A few more kilometers and a canyon stretched before them that reached the distant horizon. Its surface was flat, decorated by fractal-like trenches that wound this way and that above bottomless gorges, some hundreds of meters wide. Dirck couldn’t imagine what geological forces could have formed it, its design too delicate for either water or seismic action. His interest waned with the realization the ‘cruiser was making some mighty ominous sounds.
Win made a quick pass over the edge, then, much to Dirck’s relief, banked and returned to solid ground a few meters from the edge. The impeller sputtered then died, and the ‘cruiser sank to the dirt below. Win released the canopy and the two of them got out, gazing across the spectacle before them
“I like it out here,” Win said. “I can’t see anyone or anything, and I can pretend the entire planet’s mine, starting right here at Guipure Canyon.”
“Whoopee,” Dirk said. “You can have it, as far as I’m concerned.” As if in protest, a gust of wind rose from the gorge, lifting his visor from his head.
Win laughed as he lunged sideways and achieved a lucky catch before tossing it in the ‘cruiser. “I know what you mean. But some mighty powerful people feel a lot different. Have you kept up with the bulletins?” Dirck shook his head. “You should. There’s something going on, but I haven’t quite figured out what.”
“Like what?” Dirck asked.
“Since I do the ordering, I see what comes in and when. Whenever a starship comes in, it shows up on the logs. For people, there’s a population indicator. For cargo shipments, the planetary inventory index increases. That’s what drives prices. If the planetary inventory is low, prices go up.
“So,” Win continued, “all these ships have been coming in, big ones and more than usual, yet the population doesn’t go up by more than a thousand, and the planetary inventory doesn’t change, either. I don’t know what they’re bringing in, but it doesn’t make sense that all those ships would be here for maintenance. And that’s not all.”
Dirck’s glimpse of the future onboard the Cosmos II blared as Win continued.
“People have been disappearing. I’ve known some of them, too, from the SD.”
“How many people belong to our settlement?” Dirck asked.
“Around eight thousand.”
“Who do you know that’s disappeared?”
“It’s probably better if I don’t give names. But they were good people. A lot like you and your family. They worked hard, got a good flow of =CC=s coming in, were improving their property and their land. That’s why I’m telling you this. You’re doing some pretty neat stuff. I just wanted to warn you that maybe you ought to slow down a little, or maybe be a little more discreet. Don’t put so much on the Barterboard, that kind of thing.”
“But we need the =CC=s,” he protested. “We have to get that compressor so we can finish up the heat exchanger before High Opps.”
“If you don’t slow down, buddy, you might not have to worry about High Opps or anything else. Just be careful, okay? I’ll keep you posted if I hear more than they release in the bulletins. But think long and hard about anything you do and if anyone might be watching.”
“Okay,” Dirck promised, then sighed. The outing had hardly been the break he’d planned. “I probably ought to get back. My mother is pretty paranoid since my sister got lost.” Dirck frowned to himself, wondering again where she was and if they’d ever hear from her again.
When Win didn’t answer, Dirck wondered if he’d heard him until, unexpectedly, his friend broke the stillness. “Be glad someone cares, buddy,” he said. “Just be glad someone cares.”
Dirck looked at him questioningly but Win’s attention was back among the lacy contours of the canyon. Zeta was descending from apogee, Zinni throwing long dusty rays from behind. Nifeir, the planet’s single moon, watched overhead, a dark band marking the area unaffected by either sun. Beyond that and barely visible through brown haze hovered the shimmering reflection of CSF-1, where he and his father had docked what seemed so long ago.
Eventually they climbed back in the ‘cruiser and returned, Dirck drenched in silent contemplation until Win dropped him off outside the SD. As he stepped inside the transport a while later he gave into another sigh, then entered the ballome’s coordinates. Any doubts he’d had about a bleak future were gone.
When the transport reached home he was surprised to see his father waiting outside rather than cylled out.
“There’s a notice in the bulletins you ought to know about,” he said. “The regional government has demanded the voluntary surrender of all weapons.”
Dirck stopped, his Miran compliance training clashing with what he saw in his father’s eyes. “What are you going to do?”
“What do you think?”
Dirck nodded. “You’re not going to like what I found out tonight much better.”
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