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THE SECRET OF GREENWOLD by Norman Lane, Copyright 2009 CHAPTER ONE ...

and above all, you must remember to never show the slightest revulsion, no matter what you see. The Ebnorians regard it as the worst kind of insult and our cause will be lost. His father's words echoed through young Dennilyn's mind for the thousandth time. And for the thousandth time he tried to mentally brace himself for the assault on his sensibilities he would soon face. Everything about Ebnor and Ebnorians was disgusting. Why wasnt there someone else, anyone else, who could have come on this trip in his place? He glanced at his chronometer and sighed. He would normally be at home running sims with his friends right about then, but he was far from home, carrying adult sized responsibilities instead. It just wasnt fair. He was flying north into the equatorial zone of a planet his ancestors had called Greenwold when they arrived 400 years earlier. He knew they were just colonists and mans true home was Earth, but to him, Earth and its inhabitants were alien. Greenwold was the only home his family had known for generations and his desire to see Earth didnt extend beyond running sims of it from the colony archives. Denni was riding rear seat in a two-seat turbine powered flyer. The pilots seat was occupied by Marralyn, a young woman in her early twenties who had the quadruple distinction of being a pilot (they had very few aircraft), a female pilot (she was the only one), Lyntylyns best pilot (much to the dismay of the male pilots), and Dennis sister. They had been flying over the featureless clouds of a storm for what seemed like an eternity. He leaned forward to look over Marra's shoulder at the latitude reading on the navcomputer, anxious to feel like they were making progress. His sister noticed, looked up and smiled. Her hair was damp and stringy and Denni could feel a tiny trickle of sweat running down his side. They had been gradually turning down the air conditioning to help him acclimate to the ferocious equatorial heat. He took off his sweat band and wrung it out again. Why did Greenwold have to be so close to it's sun? He thought about an Earth phenomenon he had never experienced. It actually got cold enough for water to freeze! He couldn't imagine it. Marra resumed the discussion they had been having about his arrival to meet with the Ebnorians. When we land at the rendezvous point I'll get as close to an entrance as possible before you get out. You wouldn't last long above ground. They say its hot enough there to boil water by leaving it out in the sun! Denni smacked his forehead with the palm of his hand and rolled his eyes. And I forgot my thermals! Marra scowled. Denni was usually mature for his age, but had an annoying childish streak in him. This was not a good time for it to be surfacing - there was too much depending on the success of their mission. Perhaps a reality check would sober him up. Sometimes you try to be funny at the wrong moment. The Ebnorians might take that kind of joke to be a veiled insult. If you offend them you might end up as gobyn food! Ugh! The thought of being absorbed by one of those giant maggot-like creatures made Denni's stomach churn. Still, if he did commit the ultimate insult and lose his lunch, being torn limb from limb by a mob of outraged Ebnorians seemed a more tolerable end than slow digestion by a gobyn. Denni quickly changed the subject.

2 I just wish we could have met with one of the southern clans where it's not so freaking hot. he complained. We need Gaynor on our side because of his influence. Besides, he's Father's friend and the only Ebnorian we can contact by radio. Marra replied. Their father was the only citizen of Lyntylyn (the colony in the southern polar temperate zone) within living memory to have been among the Ebnorians who considered themselves to be the true colonists of Greenwold. He had been rescued by Gaynor's clan from the crumpled remains of the flyer he had crashed in with his parents on an exploratory flight over the Ebnorian Eco-Zone when they were both boys. His parents had died in the crash and Noellyn had been taken in by Gaynor's family until help from Lyntylyn arrived. They became friends and Noellyn left the flyer's solar powered emergency radio with him so they could stay in touch. They had maintained a relationship through the years (though sometimes strained by the hostility between their two cultures) and followed each other's rise to leadership - Noellyn to the Directorship of the Institute of Planetology in Lyndoria, the capital of Lyntylyn, and Gaynor to Way Chooser of the United Clans of Ebnor. When Lyntylyns Council of Elders decided to contact the Ebnorians they asked Noellyn to represent them, but he told them that his acceptance into their culture as a boy was due to the fact that he was not old enough to be considered a warrior. If he were to return now his friendship with Gaynor would not prevent them from holding him as a prisoner or even killing him. However, the complex protocols of Ebnorian culture (which had been forged in an environment of extreme survivalism) would force them to protect the young heir of even an enemy. Denni looked absently out the flyer's canopy as he thought about the Colony Elders seated around him in the great glass Council Chamber of the Administrative Complex in Lyndoria. He thought of the mixed emotions knotting his stomach as they explained their request and the look in his father's eyes when he agreed to go. That look - so full of pride - so full of love for his youngest son. It was a reference point that Denni had clung to more than once after making his decision. He was jarred out of his reverie when the flyer unexpectedly increased altitude sharply, pushing him down into his seat. Tighten your harness, said Marra without looking back, her hands busy with the controls. Big updraft. The closer we get to the equator the worse they are. The storms are getting worse too. They're getting too high to go over without hitting the turbulence zone and we shouldnt use up the fuel it would take to go around a really big one if we can help it. We may have to just take our lumps and start going through them. Denni looked down and saw the storm they had been flying over receding rapidly. Directly below them, the sun had already heated the ground enough to cause a powerful updraft. Suddenly, flash fog was swirling on top of the wing, released from the hot saturated air by the reduction in pressure created by the airfoil to generate lift. Their craft began to shudder in the unevenly ascending air. Marra angled the nose down, but still they rose. She pushed the throttle forward and they stopped climbing but the shuddering increased to a ragged pounding. No good. she called over her shoulder as she eased off on the throttle and they resumed their dizzying rise. We'll have to ride it out but if we dont clear it soon we'll be carried into the turbulence zone. This was not good news. Greenwold was closer to it's sun than the Earth and had extreme atmospheric dynamics driven by the intense solar energy. Updrafts like the one that had them in it's grip could extend for miles and carry an aircraft up into the turbulence zone. The turbulence zone was a high-altitude layer of atmosphere where thinning of the supersaturated air

3 caused sudden condensation of water vapor and a sharp drop in temperature. This created powerful convection currents that gave rise to potentially fatal non-terran flight hazards like horizontal vortices known as tunnel funnels. They went up and up while Denni watched the altimeter nervously. Where did the turbulence zone start anyway? Time seemed stretched to the breaking point with tension when the air around the flyer flashed into fog. A warning horn blared in the cockpit and Denni nearly jumped out of his skin. The Humidity Density Doppler Radar (HDDR) revealed a large tunnel funnel spinning counterclockwise directly in front of them, invisible in the fog. The HDDR showed a turbulent down draft forming off of it's port boundary. If they flew into that they could tumble and lose lift. Marras reaction was instantaneous. She flipped them over in an aileron roll and they entered the bottom of the tunnel funnel upside down. Arms of fog seemed to grab the flyer and rotate it up the inner circumference. When they were right side up Marra dropped their tail and hit the afterburner causing them to be thrown clear through the top. She banked left in a parabolic arc to avoid the downdraft and cut the afterburner at the apex. The flyer seemed to hang weightless, shrouded in gray nothingness. A sandwich drifted past Dennis face. Then their harnesses pulled at them - they were dropping. Acceleration pressed them into their seat backs as Marra made for the zone boundary. They emerged from the fog and kept descending. When they leveled off at their cruising altitude, Denni realized that every muscle was tense. He loosened his harness and tried to relax. Marra was slumped in her seat. After a while she straightened up and surveyed the instruments to be sure everything was all right before loosening her harness and turning around. They regarded each other in silence for a moment and then as if on cue began to laugh. Nice bit of flying sis. Denni said when he could speak again. Thanks. For a moment there I thought we were dead. I think well go into the next updraft at a lower altitude. Good idea. The first crises on their trip was behind them but Denni knew better than to think that they could relax. Even though Greenwold had been inhabited by humans for hundreds of years, flights this far north from the safety and comfort of the Southern Polar Temperate Zone had been rare. Many of the exploratory trips that had been attempted ended in disaster, including the one that left their father as the only survivor of a flyer crash in the same region they were now entering. Most of the planet was still an unknown quantity, the factor of which increased as they approached the equator. They flew on through piercingly brilliant midmorning sunshine. Denni could see the mottled brown of the rain darkened ground already taking on a lighter cast as the intense heat quickly baked it dry. He knew however that most of the rain that had fallen in the storm was trapped below the surface in the planet's unique ecosystem. He looked out the starboard side of the canopy and searched the eastern horizon. What he was looking for would first appear there because it had received the longest exposure to sunlight after the storm's passage. He thought he should see it soon, the ecology's life cycle occurred at a very rapid rate at this latitude. There it was. A hint of green just at the edge of sight. He grabbed the scopes, ran the magnification up all the way and put them on. With the lenses compressing the distance he could see a line of bright emerald sweeping slowly over the horizon. It was tenuous and fuzzy but as it advanced it began to solidify, it's sparkle intensifying to a radiant shimmer. He had witnessed this magical transformation of the land many times in school and once already on this trip, but his fascination with it was growing.

4 Soon the line of color had spread along the entire horizon and was advancing rapidly in their direction. Bladder plants were harnessing the intense solar energy and sending up translucent shoots of tube grass at a growth rate of almost half a meter an hour. By early evening they were over an undulating sea of tube grass that had spread beneath them from the east as they flew north, enjoying a cold drink and some dinner. The small talk they were passing the time with was interrupted by the radar chiming for Marra's attention. Bad news. she told Denni. There's a big storm front coming. This is the one we've been dreading - it's too high to fly over without going into the turbulence zone. I dont want to use a lot of fuel on going around it, but I don't feel like taking it on unless we have to. Radar shows it receding towards the north on the eastern side so we'll try to out run it in that direction. She radioed Lyndoria to report the change in their course, then banked in a right turn and urged their craft forward with the throttle. Just do me one favor. said Denni. What's that? asked Marra. Stay away from those updrafts! Before long, a dark smudge became visible on their left. It soon became a thunderhead, swiftly rising to blot out the pale evening sky, jagged bolts of lightning flashing under it's brow. They began to feel the head winds as they ran along it's eastern flank. They had flown over all of the other storms they had encountered so this was Denni's first opportunity to actually see how big they got in the tropics. The closer they came, the more impossibly huge it loomed, sheets of water slashing diagonally beneath. The storm's daunting size made it seem closer than it really was and Denni was starting to become alarmed. He wanted to ask if everything was all right but Marra seemed unconcerned and he didn't want to seem like a scared little kid. In reality that wouldn't have been an unkind assessment. He was only fourteen and could be allowed a little fear in their present circumstances, but everyone was accustomed to expecting more from him than his years would indicate, including himself. He forced himself to look away from the storm's unsettling awesomeness back in the direction they were headed. This might have been effective in reducing his anxiety level except that what he saw there doubled it. Yow! How long has that been going on? A while. What is it? New storm front forming. It's coming this way? Yeah. Will it catch us? Don't know. Denni watched, transfixed by awe and fear. All through the day tube grass had been growing, prodigiously releasing water vapor into the heated air. Now in the evening, cooler air was rushing in from the east under hot moist air allowing it to rise. This generated an updraft that extended along the entire eastern horizon, propelling the water vapor into the turbulence zone where it condensed. As far as they could see to the north and south the line of forming cloud stretched, billowing toward them along it's entire length. It came with the speed of the approaching dusk, ablaze with orange and pink from the setting sun. It was very beautiful. It was very frightening. The two storm fronts created a V shaped gap between them that was rapidly closing. Marra made for the gap to try and get through before it closed, but it soon became apparent that

5 their eyes were deceived by the scale of the scene before them - they were too far away to make it. As they watched in dismay, the gap closed and the storms collided. The forming front's vertical rip-tide of updraft air churned into the other storm's southerly flow, forming a huge tunnel funnel at the boundary. At the heart of the maelstrom an aperture of clear air opened like the iris of a giant eye. Marra hesitated, and then came to a decision. She jammed the throttle forward and put them into a steep climb. Hey! Where are you going? Denni demanded. In there. Marra replied. In where? Denni asked, afraid that he knew. The tunnel funnel. Marra answered. You can't be serious. Denni said, incredulous. I am. Marra said. The heat's gotten to your brain! We'll be killed! Denni said, panic rising in his voice. Maybe not. Marra replied. What would you suggest? Denni looked back. They were too deep into the V to get out before the storms swallowed it up. He looked first into one storm then the other. Pounding rain seethed in a cauldron of boiling clouds and striking lightning. Clearly they were not options. Straight ahead, the violence of the storms' conjunction defied description. I guess there's not much choice. Marra? Yes? I'm afraid. Me too Denni. Me too. They hit heavy turbulence and the flyer shook and rattled. They were coming up to the mouth of the funnel and it gaped pitch black before them, clouds swirling into the opening like water going down a drain. There was a last hammer blow from the turbulence and they were sucked in. It was instantly calm and totally dark. Marra switched on all of the flyer's exterior lights. Bands of cloud spun forward around them to the limit of the reach of the lights. Freaky! Denni exclaimed once the initial fright of being sucked into the funnel had subsided a little. Marra reduced power. Hey! What are you doing? Denni demanded. He felt safer when they were going for it with everything they had. This thing can't go on forever, and I'm in no hurry to find the end. Denni pondered the ramifications of that for a moment. Uh... I hate to ask, but what'll you do when we get there? A long pause. Pray. Oh. They plunged on through an eerie calm incongruous with the hellish scene around them. The funnel slowly rippled and twisted keeping Marra busy trying to stay in the center. They kept an eye on the HDDR but couldn't distinguish the end from the rest of the funnel. They had rollercoastered in this fashion for some distance when Marra suddenly jerked upright in the pilot's seat.

