Chapter 40: Man Cave
Liam walked back the way they came and heard the buzz of loud voices as he got close to the conference room they used for officers’ meetings. They were obviously discussing the current change of events. They didn’t need him. Liam walked on.
Suddenly Jules was beside him walking. “Where are we heading?”
Liam smiled, he thought Jules would be paying him visit shortly. “Just walking. No place in particular. Just trying to sort some things out.”
“Of course sir. I just wanted to say how sorry I am about the dragon yesterday.”
Liam was taken aback. A computer apologizing? Of course, his James had also been quirky like that. “Think nothing of it. We all make mistakes.” Liam smiled at the programming conundrum he was sure he started deep in the bowels of Jule’s computer.
“An unfortunate oversight. Their hides have stealth like properties I wasn’t prepared for. I have added their unique signatures to my tracking systems. That will not happen again.”
“I hope not. One of those things just about snacked on us for lunch. Tearing a hole in the hull while they were at it. I hope that Doctor Peck and team are working on some kind of protection against these creatures?”
“Doctor Peck is currently down for the count. Miss Peck gave him some sleeping pills before putting him to bed. It was the only way to get him calmed down after the attack. I assume he’ll be down for another few hours. Before that, though, he did have some theories.”
They turned a corner and ran into Jules and Zak.
Zak was saying “Thank you, Jules. Where the hell are we exactly?”
“I thought you would never ask, sir!” A map appeared in midair.
Liam approached. “Nice trick, Jules.” He turned his attention to Zak, “What are we looking at?”
Zak was beaming. “Hey, Liam. The Captain just made me First Officer.” Liam could tell Zak was trying to tone down his enthusiasm based on the events that had just transpired.
Liam did the same “Well, I guess congratulations are in order though I wish it were under better circumstances.”
“Yeah me too.”
One of the Jules projections blinked out to make things less awkward. “I don’t follow Liam. Nice trick?”
“The projections, I didn’t even know you could do that.”
“If I can project myself in 3D anywhere there are emitters on the ship, I can certainly project simple pictures and videos the same way.”
“Yes of course. I just never thought about it before. Carry on.”
The map unfolded around them. Liam felt like he was inside a slowly moving globe. Points of interest were lighting up on the inside. “This would be fantastic for movie night.”
Zak replied “Hehe, yeah, you can say that again.”
Jules cleared his throat. “I’m going to mark the flight of the Empress in red and the Becky Thatcher in Blue.” Lines appeared on the inside of the globe marking their entry point at what they used to call the anomaly which they now of course know was an asteroid strike. The lines spread a few hundred miles apart at the very beginning because the two ships had been flung wildly away from each other by the raging behemoth of a storm on this side of the entry point. The lines then followed one another as the Empress meandered for a couple of days making a general course to what had been Kyton’s home province forty years ago.
Zak asked “At what point did Daran’s ship intercept us?”
A new point showed up on the map. Fixating on the point momentarily made the corridor around Liam spin like it was out of control. For the first time since amusement park rides when he was a kid, Liam felt vertigo.
“Hey Jules, can we lay off the movement?” Liam asked.
“Certainly.” The movement instantly stopped dead. Liam’s imagination went into overdrive. He imagined all the tiny inhabitants of the world suddenly flying away into outer space. Hell, the people who live here have no concept at all.
Liam asked, “Hey, Jules, idle question. How would one go about teaching the inhabitants of Aerathiea about outer space?”
“Really good question. I have no idea. I would ask Kyton. He had to learn it himself. I imagine it takes a lot of courage and discipline to do what he did.”
Zak, still holding a grudge against Kyton, said, “Yeah, I bet. OK, I see where Daran’s people took the ship. Then we skirted around that area there. What did they call it?”
“Yeren. It looks like a despicable, barren place.”
“Some of the men I overheard said it was cursed.”
“Yeah, I gather they don’t go there very often.” Liam’s fingers traced the course of the Empress along the border of Yeren before coming to rest at a star marking the map. “I take it that this is the Capitol?”
“You catch on quickly.”
Liam continued to trace. “So this is our path right now?”
“Precisely.” We are heading for mountains north of the Capitol.”
“Why north? How can you tell?”
“Completely arbitrary, Liam. When we emerged, as far as I can tell we were still in the northern hemisphere. It was semi-tropical and the further we traveled, it has gotten cooler and more temperate. The average person could speculate we are heading north.”
