"In every walk with nature one receives far more than one seeks" (John Muir)
(Saturday, 23-Sep-2090, 07:30 BST, UNEC Ranger Base, Alladale Heights, Scotland)
The cool morning breeze brushed against Dr. Sam Shay's face, bringing the scents of pine, fir, and just a hint of salt air from Dornoch Firth far below. He inhaled deeply, still waking up, wishing he hadn't drawn the weekend shift. He looked up as two VetMed aircars glided low overhead, making for the hangar behind him, the soft purr of their TQ generators overlaid with a whine from their thruster turbines.
He turned and walked eastward, smiling slightly, towards the hangar and the cluster of low buildings around it. Barely eighty years ago, such vehicles would have been limited to a science-fiction writer's imagination, along with much of the equipment any UNEC Ranger took for granted.
Sam had, almost from the time he could walk, been brought up on the tales of Clarke, Duane, Heinlein, Lackey, McCaffrey, Norton, and a score of others. Hawkbrothers, gryphons, Pern's telepathic dragons and their riders, Max Jones, the Time Patrol, the denizens of the Witch World – they were all, in their own way, as familiar to him as the myriad species of wild and domestic animals he'd treated and worked with over a long and fruitful career. For all the faults he could see with the world, Sam was deeply grateful to have found his niche.
He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sun as he walked. It sparked highlights off the fog still covering the valley, from Lower Gledfield out to the broad Atlantic, and Sam could already feel it was going to be another unseasonably warm day.
And haven't they all been, lately? He thought, as he reached the hangar and passed through one of the personnel doors, heading for the locker room. We got our 'damn flying cars,' superconductors, clean renewable energy and loads of other toys, but what's the world itself going to look like for our grandkids with the climate gone bonkers?
Global climate change, far from the myth many politicians and deniers once believed it to be, had turned out to be all too real. There was still much debate in scientific circles as to whether the carefully-calculated 'tipping point' had already been passed.
Calculations and debate aside, no one could deny what the shrinking polar ice caps had done to ocean levels the world over. Just ask the folks who remember Lonemore. Or those who remember a time when the Dornoch Bridge didn't need to be a meter and a half higher than it is now. We barely got any snow this last winter... way too much rain, though...
His musings were abruptly cut off by the locker room door getting shoved open from the opposite side, nearly into his face. "Whoa, there!" he said, backing up a step and holding up both hands, palms out. "Whatever it is, it can wait until I get inside!"
A narrow face topped with straight ebony hair, slanted amber eyes locking on to Sam's blue ones, grinned apologetically, looking up to compensate for Shay's six-foot frame. "Sorry, Sam" the other said.
Though shorter, at five-eight, Dr. Gerald 'Gerry' Hoshino was as stocky as Sam was thin, and considerably darker skinned. He was dressed in the standard summer field uniform of a UNEC veterinarian-ranger; a short-sleeved, long-legged dark-blue jumpsuit, with a single emerald-green pinstripe down each arm and the outside of each leg.
The legs ended up in half-calf work boots which, contrary to appearance, were as comfortable as they were durable. White embroidered shoulder patches with the veterinarian's caduceus in red and the UNEC logo below in aquamarine completed the decorative touches. The suit's numerous pockets bulged with all manner of medical tools and sensors, while a wide web-belt supported handcuffs, portable radio, a Glock SmartLaser with spare power pack and a pouch of flash-bangs.
"No harm done" Sam said, lowering his hands, his voice a clean tenor with more than a hint of Irish brogue. "Do you ever move slower than a panicked run? I wanted to ask about trading Monday-Tuesday with you, so I can get the next weekend off."
His colleague grinned wider. "Oho!" he said, his Hawaiian accent revealing his expatriated roots. "You don't fool me for a millisecond! You heard about the ice chunk they dug out of Helheim Glacier, the one with those oddball bones in it, you think they might actually be from your fantastical flying lizards, and you need the weekend to check it out!" The grin turned faintly malicious. "So... What am I offered for aggravating Lieutenant Dash's nerves, rearranging my busy schedule and indulging your bizarre theories?"
Sam sighed, closed his eyes, counted to ten, then kept going with pi out to a dozen decimal places before he replied. "What did you have in mind, then?"
Hoshino made a show of examining his fingernails. "Oh, nothing much. A bottle of Chaucer's 2060 should do the trick."
