Chapter 11 : The Burden and the Transience
It was unfair, Dumas thought, that the universe should make its own rescue so complicated. Once again he was coming up short in the number of souls he needed to relocate.
He thought there was a good chance that those in the ship's control room might have survived, because that part of the ship was designed to detach from the body in disastrous circumstances. His sister Tina had been in there.
If she had not survived, he had no more interest in saving the universe. Let it all fall down. He owed the rest of creation nothing.
Agi had almost certainly been killed, and that was a serious inconvenience. Dumas had him under control, and the others followed his lead. If he was gone, and if those in the cockpit had survived, he might be able to make use of Soreto in his place. He thought it would still be possible to negate the false memories he had planted in her at her reawakening. It was even possible she had already rejected them on her own. She certainly gave the impression lately of someone putting themselves through mental hell.
Not that she didn't deserve it. All these scientists were incorrigible. Even now, when they were stranded with little hope of rescue, when they had to keep turning themselves like meat on a spit to keep from terminal frostbite, while two worlds steadily marched on toward destruction, Mel had her scanner out of the tool bag and was taking readings.
"S-s-so, what is this thing?" Seth's teeth were chattering. His energy pack must be running low again. They were built to recharge from ambient forces, including sunlight, wind, and even body heat and motion, but they were not designed for the kind of constant drain this hostile environment was putting on them. If Dumas had known where they would end up, he'd have brought them all astro grade packs like his own, rather than the standard military issue. And Mel didn't even have one of those, she was wearing one of their own jury-rigged homemade packs out of sentimentality. Dumas shot another charge of energy from his own pack into each of theirs.
"This is one of the climate regulators," Mel said, looking up at the enormous black buoy. "It helps keep the ice caps frozen."
"It's doing a g-good job. So how c-come it f-feels warm?" Seth asked. "N-n-not that I'm complaining."
"I imagine it radiates just enough heat to keep it from being encased in ice. It appears to work by pulling energy from the sea and air, but only from outside a certain radius. Then it converts and transmits the gathered energy in a focused burst, probably via satellite to a capacitor somewhere. The design is astounding. Almost like
" she shook her head. "Anyway, I ought to be able to increase the heat output."
Mel puttered with the scanner a bit longer. "There's a slight problem. It's lined with explosives."
"What? That's crazy! We're s-sitting on a big bomb?"
"No, they're just small charges. It looks like they're primed to go off when the casing is opened, and to fuse the internal components. Probably to keep anyone from tampering with the heat collectors or stealing their designs. There is a way to deactivate the system, but it's in a maintenance hatch at the bottom of the collector. Under the water line."
At first Dumas didn't understand when Mel rummaged in her tool bag, and handed him a cutting beam, a glowlamp, and a scanner. Then it penetrated.
"No," he said firmly. "I wouldn't even know what to do."
"This body is far too old to go in that water again," Mel said sternly. "And your body suit and energy pack are much better than Seth's. The sooner you go, the sooner you can warm up when you get back."
Dumas looked down at the icy, cold, dark water. He looked into Mel's icy, cold, dark eyes.
She gave him the look that Gherta Hawksbee must have used to freeze the blood of unruly interns and graduate students for the last thirty years.
As Dumas dropped into the frozen sea, he felt a heavy weight he had not realized he carried lift from a conscience he hadn't known he possessed.
Dumas no longer felt any guilt, shame, remorse, responsibility or even pity for the scientist Mel.
Leaving the pod had been the hard part. Broken and nonfunctioning as it was, it still represented shelter, and that was something that could preserve their lives. But there was no point in remaining with it. They would only run out of supplies and energy more slowly, and eventually be stranded there.
The pod was stocked with some survival gear. After picking and choosing what would be useful and what they could reasonably carry between them, Tina and Soreto had a case of nutrient blocks, a self-filling canteen each, a heat beam, a lamp. and a generous roll of thermal cloth, intended for use as a tent or blanket. They cut wide strips from this to wrap their heads and hands against the cold. There were also four spare energy packs, and they took them all.
They walked over the ice shelf without words. The only rational choices open to them seemed to be either to find one of the scientific bases on Antarctica and request help, or to walk toward the sea and hope that Hasmodai and Belle had surfaced and approached the coast somewhere, or that Soreto's voicelink would work if they were nearer the ship's location.
