by Paul D
Tales of deadly encounters.
Jay Brant sat in his cabin on the space ship Adventurer's Joy. Six months of planning with his compatriots had brought them here. He was certain this expedition would be successful, then he could retire and never work again.
The vid-screen in his room showed space from the ship's point of view. He could see Gemistal, Anelkisterlas, and Nileon. They hung in space as if suspended from a string. He directed his focus on Gemistal, which was still far enough away to be no more than a colorful ball. He was pleased their destination was in sight.
They would be on planet in three hours, and he was starting to get excited. Their plan was dangerous and illegal, but they'd prepared for every contingency. They would succeed where others had failed.
This expedition started with a rumor of dragons on Gemistal, which Jay discounted as nonsense. The accounts of dragons continued, and Jay's curiosity caused him to investigate. He'd come to the conclusion that dragons did indeed exist on Gemistal.
This expedition had one goal: find dragon eggs and return with them to Earth. His PCC beeped. "Yes."
"I'm on my way over," Ricky said.
"Okay, see you in a minute."
Ricky Glover was financing this expedition. His father left him a fortune. He didn't need the money; he was interested in exploring, and he was a true dragon fanatic.
A few minutes later, the cabin door opened, and Ricky entered. "I received a message from Gemistal Space Port. The VLC we reserved is no longer available. They gave us an upgrade to a Heavy Duty Vertical Landing Craft." His face broke out in a huge smile.
"Wow! We get to fly in style."
Ricky laughed. "At the speed they fly, we won't be in the air long."
"It's a good thing I decided to get licensed on it as well."
"That's true. I remember how you complained about the waste of time. It turns out not to have been a waste after all. I talked to David a short time ago; he's still sick."
Jay shook his head. "I can understand that space travel could make someone sick, but what are the odds the medication would also make you sick. It's unbelievable."
"I agree, but once he's on the ground, I'm sure he'll be fine."
"Yeah, his electronics expertise will be needed."
"We could always find a replacement on Gemistal."
"I would prefer not to do that. We'll cross that bridge, if necessary."
"Have you talked to Mitchell lately?"
"No, what's up?"
"He's being such a pain. He's complaining about everything."
"What's his problem?"
"I think he's nervous. Complaining is how he copes. He would never admit to being scared, so he complains instead."
Jay nodded. "Your explanation sounds reasonable. He'll be okay once we're on the ground."
"Hope so; his complaining is driving me nuts."
* * *
Paris looked at her sleeping husband, Scott, and smiled. They had been married for almost two years, but it seemed like yesterday when they first met in Washington D.C.. He had been her trainer for the Intergalactic Crime Protection Unit. They had hit it off like two peas in a pod and were married a short time later.
Now they were headed for Gemistal on "vacation." Of course, there was no such thing as a vacation while working for the ICPU. They had a few days off here and there, but for the most part they were on duty all the time. The nature of their assignment on Gemistal was still something of a mystery. They would be contacted by governor Alexander Weydom who would give then more details. She did know they would be here for a minimum of five years.
Scott groaned as he sat up. Paris said, "What's the matter, dear? Do you hurt?"
He chuckled. "Your sense of humor is not funny."
"Maybe I need to get a younger sparring partner."
"You mean, 'victim'?"
"It wasn't long ago you were throwing me around on the mat."
"I didn't realize at the time I was releasing a beast on the world."
Paris grinned. "Be careful, I wouldn't want to hurt you, again, dear."
"I didn't realize when I turned forty I'd start falling apart."
"I keep extra screws, bolts, nuts, and super glue in my purse."
"Humm, is that why it's so heavy?"
"No, I expect it is just one more sign of your advanced age."
Scott laughed. "That was almost funny."
"Almost? Then why did you laugh?"
"That was a sympathy laugh. I didn't want you to feel bad about your failed attempts at humor."
"Humor? You wouldn't know humor if it waddled up to you and said, 'Ha, ha'."
"Waddled? Sounds like a duck to me. 'Quack, quack'."
"You should be careful saying, 'Quack' around a doctor."
Scott stretched and said, "Are you nervous about our assignment?"
"Not yet, I'm curious about all the secrecy though. What could be so hush hush they don't want to tell anyone?"
"I agree, it does seem odd, but there must be a reason. What time you going to work out today?"
"We are only a few hours from Gemistal now. I think I might need to work out after the meeting."
Scott chuckled. "That's possible. Maybe I can find a 'sucker,' I mean, a worthy opponent for you."
"You're digging it deep, dear."
"Do you think we'll be given the week off as requested?"
“I doubt it, but I'm hoping our ICPU connection will help with some of the bureaucracy. Since we are meeting with the governor, maybe we can ask for his assistance."
Scott grinned. "I like your idea. I'll let you do the asking."
"Certified and proud of it."
Paris smiled at her husband. He was one of the most reliable people she knew, but he was very reluctant to talk about himself.
* * *
David Martin's body lay on an elevated platform in the morgue. Ricky Glover stood next to the doctor who had an unreadable expression on his face. When the ship docked at the space port, David had been found dead in his cabin. As the expedition underwriter, he had been volunteered to identify the body for the authorities.
Ricky said, "What did he die of?"
"I'm waiting on someone from Gemistal Space Port Security to arrive, then I'll explain."
Security? Ricky didn't like the sound of that. This was a delay they could ill afford.
Waiting was hard, waiting while in the same room with a dead body was beyond hard. Ricky heard the door and looked toward it. He saw a tall woman who appeared to be in her thirties. Her uniform left no doubt as to her position. She approached him and said, "I'm Head Security Officer Sylvie Anderson. Doctor Sampson called me because Mr. Martin's death is from poison."
"Poison? I don't believe it."
"The video from the ship was downloaded to our net. Mr Martin never left his cabin. Only four passengers entered his room. Jay Brant, Mitchell Whitestone, Steve Douglas, and yourself. You will all be detained here at the space port until the truth test is taken."
"I'm sure none of us had anything to do with his death. I'm ready to take the test now."
The security officer nodded and said, "PCC; space port security; forms; truth test; manual." A vid-screen and stylus appeared in mid air. "Put in your name and address then sign the consent form."
Ricky put his hand on the stylus and moved his hand over the vid-screen. He selected input and began to entered the information. Then he signed the form. "I'm done."
The security officer said, "PCC; truth test." She lifted her left arm to Ricky's ear. "Answer the first question with a lie, then tell the truth on the second question. Is your name George Henry?"
"Did you have anything to do with the death of David Martin?"
"You are free to leave the space port. I have already notified the others to report to the security office. Thank you for your cooperation."
Ricky watched the officer leave. There was no point in leaving the space port. The HDVLC was already on reserve waiting for them to take it. Who would kill David? And why? He couldn't think of anything that made any sense.
* * *
Jay Brant exited the security office with the others. They had all passed the truth test. He was relieved they were free to go, but the mystery of David's death weighed on his mind. Now, he needed an electronics expert. He said, "PCC; Gemistal; main; job wanted listing; electronics." He looked at the list. The first name, Sam Blackwell, had been posted a couple hours ago. He said, "PCC; com-link; Sam Blackwell. Sam--"
"This com-link is not available," a mechanical voice said.
Jay said, "PCC; main; manual." A vid-screen and stylus appeared in front of him. He took the stylus and typed, Text-link; Sam Blackwell; I need an electronics expert at Gemistal Space Port for a trip on a HDVLC for as long as thirty days. If interested, reply and report to space port security as soon as possible.
His PCC beeped, and he said "Yes."
"You have a text-message."
He read, I am on the way. I'll meet you in five minutes in front of the security office.
Jay was relieved. In no less than an hour, they should be on their way. He turned to the others and said, "I got someone. Go ahead to the rental office and get going on the paperwork. I'll catch up to you."
A few minutes later, Jay saw a group of men and one very good looking woman headed toward the security office. He hoped that one of the men was Sam. The group divided and a man and woman walked in his direction. Jay smiled in anticipation.
The good looking woman said, "Are you Jay Brant?"
He nodded. "I'm Sam Blackwell." She stuck out her hand. "Pleased to meet you."
Jay stared at her as if she had just said she was the Queen of England. "Ah . . . that is . . . I'm pleased to meet you as well." He was anything but pleased, still he needed an electronics expert. "Can I see your creds?"
"Of course, PCC; main; personal; certification; display." A vid-screen appeared in mid air.
"You have a doctorate in cybertronics?"
"Just curious, but why are taking this job? The pay is not that great."
"My next job will be on Mars in six weeks. I don't want to sit around and twiddle my thumbs for six weeks."
Jay smiled. "There will be no twiddling here. Welcome aboard, doctor."
"I prefer Sam. It makes normal conversation easier."
"Okay, Sam, let's catch up with the others at the rental office."
* * *
Scott stared at the vid-screen of apartments for sale or rent. He found it hard to focus, feeling as though he had been blind-sided. After leaving the space port, he had checked into a motel with Paris. They had been in their room for only minutes when he received a text for them to come to the basement.
When they exited the lift, they had been met by a space port security officer and escorted to another lift, which had risen one floor, then they were escorted down a narrow hallway to a door at the end. The door had been opened for them and they entered.
A well dressed man had awaited them in the empty room. He said, "I'm Alexander Weydom." He moved to one side, revealing a chair behind him. He motioned with his hand, "And a guest whom I will introduce in a moment."
Scott had been surprised that the governor had come to them, but then he had felt a chill as he realized the implications. "And you are not here and neither are we," Scott added.
Alexander smiled. "You catch on very quick. The reason you're both here is that rumors concerning dragons on Gemistal have been circulating for a number of years now. These rumors are bringing people here who are looking to profit in some way. We need both of you to help put an end to this problem." He gestured toward the chair and said, "This is my sister, Cleo. She will tell you the rest of what you need to know."
Paris said, "Cleo, the sister who died seven years ago?"
Cleo smiled, "One and the same. The rumors of dragons are true. They call themselves Fyrsouls. They are the indigenous people of this planet. They are not pleased with the escalation of explorers over the past few years. The mountains where they live have been off limits to anyone for many years; yet, this doesn't stop explorers from coming. I speak for the dragons when I say that any one who tries to take a dragon egg will die. This is not something that they want, but they will not permit this to happen."
"You talk to the dragons?" Paris asked.
"Yes, my husband and I live with them."
"Which brings me to the reason for meeting in this way," Alexander explained. "The records of Adventurer's Joy have been altered to show that Scott traveled here on his own. There was a group of men on the ship we believe are here for nefarious reasons. One of their group suffered a misfortune, and Paris will take his place."
"Why Paris and not me?" Scott asked.
"Paris doesn't look like a cop."
Scott laughed. "That's true."
* * *
Paris entered a small room and opened the bag she had brought with her. She needed an environmental suit for working outside a dome. She said, "PCC; nano-tex; release," Then her lifted my foot and removed her shoe.
A short time later, Paris had removed her normal nano-tex clothing and started replacing them with a full environ-suit. she pulled the hood over her head. A SDU on the underside of the face plate provided a vid giving a 360 degree view. Then Paris attached nan-tubes from the condensed oxygen tanks to the mask. She attached two gravs to the tank and said, "PCC; gravs K789 and K790; activate to ninety percent." The tank now weighed five pounds. Paris lifted the tank and put her right arm through the strap and swung it onto her back. Once the tank was in place, she said, "PCC; nano-tex; secure." Paris tugged at the face plate. Nothing moved, and I packed up her things and exited the room.
