by Ronald Linson
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
I couldn’t sleep. The last conversation I’d had with Wallace kept running through my head. I glanced over at the nightstand where my tablet lay, its screen glowing faintly as it charged, and had an idea. Maybe I could go over Wallace’s head and contact the Colonization Board directly.
The screen brightened when I picked it up. I tapped the stylized talking head “Communications” icon, opening a window with four access links. The first three enabled me to contact Wallace, Jackson, and the kitchen/housekeeping staff, who was a middle-aged woman named Ethel. The fourth link, helpfully labeled “External,” was what I was looking for.
But upon opening it, instead of being presented with the standard “Who do you want to contact?” form, it gave me the digital equivalent of a middle finger.
The angry red dialog box, accompanied by a migraine-inducing siren, announced, “ACCESS DENIED,” and added insult to injury by locking up the tablet, forcing me to reboot it.
There was little doubt now that Wallace was up to something. I couldn’t figure what to do about it, though. Maybe I could talk to Jackson and Ethel, compare notes. Maybe someone in the tour group had a device with which I could contact the Board.
But all that could wait until the morning. What I needed at the moment was a cup of herbal tea to help me get to sleep. I got up, put on a pair of pants, and slipped the tablet into a pocket.
On the way to the cafeteria, I passed by the open shuttle bay door. The lights were on, and I figured Jackson had come back down and was working late, but when I looked in, I saw Rayder Flint emerging from shuttle one.
Quickly, I stepped past the doorway, turned, and peered around the jamb. Rayder closed shuttle one’s rear hatch, hurried past shuttle two’s disassembled remains, and over to shuttle three. He opened its hatch and climbed inside.
I jumped, clapping a hand over my mouth to stifle a scream. I turned around to find Darlene Taylor standing there. She looked worried.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but have you seen my boys, Brandon and Zack? They aren’t in their room, and I can’t seem to find them.”
“Did you try the cafeteria?”
“I just came from there,” she said. “The kitchen lady said she hasn’t seen them since dinner.”
Leonard Taylor approached from the direction of the guest rooms. “The Kendalls haven’t seen them, and Mr. Flint isn’t in his room, and those girls aren’t answering their door.”
“Mr. Flint is in there,” I said, hooking a thumb toward the shuttle bay.
Leonard headed into the bay. Darlene and I followed.
“Zachary! Brandon!” Leonard bellowed.
“Are you in here?” Darlene shouted.
I jogged over to shuttle three. “Okay, you can come out now.”
Rayder looked sheepish as he rose from the pilot’s chair. The Taylors ran up, hopeful, but their faces fell when they saw that their boys weren’t in evidence.
I crossed my arms and glared at Rayder. “What the hell—”
“Have you seen our children?” Darlene asked Rayder as he climbed down.
He avoided my eyes, seemingly relieved by the interruption. “I did, on the way here.”
“How long ago?” Leonard asked.
Rayder shook his head. “Maybe a half hour ago? I assumed they were going to the cafeteria.”
Darlene started to cry.
“This place isn’t that big,” I said. “We’ll find them.”
“Yes,” Rayder said. “I’ll help.”
“Hold on,” I said, grabbing Rayder’s arm as he turned to go with the Taylors. “What were you doing?”
“All right, you caught me,” Rayder said, sighing. “After the accident the other day, I thought I might find similar problems with the other shuttles. Maybe even evidence of sabotage.”
I didn’t believe him, not for one minute. “We’ll talk later.”
The instant I entered the prep room, I knew something was wrong. Two suits were missing. Brandon and Zack Taylor’s suits.
I ran to the outside door, and my worst fears were confirmed. It had been wedged open with a hairbrush. No doubt they had watched me closely as I input the code to unlock the door.
I went back to don my own suit, swearing at the top of my lungs. Nighttime was twice as deadly on Isn’t She Pretty as it was during the day. During its nocturnal cycle, the coral released the solar energy it absorbed as hard ultraviolet and X-rays. The suits were proof against ultraviolet radiation, but I had no idea how much protection from X-rays they offered. Knowing Wallace, probably not much.
The Taylors arrived at a run, stopped short just inside the doorway, staring uncomprehendingly.
“They went outside,” I yelled, trying to wriggle into a boot.
Darlene paled and slumped against her husband, who put an arm around her. Leonard said something to her I couldn’t hear, and they began to put on their suits. Rayder Flint appeared a few moments later, took in the scene at a glance, and did likewise.
I had never been outside at night, not only because of the extreme radiation, but because there was nothing to see except a uniform purple glow and a black sky. The glow wasn’t especially bright, but it was enough to blot out all but the brightest of stars.