6 Denni - arm a signal rocket. A signal rocket? What for? Just do it. Denni shrugged, reached over to a side panel next to his seat, lifted a red guard and flipped a switch. All right - number one is hot. Marra jockeyed the flyer into the center of the funnel and pressed the firing button on the control yoke. There was a flash under their left wing and a signal rocket leapt out in front of the aircraft. The bright white flower of it's exhaust shrank quickly to a brilliant pin point and disappeared. Then, just when it seemed like nothing was going to happen, a long ribbon of white light suddenly ignited illuminating the funnel for several kilometers. In that moment, they glimpsed the tail of the funnel whipping around in the distance. Denni had been relatively brave up to this point, but the last 24 hours had already delivered more stimulation to his adrenal glands than the rest of his young life put together. The sight of so nightmarish a certain death was too much - he went into shock. He barely heard Marra speaking. Did you see that? I was hoping the funnel would just dissipate. Denni didn't respond. We've got to get out of this thing before we reach the end. It'll rip our wings off! Denni sat immobilized. We have to ditch the external tanks. I'll pump what I can into the mains. The whine of the pumps reached Denni like the sound of an alarm clock in a dream you can't wake up from. It droned on and on as the vortex danced in slow motion around them. Denni was mesmerized, his eyes lazily following the spinning motion. That's it! We can't wait any longer! I'm going to jettison the tanks! Explosive bolts detonated. A shudder went through the airframe as the wing tanks dropped. A solid whump amidships and the belly tank fell away. There was a pause as Marra yanked on an unresponsive lever. Denni! The chute won't deploy for the upper tank! You'll have to pull the manual release behind your seat! Denni was paralyzed. Denni? Did you hear me? Denni! She glanced back - saw his vacant stare, his mouth hanging open, slack-jawed. She undid her harness, kept one hand on the controls, and half turned in her seat. Denni! She shook him. Something snapped in Denni. He began to thrash around and shout. No! No! No! We're going to die! Marra slapped him hard. DENNI! He began to cry. Denni! Listen to me! You've got to release the upper tank! Undo your harness and turn around in your seat! He fumbled at the buckle, managed to get it loose. Sobbing hard, he struggled to turn around and get on his knees. Grab the red "T" handle behind your seat with one hand and hold onto your harness with the other. When I tell you, pull! He nodded. She turned around and quickly refastened her harness. Hold on tight!

7 Marra rolled them over 180o. while still managing somehow to stay centered in the now wildly gyrating funnel. NOW! Denni jerked the handle with all his might. The large external tank mounted behind the canopy on the upper fuselage came loose half way, then tumbled into the darkness accompanied by the sound of ripping sheet metal. Marra righted the aircraft. I have to try to get us out of here. Hang on! Performing a maneuver Denni would have thought to be impossible, Marra put them into a corkscrew in an attempt to match the funnel's spin. Her admonition to hang on proved unnecessary. G-forces pinned Denni helplessly, kneeling backwards in his seat. The wall of the vortex spun closer as it narrowed and they spiraled out to meet it. Just before contact Marra opened the throttle all the way and they rammed in under full power. There was a tremendous impact and everything went wild. Denni slammed around in the back of the cockpit, desperately clutching his harness. Items which weren't fastened down tumbled about and smashed into the canopy. Denni's errant scopes dazed him with a glancing blow to the temple. The flyer bucked, airframe groaning with the strain. Something electrical short-circuited and showered them with sparks. Acrid smoke and the pungent smell of ozone filled the cockpit. An oxygen mask popped out of a side panel uselessly out of Denni's reach as he heard the hissing of the automatic fire suppression system discharging agent. The effects of toxic fumes, fire retardant, and the jumbled flow of fluid in his inner ear combined and he retched uncontrollably. There was a final convulsive spasm of violence and they were thrown free. The sudden absence of G-forces announced the fact that they were falling. The stall warning blared and every engine alert was sounding - they had flamed out! Denni's head swam and he hovered near unconsciousness, choking on the thick air. He was only dimly aware of the lashing of the rain against the canopy and the howling of wind and booming of thunder. He didn't notice as their fall stabilized into a controlled dive and the turbine wind-milled up to starting rpm from air being forced into the intake. Nor did it register when the engine coughed, then started, and they pulled out of their dive. The first thing that was clear was Marra's oxygen-masked face as she leaned over the back of her seat, adjusting his mask. His throat burned as he gulped at the fresh air from his mask like a man who had almost drowned. The flyer was being buffeted by the storm and they kept having to brace themselves against the turbulence while Marra wiped him up as best she could and helped him get buckled. Her voice came to him muffled by her mask. We'll have to wear these until the environmental system can clean up the air. Think you'll be all right? He nodded weakly. Sorry I couldn't get to you sooner. I kind of had my hands full trying to save us. Yeah, I know. Thanks. Uh... sis? Yes? I... I'm sorry. I wish I wasn't such a... baby. He looked away. Denni... I mean, how am I going to make it through everything else if I fall apart like this now? He was crying again, very much the frightened fourteen year old. Marra put her hands on his shoulders. Look - you cant help what's happened, but you can decide what to do from here. You can toughen up or let it scare you away. It's up to you. She seemed to look right into him with those clear, deep eyes. The last time he had seen that look

8 he was in trouble and looking into his father's eyes. He could hear him saying, Son, you know what you should do, but I can't make you do it. You need to do what's right just because it's right, but whatever you do, you know that I love you. In that moment, he thought his heart would burst with how much he missed his father and loved his sister. He had always had a special bond with Marra, partly due to the fact that of all of the lyn children, she was most like their father. He held her gaze for a while, then sighed. Let's keep going. Marra put her arms around Denni and held him for a long moment before tousling his hair and slipping back into her seat. He couldn't see her mouth because of the oxygen mask, but the loving smile in her eyes was unmistakable. I knew you would come through! Now here's the situation. She quickly scanned the instruments. It was dark out now so she turned up the cockpit lights to prevent them from being temporarily blinded by the frequent flashes of lightning. Fuel could be a problem - we lost a lot when we ditched the external tanks. But there should be enough to get you to the drop off point and then meet an air-refueler, supposing of course that I can radio them soon and have one launched. I haven't tried the radio yet, but I'm sure we can't get through the static from the storm. She lifted her mask, took a long pull on a drink pack and offered it to Denni. He accepted gratefully. She went on. The flyer is in amazingly good shape considering the abuse it's taken. Denni suspected that her choice of words was supposed to prepare him for the bad news, which she was saving for last. She continued. There was some damage to the fuselage when the upper tank didn't separate properly, but it's not a problem... her voice trailed off. That's good. What is the problem? prodded Denni. Well, its the navigation system. The inertial guidance platform is out and the compass is scrambled by electromagnetic effects from the storm. Wonderful! They were thousands of kilometers from home flying through a storm that had almost killed them with no idea of where they were going. Denni's heart would have sunk if it weren't already in his shoes. He couldn't keep the squeak out of his voice. No navigation??? Now what do we do?? Actually, we have three choices. We can continue through the storm, land and wait it out, or try to climb above the cloud cover and use the stars to get our bearings. I thought the turbulence zone prevented that. Normally it would, but the top of this storm may be high enough to absorb it. We won't know unless we try. Denni considered. He felt sure that they could land safely. Once down however, they would still have most of the night ahead of them, and night was when eebols grazed on tube grass. Now eebols, though disgusting, were harmless, but eebols happened to be food for gobyns, which were not. The storm presented dangers they had already survived, but they were flying blind. They didn't dare do that for much longer, but if they could climb above it they could put off the inevitable gobyn encounter and maybe get on course. I vote for trying to climb out. We can always land if it doesn't work. I agree. By that time the cockpit air was fairly clear and they removed their masks. Marra tried the radio just to be sure. The only reward for her effort was the crackle of static. The cockpit floor tilted back and the whine of the engine increased in pitch as Marra applied more power and they began to climb. All around them the storm pounded in unrequited

9 rage but they continued to rise steadily. Up and up they went, not daring to hope, watching the altimeter closely. Finally, the fury of the storm began to lessen. They could tell that the clouds were thinning as their lights penetrated them deeper and deeper. They were glued to the HDDR looking for any sign of turbulence zone danger. Then, quite unexpectedly, they broke out of the clouds which dropped below them like a sea of gray cotton. They looked around them. Denni thought there was something wrong with the scene that greeted their eyes, but he couldn't put his finger on it. Hey - no turbulence zone! And the compass is working again!" announced Marra. "We aren't too far off either. There was relief in her voice, but Denni felt uneasy. Marra tried the radio. It popped and hissed. Still can't get through. That's all right for now, we're back on course and the HDDR doesn't show anything up ahead at this altitude - we can just continue on up here. We should be able to go the rest of the way without hitting any more storms. Success seemed more certain and she was cheerful. She could get them back on course with just the compass? Denni was about to ask her that when he finally realized what was bothering him. Sis? What is it? It's too dark. Too dark? She sounded puzzled. Yeah. It's too dark. Where are the stars? Marra craned her neck to look up through the canopy, but before she could reply the interior of the cockpit lit up from a flash somewhere behind them, startling them both. What was that? Denni said. I don't know, but it can't be good. Alarmed now, they both searched the darkness around them, disturbed by the lack of visible stars and the mystery flash. When they finally saw what was going on it was even more disconcerting. Off to starboard, northeast of their position, an enormous bolt of lightning sprang from the clouds below connecting with and illuminating another layer of cloud high overhead. That's impossible! exclaimed Marra. Those clouds are much too high. They can't form at that altitude. The atmosphere just isn't dense enough. Uh... yeah, but there they are. What's causing them? I don't know. At the moment Im more concerned about the lightning. They watched as the searing bolts began to erupt around them with increasing frequency. I don't like this at all. Marra said. It's getting worse. I don't think it's safe up here but I don't particularly want to go back into the storm either. She was caught in indecision for the first time since they left home. Denni opened his mouth to comment but before he could speak all hell broke loose. There was a brilliant flash and a wracking jolt went through Denni jerking his whole body hard against his harness. He heard a snapping sizzle and Marra scream. The flash pinpointed his pupils and left a whiteout afterimage that temporarily blinded him. The flyer nosed down. He called to Marra but she didn't answer. Another lightning bolt demonstrated that his eyes were working again, but he felt a heartsick stab of panic at what he saw. Marra was slumped forward in her seat, her unconscious form pushing on the control yoke putting the flyer into a steep descent. Every cockpit light was out and Denni groped frantically for the emergency switch. The lightning had knocked out the engine driven generator but there was a battery back up.

10 Denni was sure he had flipped every switch he could reach twice before the lights came back on. He tried to clear his head and take action but his mind was racing in several directions at once. He fought down a rising panic that threatened to fragment him totally. Think! he screamed in his head. THINK! He found that he had slapped himself. His mind cleared a little, but he was struggling to think coherently. He held his head and panted. Why didn't Marra answer? Could he get the flyer under control? How high up were they? Was there time to do something before they crashed? Was Marra all right? Marra!! A purpose suddenly coalesced out his confusion. As their descent became a spinning dive, he tore at his harness, got it loose and struggled to reach her. He grabbed a fitting on her flight suit and hauled her back, catching a sickening whiff of burnt flesh. Then he saw her hands and almost threw up. She must have had one hand on the control yoke and the other on an instrument panel when the lightening struck providing a path for the electricity through her body. He felt her neck. There was a faint pulse but she wasn't breathing. Fighting against the Gforces of their spiraling plunge, Denni somehow managed to crawl half way around the back of her seat to where he could clamp his mouth over hers. He took a deep breath and forced air into her lungs. Marra remained limp. He inhaled and blew into her mouth again. And again. And again. They fell back into the storm and it flailed at them angrily, but Denni was aware of nothing except his anguished efforts to force life back into his sister. After what seemed like an eternity she stirred and moaned. Denni was sick with a mixture of panic and relief. He shouted in her ear. Marra! We're gonna crash! Do something! It seemed to Denni that her eyes suddenly focused. Help me... she said thickly. My hands - can you reach the landing gear handle? He stretched as far as he could. Got it! Lower the gear. Denni pulled the lever. There was a grinding rumble ending with a loud thunk. Right next to that - the spoilers - open them. Denni obeyed. Panels on the wing surfaces opened into the air flow. Marra steeled herself - reached for the control yoke with both hands. She grasped the grips firmly and cried out in pain but held on. With their spin slowed by the landing gear and spoilers she was able to compensate and put them into a straight dive. She then pulled back slowly, teeth clenched in agony. The nose strained upward as Denni expected to hit the ground at any moment. Miraculously, they found themselves leveling off and still they hadn't crashed. Quick! Close the spoilers! Denni pushed the lever back. Thump! The spoilers slammed shut. Get back in your seat. I'm going to put it down - it might be a rough landing. Denni looked at her hands pointedly. Never mind that. Move! He wormed his way back into his seat, buckled up. Marra turned off the cockpit lights and switched on the auxiliary landing light. They were low enough to see tube grass rushing by in it's beam. It had been a very near thing.