Scott sighed; his memory of his meeting with the governor and his sister was painful. He didn't want to say goodbye to Paris for who knew how long, but they were here to serve the people of Gemistal. While Paris was in the field, he would be working with Gemistal Space Port Security. He hoped that on the next assignment here, they would be working together.
His PCC beeped. "Yes."
"This is Syl. The HDVLC is off. Come on down to the office."
"I'm on the way."
* * *
Syl stood next to Scott in front of a vid-screen. The HDVLC just dropped off the tracking system. She looked at Scott and smiled. "The tracker on Paris is doing just fine."
"I'm relieved your anti-jammer tracker is living up to its hype."
"Hype? This puppy is the real deal. This may be its first test in the field, but that doesn't mean it's less than top quality."
"No arguments here. I just hope it keeps on doing what it's doing. I just wish there was a video or audio feed."
"Well, we do have sat-intel on them."
"That's good, but I want even more."
Syl grinned. "I can order up some breakfast but not much more than that."
Scott chuckled. "I haven't eaten yet. Food sounds good right now."
A short time later, they were eating pancakes while monitoring the progress of the HDVLC. "Wow! They are setting down so soon?"
Syl nodded. "The fast speed of the newer model HDVLC has been one of our concerns for a long time, but customers don't want to waste anymore travel time than necessary."
"They're landing on the plains near a mountain range."
"That is the Grand Weydom Mountain Range, which runs a thousand miles south to north and five hundred miles wide. Electromagnetic interference prevents low flying craft from going over that area, and sat-intel can't get an image we can use."
"What? How can we know if Paris is in trouble?"
"There's no way to know, but Paris is very capable. I'm sure she will be fine."
"Well, I'm the worry-wart type of guy, but she does know how to take care of herself."
* * *
Mitchell Whitestone walked down the cargo ramp with a lev-pallet trailing behind him. He wasn't pleased they would have to use battery operated Lev-Paks, but anything with circuits didn't work here in the mountains. When he reached the ground, he said, "PCC; lev-pallet; cease levitation." It settled onto the ground. He looked at the others who were watching and said, "Come, get your pack and two extra cells. Remember to check your cell status before every use. It would not be a good thing to fall out of the sky."
Steve chuckled. "That's for sure." He walked over to the pallet and selected a Lev-Pak. He attached two extra cells to it, then put it on.
He started to walk away, and Mitch said, "Let me check it for you. Always have some one do that for safety." A few minutes later, he said, "You are good to go."
One by one, they each came up for a Lev-Pak. Sam was last. She said, "I'll need some help here. I've never used one of these before."
Mitch said, "That's not a problem. It is voice command through your PCC." He went on to explain in detail its use and how to put it on. He concluded saying, "Stay on my right today. I'll put your Lev-Pak on my PCC auxiliary control. If you get in trouble, I can help you out."
"Thanks, Mitch. I appreciate your help."
Mitch said, "PCC; Lev-Pak k27, k28, k41; levitate on my PCC control at twelve feet distance from my left wrist." The nano-net holding their supplies hovered off the ground and moved to his left side.
He enjoyed the view of the forest below. They were at the northern end of the mountain range. He could see plains further to the north. The mountain range to the west continued all the way to the horizon. It was an indescribable sight that took his breath away.
The plan was to find caves to explore and to keep an eye out for dragons, which he thought ridiculous because he didn't believe in their existence.
He was here for the money, and he loved to explore places he'd never been.
Everyone appeared to be doing fine with their Lev-Paks, which was a relief. He was pleased that Sam had picked up the use of the Lev-Pak so quickly. The others had been given two training sessions on Earth.
He noticed Jay giving a downward motion with his hand, and he looked down to see a clearing. He began his descent.
* * *
Steve Douglas helped Sam get the tent set up. The automatic setup feature didn't work here. They'd practiced this on Earth before coming here. Still it was a major pain. He drove the last stake into the ground and threaded a rope through the top of the stake then used a tautline hitch to tie it off.
Sam was quiet which was okay by him. He never knew what to say to women anyway. He felt awkward to be sharing a tent with her, but she didn't seem bothered by it.
Mitch showed up just as he finished to inspect the ropes and stakes. A few minutes later, he nodded to Steve and said, "Good job." Then he left.
"Everyone gather round," Jay shouted. "Since we're unable to communicate by com-link, I'm giving each of you a mirror and a flashlight. One mirror flash means, 'Nothing here, moving on." Two flashes means, 'Help,' and three flashes means, 'Assistance needed.'
We will split up to search the cliffs with bi-noks. If you see something that appears to be a cave, go and check it out. If it is a cave, signal for assistance. Do not explore a cave on your own. Is everyone clear as to what to do?" He looked around at the group. "Okay, let's get to work people; we have a large area to explore."
* * *
Paris was tired. There was at most an hour of daylight left. She had explored at least ten miles of the cliff face with her bi-noks and found nothing of interest. No one else had found anything either. She was beginning to wonder if this area had any caves at all.
She'd been listening to the conversation of the others as often as she could. So far, she'd not heard anything out of the ordinary. She kept reminding herself that she was "Sam." It wouldn't be a good thing to ignore someone calling her name.
She didn't like be assigned so far away from Scott with no way to communicate. She refocused her thoughts on the cliff face as she looked through the bi-noks. She saw what appeared to be a small cave. She pressed the control on her Lev-Pak and rose into the air. She flew toward the cliff face. When she arrived at the area, she landed and looked around. The cave was small and went back into the cliff for only a few feet. The floor of the cave was solid rock. This appeared to be a dead end. She saw three flashes of light to her right. Mitch was calling for assistance.
Paris floated in the direction of the flashes. A short time later, she saw Mitch standing on an outcrop of rock, waving to get her attention. She floated downward. The cave behind him was huge. It must have been at least one hundred feet wide. She couldn't tell how far it continued back into the cliff face. She landed and said, "Wow! It will take forever to explore this cave."
He grinned and replied, "Only half of forever. I suggest that I start on one side and you on the other. We can do a surface search first, then we can start a detailed search if needed. Don't use the Lev-Paks. We need to conserve the battery life as much as possible."
Paris nodded and went to the far wall of the cave and started to search the ground; as she walked deeper into it, she turned on her flashlight. She counted her paces as she went. She reached the back wall at three hundred and twenty-two paces.
She was grateful for battery operated gravs. The weight of the tank would have taken a toll by now. She had covered at least twenty feet from front to back in the cave and found nothing. She heard a noise and turned her head. Mitch was gone.
* * *
Mitch was walking faster than Sam. The cave was even larger than he'd expected. He hoped to find something on the surface search but doubted they would. He was nearing the back of the cave again when he felt something shift under his feet, but then he had no time to think. He fell and his head hit something very hard. Dust filled the air, and he couldn't see a thing. He reached for the controls of the Lev-Pak just as he smashed into something hard. He saw darkness as his thoughts drifted away.
He floated in a sea of pain. He tried to move and nothing happened. He tried to talk but no sound came forth. His thoughts were jumbled, and all went dark again.
"His suit shows he is alive, but he can't be moved," Jay said.
Mitch said, Why? His question reverberated in his mind.
"He's not responding to touch or commands. He may be in a coma," Jay added.
No! I'm awake.
* * *
Paris shone her light around the underground cavern, revealing hundreds of eggs. She looked at Jay. "So what do we do about Mitch?"
"We have to leave him."
"What? We can't do that."
"If we try to move him, he will likely die. He must be stabilized before he is moved. Then he may have a chance of recovery."
"I understand he can't be moved, but we can't leave him here alone."
"We have what we came for: dragon eggs. It appears it may take three nano-nets to hold them all, and once they are loaded, we are out of here."
Paris took a step toward Jay. "I think we should go for help, now, then return for the eggs."
"You objection is noted, but we will do things my way."
"You can load the eggs, and I'll go for help," she replied as she came even closer.
Jay drew a nano-ton and aimed it at her.
Paris laughed. "You know that won't work against nano-tex."
The oxygen tanks on Paris's back exploded. She was thrown like a rag doll against the sandy floor.
* * *
"No oxygen, no worries." Jay laughed. "Goodbye Sam."
Jay, Steve, and Ricky finally finished placing the eggs into three nano-nets. Jay said, “PCC; nano-net NN17; secure." The net surrounded the eggs. Steve attached two Lev-Paks to the nano-net.
A short time later, they floated up and out of the cavern. They each had a nano-net with eggs trailing after them.
They continued levitating in the direction of the HDVLC. They were traveling in the dark with the lights of their environ-suits on. Their homers were also on, which did not start working until they cleared the mountain range. Two hours after leaving the cavern, they arrived at the HDVLC. Then they proceeded to reload their equipment and the eggs into the cargo hold.
* * *
A crack appeared in one of the eggs. Then a beak poked through. The egg shook then shattered. The beak grabbed the nano-net, and the net began to melt. Another egg cracked.
* * *
Ricky said, "Is that everything?"
"Yeah," Steve replied, "I'm ready to go."
"Okay," Jay said, "Let's get out of here."
A bird flew from the cargo hold. "How did that get in there?" Ricky asked.
"It must have flew in when we weren't looking," Jay replied. "Steve, take a look and make sure the cargo hold is okay."
Steve walked up the ramp and entered the cargo hold. His screams filled the air then were suddenly cut off.
Jay said, "I don't know what is going on, but I think it's past time to go." He said, "PCC; HDLVC Zebra345 Charlie231 Henry567; cargo hold; close outside door."
He said, "PCC; gravs; one hundred percent." He began to float, and he climbed up the side of the ship to the cabin entry access.
Ricky followed Jay. He was frightened.
Jay opened the cabin access door and was flooded by birds.
Ricky hesitated, but there was nothing he could do as the birds flew straight at him. He threw up his arms and screamed at the sharp pain in his ear.
* * *
Paris opened her eyes. She felt as if she'd been hit by a ton of bricks. The soft sand under her was likely the only reason she was still alive. The environ-suit saved her from the shrapnel from the blast, but the force of the blast itself had slammed her into the sand with tremendous force.
She turned over and then struggled to sit up. She found it hard to breathe and said, "PCC; environ-suit; release." She removed the mask over her face and was able to breathe easier. "PCC; environ-suit; secure." Before leaving Earth, she'd gone with Scott to have an oxy-ex2 placed in her left arm.
Her ribs ached with every breath. Some of them were probably broken. Her arms and legs ached as well. She said, "PCC; gravs; one hundred percent." She placed her hands on either side of her body and pushed as hard as she could. She floated upward. The cavern opening was above her. She continued past the opening and floated toward the cave ceiling. She used her hands against the ceiling to send herself at an angle away from the opening. Then she said, "PCC: gravs; ninety-nine dot nine percent." She floated down toward the cave floor.
She sat on the floor and considered her options. Her left leg was hurting severely. She suspected it was broken. Her tracker didn't work here. The others had left with the eggs, and she needed to make certain they didn't leave the planet with them. It was already dark, and the gravs would not last all the way to the plains. She had a flashlight and a mirror. The flashlight wouldn't be seen from a far distance but the mirror could. She needed to wait for daylight. She lay down to go to sleep.