“How are we going to find them?” Leonard asked, sweeping a hand across the horizon. “There’s so much ground to cover.”
“We should split up,” Darlene suggested.
In daylight that would have been a splendid idea. At night, however, with the lack of comm equipment in the suits, it would be an unmitigated disaster.
“We don’t have to,” I said, pointing westward to the ridge we had visited the first day of the tour. “There’s really only one accessible footpath away from here. Unless they’ve got a shuttle we don’t know about, they must have gone that way.”
Flicking on a flashlight, I led the way up the trail, with Leonard and Darlene Taylor following, and Rayder Flint taking up the rear. The white light broke up the monotony of the coral’s glow, bringing out details in stark lilac shadows.
Before we’d gone a hundred meters, Leonard and Darlene started shouting, causing me to fumble the flashlight, nearly dropping it. A muttered profanity later, I joined in, and Rayder added his tenor to the mix.
It must have worked. We hadn’t gone far before I saw a hazy silhouette crest the ridge ahead. I waved the flashlight beam and was rewarded with what looked like the figure waving its arms over its head.
“There,” I said, pointing. “Do you see him?”
Leonard practically shoved me out of the way. His wife was nicer about it, apologizing as she edged past. Rayder and I followed at a slightly less breakneck pace.
When we were close enough, my flashlight beam revealed the boy ensconced between his parents. It was Brandon.
“Where’s your brother?” I asked, knowing full well his parents had probably asked already multiple times.
“He’s back there,” he said, pointing.
“And you said he’s okay?” Darlene asked.
“You need to get back to the hotel as fast as you can,” I said.
“I’ll take him,” Darlene said. To Leonard she said, “You go get Zack.”
She took hold of Brandon’s arm as Leonard started uphill.
“Wait!” Brandon cried, digging in his heels. “Those girls, Millie and Alisha, they’re up there too.”
I nearly shat myself. Those stupid girls went out without their suits. I’d had a hard enough time getting Millie and Alisha to keep them on during our daytime excursions when all you had to worry about was getting broiled by the sun. Now the idiots were out at night, when the coral would roast them through and through.
“Go,” I yelled at Darlene. “Get him back to the hotel and bring back their suits. Now!”
Leonard and Rayder were already running. I didn’t wait to see if she complied. I just turned and sprinted up the slope as fast as the gravelly coral would let me.
We came upon them about fifteen meters down the far side of the ridge. Millie Jones and Alisha Razak were lying on the ground. Zack Taylor stood nearby, his stance uncertain.
Rayder and I went to the girls while Leonard launched into a tirade at his son. I played the light over the girls. They had on T-shirts and jeans, and their exposed skin was inflamed, bright red and beginning to blister. Worse, they appeared to be unconscious.
“Millie?” I said. “Alisha.”
“Millie, Alisha,” I said, louder.
Alisha’s eyes fluttered. She moaned softly. Millie remained unresponsive.
“I’ll take her,” Rayder said, grunting as he lifted Millie into a fireman’s carry.
“Alisha,” I said, crouching beside her, “can you hear me?”
It took her several seconds to answer, and when she did, her voice was weak. “Yeah.”
“Okay, Alisha, listen,” I said. “You’ve got a bad case of nightburn. We have to get you back inside as soon as possible. Do you understand?”
“Okay, good. I’m going to help you sit up.” I slid a hand behind her shoulder and applied pressure.
She hissed and then squealed in pain as she rose to a sitting position. Lucid now, she began to sob.
“You think you can stand up by yourself?”
She shook her head. She wasn’t even about to try.
I turned to Leonard and Zack, who were still engaged in verbal fisticuffs. “Hey,” I yelled at them. When they didn’t respond, I screamed it again at the top of my lungs, causing Alisha to flinch.
Leonard and his son broke off their mutual harangue and stared at me.
“We don’t have time for this,” I said. “You can fight all you want later. Zack, you’ve been out long enough. If you see your mother on the way, tell her to drop the suits and go back with you. Got it?”
Zack made what sounded like a mumbled apology and scrambled up the hill.
“You,” I said, pointing at Leonard, “help me with her.”
I couldn’t see his face, but for a moment, I thought he was going to turn tail and run. But then he stepped to Alisha’s other side.
“I can’t carry her,” he said, misery in his voice.
“That’s okay,” I said. “Just support her on that side. We’ll manage.”
It was obvious he was afraid to touch her, what with the burns, but he did it anyway. Alisha wailed when we brought her to her feet, trying to jerk away from us. We held on despite her struggles and sobs, and started the long, painful trek back to the hotel.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Ronald Linson