11 They slowed and dropped closer and closer. Soon they could see that the ground wasn't smooth, but had an irregular scattering of one or two meter high mounds. It was too late for Denni to reach the gear handle and retract the wheels. Next thing they knew, they had dipped into swishing tube grass and been bounced back into the air. They came down again and this time the landing gear ripped away. Hydraulic fluid sprayed out of severed hoses. The flyer whomped along on it's belly, the thick tube grass partially cushioning it. The left wing came off completely and they spun around, finally coming to rest against a large mound. Through the sound of the turbine winding down they could hear rain pelting the canopy. After a while, Denni became aware of relative silence and a new noise - the sound of their own ragged breathing. Neither of them spoke for a long time. Finally, Denni unbuckled his harness and fell forward out of his seat onto his knees. He collapsed onto the back of Marra's seat and buried his face in her hair, reaching out and wrapping his arms around her tightly. They both wept. CHAPTER TWO Noellyn drifted comfortably in and out of consciousness, occasionally rolling over to sample the delicious coolness of the sheets where his body hadn't warmed them. He savored the tang of fresh morning sea breeze wafting in through the open window, the cries of gulls mingling with the sound of the surf. He stretched and reluctantly climbed out of bed, smacking his lips and rubbing his balding head with his hands. He shuffled to the window, stuck his head out, and breathed in the salty air. Bright azure above contrasted with the white foam and transparent green of the breakers. He sighed and wished it were real. He forced himself to turn off the sim and headed for the shower, slipping out of his pajamas and leaving them to lie where they fell. This habit had irritated Carallyn to no end when she was still alive and Noel had a fond memory of her wadding them up and throwing them at him. Unfortunately this warm recollection was followed by the inevitable pang of loss. He missed Marra and Denni. Their devotion and affection were a great comfort. He was risking a lot to send them on such a dangerous journey but he staved off a stab of doubt by reminding himself of the greater risk of not making the attempt. The shower door slid open and he stepped inside. He called for hot water and astringent soap and luxuriated in the bracing spray. He rinsed off and was shivering on the blower grid when the house monitor signaled him. Someone was at the entrance. He watched on the tiny screen as Dernell identified himself and the house let him in. By the time Noel had dressed and gone to the living room Dern was standing at the edge of the forest, lost in the roar of the glacier-fed river. Sunlight glinted on snow capped peaks and the scent of evergreen trees filled the air. Noel went over to the sim controls and turned the sound of the river down to a conversational level. Dern looked up and smiled. Good morning Noel. I trust that I didn't awaken you. Morning Dern. No, I was already up. Have you gone by the Institute yet? No. I was on my way there and stopped to see if you wanted a ride. Sure. Thanks. Have you had breakfast? Not yet.

12 Good. You'll join me for an omelet in the sun room then? Yes, please. They went to the kitchen and Noel ordered two omelets, one ham and cheese, the other southwestern style. The American Southwest was light years away but that did nothing to dampen Dern's enthusiasm as he sniffed his omelet appreciatively when Noel handed it to him. They went to the spiral stair and rode it up to the roof level, emerging into the sun room. Dern sat down and wasted no time before digging in. Noel opaqued the dome on the side towards the rising sun and joined him. They ate in silence, watching the slow dance of the shadows from the city's towers in the light of the sunrise. Across town, the faceted surface of the reinforced glass dome of the Institute of Planetology stood out above the surrounding structures. Noel wondered if they had received any transmissions from Marra and Denni during the night. He reassured himself with the fact that he hadn't been called. Dern pushed back from the table, satisfied. He studied his friend's expression, guessing his thoughts. I wouldn't be too worried if I were you. Marra is an excellent pilot and Denni a very capable young man. Yes, well, you can't blame me for being concerned. I crashed in that region once myself you know. But I'm also worried about having good news for the Council tonight. If they have any trouble connecting with Gaynor, Relnick is sure to take advantage of it. Oh he's smooth, that one. Dern's face assumed a caricature of Relnick's regal look and he spoke in a fair imitation of his oily voice. Fellow Council members and honored guests. We all recognize the accomplishments of our distinguished Director of Planetology. It would behoove us to not reject his seemingly hasty conclusions out of hand. Dern screwed his face up into an expression of intense dislike. That slime! He only intends to give us enough rope to hang ourselves. Don't reject it out of hand indeed! He knows that you're right, but the Commercial Technologies lobby has him by the credit disk. Those fools! It was Noel's turn to be vehement. They are actually risking lives trying to profit from the situation. By the time it's obvious what's happening it may be too late for some people. I wouldn't want it on my conscience. On that negative note they placed their dishes in a carrier and sent them back to the kitchen through the pneumatic tube system, then got on the stairs. They went down to the entrance level, emerging from the dilating outer portal into the parking area beneath the domed house. Walking past Noel's car in its charging stall, they climbed into Dern's. He wheeled them up and out onto the street and keyed in their destination. The car lifted off its wheels on the magnetic field of the translucent ferrite-glass pavement, and the induction drive accelerated them forward soundlessly. Greenwold's abundance of silica made it the cheapest building material available and the city of Lyndoria was constructed almost entirely of glass. They drove past geodesic domes of honeycombed spun glass, mirrored pyramids, slender crystal spires, and towers whose levels were hung from glass columns on a seemingly delicate tracery of glass fibers. As they moved, a shifting display of refracted colors whirled around them as sunlight splintered on the innumerable corners and edges of the crystalline metropolis. They followed the curved residential street until it intersected with a main arterial spoke and turned to join the other cars streaming down the broad river of frozen glass towards the city's central hub.

13 Turning off the arterial they skirted the hub, passing through residential and commercial districts until they came to the campuses of Lyndoria's institutions of higher learning. Among these buildings, the predominant feature was the dome of the Institute of Planetology. Through the dome's facets (whose reflectivity could be varied to control the introduction of light and heat to the interior) the outlines of staggered tiers of structure between massive glass pillars could be seen. The Institute was so large because it housed virtually all of the research and teaching in every branch of planetology and the life sciences on Greenwold. They parked the car and went in with barely an upward glance, accustomed as they were to the impressive sight. They walked through the lush interior gardens, landscaped with exotic Earth and Greenwold plant species, to the lobby where spherical passenger capsules whooshed up and down glass tubulators connecting the various levels. They walked past tubes marked for Geophysics, Ecosystemology, and Indigenous Materials Labs before coming to the one for Central Monitoring. They stepped into the waiting capsule. It sealed shut and accelerated upward smoothly. They watched through the transparent walls as they quickly rose past all of the other levels to Central Monitoring at the top of the dome. As they approached the entrance in the floor of Central Monitoring, the capsule slowed, and then was swallowed into its dark interior. The capsule opened with a sigh. They exited and walked across the black polished floor to the monitoring station where they were hailed with a chorus of greetings from the students and scientists seated around the circular instrument bank. The only light in the room was from glowing indicators, readouts, view screens, and the large holographic image of Greenwold suspended in the center. They circled past the seismographic and weatheronics work stations to the communications console. There, a bright faced young man smiled up at them. Good morning Doctors Noellyn, Dernell. he said, nodding to each respectfully. I hope you rested well Dr. Noellyn." Good morning Karlon. Yes, surprisingly well, thank you. I thought I would spend the night tossing and turning with anxiety, but I guess I was more exhausted than I realized. Thank you for insisting that I go home. I could tell that you were ready to drop. You wouldn't have been much good to anybody snoring in the corner. Much better for you to sleep in your own bed. Karlon beamed, pleased with himself. Karl, do you have any news for our intrepid explorers' doting father? asked Dern. Well, yes and no. Karl suddenly looked uncomfortable. Something has come up, though there's no real cause for concern yet. I was in a quandary over whether to call you last night Dr. Noellyn, but there was nothing you could have done except wait, and you needed the rest. What is it Karl? As you know, Marra radioed us yesterday afternoon that they were going around a tropical storm. He asked weatheronics to run a time-compressed holo-animation of the storm tracks and flight data from the last sixteen hours and directed their attention to the hologram of Greenwold. A blue line appeared that traced Marra and Denni's course up to their last communication. As expected, we lost radio contact with them because of electrical interference from the storm when it passed between us. The animation showed a storm moving in from the north as the blue line followed their course around it. From plotting the storm's heading we anticipated reestablishing contact by 0200 hours when it arrived here. The image of the storm flashed at the projected location.

14 The problem is, it changed course and here is where it actually ended up, still blocking communication. The storm moved south and a little east, directly between them and Marra and Denni's position. We're certain they were able to go around with no difficulty, but we will have to wait until the storm is out of the way to verify it. When will you be able to do that? asked Noel. Barring any more unexpected changes, about 1100 hours. Good. said Dernell. That's close to the rendezvous time and we will have two items of good news for the Council tonight. He was obviously being over-optimistic for the benefit of his friend. Noel smiled and shook his head at the transparent ploy. Karl spoke up. Dr. Noellyn, there's no reason for you to sit here on the edge of your seat for three hours. Why don't you go to the faculty lounge and try to relax. I'll call you the moment we know something. Noel hesitated. He's right, Noel. put in Dern. Come on, let's go. Oh, all right. Noel reluctantly followed Dern back to the tubulator. They dropped down to a cross tube and took it to the lounge. It was deserted and Noel went without protest as Dern dragged him to the sim room. How about a few missions in the Starblazer? Dern was determined to distract Noel from his fears for his children. Noel was an excellent Starblazer pilot and usually had trouble getting Dern to play. At the moment he was hardly in the mood, but when he saw the eagerness to help in his friend's eyes he softened. Oh, very well. You choose the mission. All right! I'll take offense. They sat down at the sim console, brought up the list of games and chose Starblazer. Then they each put on a sim halo and started the game. The sights and sounds of the room around them dissolved and all of Noels senses told him that he was in an interplanetary fighter parked on its tail, standing on the rear wall of the cockpit. He climbed up to the pilots station (he still wondered sometimes if an outside observer ever saw an awkward pantomime of the actions he experienced within the sim), got into the seat, and felt it conform to his contours as he strapped in. Dern's voice came to him over the com link. Full simulation? Noel was surprised. When the Starblazer sim was running the halo induced most of the feelings of space flight into your brain. You felt things like free fall and G forces, but not the more extreme sensations of actual combat. In a full sim however, a 9-G maneuver really felt like the life was being crushed out of you, and when your ship was hit, you got zapped. Now being zapped was more annoying than painful, but when it happened to you as regularly as it did to Dernell you could learn to hate it. Why not. Any time you're ready. There was a long pause as Dern selected from among the hundreds of options he had as the attacker. Noel wouldn't know what was coming at him until the game started. It might be several heavily armed fighters or a fast single ship. The cockpit came alive. The air circulation system came on, indicators and readouts lit up, and the view screens activated revealing that his fighter was parked among other similar craft on the floor of a huge crater. The utter blackness of the sky of an airless moon stretched overhead, sprinkled with steady pinpoint stars and glowing nebulae. In the distance, the crater's craggy rim jutted starkly into the darkness of space. A familiar voice came over the com.

15 Good day Starblazer, this is Starblazer Control. Here is your mission. An attack force of unknown strength has penetrated the perimeter defenses. You are to intercept and destroy. Set your tactical transceiver to secured channel delta for scrambled combat telemetry. Noel reached over his head and punched in a code on a small key pad. That is incorrect. You were directed to go to secured channel delta. Five demerits. You may proceed to the launch checklist after correcting your error. Noel sighed and punched in the correct numbers. He just wasn't into it. He went through the system checks without accumulating any more demerits, and then initiated the launch sequence, Starblazer Control verifying the steps. Boost pumps on. Check. Propellant pressure nominal. Check. Combustion chamber purged and primed. Check. Inertial guidance online. Check. All systems go for launch. Ready for ignition. Roger Starblazer, pre-launch checklist completed and verified. You are clear for launch. Good luck. Noel grasped the twist grip throttle on the attitude control and pressed the firing button. A muted roar came to his ears and he was slammed with the pressure of a combat launch. The crater puckered surface of the moon spread below him as he blasted upward. He piled up altitude until the whole moon appeared in the aft viewer, its disk superimposed on the larger orb of the parent planet. Both shrank behind as he made for deep space, locked onto the trajectory of the attackers. Combat telemetry showed the invading force slowing to enter an asteroid field. Deceleration pulled at him as he changed course to intercept. He slowed further to a cautious maneuvering speed as he entered the field and carefully worked his way in using the bigger chunks for cover. The sensors detected an object in motion and gave him a fix. Noel circled around its position, left hand resting lightly on the weapons console. Something caught his eye and he turned and fired. A ship darted from behind a fragmenting asteroid and fled recklessly through the drifting rock. Noel gave chase only to be surprised by a shot of electricity. He'd been hit! Dern had decoyed him, then waited motionless until Noel crossed his line of fire. He could hear him cackle with delight as radar showed a bogey veering away to starboard. Noel braked with his retros, spun his ship expertly on its vertical axis, and fired, nailing Dern squarely in the tail. Dern gave a yelp and Noel smiled. This might turn out to be fun after all. Two hours later, Dern's benevolence had worn thin and he was attacking Noel with as big a force as the game allowed when a call from Central Monitoring came through. Noel turned off the game and excused himself. He couldn't tell if Dern's sigh was one of relief or disappointment. Noel went to the phone, Dern joining him a moment later. On the screen, Karl's face was troubled. Doctor Noellyn? Yes, what is it Karl? The storm moved out of the way sooner than expected. A signal just came through from Marra and Denni. He hesitated. Go on. Doctor Noellyn, it's their crash beacon!

