracted preparing for the move fell flat, not even enough to convince himself. Then, during that brief flash when she’d first contacted him with whatever she’d finally come up with, it was as if a part of her had implanted itself in his heart. For the first time he realized how badly he’d misjudged her. He’d always known it with his mind but now he knew it with his heart. He’d actually felt her eagerness to make contact and share her success.
Maybe that was where his own loneliness originated, in that longing he sensed in her for everyone to be together again. A longing that with ‘Merapa gone could never be fulfilled.
His stare focused back to a slight depression occluded by shadow where their ballome had once stood. He’d never imagined that those horrid days of sweat and hard labor when he and ‘Merapa had been building the water distiller would rank among his happiest memories. But they’d been together then, most of them, anyway, and there was hope that Creena would join them shortly. So what did he do when she got back, but immediately start in on her again. What was the matter with him anyway? The energy sink deepened with the ominous feeling he’d never see anyone again, period.
As he stared outside wracked by premature grief a ghostly purple haze formed above the ground about a few hundred meters away, at first seeming no more than another air pocket traumatized by cold. It gathered intensity and crept outward, the brightening glow an apparent chemical reaction or energy field.
The location was where he thought the Think Tank should be, yet ‘Merapa had insisted that there were no visible emissions, only magnetometer disturbances. The wave continued its radial motion, edge aglow as it swept frozen ground.
“Hey, what’s that?” he asked, pointing.
Win straightened in his seat and scowled, reaction abrupt and decisive.
“We’re outa here, man,” he said, not even taking time to warm up the vector disks before throttling to full power.
“What is it?” Dirck asked, holding on as the vehicle screeched in protest then entered a sharp climb and banked toward Apoca.
“There’s only one thing that moves like that,” Win answered, a rare edge in his voice.
“Radiation from a lasoclear weapon.”
Dirck buried his face in his hands as the implications consumed his mind.
Oh, ‘Merapa, I’m so sorry. . .
Win’s hand rested sympathetically on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, man,” he said quietly. “I’m really, really sorry.”
As the initial shock ebbed, denial drove hope to a vain surge and, by the time they got back to the Canyon, Dirck had convinced himself that it had been no more than Tank blooms ionizing hypo-chilled air.
Not wanting to contradict Win or set himself up for an argument he was sure to lose, he’d kept his theory to himself, fully expecting to find Creena, ‘Merama and Deven at the outpost awaiting their return. After all, when Deven had told him to go back, he’d described his quarters so they’d have a reference for the Tank’s telekinetics. They’d be there, waiting, that was all there was to it.
Win had barely docked the transport in its sling when Dirck flew out the hatch and raced down the winding passages, by now certain he’d find a welcoming committee in his room. He slapped the palmlatch and fairly dove through the opening, his presence activating low level lighting. He stopped and spun around, frantically seeking any sign of their arrival. His sleep cyll, comcon, scattered clothing and a few packages of dehydrated fruit stared back from their repose, the configuration identical to how he’d left it, comcon still set to the channel which had alerted him to the raid. He turned again, unwilling to accept the truth, then slowly sank down on his cyll, staring at the door.
And thus he spent the entire sleepzone, drifting back and forth between grief and denial, eyes open but unseeing, until Win came to get him in the morning. His friend said nothing of events recently passed, only made a fast stop at the messhall where he insisted Dirck eat then each returned to what they’d been doing when so rudely interrupted by the contingency at the Caverns.
* * *
Too distracted at first to get anything done, Dirck gradually slid back into the work at hand, finding at least a partial escape from a reality too horrific to accept. Unable to solve the timestamp discrepancies other thn a vague correlation with his father’s arrest, Win finally decided they were wasting their time, that processing current information had priority, and they set to work accordingly. Synthesizing real-time intelligence data wasn’t much different than at the Caverns, except there was so much more.
All the task comprised was determining what data to match together to maximize yield, which L-DISA handled beautifully. There were more sources than before, but several were bogus, spewing disinformation like spickle trees threw spikes. Before long it was easy to see why Apoca hadn’t caught the Eta acquisition or the force involved with the others. They’d misidentified drogues specifically designed to hamper their progress and ignored prime sources, exactly how the INTEGRATOR intended, while Aggie’s sorting combined with Creena’s and ‘Merama’s watchful eye had caught key subtleties, making the difference. Apoca’s haphazard methods entirely missed what had been intuitively obvious to them. Apparently he was smarter than he thought, even though ‘Merapa hadn’t listened to him, either.
In the days that followed he found himself morbidly drawn to prisoner listings, yet their content was benign. While ‘Merapa’s name appeared in the Permanently Detained category, Creena, ‘Merama and Deven never showed up. Mention of activities at Dununda was nonexistent, its code name elusive or too classified to access through any means. Nonetheless, the fact the INTEGRATOR had cristobalite was intuitively obvious, how long it might take to develop potentially lethal applications no more than a guess.