While the scientific base was the most logical choice, they didn't know where to find one, and Soreto knew that Tina shared her unspoken hope that near the coast, they might find someone who had made it to shore. So they walked to the sea. And when they had gone as close to the edge of the thinning ice as they dared, they walked along it.
Soreto cursed herself for not thinking to fly over the ice field in the escape pod during the search. Perhaps someone had survived and climbed onto the ice.
The sun finally came up. Its rays were weak and gave no warmth or comfort, but they could see. There was little to see, though, and Soreto's eyes soon became dazzled and heavy from the glare of the snow.
They kept on, barely pausing for a rest, and when they did rest, they still could not stop looking out to sea.
When the sky began to darken again after a paltry eight hours, they headed inland. It was dark again before they left the ice and climbed onto snow-covered rock. They found a hollow, sheltered by the wind, and Soreto turned the heat beam on a boulder until it glowed red-hot, radiating its warmth into the hollow like a small furnace.
"I'll take the first watch," Soreto said.
Tina curled up under the remainder of the thermal cloth and fell instantly into an exhausted sleep. Soreto stood by the hot boulder, looking into the surrounding darkness. She was exhausted, too, so tired she could barely keep from falling over. But she doubted she could sleep.
She looked up to the stars, but these constellations were unknown to her. The Pleiades, far beyond which lay their home planet of Greecia, could not be seen in this sky.
Some of the indigenous people of America had legends that claimed the Pleiades were seven disobedient children, who had been sent to dance eternally in the heavens as punishment. It had seemed painfully apt.
Soreto heard the tale while living in America. One of her host families had emigrated there, and it had not been easy to reunite with the group afterward. Soreto remembered being a tiny girl in a wild land, remembered chasing, laughing, after a yellow puppy, and hiding under her bed when the sky blackened, covering her ears to block out the thunder of wings and the blast of shotguns.
The passenger pigeons had descended on their settlement like a thundercloud, filling the air with their thousands of bodies, blotting out the sun, stripping the fields clean like feathered locusts, and covering everything with their filthy guano.
If you had told the people blasting into the flock with their guns and killing pigeons by the hundreds that the birds would soon vanish from the face of the earth, anyone who actually believed would probably have been pleased.
And now the passenger pigeons were gone.
And people missed them.
And they were sorry.
Tina was sitting up and looking at her worriedly, and Soreto realized that tears were running down her face again, freezing on her cheeks and eyelashes and the cloth wrappings. And since Soreto was tired, too tired to bear the burden alone any longer, she spoke.
"We fought the Enma so hard when we were searching for you," she said. "Year after year. Lifetime after lifetime. It always found us, always came after us, always tried to set things back in balance. But now it's nowhere.
"What if there is no Enma any more? All those times we fought it--what if we destroyed it, wounded it so badly that it couldn't recover? What if everything that's happening in the Zone is happening because the Enma is gone? And there's no way to bring it back? And nothing we do
will make any difference?"
Tina looked up for a long time at the same stars that gave Soreto no reassurance. Then she looked at Soreto and smiled. "I don't think that's possible."
There was such serenity in her clear eyes that Soreto nearly felt comforted. She managed a shaky smile in return. "Thanks," she said. "You go back to sleep now."
Tina was no scientist. She had never studied the Enma or the Zone. Of all of them, she probably knew the least about any of this.
But then, Tina had actually visited the land of death.
Maybe she knew what she was talking about.
Bob Cooks had been a terrific reporter. His grandson had inherited his energy, his curiosity, his unerring instinct for investigation and love of mystery.
But not his talent for writing.
And so, Nguyen Cooks had entered the police force as a detective, rising rapidly through the ranks to be promoted to the national branch of the Law Enforcement Agency.
And then had come Flo.
Cooks had spent a life fascinated by his grandfather's unsolved mystery and the photo that went with it, and the pretty little white-haired girl reminded him of the child in the photograph.
Of course, he didn't believe at the time there was any connection. He asked to take the case, hoping to return the child home, but knowing that cases where pretty little girls go missing usually ended in bitter, sordid, soul-hardening ways.
Then he had come to hear of the missing boy Thomas from Wattford. Two missing white-haired children who resembled figures from the photo? Coincidence. Maybe.
Then he learned of Kalie from West Silies. And Teo from Otorad. He continued searching, investigating, gathering evidence, until at last he had found the central figure in the photograph, the boy with the air of authority and the world-weary eyes. Ian Cole.