16 * * * * * *

Noellyn stared into his plate, absently stirring his uneaten dinner with a fork. Fernell came up behind him and gently rubbed his shoulders. Noel glanced up, managing a smile. I'm sorry Fern. It's delicious, really it is. I just can't seem to come up with any appetite. She nodded and smiled sympathetically. Maybe you'd rather have some dessert in the living room. I made your favorite. Yes, I'd like that. Thanks. Fern went to the kitchen while Noel and Dern went to the living room. Dern preferred the inner city over the suburbs and a real view over artificial scenery. The glass walled living room of their penthouse suite had a magnificent view of the city's hub. Lyndoria was even more dazzling by night than by day. All that glass architecture could be lit to kaleidoscopic effect. Fern came out with a tray carrying three mountains of whipped chocolate cream. She handed the biggest one to Noel. He took a spoonful, and was soon eating out of more than mere courtesy. He had finished it and was thinking about asking for more when the monitor chimed. Dern got up. That's the door. I'll get it. He returned in a few moments, smiling broadly. Someone here to see you Noel. He stepped aside and motioned for their caller to enter. A handsome young man in his late twenties walked in. Noel jumped out of his seat. Jonnilyn! Hello Father. Noel rushed across the room and embraced his oldest son. They hugged for a long time before pausing to look each other in the eye. You didn't call me Jon gently chided. I'm sorry son. I've been so preoccupied that it never occurred to me. Which is why I did it said Dern. I came as soon as I heard what happened. I was lucky that a company flyer was leaving and I was able to get here tonight. You're just in time to go with us to the Council meeting. I'd like you to come along. Good. I was hoping I could. They went down to the apartment building's garage and got into Dern's car. He played chauffeur while Noel updated his son and pumped him for information on his work and love life. They wended their way through the narrow lanes between the towers of the apartment complex, emerging onto a street. The car lifted off of it's wheels and they headed towards the city's hub. When they intersected the boulevard that circled the hub, they turned onto it, merging smoothly with the heavy evening traffic. Head lights were unnecessary. The glass pavement glowed with a frosty luminescence, and they glided silently through the ghostly light. Coming to their exit, Dern put the car down on it's wheels and took them up a slender off ramp into the hub cluster. They went up through an airy network of ramps, elevated streets, and crisscrossing tubeways. Sparkling pedestrian suspension bridges linked the bright buildings, and the water that lapped at their bases sprayed high into the air from countless fountains to fall back as a shower of sparkling jewels. Light of every hue and tint was displayed around them as they went towards the great glass cone of the Administrative Complex. When they arrived they took the VIP ramp to an opening three-quarters of the way up the side of the cone. Inside, a uniformed attendant met them and took the car to park it while they went to the tubulator. An open capsule was waiting and they were soon rising at a stately pace

17 toward the Council Chamber. The capsule arrived at an ornate foyer and they were greeted by a distinguished looking gentleman. His manner was formal, but warm. Ah! Our esteemed and learned Doctors have arrived. Your places at the guest table are waiting for you. Thank you Halldon. I will also require a place for my son here. A place of honor beside you has already been reserved for Jonnilyn. replied Halldon with a little bow in Jon's direction. Noel looked questioningly at Dern who just shrugged and smiled. He had been busy. Please, this way gentlemen. They followed Halldon up a wide spiral ramp to a large circular chamber. They were in the top of the Administrative Complex Tower and the curved wall encircling them rose to a sharp pinnacle high over head. The tower was at the hub's center, and the tallest structure in Lyndoria. The splendor of the city lay below them in every direction, and many of the other attendees were standing along the wall enjoying the view. Halldon led them to the guest table with Noel, pausing frequently to accept the sympathy and well wishes of friends and supporters, bringing up the rear. Halldon showed them to their places and rushed off to fulfill some other function of protocol. Jon leaned close to his father. It looks like we have a lot of popular support. Yes. It's too bad that political and economic pressure sometimes seems to have more influence over the Council than the will of the people. They hadn't been there long when a solemn tone sounded interrupting conversation and sending stragglers to their seats. Halldon entered, stood beside the Council Table, and signaled for everyone to rise. Fifteen mostly elderly gentlemen filed silently in. Councilman Relnick, conspicuous because of his relative youth, looked at Noel with an expression that managed to carry just a hint of disdain without being overtly contemptuous. Dern risked a nudge to Noel and they exchanged loaded glances. The Council members took their places at the half circle of the Council Table and everyone sat down. Council President Felgar spoke. This emergency session of the Lyntylyn Council of Elders will now come to order. We have two urgent matters before us. First, I'm sure we have all heard of the apparent crash in the equatorial zone of our brave young emissaries, Marralyn and Dennilyn. Our hearts certainly go out to you Dr. Noellyn as you endure what must be a heart-rending time while we await the outcome of this tragic event. The Council would like to officially express it's deepest sympathy. Noel nodded in acknowledgment. President Felgar continued. The Council must now decide how to respond to this emergency and address how this development will affect our plans. Dennilyn's meeting with the Chief of the United Clans of Ebnor was an essential part of the plan Dr. Noellyn persuaded the Council to adopt, and what has happened obviously raises serious questions as to the feasibility of continuing on our present course. The Council would like at this time to hear the recommendation of the Institute of Planetology. Dern stood up. Council members and honored guests. After much deliberation, we at the Institute believe it is in our best interests to continue with our original plan, with one modification. We do not want to appear to be using sympathy for the 'lyn family as leverage, but we honestly feel that what has happened only underscores the need for the Council to implement our proposal to activate an orbiter. Surely the Council can now see the necessity of this. It is critical that conditions in Ebnor be ascertained, and this can only be accomplished by securing the cooperation of the Ebnorians. An orbiter is the only available means of traveling there safely. Of course we know that activation of an orbiter will be expensive and time consuming, but an

18 orbiter could safely make a rescue flight and any other flights that resumption of the plan would require. Now we can all imagine how hard it must be for Dr. Noellyn to endorse a plan which delays discovery of his children's fate, but he has assured us that the only hope that they might still be alive is if they were taken in by the Ebnorians, in which case they would be relatively safe indefinitely. He would rather wait and hope than expose anyone else to the dangers of a flight that far north. Dern paused to look around the room. We must not let this set back deter us from pursuing the wisest course in favor of temporary solutions. Let me remind everyone that even though we have been on this planet for 400 years, we are still newcomers and don't really know what Greenwold's long term cycles are like. For our safety we must assume that current trends will continue and the crises they portend will come upon us. To prepare and not need it, even though we must sacrifice to do it will not harm us. Indeed, one could think of many ways in which such preparations could benefit us. If, on the other hand, we utilize stop-gap measures, the more expensive long range solution may still become necessary, only then it's cost would be in addition to any other steps already taken and might be too late. We urge you to not let this tragedy be in vain. Do what is right for the 'lyn family as well as all our families. Dern looked pointedly at Relnick and sat down. Thank you Dr. Dernell. Are there any questions or comments from the floor? A prominent Lyndorian business woman spoke up. Yes, I have a question for Dr. Dernell. Why would an orbiter be safe to fly into the equatorial zone when so many flyers have crashed there? A fair question Lillion replied Dern. In an equatorial flight an orbiter would follow a sub-orbital trajectory that would take it out of Greenwold's atmosphere and therefore out of reach of the tropical storms. And if there were a storm at the landing site, the orbiters were built to withstand the stress of reentry and should be able to handle it without difficulty. How long would reactivation of an orbiter take? asked an elderly gentleman Dern didn't recognize. Estimates vary from between four to six months. Colonist preservation techniques were excellent and the orbiter itself should require little repair to be operational. What will actually take the most work will be activation of support facilities and training of personnel. Do you mean to say that your people will have to learn to operate an orbiter from scratch in just a few short months? No. We already have competent technicians working in related disciplines. They will only need training in specific application to orbiter operations. A man stood up in the back. Isn't it true that this whole thing was manufactured to get your way with the Council? Everyone turned to stare at the speaker in surprise. Dern wasn't prepared for such an accusation and just sat speechless. Noel got slowly to his feet, anger darkening his countenance, his voice tight with the effort of controlling himself. Fenruud, I can't believe that even you could be vicious enough to suggest such a thing with my children lost and possibly dead. Oh are they now? How do we know that for sure? What means do we have to verify anything you've told us? It was the Institute that told us the climate was changing. We've had dry spells before but they were always temporary. What makes this time different? The fact that the Institute says it's different, that's what. They said the planet's water was migrating to the equatorial zone. It was their measurements and observations that supposedly prove that Lyndoria will become uninhabitable within a few years, and their ridiculous plan that we meet with Ebnorians and activate orbiters!

19 We all know that the Institute of Planetology under the direction of Dr. Noellyn has tried unsuccessfully for years to resurrect their expensive and unnecessary space program. What proof do we have that this whole thing hasn't been staged to push the Council into hasty and ill advised decisions? One could think of many ways in which such preparations could benefit us - benefit the Institute he means. Once they've gotten their way, we might all be amazed at how quickly the crises evaporates. I say that before we spend another credit the Institute's handling of this whole affair should be investigated! Dern was shocked by the murmur of assent from the crowd. He glanced at Noel. He was shaking and there was a tear of outrage in the corner of his eye. But just when he thought Noel would come unglued he was surprised to hear Relnick intervene. Fenruud! You are out of order! This council chamber is not the place to air your malicious speculations! Any further comment from you and you will be removed! He stood and gestured expansively. Fellow Council members and good citizens of Lyndoria. The Institute of Planetology is one of our oldest and most respected institutions and I'm sure I speak for all of us when I express my indignation at this outburst. Dr. Noellyn, we may have our differences, but I hope you will accept my sympathy and affirmation of my faith in you and the Institute. Noel composed himself somewhat and hesitantly nodded in acknowledgment. He was angry, hurt, and confused. Dern stood, took Noel by the arm, and gently guided him back down into his seat. Thank you, Dr. Noellyn. President Felgar, I am deeply offended by what has transpired here. I would like to volunteer to conduct an investigation of the Institute's conduct in this matter to vindicate them and remove any doubt of their competence. In one way, what Fenruud said was true. We are completely dependent on the Institute, and for the most part must simply accept what they tell us. Since so many crucial decisions in the near future will be based on information from the Institute, I sincerely believe it is in everyone's best interests to clear up any controversy concerning its accuracy. Relnick smiled benignly and sat down. Council President Felgar spoke. Does Councilman Relnick's proposal meet with the rest of the Council's approval? The other Council members all nodded. Very well then. Dr. Noellyn, you have indicated that if Marra and Denni are safe, a delay will most likely not endanger them. We certainly regret prolonging your uncertainty, but we can make no further determination until the investigation is complete. Please be assured that I am personally confident of the outcome. The decisions before us will likely determine the fate of civilization on this planet and we must be able to stand united. This emergency session of the Lyntylyn Council of Elders is now adjourned. Incredulous, Dern tried to stand up to protest but Noel pulled him back down into his seat. He looked at Dern with an expression of defeated resignation. It's no use Dern. They're right. We have to wait. CHAPTER THREE Denni tried to gather his wits and take inventory of their situation. The med kit had yielded medication and dressing for Marra's hands. She was bandaged, loaded with pain killer, and resting comfortably. The flyer, however, was beyond first aid. One wing was severed, the landing gear was gone, and the electronics were off-line. There was battery power for the lights and their crash beacon was working, but that was it. Denni thought of his father's reaction to the beacon. Dad, don't grieve! We're not dead... not yet anyway! Denni pulled their survival packs from behind his seat and inspected the contents. They were designed to help them survive in the Ebnorian ecozone and included food tubes, filter taps

20 for getting water from bladder and tunnel plants, drugs to enhance their night vision, and photon guns to defend against gobyn attack. Even though they were designed as blasters and fired laser bolts, a photon gun's real value against a gobyn was when set on strobe. A strobe shot to the light receptors could blind and disorient a gobyn making it possible (theoretically) to escape from it. The guns also had a flashlight mode - important for a dark subterranean environment. Denni strapped on both photon guns. Marra couldn't use hers with her hands injured, but could probably wear her own pack. It would be light in a few hours and she would have to be up to it by then because the heat would drive them underground and Denni couldn't carry everything they would need by himself. There had been a subtle change between him and Marra. Somehow it seemed that Denni was now in charge. To prevent shock he had given her a trauma-tab and she was mildly sedated, but it went beyond that. That spark of decisiveness was gone. Denni was being forced to take the initiative. He prepared a meal from their regular rations. Marra had dozed off and he nudged her gently. "Sis, wake up." Marra awoke and looked at Denni. Her eyes were dull. "Come on, eat. We need our strength up. Eat as much as you can. Who knows how long we'll have to stretch our emergency rations and we can't carry very much of this other stuff." She nodded, ate silently. They had almost finished their meal when a long flash of lightning illuminated their surroundings. In that moment they had a nightmarish glimpse of wind blown tube grass towering over the flyer, and Denni thought he saw shapes moving in the pathway of flattened vegetation left by their sliding impact. He switched on the exterior lights. "No - don't do that" said Marra. "You might attract a gobyn." "If we're going to attract a gobyn the crash has already done it for us. If one attacks, I want to see it coming." "And what do you plan to do about it if one does?" There was no emotion in Marra's voice, just a kind of neutral questioning. Denni looked at her closely. Marra displayed all the symptoms of shock except the pale clamminess. She seemed to be balanced between shock and the effects of the trauma-tab, but Denni didn't get the chance to ponder her condition further. He was distracted by movement in his peripheral vision and looked up. Eebols. Yuck!! Eebols were oozing down the fuselage and along the remaining wing, their slime trails glistening behind them. One was coming up the canopy, wriggling back and forth, dripping mouth seeking for food on the smooth plexiglas. Denni thought he would puke. He looked at Marra. She was eyeing the eebol disinterestedly. What was wrong with her? All around them, eebols were humping in their direction with more squeezing out of holes in the ground to join them. Denni knew they were supposed to be harmless, but if they all climbed on the flyer he was sure he would faint from revulsion at being buried under that slimy, squirming mass.