Sam glared at him. "Who do you think I am, then? Donald Trump the Third?! 2085's the best I can do, and even that's stretching the budget a bit!"
"This from someone who's brother owns a good-sized bar? In Belfast, no less? 2080, and not a year later!"
Sam grumbled something impolite in Celtic, his Ireland brogue putting a near-musical twist on the syllables. "Pub. They're called 'Pubs' on this side of the pond, you Yankee heathen! 2082, last offer, and I'll throw in a sixer of Guinness. Before we're late for briefing."
Gerry grinned again, stuck out a hand, and they shook on it. "Done! Watch the Big Board for the schedule change, I'll settle things with our fearless leader. See you there!" He zoomed off, moving with surprising agility for someone of his build.
Sam shook his head, muttered something about the energy of youth and went to change into his own uniform and gear. He paused for a moment, studying his reflection in the mirror: Russet hair and neatly-trimmed goatee framed a face which looked far younger than Sam's forty-three years, all sharp angles and prominent cheekbones. It was no accident, given his unusual height and slender build, that he'd been dubbed 'Elf Lord Shay' by his college roommate. Fortunately, that particular moniker was now lost to time.
A few minutes later, he entered the briefing room, already crowded with twenty-four others who had drawn the same shift. He settled into the only empty chair left, about a third of the way back – and quickly stood up again as something uneven and hard squeaked under his weight. With a growing sense of annoyance, he reached down and lifted a bright-green rubber T-Rex squeak-toy off the chair. He placed it on the table, then reached down for the second object.
It was a standard sheet of UNEC stationary, in light-blue linen texture, upon which was printed a color map of Helheim Glacier. A bright red circle, with an arrow pointing to it, had been added around the spot where the most recent archaeological dig was taking place. Next to the arrow, in old-style Gothic English lettering, was the legend 'Here be Dragons!' In the lower left corner, someone had added 'In case you get lost' in spidery handwriting.
It was only then Sam noticed the whole room had gone quiet. Too quiet. He glanced up – and received a round of somewhat mocking applause. "Oh, yes, very funny" he grumbled, crumpling the sheet and tossing it towards the wastebasket next to the room's podium. The rubber dinosaur followed quickly in its wake.
Unfortunately, Murphy's Law chose that moment for a demonstration. As the squeak-toy sailed through the air, Lieutenant Robert 'Dash' Dashiell walked in the door. The rubbery projectile bounced off the podium with a noise somewhere between a startled chicken and an asthmatic bicycle horn, and took up a new course which terminated precisely in the center of the Lieutenant's freshly-filled coffee mug. Head-first.
He froze in mid-stride, eyeing the unwelcome addition with one eyebrow elevated. Hastily choked-off chuckles sounded in a few spots in the otherwise silent room. With a long-suffering sigh, the Lieutenant carefully extracted the toy, shook it off, and dropped it in the wastebasket. "Apparently" he said, taking his place behind the podium, "someone is trying to convince me caffeine was responsible for the disappearance of the dinosaurs." He glared around the room. "Would anyone like to claim ownership of that particular theory?"
Sam cringed inwardly as Dash's piercing gray eyes seemed to linger on him longer than usual. "No? Good. Now, if you lot can kindly remember your respective ages and profession, I've got several announcements this morning..."
The briefing continued without further incident. Patrol areas for the shift were detailed, items of special concern discussed, and various groans of complaint or muffled cries of "Yess!" were uttered in response. "One final item" Lt. Dash added, aiming the remote at the holovid display. It promptly lit up as the room lights automatically dimmed, showing a 3D color projection of their part of the world.
He pressed a second button. A bright red arc appeared, beginning almost at the North Pole. It curved south across Baffin Bay and the southern tip of Greenland, then swung sharply east towards Ireland and the UK, ending almost on the northern border of France and Belgium, near Reims.
"As you may have heard, we're getting a total solar eclipse this evening, centered along the arc shown. It will begin near the pole at 16:16:52 UTC, and end over France at 17:31:10 UTC. The total phase will start at 16:53:50 UTC, and is expected to last about three minutes."
He clicked another button. The projection disappeared and the room lights came back up. "We all know eclipses, particularly ones lasting this long, tend to bring out every looney with a prophecy and a pipe-bomb within a thousand klicks. This, unfortunately, includes the cults who still try to practice animal sacrifice. Remember April 11th, 2070?"