The HDVLC set down near the Feingla River. A few minutes later, kids began to float out of the craft. Mrs. Becca Johnson, along with three adult helpers, herded the children outside. She was thankful she was in charge of only one field trip each school year. She just hoped three adults would be enough for thirty energetic kids.
Although the kids had been instructed to exit the craft and wait, she saw a couple kids walking toward the river, and she said, "PCC; loud whistle." The piercing noise brought everyone to a halt. A lot of the kids covered their ears. She said, "We will all go to the river together. Line up behind your group leader, now."
The students shuffled along to stand behind the adult who was in charge of their group. A short time later, they started walking toward the river. Even with three adults, it was hard to keep order. "And remember, do not get too close to the water."
They stopped on the river bank. Some kids bent over, picked up rocks or sticks, and threw them at the water. She heard a scrapping sound and turned her head. One of the children was rubbing his hands up and down on a large tree. She walked over and asked, "What are you doing, Donny?"
"I want to see if the bark will bark."
"You were told not to touch living things: trees, plants, and animals. If you want to play with the bark, choose the ones lying on the ground."
Donny sighed. "I wasn't hurtin' anything."
"You agreed to the rules before you came. If you don't like them, return to the ship, and stay there."
Donny stomped off toward the ship. Mrs. Johnson shook her head. Some kids were determined to have their way no matter what.
* * *
Sallie Burton loved water. She went swimming almost every day, but she'd never swum in a river before. She might never get an opportunity like this again. She looked around to see where the adults were, then she slowly moved toward the river bank. She sat down against a tree as if to relax. She scooted around the tree, then she slipped over the bank and slid down the twenty foot incline to the river below.
She sat on a rock, put her hand in the water, and splashed it a bit. The environ-suit protected her, but it also prevented her from feeling the water itself. She slid off the rock into the water and smiled. Now she could tell all of her friends that she had been swimming in a river.
* * *
Mrs Johnson began a mental count of the students. Twenty-eight? "That can't right," she muttered and started her count again. A few minutes later, she arrived at the conclusion that one child was missing. She said, "PCC--"
A child's piercing scream cut her off, and she quickly turned in the direction of the scream. A large black bird was perched on the back of a prostrate child, pecking at the child's head with its beak. She ran toward the child to assist, knowing the environ-suit would protect the child. When the child's environ-suit began to smoke, she stared in disbelief. Then she saw that the child had stopped struggling, and the bird's beak was dripping blood.
"This isn't possible," she screamed. Then she was slammed to the ground by a heavy weight.
* * *
Sallie heard screams and saw huge black birds in the sky. They flew over and around her but didn't come near the river. She was frightened and stayed in the water.
The screams stopped. Sallie began to cry. She didn't know what happened, but it had to be something bad. She stayed in the water, hoping to keep safe.
* * *
At six a.m. Scott was in the Space Port Security office. Although Paris had only been gone for a day, it seemed like an age. It was especially hard because they couldn't even talk. This was the first time since he met her, two and a half years ago, that he had not talked to her every day. It was hard to believe so much time had gone so quickly. It seemed as if they met yesterday while at the same time, he felt as if he had known her all his life. He refocused his thoughts back to the vid-screen before him.
He watched the vid-logs from the ships that recently docked. The ship's AI did most of the work by identifying anything it deemed suspicious. Scott watched as a man left his cabin in the middle of the night and crept down the narrow hall. He opened another cabin door and entered. The next part of the vid showed him leave the cabin in the morning and shortly after a woman left. Scott made a note on the file: NFA, which stood for No Further Action, then he continued with the next vid.
Four hours later, he stretched and yawned. He hated tedious work. It was necessary, but he wished someone else was doing it. There were four files left for which he was very grateful. His PCC beeped. "Yes."
"We have a problem," Syl said. "Come up to the launch area."
"I'm on the way." Scott walked to the nearest Upflow and went up to the top level. He walked out and stepped onto a people mover. A short while later, he arrived at the launch area. He went to the information desk and had his PCC scanned.
The lady behind the counter said, "Continue to LZ forty-two." He nodded. "Thanks."
A few minutes later, he spotted Syl standing at the entrance to the launch area. She waved to him, and he quickened his pace. Her face had a strained look, and he said, "What's up?"
"Not here. Our VLC is ready. I'm waiting for one more member of our team. Ahh . . . there he is now."
Syl put her PCC up to the scanner, and the door to the launch area opened. She looked at Scott, and he did the same. The new arrival held up his PCC as well, and they all entered together.
"Changing rooms for men are that way," Syl explained, pointing to her right.
Scott walked in the indicated direction and said, "I'm Scott Weatherly."
"I'm Harry Pfister, welcome to the mad house."
Scott laughed. "I'm sure it's not that bad."
"Stick around, you'll see."
They entered the large changing room, and Scott said, "What is this all about?"
Harry said, "PCC; nano-tex; disengage. This is a code triple red, which means, 'Disaster, drop everything and come immediately.'"
"That doesn't sound good." Scott disengaged his nano-tex to change into an environ-suit. Even though he had an oxy-ex2, he did not want anyone to know that.
"I've known Syl for a very long time. She is very upset. Whatever has happened must be extremely bad," said Harry
Scott helped Harry get the condensed oxygen cylinders onto his back. The gravs helped to make them lightweight, but they were still awkward to get in place, then he checked all the connections and said, "You're all good, Harry."
Harry checked Scott's connections and replied, "You are okay too. Let's get going before Syl has kittens."
Scott laughed and they left. They met with Syl and continued on to launch bay forty-two. Their PCCs were scanned again, and they entered the bay area. At the top of the bay, he could see out through the dome. Once the ship was ready to depart, a window in the dome would open, and the ship could fly out.
The VLC was a small one. It stood twenty-four feet high on four legs, and it was fifteen feet around. Syl said, "VLC; access entry open." A small door at the top of the ship opened. She said, "PCC; gravs; one hundred percent." She jumped and floated up the side of the ship. When she reached the access door, she grabbed it and swung inside the ship. Scott followed her, and Harry came behind.
Scott saw that the pilot was already at the controls. He took a seat and strapped himself in. Syl said, "As soon as we are in the air, I have a vid to show you."
The VLC lifted off. A vid-screen appeared in front of Scott, and he watched a scene of children playing near a river. Their voices were excited as they were jumping and running all around.
The attack was sudden and viscous. Scott turned his head away for a moment. He couldn't begin to imagine the pain the parents of these children must feel. He prayed he wouldn't be one of those given the duty of telling them. The large black birds looked like a Phoenix. The kids and the adults never had a chance.
At the end of the vid, Syl said, "As you saw, only two kids remain alive. One is in the HDVLC, and the other is still in the river."
"Why did the birds ignore the child in the river?" Harry asked.
"I can think of only one reason. They don't like water," Syl answered.
"What kind of birds are they?" Scott asked.
"I don't know, and Alex talked to Cleo, and she reported back that the Fyrsouls don't know this type of bird, and sat-intel gets a fuzzy return when it looks at them."
"Because of rocks from the mountains in their gizzards," Scott added.
"It seems likely," Syl agreed.
* * *
Syl sat next to Donny. He was shaking and crying. "The birds are all gone, and you are safe. Jimmy, the pilot, is going to show you all around the VLC. I promise, you will be home soon."
Scott was on the other side of the cabin talking to a little girl. He picked her up, carried her over, and set her down next to Donny. "Donny, this is Sallie. Ask her about her swim in the river."
Syl and Scott floated out of the access door toward the ground. She walked over to one of the adults lying on the ground. She stood over the adult woman. "It wasn't your fault." She wished there was someone to take to task for this massacre, but the birds were only animals, following their instincts.
"There are some things that bother me," Scott said.
"Syl, there is only one wound in the head for each victim. I believed environ-suits would protect them; yet, it melted. Also, why is there only one wound and only in the head?"
"I agree, Harry will do three autopsies that I hope will answer some of our questions."
"Why in situ?" Scott asked.
"This is top, top secret, Scott. The families haven't been told of this yet. Alex is concerned that there could be a contamination of some kind from the birds that is now in the brains of our dead. If we take the bodies into our domes, then a contagion could spread."
"That is a scary thought, and I'm glad I'm not the governor," Scott remarked. "While we are waiting, tell me some things about Gemistal."
"I'll tell you of the invasion by the Jells." Forty-five minutes later, Syl said, We would have lost Anelkisterlas if not for the Fyrsouls. We owe them a huge debt."
Harry walked over. "I have some results from the first autopsy. The Cerebrum is missing--"
"The soul of the brain," Scott interjected.
Harry gave Scott a look and continued. "I also found a very small egg."
Syl sighed. "That makes sense. The egg hatches and has something to eat. It also explains why the bodies were left as they are."
"It seems Alex was right," Scott added.
Syl said, "Stay here, I'll bring some nan-tons." As Syl returned to the ship, she began to think up a story for the parents. She went to a vid-screen, typed in her code, and a panel in the cabin wall opened. She took out three brief case sized containers and left the ship.
When she arrived back with the others, she opened the cases and programmed the nan-tons. She handed one to Scott. "You can access the controls through your PCC. Set it for vaporize."
Scott nodded and said, "PCC; nano-ton; nt34765; controls; vaporize mode." He walked away.
Syl gave a nano-ton to Harry and took one for herself. She programmed it. Then she walked over to the nearest body, aimed the nano-ton, and pressed a button. The body vanished.
No one said much on the return to the space port. Syl filed her report for Alex. Then she sat down with Donny and Sallie. "I want to tell you what happened today. Before your class left the school today, you two snuck off together--"
"No, we didn't," Donny protested.
"This is the report that everyone will receive. I know this is not easy to understand. I don't want you to talk about this to anyone. Do you understand?"
"Good, you and Sallie can talk together and decide what it is that you did today. I will drop you off at school, and you can go about your day as normal. There will also be counselors to help you."
Alex sat in the Gemistal Space Port Security office. The VLC had just landed, and he was impatient for this meeting. He'd already sent out a vid for the media and another one for the parents. The loss of so many kids at once was so sad. He remembered the loss here and on Anelkisterlas of thousands of people seven years ago, including his brother, Matt. He struggled for weeks to even do his job. He knew what these parents faced. It wouldn't be easy.
Syl entered the office, followed by Scott, and Harry. Alex said, "Take a seat. I want to talk about how to stop these birds."
"Finding them is the first step," Scott replied.
"How about sending out bait," Alex suggested. "A herd of animals, perhaps?"
"That's not a bad idea," Syl added. "Then we can use nan-tons on them."
Alex said, "Let's try that. All trips outside the domes are canceled for now. People are going to start squawking, so we need to solve this problem right away."
He stood up. "I think it's time to get out of your hair."
Syl chuckled. "Drop by anytime. Next time bring pizza."
Alex smiled. "I do appreciate the work you are all doing. It is difficult and dangerous. Please be careful out there."
* * *
Paris woke up. She was surprised it was almost midday. She tried to sit up. Extreme pain put an end to that idea. She said, "PCC; gravs; one hundred percent." She pushed hard against the ground and floated upward. When she was high above the trees, she pulled out the mirror and flashed it several times in all directions. Then she said, "PCC: gravs; ninety-nine dot nine percent." She floated slowly downward.