21 They could see a large group of eebols swarming over the nearest standing tube grass. One couldn't tell exactly how they did it, but in less than a minute it was devoured and the group pressed on. It was a quick process, but Denni failed to see how the ground could be cleared horizon to horizon like that in a single night. Then the most puzzling thing happened. The group he was watching suddenly increased in number. He blinked and rubbed his eyes. Where did the other ones come from? An outrageous possibility occurred to him and he watched more closely as the group split and attacked the tube grass on two fronts. When the phenomenon repeated itself he was convinced. The eebols were reproducing through simple fission every time they consumed a certain amount of tube grass! Obviously, their normally sluggish metabolic rate increased enormously while feeding if they were able to digest the food and reproduce that rapidly. At that rate of reproduction it wouldn't take long for eebols to denude a huge area of vegetation, but to remain in balance with the food supply something had to be reducing their population just as quickly. Ah but that's where the gobyns come in he thought aloud. And that is where I want to get out. Come on Marra, let me help you get your pack on. It won't be long before a gobyn shows up and I don't want to be here when it does." Denni quickly looked over his preparations, hesitating at Marra's pack. He hurriedly took some items out and tried unsuccessfully to stuff them into his already bulging pack. He agonized for a moment over discarding a container of water or a package of rations. He finally decided on the water and after an extra shove to compress the contents managed to close the zipper. He leaned Marra forward, helped her get her arms through the straps of her pack, and adjusted them as best he could. He hated to leave the flyer but he knew they had no choice. It was sit and wait and have no possibility of avoiding the gobyns, or take the chance, however slight, that they might evade them on the move. Denni slipped the hood on Marra's flight suit over her head and tied the drawstring, put his own hood up, strapped on his pack, and opened the canopy. Stifling humidity pressed in on them. A warm wind slashed at them with sheets of warm water. Denni helped Marra to her feet and they stepped out onto the wing, clinging to each other against the violence of the storm. Denni kicked several eebols out of the way and they sat down on the wing's trailing edge, then slid off to the ground a short drop below. Denni seemed to have landed in some deep mud with his left foot. He pulled out a photon gun and shone it down. He had sunk up to his shin into a squirming eebol which was bleeding green ooze into his open boot top. He screamed, shook it off, and blasted it with the photon gun. He felt something against the back of his legs and whirled around. More eebols were pressing in on every side. Denni grabbed Marra by the arm and kicked and blasted frantically to clear a way through the encircling wall of writhing grossness before they were smothered. They waded through seared and ruptured eebols to open ground and broke into a run down the swath of flattened tube grass, Denni alternately lighting their way and blasting with the photon gun. They had two urgent problems: getting underground, and avoiding gobyns. The first was easy. Find any hole big enough to enter and you were in. The second was more difficult - find a hole to go down that didn't have a gobyn coming up. They came immediately to the gaping maw of a large hole. Denni approached cautiously with the intention of peeking over the edge. He didn't know how he could tell if a gobyn was down there without shining a photon gun and giving them away, but he meant to try. Just as he was about to lean over the edge and have a look, he heard a loud squishing sound and was assaulted by a horrible stench. He scrambled away, grabbed Marra, shone the

22 photon gun around briefly, then pulled her to the ground behind the biggest nearby mound where they lay panting, straining to see what was happening. The huge quivering tip of what resembled a giant larvae rose from the mouth of the hole. It glowed with a faint yellow phosphorescence which suffused it's translucent body, and bobbed and circled questing for food. Suddenly, it pointed right at them and stopped. Then with astonishing speed it heaved the rest of it's bulk out of the hole and came straight at them. Finding some inner reserve of strength, Denni hauled Marra and himself to their feet and they dodged the on-rushing creature which passed close enough to brush them with the course bristly hair that sprouted in clumps all over it's squat body. The smell was overwhelming. The gobyn tried to turn back on them but Denni pointed the photon gun at the light receptors clustered on it's forward tip and thumbed the strobe button. A focused pulse of white-hot light struck the gobyn releasing a puff of smoke which was visible in the nearby flyers lights. The gobyn began to thrash about so violently that they narrowly missed being flattened by it's blind convulsing. They ran for the hole to try and get down it before the gobyn could chase them, but before they could get there the tip of another gobyn emerged. Denni raised the photon gun, then hesitated. This gobyn was behaving differently. It's quivering tip stopped and pointed away from them, then it lunged right past them in pursuit of other prey. They turned to see where it was headed and were surprised to see it attack the other gobyn. Not wanting to stick around for the outcome of the battle, they hurried to the hole. Denni risked shining the photon gun. The hole was about 3 meters across with smooth sides sloping down at a shallow angle into utter blackness. He hesitated. They were at the threshold of Ebnor. Before them lay a bizarre underground realm, the inhabitants of which it was their mission to contact. They had overcome deadly storms, a flyer crash, and gobyn attack to come this far and he felt a flicker of hope that they might make it. They sat down on the hole's lip. Denni took a deep breath, held onto Marra tightly, scooted them over the edge, and knew immediately that he had made a big mistake. The incline hadn't looked too steep to safely descend, but he had failed to take into account the fact that the walls were coated with gobyn slime which in turn was wet from the rain. Then to make matters worse, the incline suddenly increased. They shot down the hole with alarming velocity. If it ended abruptly, so would they. Denni spread his arms and legs in an attempt to slow down and keep their descent straight. He succeeded at neither. They began to spin and he lost his hold on Marra. In the light of his photon gun, Denni caught wild glimpses of their surroundings as they spun downward. The dark mouths of side passages shot by, some partially covered with a curtain of lacy fungus, others, smooth with use. Down one he thought he glimpsed a faint glow. Just ahead, the tunnel widened and divided. Denni could see that he and Marra were going to go down different branches. He managed to get on his hands and knees and tried frantically to scramble over to her but the wet gobyn slime afforded too little traction. He shouted to Marra to reach for him but she responded too slowly. The dividing tunnel wall rushed up between them and they were separated. Denni slid on for some distance before hitting shallow water and splashing to a stop. Sick with fear and dread, he clambered to his feet and shone the photon gun up the way he had come. Water trickled down the incline into the pool that lapped at his shins. He wanted to go back to where he lost Marra, but could see little hope of climbing the slippery slope. He quelled his panic and paused to take in his surroundings. The air, although still humid, was much cooler and loaded with pungent smells. There were strong, unfamiliar odors and a

23 lingering trace of gobyn stench. He turned the photon gun up all the way in flashlight mode, but the passage he was in went on farther than the light could reach. He seemed to be in a major gallery with numerous side tunnels opening into it. It was too large for a gobyn to fill as it traveled, and the ceiling and upper half of the walls were covered with various kinds of fungus and mold, much of it glowing faintly. Denni knew that glow would be the only light to see by when the photon guns were depleted, so he took the time to remove his pack, find the night vision drug, and take a dose. Denni shouldered his pack and sloshed to the nearest side tunnel. The photon gun disclosed an apparently unused passage. The walls were thickly covered with slimy growth and the passageway was choked with fungus and criss-crossing threads. There was a lot of slithery movement as numerous small creatures tried to escape from the light. Denni shuddered and tried the next side tunnel finding much the same thing. He began to lose his hold on his panic. What could he do? Even if he found an open passage he didn't know if it would lead to Marra. He could wander for weeks in a maze of tunnels and never locate her. He had to find a way back to where he lost her. Denni went back and tried to climb up the way he had slid down. He made headway until the tunnel became steeper and he slipped back to his starting point. He tried again with the same result. In his rising panic he began to feel the weight of all the ground above him pressing down. He felt suffocated and trapped. He ran at the incline in desperation and fell thrashing to the tunnel floor. He shouted incoherently and blasted randomly with the photon gun until his panic was spent. He lay panting, staring blankly at the tunnel wall. He was dazed and exhausted, and it was several minutes before his brain registered what his eyes were seeing. Everywhere the photon gun had blasted the tunnel wall there was a small crater. Almost daring to hope, Denni got to his feet and experimented on the incline. With a little practice, he found that he could cut a usable foothold into the slippery surface. He made footholds up as high as he could from where he was standing, then started to climb. He was soon making steady progress, alternately climbing and cutting more footholds. In this manner, Denni slowly worked his way back up to where the tunnel branched and wearily straddled the dividing wall. In the light of the photon gun he could see that the passage Marra had gone down leveled substantially sooner than the one he had descended. He also noticed that the light from the photon gun was beginning to hurt his eyes. He turned down the intensity and planned his descent. He was anxious to rejoin Marra and wanted to just slide down and get it over with, but his nose and the back of his mind warned him against it. He noticed that the tunnel was extra shiny, reached over, and touched the smooth surface. Phew! Fresh gobyn slime! A gobyn had passed that way since he and Marra had slid by! Denni's stomach knotted with fear. It had gone up or down the same way Marra had. Either way, she had probably encountered it. Denni quickly took off his pack and located the small grappling hook and reel of thin stout line. Unfolding the hook and the reel handle he hooked onto the dividing wall, put on his pack, and went over the edge. He slipped the brake on the reel and slowly lowered himself. The night vision drug really took effect and he holstered the photon gun, pausing to allow his eyes to finish adjusting to the dim light. When he continued, a different world greeted his eyes. The gobyn slime itself had a trace of phosphorescence. It wasn't sufficient to actually see by, but it defined the tunnel and the silhouettes of objects viewed against it. The tunnel below glowed with surprising brightness. As he drew nearer, he found he could actually see quite well by it.

24 The ceiling became higher and the light increased as the tunnel leveled. Soon, the ceiling was high enough to escape contact with gobyns and displayed a variety of bioluminescent flora and fauna. Upon closer enhanced-night-vision inspection, Denni saw that there was a whole galaxy of minute life-forms, each glowing with it's own distinct hue and intensity of green, blue, or yellow. Spreading fungi extended slender tendrils down to bathe in gobyn slime whenever one passed. Denni guessed that they served as a link between the moisture and nutrients in the slime and the rest of the tunnel ceiling eco-system, and that the tiny slug-like creatures he saw grazing on the fungus spread the nutrients further in their own slime. He continued his descent until he was almost low enough to look into the chamber below. He stopped and turned head down, then carefully lowered himself until he could see the scene beyond - and froze. In the greenish yellow light he could see two pale figures crouching in the foreground. They weren't in an aggressive or wary stance, but instead just seemed to be casually observing, which was incredible considering what they were observing. For there, not more than 5 meters beyond, was a huge gobyn. It looked like it was agitated and had a strange undulation pulsing up and down the length of its body, yet the two strangers seemed unconcerned for their safety and quietly exchanged comments that Denni couldn't quite make out. Obviously Ebnorians, they each wore a loose silky robe with a large pouch slung off one hip and carried an assortment of strange paraphernalia, some of which Denni recognized from his father's descriptions. They had pale, almost translucent skin, long light-colored hair that flowed down over their shoulders, and oversized eyes that were mostly pupil. Their large eyes put a permanent look of surprise on the face of an Ebnorian. In fact, Denni's father had told him of an Ebnorian proverb which said that the eyes that are wide are astonished at nothing. Understandably, eyes that daily witnessed the marvels of Ebnor would find little to be startled by. And by the length of their hair, Denni could tell that these two were of perhaps the most jaded class of Ebnorian: Gobyn Masters. The gobyn was suddenly still. With the casual arrogance of being accustomed to domination of these beasts, the gobyn masters walked over to it and one of them gave it a kick. This didn't produce the desired result, so he took the long barbed prod in his hand and jabbed it. Where the prod touched, electricity sparked and the gobyn jerked. It slowly backed up to reveal something on the tunnel floor that made Denni's heart stop. It was Marra! The Ebnorians knelt beside her and spoke in uncharacteristically excited tones. Denni struggled to force himself to act. Finally finding the will to move, he turned feet first, and drawing a photon gun, let go of the reel. He slid awkwardly into the chamber. The Ebnorians whirled and reached into their pouches, but Denni jumped to his feet and waved the photon gun at them. "Get away from her" he growled. They seemed to understand that Denni held some sort of weapon and stepped aside. Keeping the photon gun trained on them, he rushed to Marra and knelt beside her. She was encased in a thick coating of clear gelatinous material. She wasn't breathing, and Denni could see no movement of the veins in her neck. He pulled at the clear material, but was unable to tear it. "Get her out of there!" he screamed at the Ebnorians. "We cannot" replied one. "Get her out or she'll die!" "She lives" said the other. "She has survived passage and sleeps the sleep of the ancients." Denni got unsteadily to his feet and waved the photon gun at them. "You get her out right now or I'll blast you!"