A series of groans and face-palms circulated the part of the room occupied by the older rangers. Most of the rookies looked confused. "This means" Lt. Dash continued, "stay sharp, watch your dispatch screens, and be ready to take up emergency pursuit at any moment between 17:00 and 18:45 local. Double-check all vehicle ordnance and hand weapons." He closed the cover on his tablet computer with a snap, and looked around the room once more. "Questions?"
There were none, and the Lieutenant nodded approvingly. "Very well, ladies and gentlemen, that is all. Clear skies and safe landing!"
Sam got up to follow the crowd filing out both doors. A few calls of 'Mooooo!' came from the others as they crowded together, followed by snorts of laughter. Sam was nearly at the door when he felt a firm hand grip his left arm. "Sam, a moment?"
He turned, reflexively stepping clear of the outbound flow. Lt. Dash gave him a look he was hard pressed to interpret, then said "A rubber T-rex?"
Sam flushed. "Sorry, sir. I was aiming for the wastebasket." He declined to mention what had brought about the minor bombardment.
Dashiell gave him a small smile, his well-groomed moustache twitching slightly. "Sam, you know the corps encourages all personnel to pursue hobbies, even when they're relevant to their normal job. Gerry tells me you two are trading shifts next weekend... something about some bones found in Helheim Glacier?"
Sam nodded, uncertainly. "Is it a problem, sir?"
Dashiell took a gulp of coffee, then made a face. "Ordinarily, no. In your case... Sam, do I need to remind you of your performance over the past couple of weeks? Two poachers nearly got away because you were just outside the border of your assigned patrol area, chasing some new angle on your flying-lizard theories–"
Shay stiffened. "Permission to speak freely, sir?"
Dashiel nodded. "When have you not?" he added, with another smile.
"With respect, sir" he began. "I nailed one of those poachers, and Ranger Hennessy got the other. No animals sustained lasting harm, and I gained valuable insight into my theories. My goal, sir, is to prove that extinction of a previously unknown species, presumably through human action, was the 'tipping point,' if you will, which triggered the catastrophic climate change we're experiencing now."
"And a respectable goal it is, Sam" Dashiell said. "You should keep going with it, but not at the expense of your normal duties! You know as well as I do how much appearance counts, especially in a paramilitary organization like the UNEC Rangers. We're accountable directly to the Secretary-General for everything we do, and how we do it! I respect what you're chasing, but you're not part of the Royal Archaeology Service and I can't keep covering for you. You're making yourself look bad and, worse, you're making me look bad."
Sam swallowed uneasily. He and his C.O. had always gotten along well. Dashiell had started out as a MedEvac flight nurse, back when Sam was still in UNEC Basic, and had risen rapidly through the ranks. Though not a DVM himself, Dashiell had shown a remarkable ability, uncommon among commanders, to stay out of the way and let his Rangers do their jobs. The last thing Sam wanted was to see his boss – or himself – suddenly transferred to, say, one of the polar stations, or perhaps one of the remote outposts in the Urals.
He sighed, and met Dashiell's gaze once again. "So, if I understand you, I need to stick to the original schedule? I'm sure Gerry will be happy to hear that."
The Lieutenant shook his head. "No, don't worry about it. Enjoy next weekend, come back refreshed and on time, give me a Reader's Digest version of what you find, BUT... when you're on our clock, please stay in your area and don't give me or the Big Brass any more reasons to think you'd do better in the private sector, OK?"
His expression softened, and he reached out a hand to grip Sam's shoulder. "You're as good a Ranger as you are a DVM. You can gain and keep an animal's trust quicker than anyone I've seen in the last decade, and you've got the patience of a diplomat. That's exactly the kind of talent I want to keep around. Deal?"
Sam sighed, and nodded firmly. "Deal. Will there be anything else, Lieutenant Dash, sir?"
Dashiell rolled his eyes. "Dismissed, Ranger Shay. Make me proud!"
After Sam had left, Dashiell wandered back to the wastebasket. Reaching in, he retrieved the crumpled ball of blue paper and unfolded it. He snorted softly as the 'Here be Dragons' map was revealed and whispered "If he only knew..."