When the men left, they didn't take all the supplies. As Paris neared the ground, she used her hands to propel her in the direction of the main camp. A little time later, she made it to the camp. She found some water and food. She went inside a tent and lay down. She had hoped her injuries wouldn't hamper her, now she needed to face the reality that she might not be found. She remembered the time when she believed Scott was dead. He had survived; now, she needed to stay strong and hold on to hope.
Paris woke and floated from the tent. It was mid-afternoon now. Even though she slept well, she felt so tired. She set her gravs and floated into the air. When she was over the trees, she took out the mirror and flashed it in every direction. She felt light headed almost as if floating in a dream.
The river is so swift, and the water is cold. I can't swim straight across, so I go with the flow.
Paris groaned as she woke up. She looked down. The camp was gone. She began to pull out the mirror and saw something in the sky in the distance. It appeared to be a large bird being followed by smaller birds. She continued to watch. She was surprised to see that the larger bird was a dragon. The smaller birds continued to follow it. The dragon turned suddenly and flamed the birds. The birds appeared to absorb the flame and flew quickly forward.
The attack on the dragon was sudden and swift. A bird landed on its neck and slammed its beak down again and again. The dragon plummeted from the sky, smashing onto trees below. Paris was stunned. The birds turned and few away. Paris floated back down.
Paris lay between two trees. There was still some daylight left. Her gravs would not last much longer. She floated into the air. She pulled out her mirror and flashed it in every direction, then she floated down.
She had just landed softly on the underbrush when she heard a loud crunching and smashing sound. She looked to her left and saw a huge dragon that had crushed some trees when it landed. It looked at her and lowered its head, then it opened its mouth.
* * *
A young man and a dog herded the sheep away from the HDVLC. Scott and Syl were in environ-suits. He was nervous for the lad and the dog; even though, they were not going far.
Scott and Syl entered a large forest, lay down, watched the meadow, and waited. The boy and dog were back inside the ship. They had devised hand signals to communicate. There were at least six hours to nightfall. Scott hoped some birds showed up. He didn't look forward to lying here for the rest of the day.
He was glad to be working with Syl. He was surprised she had come. She was the head of Space Port Security, but as she told him earlier, she had the most experience for this kind of operation. He had a feeling she was tired of being in the space port most of the time.
He felt a touch on his arm and looked at Syl who pointed at the sky. It appeared to be a flock of birds, and he watched them. As they came nearer, he saw that they were not that big. Syl shook her head.
Time seemed to crawl. Scott refused to look at his PCC. He didn't want to know how slowly time was moving. Syl nudged his arm. He looked at her. She pointed down where she had drawn a tic-tac-toe square. He smiled and nodded.
They were on game forty-three when Scott saw something in the sky far away. He tapped Syl's arm as he pointed to the sky. She nodded. She pointed at the sheep, which had wandered farther away down the meadow. She indicated for him to go right, and she went in the other direction.
He walked farther back into the forest, then walked as quickly and quietly as he could. He thought Syl might get into position first. He hoped she would wait for him.
The birds were much closer but still too far away to determine what kind of birds. He felt uncomfortable being separated from Syl. He hoped she was not up to something dangerous. He pressed onward as fast as he dared to go.
The sheep were grazing, and he was close enough he could hear them. The birds seemed to be moving faster now. He thought they looked black, but it was hard to tell.
Suddenly, the birds turned toward the forest on the other side. His PCC vibrated. He tilted his head, and a vid-screen and stylus appeared. He used the stylus to call up the message. Scott, I used the nan-ton on vaporize. It had no effect. Tell my family that I love them. I'm sorry for not telling you my plan, but I had a feeling the outcome wouldn't be good. I made this choice, knowing I might die. I wish you and the others success in finding a way to stop this terrible creature. Take care, Syl.
Scott, typed, I won't forget your sacrifice, Syl, I promise. He hit send as the birds dived into the forest. He sat down on the ground and bowed his head. He had not expected this and wondered why she had gone instead of bringing an AI and sending it out to shoot at the birds. He thought about it for a moment. There was a possibility that an AI would not cause the birds to react. They might smell and see it and know it was not a living creature. Syl, Alex is going to be very upset with you.
* * *
Cleo stepped out of the dragon's mouth and walked over to Paris who sat on the ground. She looked very pale. "Fierce Storm saw your signal."
Paris said, "Tell Scott to try water." She fell over on her side.
Cleo motioned to Fierce Storm and said, Come closer.
He walked in her direction.
Get your mouth as close to her as you can. I'll move her inside.
Fierce Storm lowered his head and opened his mouth. Cleo lifted Paris from under her arms and pulled her into Fierce Storm's mouth. We need to go to one of the domes. "And I need to call my brother," she muttered.
* * *
Alex listened to Scott's report. He was shocked and upset because of Syl's death. "Scott, I want you to take temporary command of Space Port Security."
"None of your people can do it?"
"I have someone in mind. But he is on Anelkisterlas, and I would prefer that we resolve this problem before bringing in someone new."
"Okay, I can understand that."
"I think we need to start an evacuation plan."
"For how soon?"
"Today--" Alex's PCC beeped. "Yes."
"Alex, I found Paris, and she is injured. We are on the way. Can you send a VLC to meet us?"
"Is Paris okay?" Scott interjected.
"She needs a doctor," Cleo replied.
"Cleo, there are some killer birds at large," Alex explained. "It is not safe to fly--"
"I'll go," Scott said.
"No, you won't," Alex replied. "You are in charge of the evacuation, which comes first."
"It's okay, Alex. We will take care of it. Paris said to tell Scott to try water."
"Water? What does that mean?" Scott asked.
"I don't know. That is all she said."
"Thank you, Cleo. If you find out more, let me know, bye."
"I want the evacuation completed within three days."
Scott stood up. "Alex, when did you sleep last?"
Alex smiled. "You are sounding like Portland now."
"Listen to your secretary, Alex. Sleep while you can. You may not have time later."
"Thank you, Scott."
"I'll send my bill later."
Alex laughed. "I hope Paris will be okay. I hope you understand my decision."
"I don't like it, but I do understand."
* * *
Sun's Ray, Fyrsoul's Queen, lowered her head to examine the Aireth woman, Paris. She probed her body with her mind and infused her with strength.
She needs a lot of rest to heal, Sun's Ray said to Cleo.
Thank you, Sun's Ray.
You are welcome.
"PCC; com-link; Alexander Weydom; Paris is healing. It will take time."
Cleo returned to her cave. Her husband, Forrest, said, "Where have you been hiding out today?"
She laughed and explained all that had happened.
"Six Fyrsouls are missing?"
Cleo nodded. "When Sun's Ray told me that, I was shocked. Missing means they are probably dead."
Cleo, there is trouble, Fierce Storm said.
Forrest looked at Cleo. "Red Petal says there is trouble."
Cleo walked out of the cave. Two Fyrsouls in the sky were surrounded by large black birds. The Fyrsouls were flaming the birds with no effect. One of the Fyrsouls plummeted to the rocky ground. The other was in trouble. "Paris said, 'Try water'."
"What?" Forrest asked.
Fierce Storm, spray water on the birds.
Fierce Storm leapt to the sky then dived toward the river. He lowered his head and scooped up water in mid-flight. He rose in the air and flew toward the black birds. The other Fyrsoul plummeted to the ground. Fierce Storm kept on course. The birds hurried to meet him. Then suddenly he sprayed water all over the birds. The birds exploded in flame. Only one of them flew away.
* * *
Scott was surprised to see Alex so early in the morning. He had canceled last night's evacuation order with no explanation. "I heard from Cleo last night. She confirmed that water will destroy these birds. She also said that the dragons are out in full force, hunting down these birds. I have already contacted every dome to prepare water defenses. I also called Caesar Williams last night. As soon as he gets here, you have two weeks leave."
* * *
Scott sat next to Paris in the cave. This was the third day of his vigil. Fierce Storm had brought him here in a manner he would never forget. Cleo had told him that Paris was healing, but still he worried.
She moaned, and he caressed her face. "You'll be alright, sweetheart."
"I must be dreaming."
Scott smiled. "No, Paris, I believe the nightmare is finally over."
Paris opened her eyes. "It is really you. I thought I was dreaming."
Tears fell from Scott's eyes.
"Not a thing, sweetie. Not a thing. This is the happiest day of my life."
* * *
David Martin sat in his cabin but not by choice. A security guard remained outside his door. He was glad he had not been charged with a crime, but he was not happy that he'd been banished from Gemistal and told to never return. He was disturbed that he was the only member of this expedition still alive. When he arrived back home, maybe he should write about his experiences. He sighed, Who would believe a word of it?
Wax Kline, lead scientist for Rentrak, sat in the CEOs office. Boris Vance like a CEO. His face was worn with line and most of his hair was grey. Boris was an ambitious man who had hired Wax close to five years earlier to find a way to get rid of the Jells and turn Nileon into a livable planet for humans.
Living inside environmentally controlled facilities was not enjoyable, but there was no choice on Nileon where the gases could kill in a second.
Boris said, “I have reports that some of the Jells are dying. This is fantastic news. I presume this has something to do with your experiments.”
“Fish are the main supply of food for the Jells. I have been testing various toxins to inject into the fish that won't kill the fish, but will seriously affect the Jells. I believe I do have the solution now. There is a frog poison I am using now that is working quite well. I estimate that within a year Nileon will be free of Jells.”
Boris clapped his hands. “Excellent. How about the toxic gases?”
“Dr. Stephanie Bowes has made some progress. The main problem is that there are at least fifteen different gasses. Nothing will eliminate all of them at the same time. She found three areas of the ocean floor where some the of gasses were originating. These tears in the ocean floor have been closed, but we still have eight more gasses to neutralize.”
Boris smiled. “I'm pleased with the progress. Just keep it going in the right direction.”
* * *
Stephanie had been hired as an environmental expert by the Rentrak Corporation two years ago. She was not overjoyed at the prospect of working on a hostile planet light-years from Earth, but the compensation she was offered was more than she could turn down.
She believed that making Nileon livable for humans was a good thing, and she was pleased with the results of her experiments so far. One thing that disturbed her was the reports of Jells dying. The alien creatures were beyond ugly. They looked like an upside down jelly fish and talked mentally; still, they deserved to live and these sudden deaths bothered her.
Rentrak was up to no good. She knew that for sure. Of course, she didn't know any details, but she didn't want to stay around longer then necessary and face the consequences.
Her main concern was getting off the planet and returning to Earth. She would need to find her own transport off the planet without anyone else knowing of it or stowaway on one of Rentrak's ships. She felt sick to her stomach. No matter her choice, it would not be easy.
* * *
Paris's cube left the vac at dome 24. She emerged and stepped onto the people mover that went north up Trader's Street. This dome was comprised of mostly industrial concerns. This early in the day the people mover was filled with workers on the way to various jobs.
She worked as a dispatcher for the John Klaxon Trading Company on Anelkisterlas, but that was just a cover for her real job with ICPU, looking for smugglers. Scott performed the same work, except out of the Gemistal Space Port.
She didn't travel far when on her right was the small office for JKTC. The facility was large because it had eight landing pads for HDVLCs and five large warehouses. She had set up the runs for today the previous evening. She had some paperwork to finish and also a run to Gemistal.
* * *
Rupert Wilson hated landing on Nileon. Gases surrounding the planet, made everything look distorted. The ocean below, on his vid-screen, appeared yellow and the islands black, but once he entered the troposphere, he would see the planet's true colors.