“OK, I get that. What can we expect?”
Zak piped in. “Cold.”
“Well, of course, cold.”
“I don’t like cold.”
“When did computers start caring about the weather?”
“Weather affects my systems too. It’s very analogous to your body’s systems. I have a circulatory system and a nervous system. Several optic and auditory systems. My hydraulics creak in the cold and all that extra sensory input that can register as overstressed components would be the analog of your sense of pain.”
“Wow, I have never thought about it before.”
Jules summed it up. “I don’t like the cold.”
Liam ignored the comment. “So we are there to retrieve my dad’s tools and equipment?”
Zak responded, “Providing we don’t run into dragons again, yes.”
“What are the chances of that?”
“Jonathan and Kyton say they like the colder and higher climates, apparently something about the dry air. I don’t have too many examples, but I bet we are at risk at any altitude over twenty thousand.”
“How high are we right now?”
Zak pointed to another indicator on the map. “We are cruising along this path,” Jules made the path blink on the map, “at twelve thousand feet. Kyton says that’s about four thousand more than what the Corsairs normally fly. Since they are unpressurized, they try to stay under ten thousand whenever they can.”
“Well, wouldn’t they break that rule to come after us?”
The pilot in Zak answered. “They could, but then they would be subject to hypoxia after an hour or so.”
Liam asked, “Hypoxi-what?”
“Hypoxia. Oxygen starvation. It causes hallucinations and death. The brain gets starved for oxygen and you start seeing things.”
“So it’s the same in here as it is in the outside world?”
“Yeah, the pressure isn’t exactly the same, but it’s very similar. There is a higher pressure at the ground by a few millibars, but it seems to thin out pretty quickly, so once we are up here, it’s academic.”
Zak clarified. “Yes, meaning it all washes out the same.”
“Oh, Okay. Gotcha. So how did you come up with the twenty thousand number for the dragons?”
Jules answered “Just a rough guess based on their flight characteristics.”
“Gotcha, so over twenty thousand, we get dragons, under twelve thousand, we get the angry native religious nuts?”
“That summarizes our situation accurately, yes.”
“So, how long until we reach Dad’s man cave?”
Jules queried “Man cave?”
“Back home, a man cave was where the father of the house went to get away from everyone else. Big screen TV, refrigerator, office, computer system…”
“Oh, yes sir. I’ll note that for future reference. We are about a thousand miles still from your dad’s research outpost from the coordinates he gave me. Granted, I had to translate bearings since no accurate survey has ever been performed by any of us and Jonathan was a little vague in his memory.”
“Dad can be that way. He gets wrapped up in whatever he is doing and forgets completely about everything else.”
“Many fathers can be that way, Liam.”
Jules outlined a search area on the map in yellow. “Getting back to the subject, it’s in here somewhere.” The search area flashed on the map. “If I can pinpoint any technology still working in the area and I can home in on any signals as we get close, it might be as soon as fifty hours. If not, once we get close, I will probably have to rely on that walking shag carpet to get us closer.”
“All these mountains are the home of the Na’Kie. They know the territory like you knew your own neighborhood growing up. I’m recovering more of James’ memories all the time. I remember how well you knew your kingdom growing up.” The images surrounding Liam suddenly folded up and blinked out like and old style TV tube.
As luck would have it, there was no sign of any kind of electromagnetic signals from the area when they got there. The cold mountain winds buffeted the ship like an ocean liner on choppy seas.
A sizable but unseen wave of air struck the ship right as Zak was sizing up the landing party. They all stumbled, trying to keep their footing. “Damn, I’m looking forward to starting that reactor,” he mumbled.
“I’m not sure it could lessen these squalls,” replied Liam.
Rebekah enlightened him. “This ship has jet turbine stabilizing engines that would minimize the sideways movement and rolling.”
Liam asked, “Well why don’t we turn them on?”
“Can’t. No fuel.”
Liam responded, “Then how is turning on the reactor going to help?”
“The reactor provides us the power to do many things. Right now, the solar and wind power barely keep up with the electrical needs and the water treatment. The reactor also powers fuel cells that crack water into hydrogen fuel for the engines. We get the reactor online and we get a whole lot more than just a faster ship.”
“Hey, I’m still learning. This is all new to me.”