(Northeast tip of Loch Loyal, Scotland. 17:25:20 BST)
Sam leaned back against the cave wall, breathing a deep sigh of relief as all four wolf cubs turned their full attention to their mother and the milk she carried. The female Gray wolf, still slightly groggy from the aftereffects of the mild anaesthetic, eyed Sam uncertainly as her cubs nursed. Her mate paced back and forth just outside the cave, held at bay by a portable isolation field Sam had set up just after tranquilizing the female.
Word of the impending birth had been automatically relayed to the onboard computer in Sam's aircar via the animal's TLC – Telemetry/Locator Chip. Every animal in the preserve had one. They were similar in principle to early pet microchips, though much more sophisticated. Each rice-grain sized capsule, powered by the normal bioelectricity present in every living creature, combined a sensitive universal GNSS receiver, life-signs monitor and a telemetry transmitter.
Solar-powered repeaters, scattered all over the preserve, picked up the low-power signals from the chips and relayed their data via satellite link to the UNEC network. Considering how many animals the Rangers were responsible for, and the size of the areas those animals roamed, it was a very efficient system.
Sam was deeply grateful for its existence. Even with high-tech aid and contemporary medicine, it had been a close call. This particular female was getting on in years and this birth had been particularly difficult. Two cubs had come out normally while the other two were breech. Probably be her last litter he mused, as he collected his instruments.
Taking advantage of the new mother's still-groggy state, Sam leaned close and passed his left hand, covered to the elbow in a complex-looking gauntlet, over the wolf's body, then pulled back and looked at the display screen set into the forearm. Pulse, temperature, blood pressure, brain activity... all were rapidly returning to normal.
Working quickly, he reached for a special hypo and injected all four cubs with their own TLC's. The little ones barely noticed the slight pressure from the painless operation and it only took a few seconds to verify all four were transmitting, thanks to the diagnostic display in the Gauntlet.
Time to go Sam thought, as he shouldered his pack and headed for the cave entrance. The male wolf's eyes widened as the human approached. He backed away, growling, torn between the normal timidity of his species where humans were concerned and the desire to see what this stranger had done with his mate and young. "Easy, big fellow" Sam said, softly.
He started humming an old Celtic lullaby, one he'd found to be a consistent help in calming any nervous animal, though he'd never understood why. It had the desired effect; The wolf stopped growling and tilted his head slightly to one side, eyeing Sam curiously.
Still humming, he deactivated the isolation field, slung the generator over his other shoulder, and walked quickly away towards his aircar. Glancing behind him, as he loaded the Gauntlet and other equipment into the vehicle's cargo compartments, he smiled to himself as the male wasted no time dashing into the cave. Sounds of ecstatic greeting promptly followed, punctuated by an occasional yip from one of the cubs.
Settling into the left front seat, he secured his safety harness, lit up the engines and advanced both 'Lift' and 'Thrust' throttles. The vehicle rose smoothly into the darkening sky, the purr of its TQ drive modulating the whine from the twin turbines. Sam took up a course which would bring him back to Alladale Base while giving him an excellent view – indirectly, of course – of the eclipse.
Engaging the autopilot, he activated the computer's log recorder and began dictating his report of the birth and adding the particulars on the new cubs, including their TLC ID codes and DNA signatures, to the preserve's master database. It didn't take long – speech recognition systems had come a very long way in the last few decades – and Sam rapidly concluded with "Computer, report complete, transmit."
"Report accepted" the machine's female-accented voice responded a few seconds later. After another brief pause, it continued: "No further dispatches or NOTAMs. Proceed Alladale Base at pilot's discretion."
"That's what I wanted to hear!" Sam said, with feeling. Assisting in the birth process of any species tended to be messy, at best, and this had been messier than usual. He was very much looking forward to a shower, clean clothes, and a meal which had never come within a kilometer of a freeze-drying machine or a government-issue package marked "Meal, Ready-to-Eat."
Hope the canteen's serving cod tonight he mused, as he leaned back in his seat and enjoyed the soft colors of the clear evening sky, darkening quicker than usual with the coming eclipse.
His thoughts drifted to the Helheim dig and the most recent message a friend of his working the site had sent. Weirdest bones you've ever seen the E-mail had read. Lighter and stronger than any previously known, even birds, and the inner structure is the same as a honeycomb...