25 The Ebnorians looked at each other for a moment, then shrugged and held their hands out palm up in a gesture of compliance. They moved cautiously toward Marra while keeping an eye on the photon gun, knelt carefully beside her, looked up... and smiled. Without warning, long pale fingers closed on the photon gun and easily wrested it from Denni. A powerful hand gripped his shoulder and turned him around. He got a long look up into deep, wide pupils, then something struck him on the back of his head and he sank into blackness. CHAPTER FOUR Jonnilyn bumped down the town of Opportunity's unpaved main street in a rented car. He had traveled all day and he was tired. The journey cross country had been tolerable. Even though Lyndoria's magnetic transportation system didn't extend past the city's suburbs, the roads were still at least paved, if in need of some repair. But even damaged pavement had disappeared once Jon had arrived on Commercial Technologies Corporation owned land and he had become more and more disenchanted with the company with each passing kilometer. All afternoon Jon had wound his way up through the meager foothills of the closest thing the Southern Polar Temperate Zone had to mountains. Wind eroded and devoid of vegetation, their slumped shoulders hunkered down above the town. Their company given name of the Majestic Range fit them about as much as the town's name did. Opportunitys boom days as a mining town had come and gone early. Greenwold had turned out to be disappointingly poor in minerals. Everything that was easy to come by had been mined long ago. What remained was only extracted with great cost and effort. The outskirts of Opportunity consisted mostly of the run-down remnants of the town's faded glory and downtown wasnt much better. Drab apartment buildings of crumbling brick predominated with a sprinkling of shops and drinking establishments. Jon searched among the latter looking for one in particular. There it was - the Miner's Madness. Jon had heard that to take on the house drink by the same name you either had to have miner's madness or be looking to acquire it. He tried to park in such a way as to minimize the risk of his car being clipped by the battered hulks of the other vehicles that littered the parking lot and went in. The air was smoky and thick with exotic aromas. Foamed plastic was clumped on the walls and ceilings in a poor attempt to present the appearance of a mine. Dim lamps smoldered on tables and in alcoves filled with rowdy miners. Jon searched among them for that familiar face. Someone was waving at him from the bar. Jon worked his way over to him through the crowd and the two men hugged. He thought he'd have the breath squeezed right out of him, but he welcomed the crushing embrace. Finally releasing him, his younger brother took him by the shoulders, held him out at arms length and examined him. You've gotten soft. When did you put on that weight? Has that fianc of yours started cooking for you already? No Garri" Jon laughed. This is just the prelude to middle aged spread. How about you? That's a pretty good roll developing around your middle. That's from drinking too many Miner's Madnesses. Hey bartender! He whistled and threw a peanut at the burly man behind the counter. One Miner's Madness for my brother here! Ah... no thanks. I don't think so. Come on bro', you only orbit once in this continuum. Be a little adventuresome. I'll take care of whatever you can't handle.

26 Jon tried to protest further but the bartender was already setting a frothing mug down in front of him and taking Garri's credit disc to the disc reader. Jon eyed the bubbling concoction suspiciously. Frost was beginning to form on the outside of the mug. Are you sure this stuff is safe? Of course it isn't, stupid. Now drink up. Jon grasped the handle, raised the mug to his lips, shut his eyes tightly, and drank. Biting cold stung his mouth and throat. It was like drinking liquid ice. Ow! It's too cold. Ten degrees below freezing to be exact. No one knows how they do it, but some people claim there's tunnel runner fuel in it. Jon felt like he had ice water in his veins. The cold traveled through his body and threatened to split his head open with a massive ice cream headache, but then he had a feeling of numbness followed by incredible warmth that seeped into every part of him. Suddenly, he felt so good and so brave that he grabbed the mug with serious intent to take another drink. Garri snatched it from him. Whoa, big brother! You're not used to this stuff. You look like one more drink will leave me talking to myself. He took a long drink from the mug, had one spasmodic shiver, then settled back with a slow grin spreading across his face. All right! Let's talk business! They talked deep into the night of Denni and Marra's plight, mining, and the politics of space flight. By closing time they had concluded that the Commercial Technologies Corporation's waning fortunes in the mining business would motivate them to fight tooth and nail against their father's plan. While only a couple of CTC companies would have anything to do with orbiter reactivation, they stood to make a nice profit from constructing a pipeline from Lake Wallden to Lyndoria to alleviate the coming water shortage. And the two brothers feared that the CTC possessed the resources to win that fight. They could imagine viewer ads showing footage of Lyndoria's great fountains silenced, interspersed with shots of Lake Wallden and the silly scientists trying to reactivate an orbiter. Combined with Relnick's manipulations of the Council, their blind profiteering might succeed in deceiving the public to everyone's detriment. They also realized that the chances for a rescue mission were dead. They knew their father wouldn't do anything against the Council's orders and that Relnick would no doubt find a way to drag the investigation on indefinitely. When the proprietor finally threw them out and locked the doors they walked despondently to Jon's car. They got in and Garri slouched sullenly in the seat. Suddenly, he sat up and slammed the dash with his fist. That's it! We can't sit around and wait. We'll do something about it ourselves! What are you talking about? I'm talking about a rescue mission of course. We'll rescue them! Drinking that stuff all night really has given you miners madness! No, listen - we can do it! I know a bunch of guys that would jump at the chance to knock some Ebnorian heads. Theyve had it with the company too and would walk away in a heartbeat. Hey - slow down! Just a minute here. Do you know what youre saying? First of all, its illegal to go into Ebnor without Council approval. And then theres the little matter of a few thousand kilometers between us and them, not to mention the Ebnorians. No problem. I know where theres a transport we could borrow with enough room to carry us and everything wed need. We could even bring a tunnel runner. The Ebnorians dont

27 have anything that could stop one of those. Come on, whadaya say? I say no. Absolutely not. Its out of the question. Great! Ill tell the guys and well get ready. Ill let you know as soon as everythings set. Garri opened the car door and got out. Wait! Stop! Garrilyn! Come back here! Garri smiled, shook his head and slammed the door. He called over his shoulder as he walked away. See ya later! * * * * * *

Jon awoke with his skin crawling, threw back the covers and jumped out of bed. He picked up a shoe, went to the end of the bed, slowly pulled back the covers, and flailed wildly at a small scurrying form. He scored a direct hit but it kept running and escaped behind the bed unharmed. Jon didnt know how they had managed it with the strict decontamination protocols in place for space flight but the cockroach had accompanied man to the stars. Jon checked his shoes for vermin and dressed hastily. This was it. Garri wasnt going to put him off any more. Three days in this pest hole was all he could stand. Garri would go with him today or he would leave without him. Jons stomach growled but the thought of another greasy breakfast in the hotel diner made him wince. If he could get the decrepit vending machine in the lobby to work hed get a snack to take the edge off until he could find a decent restaurant (assuming of course that Opportunity had a decent restaurant to find). He quickly packed his bags and went to the lobby to check out. He thought the greasy person behind the counter was the perfect compliment to such a greasy establishment. He went up to the counter and plopped down his key card. Hi. Id like to check out please. The greasy person opened a greasy file drawer and pulled out a greasy document. Thatll be seventy five credits, sir. Huh? Im afraid youre mistaken. Im paid up. For the room, yes. This is the parking and charging fee for your car. Its right here on the bill you signed when you checked in. Twenty five credits a day. He pointed to some small print on the bottom. Jon had a dim recollection of a greasy thumb over that portion of the bill when he signed it three days before. He could have protested but he knew he couldnt win with a company owned hotel in a company owned town so he reluctantly handed over his credit disc. The greasy person took it with a smug look on his face and put it in the disc reader to transfer the credits. When he gave it back Jon made a mental note to wash it off when he got the chance. He went over to the vending machine, stuck his credit disc in the reader, selected a protein bar, and pushed the button. The bar came out part way and hung up. Jon jiggled the machine with no results. He glanced at the greasy person who just smiled back. That was too much for Jon. He loudly thrashed the machine with the pent-up energy of three days of frustration and the bar dropped. Satisfied, he gathered up his bar, credit disc and bags, and walked past the counter toward the entrance. The greasy person glowered at him. Jon smiled back with the greasiest smile he could muster and left. A little driving around rewarded Jon with a marginally better restaurant. After a passable breakfast he headed over to Garris apartment, wondering if he was out of bed yet. He was notorious for sleeping in but when Jon pulled up in front Garri was already waiting outside, suitcase in hand. Before the car had completely stopped he was piling in.

28 Top of the morning to ya Jonni boy. Lets go! Jon had talked his brother out of attempting an independent rescue mission and into returning with him to Lyndoria, but he had begun to suspect him of stalling. He had intended to confront him with it this morning, but Garris sudden eagerness to go caught him off-guard. Besides, he was feeling rather mellow after his therapy session with the vending machine. They left town and began winding their way down through the hills. Garri was a little on the quiet side and Jon began to feel like he was containing himself and might still prove to be up to something. The two brothers hadnt been all that close growing up and had turned out to be better friends as adults but still there wasnt much they could get past each other. The farther they went the more convinced Jon became that his brother had something to spring on him. They had traveled for about half an hour when they came to a fork in the road. Garri suddenly brightened. Hey, lets take a little detour. Theres something up this road you shouldnt miss. Here it comes, thought Jon. Come on, how about it? Who knows when youll make it back this way. It wont take long. Transparent, thought Jon - very transparent. But he was curious and didnt want Garris three days of preparation to be a complete waste. He knew it was love for their bother and sister that motivated him. What he was doing was his way of compensating for the same sick fear that was always just below the surface of Jons feelings. Garri was not well equipped emotionally for the kind of agonizing waiting game the family was being forced to play, and if he thought he was doing something concrete to help it probably helped him to cope. Jon would let him down easy. All right. But we cant take too long, Dad is expecting us tonight. No problem. Garri sat back, apparently satisfied that he was doing a good job of stringing his brother along. They turned onto the other road and soon found themselves climbing steep switch backs up the side of a narrow ravine. Topping that, another set awaited them, crawling with an uneven zig-zag up the face of a high ridge. Jon eyed the cars charge indicator, shook his head and started up. He went slowly, allowing the rooftop photo-voltaic array to supply part of the power to the motors. Even so, if they had to climb another ridge like this there wouldnt be enough charge left to make it all the way to Lyndoria. He wondered briefly if Garri meant to strand them there. After working their way up in this fashion for some time Jon checked his chronometer and looked at Garri pointedly. Garri smiled back. Dont give up now, were almost there. Jon sighed and kept going. Soon after that, true to Garris word, they crested the ridge and came out onto a large plateau. The road crossed it and disappeared over a small hill a few kilometers ahead. On level ground again, they picked up speed and made it to the hill in a few minutes. All right, slow down, way down. To just a crawl. There was anticipation in Garris voice. Jon complied, slowing the vehicle to walking speed. As they crept upward the summits of low mountains came into view over the hill. Topping the rise, Jon expected to see foothills or some other similar terrain between them and the mountains. Instead, their slopes dropped and dropped, right out through the bottom of Jons stomach into a bigger, deeper pit than he could have imagined! He jerked to a stop and jumped out, followed by Garri.

29 They walked to the edge and looked in. It was at least twenty kilometers long and five wide with steep terraced sides. Even though it was obviously artificial, it was just too big for ones perception to accept as man made. Garri watched his brothers reaction with interest. There had never been much rivalry between them but it was still fun to impress Jon speechless. He let him enjoy this diversion from their troubles in silence for a few minutes, happy to see his preoccupation with Denni and Marra gone for the moment. It was Jon who finally spoke. How deep is it? Over two kilometers. Almost everything metallic on the planet was made from ore mined here. Why arent they mining here any more? Is it played out? Nearly. You already know the gist of it from what we learned about colony history in school. There wasnt much mining during the early years when people were content with a simpler lifestyle. When the population mushroomed about a hundred years ago and we went back to being an industrial society, they found this deposit and mined it for all it was worth. No one guessed that when it was exhausted we would find so few additional mineral resources. Actually though, I think that was a good thing because it forced the advancements in glass and ceramics that got us where we are today. I dont suppose it matters much to Commercial Technologies. Metals or glass - theyve still got a monopoly. And they can ask any price they want for the specialty items they make from the little bit of ore you help dig up. True, but they still havent given up on looking elsewhere for minerals. Where are they going to look? The Northern Polar Temperate Zone is out of reach. If they plan on poking around in Ebnor, the Ebnorians might take exception to it. Oh, I think they may have given that problem some thought. Garri smiled strangely. Im sure they have. And Ive been thinking too. Ive been thinking that you didnt bring me here just to show me a hole in the ground. You want to tell me what youre up to? All right, Ill level with you. Im sure youve guessed some of it already anyway. What if I told you I had the means to find out what happened to Denni and Marra, rescue them if theyre still alive, and discover whats happening to Greenwolds water, all at the same time? First of all, whatever youre planning is illegal. Relnick may stall the council for a while but there will be a rescue mission, Dad will see to that. And hes right - if theyre alive, they will be fine until that happens. It would be foolish to count on leniency from the council for defying them and risking conflict with the Ebnorians. Besides, if anybody could do all that, it would be Commercial Technologies and they would already be offering it to the council for a hefty fee. Why havent they come forward? Because theyre holding out on something. They have plans theyre not willing for the council to find out about yet. And speaking of the council, by the time they act it might be too late for all of us. Theres something else Commercial Technologies has discovered. The water table is gone. The underground layer of water at bedrock gone? Have they told the council? No. Theyre saving it as a bargaining chip to clinch the deal for the pipeline. Does Dad know? He does now. I called him this morning. Well, then hell tell the council and theyll do something about it. They probably will. But its still going to be months before an orbiter is ready and we need to do something now. Youre right, I brought you here to show you something. After you see it you can do what you want but Im not going to sit around and wait any more for anybody.