And then he had finally met Ian Cole, come face to face with him
and the boy had seen the photo, smiled, and mentioned his grandfather's name. Every last shred of doubt was blown out of Cooks's heart.
The investigation led him to Ketplaque Island and Kuril Island, brought him into confrontation with the GED group, where he had seen things he couldn't even begin to explain, let alone present as evidence. Only Alice Holingworth's intercession on his behalf had saved him from a serious reprimand.
Afterward, the children had all drifted home. Six months later, Cooks had taken a trip to Sanceli Island, wandering around casually until he managed to run across Ian Cole once more.
The boy had not even recognized him. And claimed he had never been to Kuril Island, when Cooks had tried to bring up the subject.
Cooks had the feeling he was doomed, like his grandfather, to have witnessed part of a mystery that would never be explained. He began collecting every bit of information he could on the lives of the returned children, the former members of GED, on other unusual children, and on all strange and unexplained phenomenon, desperate to some day find the key that would make everything make sense.
He began to be considered an eccentric on the force, and finally decided to retire early, both to protect his professional reputation, and to give himself the freedom to continue pursuing the strange and mysterious. He knew that if he could only be persistent, in time he must arrive at the answer.
And then he had run out of time, suddenly and unexpectedly.
And that's when Delvan Winter appeared in his office, with a plea for help from an uncanny child torn away from his home.
And Cooks had thought only: Well, the chance to do one last good thing.
"Yes Captain?" Captain Walfang was coming down the corridor.
Captain Walfang was all right. Most of the people at Sei Station were all right. They were scientists and technicians, mostly, intent on keeping the world climate under control, and on studying Antarctica, proud of their work and proud of their innovative company.
But this was no place for a child. Yes, Cooks had seen terrible things during his police career, and knew there were plenty of children who might have been better off even locked in this freezer, without friends, without school, without family or anyone who loved them. The Weaver twins weren't being abused. But they weren't being cared for, either.
He had had a chance to watch them, and it was clear that Pollux was suffering from some sort of extreme fear and anxiety. Cooks thought that the kid was either terrified of something real, or ought to be under the care of a psychologist, not left alone to wander a research station unsupervised. As for Castor, it might appear that he was being allowed to do exactly as he liked, but there was a look in his eyes
a pain, a longing, a far-from-home look.
Cooks had finally found a chance to talk to Pollux alone, and when the time came to escape, Pollux would be ready. And Cooks hoped to bring Castor along as well. He was sure that once they got to the South East Islands, the courts would be able to tie the twins up in enough bureaucratic red tape that Brightwater would never regain custody of them again. As for Cooks, he would probably be charged with kidnapping.
He wouldn't live to serve the sentence.
"You all right, Cooks?" the captain asked. "You looked tired. Are you getting enough sleep?"
"Sure, Captain," Cooks said. "Just having a little trouble adjusting to the weather down here.
Walfang nodded. "You'll get the hang of it. Anyway, I need you in the infirmary."
Cooks started to sweat. While he had used all his own, genuine background and identification, his health certificate had been forged.
"Uh, Captain, honestly, I'm fine, I just"
"I need a guard in the infirmary," Captain Walfang clarified. "The drones pulled in a suspected terrorist. Guy in some sort of paramilitary uniform. Sad, really, he can't be more than seventeen or so. We think he may be the pilot from that unidentified aircraft that was shot down in yesterday's illegal flyover."
Cooks nodded. He couldn't imagine why anyone would be interested in sabotaging the system that kept their own planet alive, but the one lesson every decent cop learned early on was: people are nuts. "He's dangerous, then?"
Walfang shrugged. "Frankly, I don't think he'll live long enough to be dangerous, or to answer any questions. He was in the water too long, and if the hypothermia doesn't kill him, he's also lost a lot of blood, has some serious burns and some broken bones. Wonder if he thinks whatever he was trying to accomplish was worth it. In any case, I'm not taking any chances, not with the big demonstration coming up. I want two guards in the infirmary at all times."
Cooks headed down to the infirmary, wondering on the way what the world was coming to, and how in the heck he was going to smuggle two twinsone possibly unwillingout of Antarctica.
The infirmary was another cramped little room, barely longer than the simple cot against its wall. When Cooks took his position next to the cot and saw the person lying in it, he realized that what remained of his life had all become a whole lot more complicated
The boy on the cot was Ian Cole.