Sam's speculation as to what manner of beastie would have honeycomb-structured bones was abruptly and rudely interrupted by the shrilling of an alarm from his console. PROXIMITY ALERT flashed in bright red letters on the computer display. Before he could so much as check his radar scope, a garish yellow object went streaking across his line of sight. His craft trembled as the other's wake turbulence brushed against him.
Long-established reflexes took over. Sam quickly checked his harness, disengaged the autopilot, then slid aside the plastic shield over a red button on his console and pressed. Instantly, his helmet visor snapped down and its HUD flared to life. Angling his craft upward and right, he shoved the thrust levers forward. The turbines whined vigorously in response, pushing his speed to a little over 300 knots in seconds.
His radio came to abrupt life. "Ranger nineteen, Alladale base acknowledging pursuit status." He recognized the faint Slavic accent and nodded in satisfaction. Alice Orlovsky wasn't much to look at, but the expatriated Russian was one of the sharpest tactical controllers in UNEC. "Be advised, target vehicle is the subject of earlier pursuit by Ranger fourteen, who is en route. ETI, seven minutes."
"Nineteen, copy that" he said, crisply. His radar automatically locked on to the fleeing craft, scanned it, and provided a detailed readout. "Alladale control, Ranger nineteen. Bogey is bearing zero-three-five, Angels eight at two-nine-zero knots, confirm radar contact?"
"Contact is confirmed" Alice replied, just as crisply. "Computer extrapolation suggests he's heading for Shetlands. Also, be advised Ranger fourteen's earlier deep-scan indicated presence of Class Two contraband."
A flare of anger coursed through Sam's guts. Class Two meant live animals, most likely poached for the exotic-pet trade. Before he could reply, a bright white contrail burst from the other craft, heading straight for him. He cursed, rolled his ship sharply left, and fired a Sunburst decoy.
Fortunately, the missile was of an obsolete design. It went eagerly for the decoy, exploding harmlessly several hundred meters below Sam's position. "Control, bogey has fired on me" Sam snapped. "Request permission to go weapons-hot."
This time, it was Lt. Dashiell who responded. "Ranger nineteen, you are clear to go hot, capture alive if possible. If not, fire at will."
"Nineteen, copy." He snapped aside the cover over another panel, and pressed two buttons in rapid succession. His weapons-status display lit up a reassuring green, reporting READY for the EMP cannon, airborne laser, SmartGun, and ECM systems. "Alive, hmm?" he muttered, closing on the fleeing yellow blob. "Arm EMP" he said, aloud.
Although the targeting computer needed only the correctly-phrased thought to perform the action, the vocalization served just as well. A red target circle appeared in Sam's HUD, danced around for a moment, then settled squarely over the yellow blob and turned green. At the same instant, a steady tone sounded in his headset.
He fired. A brilliant blue sphere leapt away from the nose of his ship, closing rapidly on the other. At the last second, the craft rolled sharply over and dropped. The blue spheroid zipped harmlessly through the now-empty space and vanished into the Atlantic.
He swore heartily, and dropped his own ship to match the other's course. At the same moment, his intership channel chimed. "Ranger nineteen, this is fourteen on your six. You missed, Sam."
"Sure, and tell me something I don't know!" he snapped as he readied another EMP charge. "If you really wanted to help, Gerry, you'd be trying to cut this lunatic off, so you would!"
"One lunatic, smuggled goods on the side, coming right up" he replied, as his craft shot ahead at its top speed of 550 knots. A moment later, he called again. "Sam, did you get a close look at this thing?!" His voice held surprise and disbelief.
"It's an old Exeter-class cargo hauler with modified drives, and this guy's gotta be pushing his jets into redline to reach this kind of speed! All we have to do is stay with him and he'll bring himself down..."
Two more contrails suddenly burst from the smuggler's vessel. The two Rangers moved as one, Gerry dropping left while Sam went right. Once again, both missiles were diverted by Sunburst flares. "Sure is a lousy shot," Gerry muttered.
By now, all three craft were rapidly approaching the Shetlands coastline at barely a hundred meters above the ocean. Suddenly, the yellow craft bucked in mid-flight. A stream of blue-gray smoke gushed from its left exhaust port. "Hah!" called Gerry. "Popped a coil! He's all yours!"