30 Garri pulled a small device out of his pocket and pressed a button. He directed Jons attention to the strip mine. Watch. Jon searched the pit, uncertain of what to look for. He noticed movement and looked closer. Something was emerging from a horizontal shaft at the bottom. It was too far away to see much detail but he could tell two things: it was a vehicle, and it was big. Really big. He looked questioningly at Garri. What is it? That, big brother, is our ticket to Ebnor. How did you get it? It was graciously loaned to us by Commercial Technologies, only they dont know it yet. Theyve been developing it secretly here to use in exploring for minerals in the Ebnorian ecozone. And you stole it? Its bad enough that there are two family members missing and maybe dead and now one is a criminal! How did you manage to take it? It must have been guarded. We had inside help. Some of the project personnel know whats really going on with the company and are on our side. Still, theyre going to miss it right away and come after you. It was scheduled for a test run today. They wont know anythings wrong until it doesnt report in tonight. Thats when theyll come down here and find the staff we couldnt recruit tied up, but by then well be too far north on terrain they cant follow us over to catch up. What about the Ebnorians? They arent exactly going to throw out the welcome mat when you roll into town. Garri grinned wickedly. Dont worry about them. This baby can take care of itself. They watched as the strange vehicle climbed the road leading up out of the mine. As it came closer, Jon realized that when he first saw it there had been nothing nearby to give him a sense of scale and it was much bigger than hed first thought. As it came out of the mine onto the plateau he could see that it was more than two stories high plus enough room to walk under, its massive bulk riding on two huge caterpillar tracks. It rolled smoothly to a stop a few meters from them and several figures waved from the cab high on its blunt nose. A ramp lowered from the belly and Garri took him up it into the brightly lit interior. The ramp led to a small bay with a tunnel runner parked in it. Its cylindrical body had four caterpillar tracks mounted around its circumference. They were retracted now for parking in the cramped bay but Jon knew they could be extended to match the diameters of different sized tunnels. This plus the pivoting seats and operators stations gave it the capability of negotiating vertical shafts as well. A half dozen exo-suits with matching power packs and blast cutters hung on the wall. Garri walked over to a suit and hefted the blaster. When they designed these for mining they didnt have it in mind, but they happen to make great anti-personnel weapons. He gave the grip a twist and the pack powered up with a high pitched whine. He aimed at the ground down the open ramp and released a blue-white bolt of energy. There was a deafening report and a smoking meter-wide hole appeared in the ground. Ill bet that would even ruin a gobyns day. A few miners in exo-suits armed with these could probably secure the Ebnorians cooperation, dont you think? Garris tone was facetious, but his face was grim. Now hold on a minute. You cant just force your way in, you cant depend on their reaction. You might be endangering Denni and Marra.

31 Oh, well ask them nicely of course. At first. But if they want to play rough... he patted the cutters blast head. What about the tunnel runner? Is it armed? Doesnt need to be. Its armored for protection against cave-ins. The Ebnorians dont have anything that could do more than scratch it. And as for the transport, he indicated the vehicle they were in with a sweep of his arm, it has a special surprise that Im saving for last. Let me finish showing you around. They went up a ladder through a hatch into the upper level. They came out in a room with refrigerators, storage lockers, a kitchenette, a long table, and a computer station with several monitor screens. This is the galley and conference room. These lockers are stocked with about six months worth of food, and its good stuff too. We dumped the company rations and loaded it ourselves. Lets take a peek in engineering. Garri led Jon through a hatch in the rear wall. Engineering was crowded with machines for fabrication and repair of parts, work benches, and storage for materials and tools. The entire back wall was covered with instruments and controls. These caught Jons interest and he examined them more closely, reading the labels below the gauges. There was turbine rpm, steam pressure, coolant flow, power levels, core temperature... realization flashed in Jons eyes. Say, this thing isnt, uh, I mean... Nuclear powered? Sure is. Youre looking at the monitor station of an active reactor. Kind of gives you a thrill, huh. Jon looked again at the now menacing bank of instruments, but instead of a thrill he felt a chill - of cold fear. You mean that youre planning to spend six months riding with an atom bomb? Youre crazy! Three or four months, actually. And concerning any threat of this going up in a mushroom cloud, Ive been told there isnt enough fissionable material in the fuel to reach critical mass. The worst that could happen would be a melt-down. What would that do? You mean besides burn halfway through the planet and pollute the environment? Probably kill us is all. But hey, dont worry about that, theyve got most of the bugs worked out. Most?! Jon managed to choke out when he could find his voice. Well, it hasnt been tested for sustained operation, but are you really unwilling to take any risk at all for Denni and Marra? You seem to be content to sit by and let someone else try it in a flyer and you know how dangerous that is. Our chances with the transport are much better and we wont be twiddling our thumbs while the bureaucrats dawdle. And remember, there might be a lot more than just family lives at stake here. Please, come with me. Jon considered. Commercial Technologies was greedy, but in this case that was in their favor. He was sure they had put their best effort into designing and building this vehicle because they hoped it would lead them to new profits, so the actual risk was probably minimal. As for the water situation, they apparently had less time than originally thought to discover what was happening and if the transport had been built to conduct geological surveys it was better suited for the job than an orbiter, besides being available immediately. If he were along there was also a better chance that Garri would negotiate with the Ebnorians first and save the fighting for later. If Garri was determined to go, he had to also. Forgive me Shanna. Theres no time to let you know whats going on my love. I dont like it, but you leave me with no choice. Count me in.

32 Garri put his arm around his brothers shoulders. I knew youd come through! I was counting on your level head on this expedition to keep me from doing something rash. Come on, Ill introduce you to the guys. They went back to the galley and passed through a hatch at the other end into a narrow passageway with two doors on each side that Jon guessed were crews quarters. A few steps at the end led down to another hatch. Garri held it open for him. This is the operation center. Jon stepped in and looked around. The hatch was flanked on each side by a seat facing a control station on the rear wall. Two drivers stations were crowded into the nose with four observers seats behind them. The six men seated there rose to their feet. Three of them wore technicians lab coats while the other three were obviously miners. Jon, this is Claybourne, Edelby, Tolbert, Erikker, Bendel, and Rolofson. Clay is our operating engineer and mechanic. Hell take care of our running gear. Ed helped design this thing and knows its systems inside and out. Tolby is our seismographer, and the tunnel runner is Eriks baby. He and I were going to bring one from the mine where we work together but they already had a specially modified one assigned to the transport. Hes been having too much fun figuring out what it can do. He slapped Erik on the back. Erik grinned like a little boy with a new power scooter. Jon shook hands with these four men. When he offered his hand to Bendel and Rolofson they regarded him coolly without responding. He turned to Garri. What are these fellows along for? Ben and Rolof? Theyre just hoping for a fight. They hate Ebnorians. Oh, I see. How nice. Well in a way, I hope we dont disappoint them. He looked at their huge frames overlaid with muscle as hard as the rock they worked. It seemed to Jon that these boys needed something to do with all that strength. He made a mental note to stay out of their way. And now for that special surprise I promised you. How did your little project turn out Ed? Edelby brightened and rubbed his hands together in what Jon guessed was uncharacteristic enthusiasm. It was a complete success! We were able to boost the gain much more than we anticipated. Why dont we show you? Tolbert sat at a control station and activated a monitor screen. It showed an image of a pair of doors on the underside of the nose. Tolby manipulated the controls and they saw the doors open and a heavy parabolic reflector emerge. He then switched to a view looking forward of the nose with cross hairs and a range indicator. As the cross hairs moved the range indicator showed the distance to the point where they intersected. Tolby chose a rock formation 1.6 kilometers away. Good choice Tolby. Clay, power up the reactor will you? Clay sat at the other control station, opened the lock on a large red-handled slide bar and began to slowly push it up. A screaming whine came faintly to their ears, climbing in pitch and intensity until a sub-harmonic vibration was induced in the structure of the transport. Clay looked up at Ed questioningly. Jon thought he seemed a little frightened. Jon certainly was. All right Clay, thats sufficient. Mr. Tolbert, you may fire. Tolby lifted the guard on a large red button and hesitated. I should probably warn you. When this goes off... He looked around at everybody. Well... I guess theres really no way to prepare you. Uh, hang on, or... whatever. He jabbed the button.

33 It was like a silent thunder clap. A noiseless compression threatened to jam Jons ear drums into his brain and then suck them back out. The transport jolted as if slapped by a giant hand and the rock formation shattered explosively. In the stunned moment that followed someone let out a low whistle. Jon glanced up in time to see the last vestiges of a smile leaving Ben and Rolofs faces as they watched him. He hurriedly looked away. Clay shook his head unhappily as he powered down the reactor but Ed beamed proudly. Garri grabbed him by the shoulders. Fantastic! The damage we could do with that! How did you turn the seismic probe into a weapon? The probe works by creating a shock wave with a collapsing field and reading the echoes from the layers of rock underground. We replaced the field coils with super conducting ones, ran heavier power leads, reinforced the parabola, and tinkered with shock wave frequencies until, well, you saw the results. Jon noticed that Clay seemed troubled. He walked over to him and looked at the instruments over his shoulder. He guessed at what might be bothering him. Excuse me Clay, you look worried. Is the reactor all right? Clay shot a look at Ed before replying. It seems to be, for now. But it wasnt built to take much of that! Jon looked at Ed. He avoided his eyes and shuffled his feet. He looked at Garri who shrugged his shoulders, eyes wide with feigned innocence. He pointed a finger in Garris face. Thats only to be used as a last resort. Sure. Last resort. Whatever you say. CHAPTER FIVE Noellyn was tired. Exhausted really. In fact, he couldnt remember ever being more tired. He knew he must soon collapse into sleep. Sleep! How he craved it, how he hated its necessity! What might he further accomplish if he could thwart the sand man for just a few more hours. A terrible fear and loneliness rose within him and boosted his resolve to try. He stood on a catwalk about 15 meters above the floor of a huge parking bay housing five colonist orbiters separated from each other by concrete and steel blast shields. 500 meters long, the underground complex outside of Lyndoria had parking stalls and support facilities for ten more orbiters. Now vacant, the orbiters they were intended for remained in the cavernous cargo hold of the New Hope, the generation ship which had brought their ancestors to Greenwold almost 400 years before, now in a parking orbit around the sun. After spending so many years in space the colonists interest in exploring their new solar system lasted only long enough to build this complex. Problems adapting to their new world, conflicts among themselves, and a back to nature backlash against their long imprisonment with technology soon left the other orbiters unused aboard the New Hope and these five in mothballs. Noellyn was grateful that the colonists had at least been efficient and thorough in the process of preserving these orbiters before abandoning their fledgling space program. He took a moment to look over the orbiters. To him they were beautiful, but a casual observer might not see it. Squat and actually somewhat ugly they nonetheless possessed a beauty of simplicity and function that Noellyn admired. Lifting bodies with only stubby directional fins protruding, they could make re-entry and glide to a landing on the long runway which had been constructed near there, or land straight up, easing their bulk to the ground on towers of fusion fire.