A few minutes later, the light lavender of the ocean and the plants of various shades of red appeared on the vid-screen. The land had a multitude of colors but black was dominate.
He also hated to come here because of the Jells, an alien race that looked like an upside down jelly fish. Their appearance made him sick, but worst of all they tried to conqueror Anelkisterlas, his home planet, ten years earlier. His parents died during that time now called the 'troubles,' since then, he'd lived with his uncle, Walter Cook.
He started working for the John Klaxon Trading Company two years ago. John Klaxon the third, the grandson of the founder of the company, was his boss. When it came to trading, he wouldn't know a bargain if it had a sign on it when it walked in the door. He depended on his employees to make him a profit. All five employees were disgruntled because their biggest client was the Jells on Nileon.
Rupert said, "VLC; ground proximity guidance enable." He took his hands away from the controls and waited. This newest innovation made him very happy. The Vertical Landing Craft's AI would land the vehicle. He no longer had to pay attention to speed and altitude while descending.
He felt nervous as the VLC descended closer to the landing area. He had heard stories of AIs being nanotaged; although, he doubted anyone would go to the expense to attack a small trading company.
He was glad his first delivery was to the Rentrak Corporation. It gave him a short reprieve from dealing with the Jells. The VLC settled down without any problem on the landing pad.
* * *
Stephanie's nerves were on edge. Her hiding place in the cargo bay seemed to be a good one to her, but she was uncertain because of the monitoring systems. She'd borrowed one of the dock worker's uniforms and planned to sneak onto the VLC that was scheduled to land within the next few minutes.
She heard the ship a few seconds before it landed. She watched a worker take a pal-lev and move toward the landing pad. She ran quickly and quietly to another pal-lev and prayed that her study of how to operate it was sufficient.
She scanned her PCC, and it started. She hoped now that the computer wouldn't send an alert to security. She entered the commands for the pal-lev and walked toward the landing pad.
Just as she arrived at the VLC, the other worker was leaving the cargo hold. He nodded to her and she nodded back. With their environ suits, he couldn't know she didn't belong here.
Inside the ship, she checked the manifest. One crate was left to be unloaded. She placed gravs on the crate, and used commands to move it onto the pal-lev.
When she finished, she entered a return to warehouse for the pal-lev, and she hid in the cargo hold.
* * *
Rupert was a little disappointed at the efficiency of the Rentrak Corporation. He was unloaded and ready to liftoff in less than half an hour. His next stop was Stargla, the Jell capital. He truly hated seeing Jells; their appearance gave him an upset stomach, and of course his memories made it even worse.
He tried to think of other things as the AI directed the VLC to its destination. Maybe I should get another job. Every time he made this run, the same thoughts ran through his mind. I must be a glutton for punishment to keep returning here.
As the VLC started its descent, he averted his head from the vid. The sight of the Jell city always made his stomach churn. Finally, he looked down. Maybe this time won't be so bad.
Huge ripples in the lavender water interrupted his thoughts. He'd never seen this kind of movement in the water on Nileon before. He said, "Manual control." With his nerves on edge, the VLC continued its descent. As it dropped lower, he began to wonder if he'd been imagining things. He relaxed as the VLC neared the landing area.
A huge head with a gaping mouth filled with jagged teeth appeared on the vid-screen. Rupert screamed as he commanded, "Reverse descent--"
* * *
The creature sank into the depths and swam away from the shore. The flying thing it had caught did not taste good at all, and it spit it out then continued on its way, searching for food.
* * *
Rupert's hands shook as he manually released the restraints that held him in his chair. The AI and the VLC Comp were both dead. He had enough canisters of condensed oxygen for a month. His VLC sent out a signal at all times, and he hoped it was still working and even more that someone would come and get him out of this place.
* * *
Stephanie hurt all over. She didn't know what happened, but she thought that the VLC might have crashed. Thankfully, none of the cargo had shifted, but now she was in the dark with no way of letting any one know she was here with no way to get out.
She calmed herself by breathing deeply. Nileon's atmosphere made havoc on electronic communications, but there was still a way for her to be found. She activated the homer on her PCC.
She closed her eyes and relaxed. She thought back to when she entered the cargo hold. She replayed it over and over again to see if she could remember the layout. There was a series of rungs up the wall that led to the command center. If she could get there, she might find help. She hoped.
* * *
After Paris finished her run to Gemistal, she returned to the main office of John Klaxon Trading on Anelkisterlas. As usual no one was in the office; John three came here once a month if that. He paid her extra to take care of the office so far as responding to customers and assigning runs.
She walked to her station and said, "JKT; Code twenty-five Zebra87; menu; run status." She looked at the vid-screen. Everyone, except Rupert, was on the way back home.
She looked at various emails and e-filed them. Then she started working on scheduling runs for the next day. She lost track of time as she worked. When she heard the creak of the door, she looked up to see who was there.
"Hi, Bill." William Brown, the newest employee, was doing a very good job. "There a short run if you want it."
"Sure, I can do that. I need to come in late tomorrow; I have to see the dentist."
She shook her head. "We can fly to the stars, but we can't stop tooth decay."
Bill laughed. "Yeah, go figure."
She said, "I just transferred the information to your PCC and to the VLC."
"Thanks, Paris, 'til later."
She returned to her work, finished the email and e-file, then looked at the clock. Where is Rupert? She opened the VLC homer program and saw he hadn't moved from near Stargla. "Something isn't right."
"VLC victor34 charlie12 robert17; com-link; Rupert; what's taking so long?"
Silence was a bad sign. She nodded and accessed the mainframe. A vid-screen appeared at eye level. "VLC victor34 charlie12 robert17; coordinates," she said. "Copy coordinates to VLC locator program."
She stared at the results. "This can't be right." She verified the coordinates, copied it again, and received the same result. The VLC was in 1500 feet of water.
She typed a message to Anelkisterlas Security. She sent it and waited.
Caesar Williams read the message from John Klaxon Trading Company. He nodded and said, "AS; com-link; Porter; Festus; Weatherly; my office now."
The meeting started five minutes later, and Caesar passed out the information he had on the VLC. "We need a plan to recover this VLC and, hopefully, save the life of Rupert Bowles. What do we need?"
"The rescue vehicle needs lifting capacity to pull this VLC from the ocean and bring it here. I recommend the HDVLC," Scott replied.
"We need an AI diver," Porter commented.
Caesar shook his head. "No AI available for that. We'll need a professional diver."
"We need three cables of 1600 length," Scott said.
"We should bring a doctor," Festus added.
"Scott, you are the lead on this. Festus you are support, and Porter you have logistics."
"Joy," Porter replied, nodding his head. "AS; Anelkisterlas; ocean divers; Sterling Bilson; hi this is Richard Porter with Anelkisterlas Security. . . ."
* * *
Sterling looked on this opportunity to dive on Nileon as heaven sent; his transport there cost nothing. He felt bad for the accident but glad for this chance. Daylight would be ending soon, which concerned him because the retrieval of the craft could be hindered and take longer in the dark.
His PCC beeped. "Yes"
"Five minutes to location," the mechanical voice said. Most likely the AI sent messages to everyone on board. He felt a bit nervous, but once he landed in the water he would have too much to do to think about anything else.
Sterling changed into his underwater environ-suit. He loved this suit. Its program regulated his descent and ascent. It cost him more money than he wanted to think about, but it was worth every cent.
He jumped from the HDVLC and floated down to the water. His ankle and wrist gravs set him gently into the water. Three cables were attached to a utility belt around his waist. His suit provided light as he descended. The odd color of the water disturbed him at first, but he ignored it and continued to drop slowly into the depths.
He saw the first sea creatures at five hundred feet, which varied in size from three to six inches long. As soon as he appeared, they swam quickly away. He wished he had time to collect specimens but that would have to wait for another day.
He felt a strong current at nine hundred feet. He said, "UES; power descent; twenty-five percent." He powered through the current and then was clear of it. "UES; standard descent.
He was nearing fifteen hundred feet. The VLC had a homer beacon that his suit's computer was following. His concern now was finding the craft before his cables came to an end.
His suit warned of the ocean floor even as it slowed. The beacon indicated the craft was below him, but he couldn't see a thing. His suit slowed almost to a crawl. His nerves were on edge, knowing he must be almost on top of the craft; he didn't want to crash into it. Then he saw it and stopped. "HDVLC Baker78 Charlie98 Zebra 21; com-link; Scott; the craft is in sight. Landing legs are twisted like a pretzel; lower cylinder crushed. Approaching to attach cables."
It took thirty minutes to get all three cables attached in separate areas. He backed off from the VLC and said, "Com-link; HDVLC; retrieval slow."
He nodded his head in satisfaction as the VLC began to move upwards.
* * *
Scott watched the progress of the VLC on a vid-screen. It was coming up slow, and it appeared stable. "Proximity retrieval crash nine seconds," the AI reported. "Crash into what?" Scott shouted. "I hate these mechanical lame brains."
Flight Officer Quarles laughed. "Maybe it's an invisible fish."
Scott said, "Com-link; Sterling; the AI is twitchy; it says a crash is imminent; keep an eye out."
* * *
The AI is beyond twitchy. Sterling didn't express his thought. Why waste his time. He noticed the absence of fish, which seemed strange, and he didn't know when it happened. This ascent continued slowly, and the craft appeared stable.
One second the craft was rising; the next it was falling. He stared in disbelief. "HDVLC; com-link; Scott; what is going on up there?"
The lack of a response chilled him. He continued to slowly rise. This ascent from the depths to an awaiting revelation grated on his nerves. Did the AI go crazy and stop working?
He had questions upon questions, but in leaving them unvoiced, he didn't need to face the inevitable truth. The first VLC disappeared in this place, and now the second one doesn't respond--do I need think beyond that distressing thought?
* * *
Rupert had rejoiced when he felt the VLC moving, willing himself to believe the rescue team had arrived. His joy quickly ended when the VLC crashed back onto the ocean floor. The jolt dashed his hopes; now he waited in the dark, praying to see the light of day again.
A sudden pounding on the door of the command center sent a shock of fear into his mind. Was this a member of the rescue team, or? . . .
He pushed a button on his PCC, and a small beam of light appeared. He searched the floor below his feet and found the small recessed indentation. He removed a chain from his neck and inserted a key into the hole. He turned it and a small panel opened. He removed the nan-ton and programmed it for stun, then he left his chair and walked to the access panel for the cargo area.
He opened another panel to the side of the door and used a lever to open the door manually. He stepped back and held the nan-ton, prepared to use it if necessary.
He was startled by the appearance of a woman, who seemed petrified by the sight of the weapon in his hand. Despite her reaction, he kept it steady on her. “Why are you on my ship?” he demanded.
“I'm sorry. I only wanted to get away from my employers without anyone being the wiser.” She went on to explain more about her reason for escaping and concluded, “I think Rentrak is up to no good.”
Rupert frowned. “You may be right about Rentrak. It does seem odd they set up shop on a hostile planet; well, we are stuck here until someone hears our signal.”
* * *
Scott hung upside down from his chair. He said, "Gravs ninety-five percent." He hit his chair release and slowly floated downward. When he touched down, he looked around and noticed Quarles crumpled in the corner. He had not been strapped in. He walked over and checked his suit. The indicator show no life signs.
"Com-link; Sterling; are you ok?"