Sam quickly cut his own speed as the yellow craft dropped lower, obviously struggling to stay in the air. Its path was erratic enough to warrant bracketing its course with three EMP charges. Sam pulled up and hard about after he let loose the third, then circled back to keep an eye on their quarry.
One of the spheroids went high, discharging itself against a sea cliff and scaring the crap out of a flock of seagulls. The second went low, disappearing into the ocean.
The third was the charm. It struck the yellow craft squarely on the stern, enveloping it in a blue nimbus that was as bright against the eclipse-darkened sky as it was brief. The smuggler's ship dropped precipitously, skipped over the water twice, and shuddered to a halt on a rocky beach.
As Sam looked for a landing spot, he saw Gerry's craft already down near the garish yellow wreck. He climbed out and dropped to the ground, sidearm and flashlight up and ready and cautiously approached the smuggler's craft. "Sam, stay put" Gerry said, over his portable radio. "Light this guy up and cover me."
"Copy" he replied, snapping on his craft's landing lights and settling into a hover position three meters up. The glare threw sharp shadows off the pirate craft as the computer chimed softly and said "Total eclipse phase in progress. Two minutes, fifty-six seconds remaining."
Sam chuckled at this. "Eclipse just went total, Gerry" he said. "Think there's some hidden bonus for catching these cranks during one?"
"Let you know once I get the cuffs on 'em – hey! Rear hatch is opening! Stay sharp!"
Sam obligingly slewed his ship around to keep the now-open hatch bathed in brilliant light. A moment later, Gerry's voice yelled "Federal agent, keep your hands where I can see them and come out slow!"
Two swarthy figures emerged, blinking in the glare. One was stupid enough to bring an antique shotgun he'd held at his side to bear on Sam's ship, and was dropped a heartbeat later by the silver glare of a stun-pulse from Gerry's Glock. The first man out quickly put both hands on top of his head and kneeled down.
A bright red spot sweeping across his canopy alerted Sam to a new threat. Instinct took over as he turned his head towards the source of the sighting laser, a spotlight and his weapons following his helmet's movement. The glare illuminated a bulky black-skinned figure, sporting a goatee, glittering gold earrings – and a long black tube supported by one shoulder, a smaller tube on top winking red.
At one time, Sam had questioned the wisdom of a weapons system which could react to brain impulses. The wrong thought at the wrong time could result in an awful lot of paperwork at best, irreparable damage to the receiving parties and UNEC's reputation at worst.
Now, he couldn't have been more grateful for the feature. The single word Stun flashed frantically through his mind, and his ship responded. The shooter convulsed as the powerful charge hit him squarely in the chest, and went down. The blast from his own weapon, a brilliant orange-white ball, zipped by Sam's craft close enough to light up the cockpit and vanished.
Gerry's response was equally swift. He stunned the first man where he kneeled, then dashed forward to the hatchway and fired another pulse into the body of the ship. A moment later, he called out "Code Four, Sam, and we've got live cargo... Are you OK?"
"Clear and bright" he replied, eyeing the slumped form of the would-be gunner. "One nearly singed me with a plasma bolt, but he'll not be making any more troub–"
Something went crack behind him. Fragments pinged off his ship's hull. Suddenly, the ship bucked upward and back, turbines whining in protest. "Sam?" Gerry called.
"Here!" he snapped back, struggling to bring his suddenly-rowdy craft under control. "Got a problem..."
Gerry came barreling out of the smuggler's ship a moment later. What he saw caused his jaw to drop, and he went as still as the stunned smugglers.
Above and behind the beach, perched on a perfectly circular plateau, was a huge pewter-toned arch, gleaming like metal but with the rough-cut appearance of rock. Its center was a swirling blue-gray whirlpool of mist and lightning. Cryptic symbols glowed white around its perimeter.
And his friend's craft was being drawn steadily backwards, right into the middle of the vortex.
What in Sweet Saint Blaise's name...?!
He shook off his surprise, and called out "Sam! You're caught in some kind of whirlpool! Punch out, now!"
He winced as static crashed through his earpiece, Sam's voice barely making it through with what sounded like "...repeat..."
Sam had just enough time to register the pewter-toned archway, now glowing a fiery blue so bright he could see the color clearly through the amber polarizing of his helmet's visor, before a giant hand grabbed his ship and spun it and his consciousness into oblivion.