Another swell caused the ship to buck. They all stood beside the open airlock door of the Becky Thatcher. “Isn’t traveling down in an RV going to be even more dangerous with these winds?”
“No more dangerous than it was at your Dad’s facility.”
Liam replied, “And you see how well that went for us?”
Zak responded. “Well, according to Jules, it will take several years to crack the code to start the engines without the key, so we can wander around here in the meanwhile and make new friends if you want to?”
“No, that’s ok. Let’s get this over with. At least I know you’re a good pilot.”
“I got many people back from the front lines in Pakistan in much worse conditions than this and that was in a VTOL Sea Hawk IV.”
Jonathan shook his head. “You have my condolences… and my eternal admiration.”
Zak turned and smiled. “Why is that?”
“Waite Aerospace helped test those birds. We didn’t build them, but like I said, you have my admiration and respect if you could fly multiple missions in one of those deathtraps.”
“Yeah, they weren’t the easiest to fly. The Becky Thatcher is a dream compared. Plus, it helps that I designed the flight systems myself and I have probably the world’s smartest supercomputer as a copilot.”
Jules flickered into view just long enough to mutter “Aw shucks.”
Zak grabbed the handle to the door and pulled himself in. “Ok, pansies, times being wasted. Let’s go get that key.” With that, Liam, Jonathan, Roon and Ethan piled into the launch. Since this was a grab and go, they didn’t have to worry as much about their own fuel supply so this time it was jet propulsion all the way. The launches had the distinct advantage of being able to switch on the fly between propeller and jet, but the jet propulsion mode had much greater thrust and stability but, of course, used fuel significantly faster.
Once they were all aboard and buckled in, Zak and Jules did their preflight checklist in record time and with the engines roaring to life, they were away and according to Jonathan heading towards the bright sunlit peaks of Vallus Imorezza. As they flew, everyone was staring intently out the windows at the ship dwindling away and at the majestic peaks all around them. It was difficult to get a relative sense of scale at this point, but Jules told them that this range of mountains all averaged taller than Mount Everest. It looked just like pictures of the Alps that Liam had seen multiple times in school. As far as he was concerned, you seen one mountain, you’ve seen them all. He turned away from the window and looked down at his pack. Ethan was eying him and anticipated his question.
“The respirator is easy to use, Liam. You just strap it to your face and breathe. But we shouldn’t even need them. The station is at a low enough altitude that you should be able to manage for the short time we are on the ground.”
“I figured as much, but I’ve just never used one. How did you manage, dad?”
His father turned from the front windshield and looked over his shoulder from the co-pilot’s seat. “I didn’t go outside much. The Na’Kie have no problem at high altitudes. Either their blood doesn’t require as much oxygen or they have greater lungs. I’ve heard Roon bellow, so, I’m going with the latter. The station is only at fifteen thousand so you really don’t need a respirator except if you are outside for more than like thirty minutes at a time. I rarely was.”
“Fifteen thousand explains a lot. I was wondering how the Castalan asswipes nabbed you.”
Jonathan laughed at his son’s colorful metaphors and forced himself to remember Liam’s past couple of years. He was getting older too.
“Yeah, they have some teams that are more acclimated to higher elevations. Since Colis Basilicim is surrounded by mountains, they train for elevation and then hand pick crews that can handle the altitude.”
“So, it’s entirely possible that we are not alone up here?”
“At fifteen thousand... entirely possible. You have multiple wild animals at this altitude- things that kinda look like bears, the Na’Kie of course. Many of their tribes are not friendly. You have the possible Rym-Drakkor.”
“Yes, I think we’ve discussed the smaller ones before? They are not much of a threat individually. They do hunt in packs like wolves, though.” Jonathan saw the alarm on Liam’s face. “Relax. They are more pests than anything else. You just have to watch yourself. No one said this world was tame.”
Ethan checked his rifle and handed one to Jonathan as well.
The ship crossed a particularly majestic set of twin peaks and Roon started gesturing at a smaller mountain to the right.
“Yes, I see it, Roon.” The magnetic sensors started pinging the instant they cleared the peaks. Jonathan got out his binoculars and swept the area. After a few moments, he yelled out. “That’s it, Zak.” He pointed at the lower peak to the right. “Find us a clearing over there.” They circled around a couple of times. There was still a marginal tree line at this altitude, indicating the higher moisture content in the atmosphere. Stunted trees like bristle cone pines dotted the landscape like gnarled sentinels standing guard as they approached the only clearing they could find.