"Scott, what happened? Yeah, I'm ok."
Scott went on to explain. "I'm going to contact Caesar."
"Okay, Let me know what's up."
Scott said, "Anelkisterlas Security; Caesar; Quarles is dead; Sterling's not on board but safe. He needs pickup soonest, and I need retrieval, and the VLC also need retrieval."
"Understood. I will start work on it immediately and get back to you."
Leland Johnson, the head of security for the Rentrak Corporation, sighed in disgust at the sight of the giant fish swimming away from the downed space craft. Wax Kline, who had devised an implant to influence the creature's actions, had assured him that the technology would work.
The vid showed the location of the VLC as well as the large fish. He worried because of the homer beacon on the craft. He couldn't allow Dr. Bowes to live and to report on the activities of the Corporation.
He said, “PCC; com-link; Charles Barton, come to my office for a quick conference.”
“I'm on the way,” Charles answered.
Leland was the brains of the security team, and Charles was the muscle. Many times, Leland wished he had never become involved with Rentrak. He was young and stupid, then, and the promise of lots of money pulled him in like a fish on a hook.
Rentrak was actually a consortium of of small businesses who saw an opportunity to make it big by taking over a planet and making it into a luxury resort. They expected to make more money than anyone could ever spend.
When Charles entered the security office, Leland said, “I want you to take out the submersible with two torpedoes.” He handed him a printout. “This is the coordinates of a sunken VLC. Use both torpedoes on it.”
“Kind of overkill, isn't it?”
“Yeah, and that's just the way I want it.”
Charles nodded and left.
* * *
Sterling breathed a sigh of relief, knowing Scott was okay. He continued to rise slowly toward the surface. Finally, his head popped above water. He looked up at the empty skies and sighed then powered toward the nearest land.
* * *
Paris's console beeped. She clicked the message and read. Caesar, HDVLC is gone. I will start on plan for both retrievals. Send pickup soonest for Sterling.
On the flight, she talked to Caesar several times. She also sent John three information about the missing VLC and her mission to pickup Sterling. Two space craft were missing, and now she was headed to the same area. She refused to think about the danger that could lay ahead. Scott was out there. He is okay. She repeated those three words over and over, knowing it had to be true.
"Paris, another HDVLC is on the way; however, we cannot get another diver soon enough. Pickup Sterling and stay in a holding pattern until we arrive."
Paris was surprised and concerned for Sterling. His day had been long already. Now he had hours left for a job that was dangerous at any time but especially when tired.
By the time she reached Nileon, it had been dark for several hours. Her VLC was being guided by the coordinates of the other VLCs. She remained at a high altitude over the ocean below. She nodded. "HDVLC Baker78 Charlie98 Zebra 21; com-link; Sterling; I am over your position. I will descend to two hundred feet use your gravs to ascend to the VLC. Acknowledge."
"Acknowledged. Thanks for coming."
Paris felt her nerves kick in. She hoped that over land, there was safety, but she had no way of knowing where danger awaited. The VLC descended slowly. She watched the vid-screen that showed her altitude. When she reached two hundred feet, the VLC hovered in place. "Com-link; Sterling; start your ascent."
A few moments later, she heard, "Paris, I'm on the way."
"Com-link; Scott; are you okay?"
"Yes, Paris and I'll be even better when I'm out of here."
"Stay safe and don't take any wooden nickels."
"Don't worry. I'll be fine."
* * *
Sterling looked down as he rose into the air. It was too dark to see anything below. He had not turned on his suit lights, hoping that would keep from him safe from attacking creatures, but he was very aware that animals hunted by more than just sight.
His PCC beeped, "Proximity warning."
Sterling said, "UES; lights." The VLC was an indistinct shadow above him. "Gravs slow." He arrived at the door and said, "Gravs neutral; com-link; Paris; I'm at the door."
The door opened and he entered. The door closed behind him, and he waited. Then another door opened, and he entered the cargo area.
* * *
Paris reported back to Caesar her success in retrieving Sterling. "What's the plan now, Caesar?"
"The HDVLC will be there in about half an hour. Merton, the retrieval leader will fill Sterling in on the details."
"Acknowledged," Paris said.
"I'm going to rest for a few minutes."
Be sure to strap in, Sterling," she cautioned.
* * *
Charles was near the coordinates that Leland gave him. He needed to verify that there was a space craft on the ocean floor before using two valuable torpedoes. He entered a command, and a probe departed from the ship and floated over the area.
He nodded with satisfaction at the sight of the VLC on his vid. He brought up the weapons command display and entered the coordinates.
* * *
The giant fish couldn't smell the prey in front of it, but it appeared very tasty. It opened its mouth, scooped it up, and swallowed it whole. Suddenly, something erupted in the fish's stomach, and it went into shock and collapsed onto the ocean floor.
* * *
Joshua Merton believed this plan would work in theory. It was the execution of it that bothered him. Caesar had proposed that since the creature was obviously hungry, then they should feed it, including some kind of knock out medicine with the food.
This idea bothered him because there was no back up plan. "We better get this right the first time," he muttered. They were fifteen minutes out from their destination. It was past midnight and tired people make mistakes. The diver had be very tired. A load that was secured improperly would endanger his people and his ship. He saw the potential for another disaster. Sometimes, it was best to pull the plug and walk away, but he didn't have that call on this operation because it was not on Anelkisterlas or Gemistal. Unfortunately, he had been on call so he was here now in the middle of this mess.
A short time later, Officer Blunt said, "I have the VLC on vid, sir."
"Let them know we are on approach."
"Message sent, sir."
"Stand off from the VLC at a thousand feet."
"One thousand feet, acknowledged, sir."
"And now the fun begins," he muttered.
"What was that, sir?"
"Nothing. I was talking to myself."
* * *
Sterling opened his eyes. He felt tired, but the short rest had helped. He put on a Lev-Pak. He didn't trust gravs for a thousand foot trip. "PCC: Lev-Pak33; altitude five hundred feet; forward controls on my PCC."
He took a lift to the cargo hold and opened a door leading to a small chamber. "Com-link; Paris; I'm in and the door is secure."
"Pressure stabilized; outer door will open in five seconds."
"Gravs ninety-five percent." The door opened, and he left and closed the door. "Paris; outer door closed."
"Outer door confirmed closed and secure. Good luck."
Sterling floated away from the VLC, then he said, "Lev-Pak33; activate." He used the controls to move toward the HDVLC.
He hated being so high above ground and at night he couldn't even see the ground, which made it even worse. He felt silly for his nervousness, but it didn't help to calm him. He couldn't see the HDVLC, but he was on homer, so he didn't worry about that. He also had his suit on tracker, which would warn him when one thousand feet drew near.
His slow movement distorted time. He could feel his long day catching up to him; he needed to focus to avoid distractions and not to cause mistakes. He concentrated on what lay ahead and never saw the giant bird that snatched him from the air and crunched him in its jaws and flew away.
* * *
"Sir, we have a problem."
Merton groaned. "Sterling is off course?"
"Ahhhh . . . he is being carried off."
"What exactly does that mean?" Merton snapped.
"His homer shows him descending toward the ground quickly, and there's something huge on infrared that is taking him away."
"I think we should call it a day and leave."
"VLC Tango4 Foxtrot67 Echo5; com-link; Paris; Sterling has been lost to us, and Senior Officer Merton had decided to end this mission."
"What about the people we came to rescue?"
"They will need to wait for the next HDVLC."
"Don't you have a spare UES?"
"Yes, we do, but--"
"Then we can still continue with the rescue. I'll take the cables down."
"That is not an option."
"Why not? I've had training."
"It's just that Senior Officer--"
"Wants to confirm with Caesar first. That sounds reasonable to me. Let me know what Caesar says."
Merton was silent for a few moments, then he said, "Officer Blunt. It appears a rescue is on after all. Once the VLC lands, we will hover at 300 feet and receive her on board."
"Yes, sir. I'll convey your instructions. Ah . . . sir. An explosion just occurred in the water below."
“An explosion? Can you amplify that?”
“An analysis suggests a torpedo from a class twelve minisub.”
Merton sighed. “Do you have the sub's location?”
“It must be using stealth. There's no sign of it.”
“And this was supposed to be a simple rescue. Program our weapons systems for a response.”
* * *
Paris, wearing the UES, floated down to the ocean below. Have I lost my mind or what? Merton's attitude ticked her off, but, more important, Scott would come for her in a similar situation, so now she dropped into a bottomless pit, for all she knew.
"Water proximity fifty feet," the mechanical voice reported. "UES lights; gravs eighty percent." Her descent slowed, then she was in the water. She wore a belt, holding three cables on either hip. Her suit tracker let her know her depth at three hundred foot intervals. The homers of both vehicles showed them in the same area.
"HDVLC Baker78 Charlie98 Zebra 21; com-link; Scott; I'm in the water at six hundred feet. What is your situation?"
"Paris, where is Sterling?"
"We'll talk about that later. Will you stay on board or come up with me?"
"I'll come with you; I'm ready to get out of here."
"I hear you. Be there soon."
"Thank you, Paris."
"You can buy me breakfast."
"That's a deal."
Paris continued on her long descent. At twelve hundred, she slowed down. Her suit light provided, at most, enough light to see twenty feet ahead, which didn't allow a lot stop time. She started to feel nervous and slowed down even more.
She found the VLC first, and she began to attach cables. Half an hour later she said, "HDVLC Victor34 Charlie12 Robert17; com-link; Merton; VLC is ready for slow retrieval."
"Slow retrieval acknowledged."
Paris's homer showed the HDVLC fifty feet ahead, and she continued in that direction.
* * *
Rupert did not get so excited this time when the VLC began to move again. But as the movement, continued, he started to get hopeful. A short time later, the VLC started swaying, which made him extremely nervous. If the cables had not been attached properly, then there could be trouble coming his way again.
He looked at Stephanie. She looked as nervous as he felt. “It won't be long now.”
“I'm fine.” Her white knuckled grip on her chair belied that statement.
After what felt like a very long time, the VLC stopped. He breathed a sigh of relief, hopefully, they would be out of here soon. Then he heard a sound at the outside door, but he remained strapped to his chair. Impatience now could be deadly.
The sound of steps on the ladder leading up to the cabin, excited him. He released the restraints and stepped onto the floor. He walked toward the lift and met his rescuer at the top.
* * *
Scott's wait seemed like an eternity. Every sound made him jump in anticipation. "Scott; I am at your outer door. Come on out."
Scott floated up to his station and set some timer commands then floated to the door. He opened the inner door, secured it, and waited. After a time the outer door opened, and he exited and secured the door. He saw Paris and smiled. He floated over to her and attempted to give her a hug.
He helped with getting the cables attached. Twenty minutes later, they finished and Paris called it in. He watched the HDVLC disappear into the distance. "Com-link; Paris; let's get out of here. Breakfast is waiting."
* * *
Three hours later Paris sat at a table looking at Scott on the other side. "Did you send your report to Caesar?"
Paris shook her head. "An edited version. Caesar knows about Merton. He hinted that his next command would be at a desk."
Scott laughed. "That's the best news I've had in a long time. I'd still be underwater if not for you, Paris."
"Well, this is how it works. You owe me big time. Breakfast is just a start. I see flowers, chocolate, dancing, and lots of dinners in the future."