34 Technicians and students from the Institute who were volunteering their time traversed the catwalks connecting two adjacent orbiters laden with strange devices and materials. Among these Noellyn spotted Karlon laboring to move a piece of equipment really too big for one person to handle. He hurried to assist him. Here Karl, let me help you with that. Karlon set down his burden and wiped his brow. Thanks Dr. Noellyn. I could use a hand with this. I shouldnt be moving it by myself but everyone is so busy I thought Id try. Noellyn noticed that Karlons smile drooped from fatigue. He couldnt remember the last time he had seen him take a break. Why dont you leave this here and go rest. Ill get someone else to move it. Uh-uh. Karlon shook his head. Ill be slimed it Im going to let you outlast me. Ill quit when you do but not a moment before. Noellyn realized that Karlon was doing two things. He was determined to push himself at least as far as he did but he was also using that fact as blackmail to pressure him into taking a rest also. Thanks Karl. Tell you what. Why dont we get something to eat and talk about that problem youre having with your bio-physics class. Id like to, but he pointed behind Noellyn, here comes trouble. Noellyn turned and looked. Hurrying in their direction was Relnick, gathered up to his full height and wrapped tightly in his Elders robes as if to contain himself. He stopped and surveyed the activity going on around him, obviously trying to find his voice. When he finally spoke the words were pressurized. Doctor Noellyn, what is the meaning of this? You are in direct, open violation of the Councils orders! I command you to cease all orbiter related activities this very instant or I will have you arrested by the security police. Noellyn looked distressed. Oh my dear Councilman Relnick, it pains me to think that you could entertain the notion that one so publicly praised and supported by you at the last council meeting as myself might be so ungrateful as to actually defy your authority. I assure you that your recommendation as entered into the public record and adopted by the council is being most circumspectly carried out to the letter by myself and my associates. It was determined that no further funds should be disbursed for the purpose of orbiter reactivation pending the outcome of your investigation. We are simply taking working parts from this orbiter he pointed to the nearest one which was partly disassembled and rather dilapidated, and using them to replace equipment on the other. We havent spent so much as a single credit for parts or materials and all of the labor is voluntary. Perhaps reviewing a transcript of the council meeting will refresh your memory. He reached into a pocket and offered an optical disk to Relnick who snatched it from him indignantly. Doctor Noellyn, you are attempting to use a technicality to circumvent the will of the council. I am shocked that a man of your integrity would do such a thing! I shall take this up with the council immediately! Noellyns eyes went wide in mock innocence. Oh please, by all means. If I have misunderstood the councils wishes I would like to know about it so I may rectify the situation. Now, is there anything else I can do for you? Relnick looked like he was expending every effort to keep from coming to a boil. He forced himself to speak in even tones. Yes, I want to know what kind of equipment you are transferring between orbiters. What, for example, is that? He pointed to the device Karlon had been carrying. This, replied Karlon, is a plasma flux restrictor.

35 Dont try using scientific bafflegab on me young man, I happen to know something of plasma physics myself. Now, how does this work? Karlon looked at Noellyn. Go ahead Karl. Karlon shrugged his shoulders. All right. Well, as you know Councilman, superheated hydrogen plasma is the fuel for the orbiters fusion engines. The plasma flux restrictor takes in plasma here, he pointed to an open inlet with a coupling, and channels it through this pipe to the flux restrictor, he indicated a round bulge in the pipe with electrical leads coming out which regulates the flow of plasma to the fusion chamber where the reaction occurs. Relnick looked thoughtful as if weighing each word for credibility. He bent over and examined the device more closely. Plasma can only be contained in a magnetic field. This pipe appears to be a light weight ceramic. Yes, a light weight super-conducting ferrite sir. As is the toroid of the restrictor itself. Ceramic electromagnets were chosen because of the high temperature of the plasma. Ferrites, as you know, have a very high Curie point. Mmm yes - Curie point. Of course. Rellnick knit his brows together wisely. Then am I right in concluding that the fusion drive would be inoperable without the flux restrictor to control the reaction? Completely. Relnick looked pleased with himself, as if he felt he had beaten these scientific types on their own ground. Good. Then I believe I will help insure your cooperation by retaining this device to prevent any unauthorized flights. Have it delivered to my quarters immediately. Yes sir replied Karlon. Satisfied that he had regained control of the situation Relnick gave a smug little bow to Noellyn and left. When he was gone Noellyn turned to Karlon. Karl, your knowledge of plasma physics surprises me. Is this really a plasma flux restrictor? Karlon scratched his head. Naw, I think its some kind of sewage pump. You know, for the latrines. Everyone who had been listening to the exchange slowly disintegrated into convulsive laughter. They laughed til they cried. CHAPTER SIX When Dennilyn began to come to he was caught in a nightmare at the edge of consciousness, half aware of what was going on around him, trying to wake up all the way and escape the dream. In his nightmare he was imprisoned in a silk net being dragged endlessly down dank and fetid tunnels while struggling to reach Marralyn who was cruelly just out of reach. He awoke to a sharp throb in his head and all of the sensations of the nightmare intact. Through an open netting of slug silk he could see the many hued variations of faint yellow and blue-green light emanating from the tunnel ceiling ecosystem. Retchingly potent gobyn stench assaulted his nose and the whisper of netting being dragged on the tunnel floor and the rhythmic squishing of a moving gobyn came to his ears. He turned his head and choked back a sob. Marra lay next to him in her rubbery prison, to all appearances, dead. He remembered the words she lives, and the sleep of the ancients and dared to wonder briefly if she were alive.

36 He turned his attention to their captors. Three Ebnorians were walking beside them. The one who had prodded the gobyn before was in the lead, prod at the ready, obviously herding the gobyn ahead of them as it dragged the net. Of the other two, the one whose face Denni had seen a brief close up of before being knocked senseless was hanging back a bit, occasionally stopping to turn and peer down the tunnel behind them. He was clothed in the same loose robes as his companions but instead of a pouch at his hip he had a sash across his chest that served as a holder for various hand implements and weapons and a large coil of silk rope over his shoulder. He seemed to be a scout, or the leader, or both. Denni noticed that he was wearing both photon guns and wondered if he had any idea of what they were. Denni was suddenly aware that the other gobyn master was watching him. He looked into those over-large eyes for few moments then turned away. He found his inability to read the expression in those eyes disconcerting, but more than that, his captors scrutiny accentuated how desperately alone and helpless he felt. Grief overwhelmed him and he couldnt keep from crying. The scouts reaction was immediate and startling. He closed the gap between himself and Denni in two silent bounds and clasped his hand over Dennis mouth, thrusting his face close to whisper in his ear. Silence, you slug-spawned squatters whelp or I will learn the operation of your weapons by trying them on you. Denni nodded, fear bulging his eyes to nearly match the Ebnorians. After locking his penetrating gaze on him for a few more moments the scout released him and slipped back to his post guarding their rear. Denni wondered if it was normal, given the dangers of Ebnor, to travel with this much caution or if something else was going on. With his hands tied behind his back Denni couldnt see his wrist chronometer and soon the passage of time blurred into one prolonged moment of horror. He was trapped in a waking nightmare of grief, fear, gobyn stench, pain from his bonds and un-padded passage along the tunnel floor, and a growing feeling of claustrophobia. The tunnel divided and divided and as they took one branch after another, always going deeper, Denni despaired of ever finding his way back to the flyer where their locator beacon would be guiding rescuers to the crash site. Someone was shaking him. Denni gradually realized that they had stopped and he was free of his bonds with the Ebnorian who had been watching him earlier crouching beside him. Rouse yourself squatter. Gaynors slugs are nearly upon us. Prepare to fight and die. Was that concern in his eyes? Denni rubbed his wrists and sat up and was amazed to see the Ebnorian offering him his backpack and a photon gun. The scout stood nearby with the other photon gun pointed at him, but then surprised Denni by extending his hand as if to help him up. Rise and prove yourself worthy of adoption or I will kill you where you sit. Dennis mind raced. Did they say Gaynor? His men might be searching for them! But Gaynor was obviously their enemy so if he said he was trying to reach him his captors might kill him outright. If he cooperated for now, he might find an opportunity to escape. He took the Ebnorians proffered hand. I will fight. The scout hauled him to his feet with surprising strength and searched his countenance for any sign of the insincerity that Denni was sure must be registering there. He only hoped that his expression was as unreadable to them as theirs was to him. After a few moments the scout released his grip, apparently satisfied. Denni put on his backpack and the photon gun under the supervision of the scout who kept the other photon gun leveled at him. When he was finished the scout turned the weapon around and offered him the butt. Teach me to use this device.

37 Incredulous, Denni took the gun wondering at their sudden trust of him. Did their society have such pervasive adherence to codes of honor that they couldnt imagine him going back on his word? What if he just blasted them and took off? But Marra he couldnt leave without her without finding out more about this sleep of the ancients. No, they had him for the moment and they knew it. He sighed. Well, the first thing you should know is that these work by making different kinds of light. They can be set to make light to see by or light so powerful it is a weapon. The gobyn master with the prod laughed disdainfully. Hah! Light for a weapon! This squatter thinks we are stupid. Hmm, yes. That concept might be difficult for someone who lived by the faint glow of phosphorescent fungus. Perhaps a demonstration was in order. Something convincing, but not lethal. I can blind a whole war party in an instant or blast a hole in the rock. I will prove it to you but if you really are not stupid you will cover your eyes. He was taking a risk with the challenging nature of his comment but felt he had to stand up to them a little. He dialed up the power on the laser, held his thumb over the strobe button, and looked around. The other two gobyn masters hesitantly put a hand over their eyes but the one who had made the comment only snorted in derision. Denni shrugged, put his own hand over his eyes and hit the firing stud then the strobe button in quick succession. Immediately there was a loud report followed by a shower of debris, a flash of light that was visible through his hand, and a shriek. He opened his eyes to see a shallow half meter wide hole in the tunnel wall and the skeptical gobyn master thrashing on the floor clutching his eyes. The gobyn seemed agitated by the movements of the fallen Ebnorian and moved to attack. One of the other gobyn masters snatched up his comrades prod and only after numerous sparking jabs managed to dissuade it from persisting. They knelt and one of them produced salve for the injured mans eyes. If it were possible, the scouts eyes were even wider than usual. By the ancients, what a weapon! We could turn back Gaynors horde with a score of these! He took the photon gun from Denni, held it up before him and looked it over with new respect. He turned his attention to the Ebnorian on the floor. What of your eyes, Kelleran? It was the first time Denni heard one of them use a name. Perhaps he had gained some measure of acceptance with his apparent willingness to share the weapons. All I see is that accursed flash, but they will recover I think. The arrogance was gone from his voice. I have none to blame but myself but if we are attacked now I am helpless and our strength is diminished. Denni had tried to warn him but he still felt bad about what had happened. He wished there was something he could do to help. Ah, the night vision drug! It might compensate for the injury while his eyes recovered. He took off his pack, found the drug and took out a dose. After thinking about it for a moment he broke the tablet in half. Ebnorians eyes were already much more sensitive to light and he didnt want to make him oversensitive when they started to recover. He opened a flask of water and walked over to Kelleran. I have something that might help. Here. He pressed the broken tablet into Kellerans palm and handed him the water. Put this in the back of your throat and swallow it with this water. It sensitizes my eyes so I can see by your light. It might help you until your eyes can heal. He handed him the flask. Kelleran hesitated, then complied. He gagged on the tablet but gamely choked it down with water from the flask. Denni took the flask from him and not knowing if he might be committing a breach of protocol poured some water in his hand and began to wash the salve from his patients eyes. Kelleran jerked back at first, but then submitted to Dennis ministrations. Satisfied that he had done all he could, he stood up and stepped back to await the outcome.

38 Tension was high for a few minutes as they waited in silence, then Kelleran began to blink and rub his eyes, looking first at one then another of those gathered around concerned for his welfare. Suddenly he did something Denni was beginning to think these people never did. He smiled. Getting to his feet he walked over to Denni and held both hands out, palms up. Behind him, the scout thoughtfully pantomimed the correct response of laying the wrists in the others palms, gripping the forearms, and giving one firm shake. This Denni did, returning the smile. I am called Denni. Well met, young Denni, and three gifts I receive from you today. Weapons of hope, a lesson to not scoff in ignorance, and the cure for my folly. Before today I would not have believed that I had so much to learn from the son of a squatter. No, no Im the one who needs to learn from you. In that moment Denni felt a curious sense of belonging. Is this what it meant to be adopted? He recalled his father expressing a feeling of bonding with his Ebnorian benefactors. This was going to make breaking with them to join Gaynors men more difficult. The scout stepped up and offered his hands. I am Liebor, Way Chooser of this war band, diminished in number though it may be from the cowardly attacks of Gaynors men. I too thank you for weapons of hope and will personally bring your petition for adoption before the tribe. We will talk later when we are safe of your business in Ebnor. Much, much later, hoped Denni as they shook hands. Finally, the third gobyn master introduced himself. I am Roedel, Healer. It was my salve that you washed from Kellerans eyes. I would have cuffed you sharply for your presumption had he not recovered so quickly. Another smile. We know of course that squatter healing arts are advanced. Indeed they must be for even a youngster to have so much knowledge. Denni felt a little panicky to have an expectation put on him he wasnt sure could fulfill. Actually, I know very little. The only thing I have been taught is first aid. Hmm. Then I must learn more of this first aid. It may be that battle wounds will claim fewer warriors if all our healers are schooled in it. His handshake was the most enthusiastic of the three. The mans warm response made Denni feel that he could ask him the question uppermost on his mind. Healer, you said that my sister lives. Is it true? How is it possible? Can you get her back? Oh no Im crying again. Roedel gently wiped the tears from Dennis cheeks and put his hand on his shoulder. It is true. And there is probably more hope for her than for us in our present situation. There will be much to speak of concerning it once we are safe. Yes, said Liebor. There will be time to talk of these things after we have made good our escape. Roedel, watch behind us. I will learn more of these weapons from Denni as we travel. May the ancients grant us wise choosing and safe passage. Elah! Elah! chorused the others. * * * * * * * * * * * *

AUTHORS NOTE: While the rest of the story is complete in my mind, this is all of it that is ready for someone else to read. As more of it is finished it will be added here, unless of course a publisher discovers it and makes me an offer I cant refuse! ;-)