“Wow, the trees up here are ugly!” exclaimed Liam.
“You would be ugly too if you had to live your entire life in these conditions,” Jonathan replied.
Roon just stared at Jonathan for a couple of seconds as he processed what Liam’s dad had said. After years of exposure to Jonathan Waite, Roon’s understanding of English was better than he would have admitted. Suddenly he burst into what can only be described as laughter and bellowed as he doubled over. He slapped Jonathan on the back hard enough to send him sprawling. Liam jumped up at the movement.
Jonathan started laughing too, the instant he understood the joke. Liam relaxed as he saw there was no ill intent and dropped back down to a much more casual posture. Suddenly It occurred to Liam what was so funny. His face brightened.
Ethan got it too. “Oh, now I get it. Roon is from here too! Ha! It’s a really good thing he has a sense of humor.”
“You aren’t kidding, Ethan. He was a terror to live with when we first met.”
“I can imagine.”
Zak said, “This will have to do fellows. I can get you within about a hundred yards.” He pointed out the window. “It’s that way. I’ll stay with the ship and keep it warm for you.” Everyone nodded their consent. “Ok, everyone last call to suit up before I open the doors.” Everyone gave him the thumbs up. With that Zak opened the door.
Liam felt like he had simultaneously been slapped by a two by four and punched in the gut at the same time. He bent over from the instant double whammy of fifty below zero wind chills and the apparent lack of oxygen in that wind. It was true that it literally sucks the life out of you.
“Take shallow breaths. Don’t breathe in that air too fast. You can use the respirator if you need to.” Jonathan said, coming to his side.
Liam looked around and seeing Ethan and Roon almost frolicking in the snow, he waved his dad off. “I’ll be fine.” He gasped. “Just give me a second to adjust.”
“That’s my boy. A Waite through and through. Take no handouts and suffer no fools, I always said.”
Liam nodded, his head down to keep from falling over. He took shallow breaths and forced himself to adjust. Take no handouts and suffer no fools. He stood up. “I’ll be fine. Let’s go find that little summer cottage of yours.”
Roon was already a hundred feet through the trees when suddenly he changed stance instantly to a defensive posture and crouched, sniffing the air. Everyone seeing it instantly stopped as well.
Ethan spoke quietly into his commlink. “Zak grab some altitude and monitor around us.”
“Copy that.” Ethan heard the whine of the engines increase pitch as it lifted off the ground.
Roon and the others slowly inched along and covered about another hundred feet to the encampment. Ethan and Jonathan slowly approached Roon who slowly raised his hand in a universal gesture of “come no closer.” Ethan froze, waiting for whatever Roon did next. He didn’t have to wait long. Sniffing the air one last time, suddenly Roon was a blurred bolt of lightning and just as suddenly, he had covered the remaining distance to the remains of the camp. There was a struggle and flurry of movement from what looked like pieces of an old rusty silo or shed. It was accompanied by a lot of squawking and a flurry of wings. Liam froze and assumed the worst.
After a couple of minutes and a triumphant roar from Roon, he ambled out from behind the shed dragging the body of a miniature dragon behind him. It was about eight to ten feet long and had scales that shimmered between blue and green depending on how the light hit them. One wing was bent at what appeared to be an impossible angle and the other one had tears in the membrane where it had lost the battle. Roon stopped dragging and flung the body so that it dropped right at Jonathan’s feet like a way a cat might bring in a dead mouse. However, this one was still breathing.
Jonathan was the first to speak. “Thank you, Roon.” He bowed to the Na’Kie. It was a show of respect. Everyone else bowed as well with a little nod in Roon’s direction. Roon grunted. Jonathan replied. Then to everyone else. “There is a nest back there with three eggs in it. This was obviously the mother. Roon saw no sign of the father, so keep your eye’s peeled.”
Roon grunted again.
Jonathan turned to Ethan. “Lend me your camera,” He said with a sigh.
Ethan pulled the small digital camera from a side pocket in his parka and handed it to Jonathan who had to take his gloves off to operate it and instantly regretted it.
“Ok, Roon, let’s make this quick. It’s really cold out here.”