Scott shook his head in agreement. "It is good to be alive," he said.
* * *
Rupert stepped out of the cube and started the short walk home. Five minutes later, he entered the apartment. Evie, his wife, said, "You are really late today."
"Yeah, I had a bad day at work."
* * *
Leland was relieved because two weeks had passed and no inquiries had been made by Anelkisterlas Space Port Security. Stephanie had dropped off the face of the planet, and as far as he was concerned, there was nothing to worry about.
Dr. Stephanie Bowes sat in a cell in the Anelkisterlas Space Port. Stowing away on a VLC was a serious crime; she had spoken with Caesar Williams and explained her situation and about the Rentrak Corporation. Mr. Williams had told her that she would remain locked up until her suspicions could be verified.
Her days were spent watching boring vids and reading books she would never had found the time to read. The best part of her time was when Caesar stopped by to see her, which was usually once a day.
Their conversations surprised her because she never expected a security chief to be so knowledgeable. It also didn't hurt that he was a very handsome man. She wondered why he'd never married, but that didn't truly matter because as soon as this mess was cleared up she planned to return to Earth.
Stephanie's musing were interrupted by the arrival of Caesar. “Speak of the devil, and here he comes,” she muttered to herself.
“I heard that,” said Caesar with a grin a mile wide.
“Humpf, not even possible,” she replied. “I'm surprised you even came today after the argument we had yesterday.”
She put her hands on his hips. “Is your memory really that bad? You were going on and on about how great baseball is, and I just kept yawning and yawning until you got mad.”
Caesar laughed. “What truly made me mad was how perfect your teeth are. With all the advances in science, I still spend time in the dentist's chair at least once a year. Talk about terrorist activities – yikes.”
Stephanie shook her head. “You can come in and sit down. I won't bite you know.”
“It's against regulations.”
“Since you're the boss who's gonna care?”
* * *
The last girl Caesar had been interested in was May Schmidt. They were both seniors in high school. Fifteen years had passed since then. He didn't get out much because of his long hours at work. Also, ordinary girls just didn't appeal to him.
Stephanie was anything but ordinary. He thought she might be the smartest person he'd ever met. No matter what subject he brought up, she seemed to know something about it. It also didn't hurt that she was also beautiful, and he had never been so at ease with anyone in his life. It was kind of scary because he was becoming attached to her, which was not good since she had mentioned returning to Earth numerous times.
He unlocked the cell door and stepped inside. He locked it back and sat in a chair across from her. “I have half an hour. What would you like to talk about?”
“I want to talk about getting married.”
Caesar's jaw dropped open. “Wha--
“Not you silly,” Stephanie said with a bright grin. “My boyfriend on Earth, who I've not seen in more than two years, sent me a message suggesting we get married when I return to Earth. I think it is quite presumptuous to send a message like that out of the blue, expecting a reasonable response – what do you think?”
“I would prefer you stay here.”
“What? Locked up? What on earth for?”
Caesar took her hand. “Sorry for how that came out. Stephanie, stay on Gemistal, please. I want you to stay so that we can get to know one another better.”
Stephanie gripped his hand. “Your boldness surprises me, Caesar. We hardly know each other. I will give your request careful consideration.”
Caesar grinned. “Also consider that staying here would also make economic sense. Colonists are still given a bonus for each year they remain here. And can you say your boyfriend is as handsome as me?”
Stephanie laughed. “You are a charmer for sure. I will think about it.”
“While you are thinking about it, also consider this: I cook the best Spanish food you will ever taste.”
“You actually cook – not machine processed food?”
Caesar grinned. “Yeah, pots, pans, stove and real food too.”
“Wow, that is something to think about. I asked you to come in the cell before and you always declined. So, why did you come in this time?”
“The investigation is finished and you are free.” He released her hand.
Stephanie stood up and Caesar unlocked the cell door. “Dinner is at 18:30 where can I pick you up?”
“I believe you already know where I'm staying. I'll be ready at 18:00.”
* * *
Stephanie had never been this nervous in her entire life. It was a wonder that she had not worn out her nano-tex suit program. She had selected more styles than she could keep track of. She just want to look just right for this evening. She finally settled for the color purple, which was one of her favorites.
She shuddered when she thought of the numerous times she been hit on by Charles Barton at Rentrak. Some of the things he said were too explicit to even think about. She'd complained to Leland, but no action had ever been taken.
Her PCC beeped and she saw the message: coming up the Upflow now. She smiled and went to the door.
Caesar entered with a small pal-lev in tow. “You expecting to cook for an army or something?” she asked.
Caesar laughed. “I didn't bring that much. You look beautiful in that suit.” He opened the pal-lev and started pulling out pots and pans along with utensils. Within minutes, the smells of food cooking made Stephanie's stomach growl.
“Ah, I hear the beast within,” he said.
“Yeah, and it is really hungry, so it better be good.”
Caesar grinned. “Be patient my pretty beast. There's no need to growl at me.”
Before the passing of an hour, the food was ready. Stephanie bit into a burrito and said, “Heaven has come to my door.” She also ate Spanish rice, beans, and a salad. She patted her stomach. “I would never lose weight with you around.”
Caesar said, “I don't cook like this every day, only on special occasions.”
“So, what is the occasion?”
“You bought a ticket to Earth today, and your flight leaves tomorrow night. Earlier today you said you would think about staying.”
“I did consider my options carefully. There are greater opportunities for me on Earth. You're a nice guy, Caesar, but I don't want to stay here on this back water world.”
Caesar gave her a long look. “Consider one more thing, Stephanie. What truly matters to you? One day when you are old and grey, you will look back on your life. Will the work you do and where you do it be of prime importance or will the people who are in your life matter the most? Please think on that. Meanwhile, I need to get everything cleaned up.”
All too soon Caesar was gone. He had asked some interesting questions, and she still had plenty of time to consider the answers.
* * *
The space port was crowded as usual whenever there was a flight leaving for Earth. At his station Caesar could check to see who had arrived for the flight. So far Stephanie had not checked in. He'd not heard from her since last night and hoped something he said might have changed her mind.
Half an hour later he saw her and was deeply disappointed. She didn't have any bags, and he assumed she'd already sent them to the cargo area. He debated whether he should leave his station to make his goodbyes, but he thought that might be painful for both of them.
He looked away. Perhaps if he pretended she wasn't here, he would feel better. His idea was a silly one. He looked up and didn't see her now. He could have easily tracked her on his program that monitored PCCs, but he knew she was here, so what was the point?
He wanted to pound his fist in frustration. The first woman he'd been interested in for years was walking away. It wasn't right or fair, and there wasn't a single thing he could do or say to stop her. He'd already begged her not to go. “It's impossible.”
Caesar nearly jumped out of his skin. No one had crept up on him since he could remember. He turned around. “Stephanie, you surprised me.”
She smiled. “Yeah, you looked like you were a million miles away.”
“Actually, I was thinking of you, and missing you, already.”
“How much were you missing me?” She leaned forward as if to hear better.
“More than can be imagined or expressed. You've taken hold in my heart, and I want you to be near always.”
“Well, I came here to say goodbye.”
He nodded. “Yeah, I kind of figured that.”
“Goodbye to my plans to return to Earth. You also have taken hold in my heart, and being near you is what I also desire.”
Caesar thought his jaw might have fallen to the floor if it was not attached to his head. He left his station and hurried to Stephanie. He gave her a hug that she would never forget, then he kissed her. “I am the happiest man on Gemistal,” he said.
“And I'm the happiest woman in the universe,” she replied.
Scott Weatherly tilted his head, and his com-link closed, then he sighed. His wife Paris, who worked for John Klaxon Trading Company, was upset because one of the employees had abruptly quit, which meant that she had to make the last delivery of the day. She wouldn't be able to make their third wedding anniversary party tonight. He completely understood her frustration. He was head of security for Anelkisterlas Space Port, and he was often delayed from leaving work on time. He felt bad for Paris, but there was nothing he could do to help other than encourage and support her.
He returned his focus to the vid-screen in front of him. One of his many duties was to check the space ship recordings that the ship's AI had flagged as suspicious. Most of the time, there was no problem. However, over the past few months, the number of people trying to smuggle prohibited things from Anelkisterlas had risen sharply. The souvenir business was a multi-billion dollar enterprise. People would take this whole planet apart one rock at a time and sell it if they were given the opportunity.
After he checked the last AI mod, he departed his office and walked to the nearest lift, which took him to the ground level. He inspected the space port daily, and as he walked toward the arrival area, he greeted many familiar faces. He had ten people on his team, and there were almost five hundred employees of the space port.
He continued to one of the arrival scanners and held up his left wrist to be scanned. A scanner light flashed green. He said, "PCC; main; diagnostic; arrival scanner AS42; display." A vid-screen popped up in front of his face, showing his name, address, day, and time of arrival. He said, "AS42 diagnostic confirmed." Then he went on to the next scanner.
Two hours later, he stood in the shuttle bay. He scanned his wrist on the outside door and entered the bay. The VLC was a newer one. It still looked pristine. He walked to the ship and said, "PCC; VLC Baker 343 Denver 891 Mary 357; logs; display."
A vid-screen appeared before his face. He examined the flight and maintenance logs carefully then said, "Logs; verified." He left the bay to go to the next one.
* * *
Paris was happy that this last run was for one of Nileon's moons: N12. She thought it was a ridiculous name, but no one had asked for her opinion. A message on the vid-screen from N12 Space Port said, Transmit manifest and/or reason for visit.
She selected VLC manifest on another vid-screen, then she selected the destination and touched send. She expected that it would take less than half an hour to make the delivery, then she could be on her way again. She read another message from the space port: landing area LA47 dome access open. She typed: AI; N12; landing area LA47; execute landing procedure.
Paris sat back and relaxed. She still watched the vid-screen to make sure the AI was doing everything correctly. It was still a machine, and she had no desire to crash because the AI broke.
She should have been getting ready for her anniversary party right now. She knew they would reschedule; still, it was a disappointment. She refocused her thoughts on the vid-screen. I need to concentrate, or I will end up smashed to bits, she chided herself.
* * *
A message popped up on Scott's vid-screen: tracking AI has picked up an unknown ship approaching the planet. It does not respond to requests for identification.
Scott typed: fire a warning shot, and touched send. He said, "PCC: com-link; Alexander Weydom. Governor, we have a situation."
After his explanation, Alex said, "If it doesn't respond, destroy it."
Scott saw another message from the Space Port Control Center. The unidentified ship did not respond to a warning shot. He frowned at the message and sent: Destroy it.
He could not worry if people were on that ship or not. The safety of the people on Anelkisterlas came first.
* * *
The derelict ship's AI detected the missiles. When the missiles entered the last stage of their flight, the AI fired a pod from the opposite side of the ship. A defense shield appeared right behind the pod and followed it.
The lasers from the missiles ripped at the ship, which exploded into innumerable pieces. The blast slammed into the pod's defense shield, which was severely degraded, but it held. The pod moved toward the planet below.
The pod entered the planet's atmosphere where it opened. A skeletal creature emerged from the pod and flew away, then the pod exploded.
* * *
Paris was on the way back to Anelkisterlas, but she wasn't happy. Her delivery had taken an hour be be unloaded, then the buyer of five large pallets of top soil had refused to take delivery because it was not what he ordered. What else can go wrong today?