The one thing neither he nor Win ever mentioned was the loss of crystal technology. While it was apparent Creena had achieved a major research milestone, to speak of such would have cheapened the loss of something far more precious. Comm problems persisted, particularly due to hypofrozen temperatures. Semiconductors were inhibited, conductor efficiency increased, imposing general havoc with external electronics. Storm had one of his engineering crews working on a heat pump to warm the antennas’ surface components, even at the risk of detection by S3s, knowing loss of comm would be worse. Hopefully they could disguise it to look like a fumerole, a natural hot spring bubbling with mud, which were all over the place except where needed.
Endless activities continued to keep him from dwelling on his loss but the vacuum inside his heart persisted. Getting Intelligence Processing and Synthesis, or IP&S, on a keener track felt good, but the only real consolation he had was Win. His friend understood, having lost his own family, and knew when to talk and when to shut down, when to push and when to back off. While Dirck wanted to give up and die, the example before him beckoned otherwise and motivation gradually returned. A week later with their first assignment successfully completed, including the launch of the final version of L-DISA and the completion of training of Clique personnel, Dirck and Win consulted Igni once more, this time about their next assignment.
“Decision of Storm,” he replied, antennae gesturing that they follow. Together they left the intelligence bay for a desolate pathway off the main corridor.
“Where is he?” Dirck asked, following.
“On work for power plant.”
Lighting was sparser than other areas, the air’s moisture content increasing as they followed a tunnel that branched off the transport bay and proceeded deeper within the base’s depths. Condensation dribbled from surrounding walls, graduated to trickles and small streams, then expanded to rivulets until eventually the throb of momentous energy pulsed around them, the amplitude of a low frequency growl rising as dramatically as the humidity.
Past another sharp bend a thunderous roar greeted them as the tunnel ended overlooking a raging river troubled by rapids rebelling against the constraints of imposing stone walls. A narrow path, slick with continually replenished puddles, hugged the wall beside it, the aquifer’s surface three meters below. Dirck swallowed hard, uncomfortable with the height combined with the slippery path and the fact he couldn’t swim. A kilometer of nerve-wracking footsteps later, the aquifer widened to a grumbling volume of swiftly moving water, rapids gone. Gradually the path widened until it spread into a gaping area stacked with oversized equipment which dwarfed a nearby group of workers.
It wasn’t hard to spot Storm. Usually Zinaanians were of medium height but their acting commander towered above the others, almost as tall as Igni, who stood a decimeter above Dirck when upright. His shoulders were broad, arms well-muscled, scaled skin a rich bronze. Typical of his race, his head was broader at the top with spherical eyes of a reddish hue on either side which could rotate independently and thus attain a three-hundred-sixty degree view without moving another muscle. Other facial features included protruding cheeks separated by a thin, bony nose and a relatively wide lipless mouth above a powerful, pointed jaw. Seeing them approach he came forward with long, yet graceful strides that defied his size, expression difficult to read while his posture suggested one of concern. When he got there they saluted, which he returned with a three-fingered hand then ordered them at ease.
“We’re grateful you’re here,” he yelled, his booming voice blending with the din. “There’s much to do, much more than we can finish on schedule. Did you complete your initial project?”
“Concede,” Igni hollered back, translator crackling with increased volume. “IP&S operative, much improved.”
“Good. Now you can move on. Your talents are needed elsewhere. Dirck, I need you here. Win, they can use you in communications.”
Dirck and Win exchanged glances, not necessarily in disagreement so much as surprise at their impending separation. Storm’s sharp eyes caught the exchange as did Igni’s translator which crackled with the usual sound it made when he perceived as lack of consensus.
“Would you prefer to work together?” Storm shouted.
Both shook their heads in quick denial. “We’re prepared to follow orders,” Dirck yelled, contradicting his sinking heart. “We’ll work wherever we’re needed most.”
“Agreed,” Win said.
With no further ado, the insectoid signaled for Win to follow him back to the main base, Dirck uncomfortably aware of numerous eyes upon him.
“We’re having problems with the turbines,” Storm explained, gesturing toward several metal monoliths near the rear of the chamber. As they got closer Dirck could see water spilling from a huge opening in the stone wall like a giant faucet ten meters above their heads. Storm led him past the turbines through a door which led to a small chamber, its walls too square and precise to have formed naturally. Storm closed the door and the river’s roar faded, the volume of his voice lowering with it to reveal a slight accent peculiar to his race which exaggerated the pronunciation of vowels.
“The magnetite here is brittle and can’t handle the rotational speed necessary to generate the power we need. Our forging capability is limited so we need to come up with something else to deal with the problem. If you’re anything like your father, I expect we’ll have our answer by tomorrow.” The huge Zanaanian smiled, revealing the pointed, yellow teeth of his race as he placed a heavy arm around Dirck’s shoulders.
“Yes, sir,” he replied, though his heart threatened to fail him.
No measure of success with IP&S could compensate for the fact he knew no more about hydro-engineering than the origin of the universe.
Storm granted him comcon access to the current design specifics then explained the schedule, dismissing him when Dirck didn’t have any questions. He stepped outside the chamber and stared vacantly at the raging river, not knowing whether to go back inside and tell Storm the truth or remain quiet in favor of a delay making a fool of himself when he failed. The unpleasant choices rattled around inside his head for some time until a third introduced itself as slipping off the path into the waters below suddenly held undeniable appeal.
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