A short time later, all the vid-screens went blank, and the VLC was falling. She hoped the tracker was still working, and she didn't end up in the water. She shivered at memories from a year ago when she was a part of a water rescue here of a VLC and HDVLC crew. Scott had been in that crash. She tried to relax. "PCC; main; Anelkisterlas space port security; Scott Weatherly; my VLC is going down. I love you."
There was no response, and Paris worried, wondering if the message had been sent. Then she jerked forward and everything went black.
Paris opened her eyes. She was in total darkness. The crash damaged the batteries? Her thought had not continued to where the ship had landed, but she needed to know. Her body was pressed into the restraints, which meant she was on the ceiling, or on one of the walls. With her left hand, she gripped her seat firmly, then she released the restraint.
She moved downward ever so slowly, using her feet to find solid places to stand. Fortunately, she had not been on the ceiling. She reached the "floor" and tried to orient herself by feeling around with her hands to get an idea of where she was. There was a ladder that led to the cargo area where she could depart the ship.
There was one thing she feared. The ladder was no longer in a vertical position; it was on the "ceiling". She would have to drop from the ladder to the cargo area in the dark. She would not be able to leave the cargo area other than through the access door.
* * *
Building a dome costs an exorbitant amount of money, which was one reason why Intergalactic Domes Inc had Anelkisterlas as a partner. George Peterson was the foreman for this new construction. Anelkisterlas had thousands of "floating islands," which hovered over the ocean. He had been told that there was a magnetic repulsive field, which was just gobbledygook to him. This island was the largest one on Anelkisterlas and would require a dome three times the size of the largest one here now. There were close to three hundred workers. The atmosphere was not breathable, and every worker wore an environ-suit made of nano-tex.
The foundation of the dome was critical to its stability. The footings had all been set, and concrete was now being poured. The foundation dome panels had to be set into the concrete. He walked closer to watch the first panel being set in place. It was one hundred feet wide, ten feet high, and an inch thick. Nano-steel rods ran from the top of the panel to the bottom, continuing for fifty feet into the ground. The AI crane set the panel into the concrete and fused the concrete in this section, then it turned to retrieve another panel. Even with six AI cranes working, it would take most of the day to get all of the foundation panels in place.
He saw something in the blue sky. It was too far away to make out any distinct shape. He thought it could be a HDVLC. He was expecting a delivery this afternoon. The AI carried a panel to the next section. The panel wall intersected with the other panel, then it slid into place. He turned around and walked toward the closest AI crane.
George was inspecting the work of a third AI crane when a huge shadow appeared on the ground. He looked up and saw the ugliest creature imaginable. He didn't know it was, but it was frightening to look at. It circled overhead for a minute, then it descended.
The creature floated mere inches off the ground. Its head looked like a raven. George was terrified. Then the creature set down on a rock, and its wings vanished in a flurry of ravens, scrambling into the air. One group of raven attacked the crane. Their beaks punched holes in the nano-tex material. "That's not possible," he remarked. The rest of the ravens came for him.
George knew this was a hopeless situation. He bent over and grabbed a handful of dirt and threw it as hard as he could. Some of the clods of dirt hit the birds, and they uttered a piercing shriek. The ravens quickly turned and reformed into wings, and the creature flew away. He stared at it until it disappeared. "What on earth just happened?"
* * *
Scott closed the com-link with George Peterson and considered the information. He typed in a message for the governor and touched send, then he sent a message to all his employees to meet in the conference room in ten minutes. Finally, he sent instructions for the tracking AI. They needed to find this creature quickly.
The meeting went quickly as everyone was given an assignment. Scott looked at the time. Paris may be home by now and wondering where I am. He said, "PCC; main: com-link; Paris: hi, hon, sorry I'm running late. How are you doing?"
He frowned when there was no response. He entered a message into the vid-screen for John Klaxon Trading Company. He received a reply: No one is here at this time. We will contact you soon.
He was concerned. "PCC; main; departure and arrival inquiry; Paris Weatherly." The information on the screen indicated she had not returned. "VLC Baker 389 Victor 735 Apple 936 tracking." The display showed her VLC on Nileon. A stop on Nileon had not been filed with space port control, which meant she was in trouble.
"Com-link; Richard Porter. Assemble a rescue team for Nileon. I am sending all the information to your PCC."
* * *
Paris stood up. She had considered very carefully the choices before her. The practical thing to do was to remain in the ship, but she did not know if the tracker was working. As well, she hated to sit around and do nothing.
She gathered a few things that she was able to stack up. She climbed up and found the ladder. She gripped it firmly with her hands and began to go across the ceiling. One thing she had not considered was the distance between each rung. The condensed oxygen pack on her back was now at its full weight of fifty pounds. Her gloves had a non-skid surface; still, the rungs felt so slippery. Her nervousness also didn't help. She had planned to travel to the end of the ladder but was no more than half way when she stopped. Her arms felt as if they were about to come out of their sockets. Relax. Then she dropped.
She landed on the large cargo access door, rolled onto her back, and stopped. She struggled to her feet. She only had one canister of condensed oxygen on her back. She needed to take more with her. She closed her eyes to visualize the cargo bay. Then she tilted the vision to see how it would appear now. She had a good idea of where she was in the cargo hold. Now she began to feel her way forward.
Everything that had been on the floor would now be on the wall straight ahead. Unfortunately, the location of the oxygen would now be near the ceiling. At the wall, she felt around the cargo containment closest to the floor, confirming that the oxygen containment would be above this area.
Paris sat on top of a containment area and relaxed. She estimated she was about half way to her destination. This climb was much harder than she'd imagined. She lay down and closed her eyes to rest for awhile.
* * *
Dome thirty-five was almost five thousand miles from the space port. Tracy Wilkins, the dome leader had ignored the reports of a terrible creature that could be repelled with sand. The creature had been sighted more than four thousand miles from here. It had no reason to venture this far, and if it did, they would shoot it down.
He left his office and went down stairs to the lobby. He continued to the entrance and walked outside. The sky was filled with stars. This wonder was something to be felt not described in words. A large shadow passed over the dome, and he wondered for a moment if it was a cloud, but clouds didn't move so quickly.
He didn't have a lot of time to think about it. The shape disappeared. He shrugged his shoulders and turned. He heard a loud crack and looked up to see pieces of dome panel falling toward the ground. He took a breath and gagged, collapsing to the ground.
* * *
Scott looked at the message from the AI on the vid-screen in disbelief. A breach had been detected in dome thirty-five. They had been warned of the danger. He sent out another message to all the domes. Over seventy-five thousand people were dead. He couldn't think about this terrible tragedy right now.
His PCC beeped. "Yes."
"We are on site of the VLC crash," Porter reported. "There's no sign of Paris. She may have left the ship."
"That makes no sense. Where would she go?"
"There is a small settlement near here. Maybe she went there to see if she could get a communications link."
"Contact the settlement and search the ship again. She has to be around there."
Half an hour later, Porter reported again. "There's no sign of Paris anywhere. We are going to the settlement to wait. She could be walking there."
"Acknowledged," Scott said.
* * *
Paris opened her eyes. She hurt all over. She wondered how long she had slept. She continued her climb up the wall. By the time she reached the oxygen containment pallet, she was exhausted. She lay on the top of the container that was below the oxygen container to regain her strength.
While she lay resting, she considered how she would open the container and take what she needed. There was an emergency door release at the base of the container. Once she released the door, she would need to climb back down and go under the door to gain access to the container. Then she would have to release an oxygen cylinder, attach it to her oxygen pack, and go back down to the floor below.
Many hours later, Paris reached the floor again. She wanted to sit and rest but was afraid that she might not get up again. She walked to her left. She was certain she could find the access door okay. Her legs and back ached from the weight on her back. She began to climb. The access door would be near the ceiling.
She embraced her pain, knowing each ache brought her closer to her goal. She focused on the end of her journey. The process of getting there no longer mattered. Reach hands up, pull. Step on something solid, push. Her mantra echoed in her mind, drowning out any other concerns. Almost as if in a haze, she climbed the wall.
She found the access door a short distance from where she expected to find it. She opened the door and entered, securing the door behind her. With her hand on the outer door, she hesitated. Then she turned the handle and opened the door. Daylight? How could so much time have passed? And why had no one come for her?
There was a ten foot drop to the ground. "I might want to get back in here again," she muttered.
She removed her pack and set the extra oxygen cylinder to one side. She opened the inner access door. Light shafted into the ship. She looked around to see what she could use, then she noticed that there were three extra environ suits just outside the access area. Perfect.
Her makeshift clothing rope held as she climbed down the side of the ship. Her feet set down on the ground. She walked a few feet from the VLC and looked back. The ship's side where it had landed was crushed. She looked around and saw foot prints that led to the ship. Some one had been here. They had not been able to find where she was sleeping on top of the container. They'll be back. She held onto that thought with hope.
She saw something in the sky coming in her direction. The sky on Nileon was blueish green, but everything on Nileon was unusual. The water was lavender, the plants red, and the earth mostly black. She looked up again. The bird was much closer now. It was too far away to see any details other than that it was big.
She considered that she might want to get some sleep but not inside the ship this time. She began to look around to find a suitable place. She found a spot that looked good and began to clear it of rocks and other debris. As she finished, a shadow went over the ground.
She looked up. The creature was huge and ugly. Its appearance frightened her. She ran toward the ship. As she neared the side of the ship, she jumped and caught the clothing rope. She climbed as quickly as possible and flipped into the access area. She leapt without hesitation for the inner access door and fell, landing on a container a few feet lower than the door.
The ship shook, and there was a loud bang from the side being hit. She saw some small pinholes of light and stared in disbelief. The nano-tek construction should be able to withstand a bird's strength. She heard a loud ripping sound, and the light became a narrow shaft.
Paris began her descent at a breakneck speed. She didn't think being near the access area was a good place. She needed to hide. She was almost at the floor when she tripped and fell. She landed on her back, and her breath was knocked out of her.
She looked up; the huge containers of dirt were above her. She could hide in the shadow. She scrambled up the side of the ship, knowing time was running out. The bangs on the side of the ship continued. More shafts of light appeared. She pressed upward faster. Her legs, side, and chest hurt. She reached a container and began to climb. She heard a horrendous smashing and turned her head to see the creature ram through the side of the ship.
It flew directly at her. She had no chance. "I love you, Scott." Her hand slipped, and she fell.
* * *
Porter floated from the HDVLC to the ground. There was a huge hole in the VLC that had not been there earlier. He waited for Officer Robertson. He had a bad feeling. He decided not to call Scott yet. It was not a conversation he wanted to have.
They floated up to the control center access. They entered the ship. Their Lev-Paks had lights, so they could see. Porter headed to the door that led to the cargo area. He opened the door and stared at a creature with its upper body wedged into a large container. He looked down and saw the bodies of smaller birds all over the floor. He also saw another body. Paris?
* * *
She opened her eyes and saw Scott asleep in a chair near her bed. She said, "Sleeping on the job again, dear?"
His eyes popped open; he smiled and took her hand. "You do know that you are too old to go around fighting monsters?"
She laughed. "Not that I had a choice. What happened to the creature?"
"It ended up mostly buried in a container of dirt, which had a caustic effect on it. There wasn't much left, except for the legs."
Paris grinned. "When I told my mother about the bullies at school, she always said, 'Cut'm off at the legs.'"