|APAGear II Archives||Volume 1, Number 1||December, 1998|
"Do you understand, Sunnie?"
Sniffling, Suniah shook her tiny head violently. She most certainly did not understand.
Cassandra Mongrave, the young girl's mother, rolled her eyes in exasperation, not realizing that her daughter knew full well what such an expression indicated. Bending at the waist, Cassie wiped the tears from Suniah's puffy eyes. "Mommy and daddy are going away for a little while. You'll stay with your Uncle Gregor -- it'll be fun!"
"He's not my real uncle," was all that Suniah could manage, fighting hard not to start crying again. "I want to go with you. Why can't I go with you?"
Elot, Cassandra's gruff husband, grunted at hearing this. His gaze fixed on some unknown object out in the jungle, he spoke to his little girl in harsh, curt tones. "There's no room. There's just no more room."
Fresh tears struck down Suniah's cheeks. At the age of thirteen cycles, she was already perceptive enough to know when her normally-stoic father was upset -- truly upset. Not like when the base generator broke down; this was like when he'd heard that his sister had been killed, devoured by a pack of hungry prairie jackals. Pulling free of her mother's ministrations, Suniah joined her father at the open window. It overlooked the broad, green expanse of the wetland valley. Elot Mongrave was a biologist, and so lived with his family in a small compound a few hundred kilometers east of Port Oasis.
Swallowing hard, Suniah looked up at her father and noticed he was unable to meet her eyes. "I-if we can't all go," she began slowly, her voice breaking, "why c-can't we all stay? Mr. Lawzon says many people are goi-"
"Cease your blubbering this instant!" Cassandra suddenly blazed, reaching out to spin Suniah around to face her. "You'll not bother us with the nonsense that Dr. Lawzon spews! Now hurry and get packed. Your father and I leave tomorrow morning, and Gregor will be here for you first thing."
Wordlessly, Suniah walked to her room and quietly closed the door. She knew it best not to cross her mother when she was in such a state. Falling upon her bed, she closed her eyes and let the tears come as she imagined life without her parents. Above the steady rustle of the rainforest, she could hear their raised voices coming from the common room. They were fighting, as they'd done nearly every night this rainy season. Suniah's heart ached for the harmony their family knew only a cycle ago. And she knew in that same sore heart that those times were gone forever.
"Morning, Dr. Mongrave."
Elot looked up from the rear of his amphibious transport to see Gregor Delaney stepping out of a jungle-buggy. He'd heard him coming, of course, but had continued to pack since time was short. They were due to leave for Port Oasis within the hour. "Good morning, Gregor," he said.
Taking a faded bandana from his head, Gregor mopped his brow before stuffing the piece of beautifully patterned cloth into a shirt pocket. "Nice day for traveling," he offered.
Elot secured a piece of luggage in the cargo bay of his six-wheeled vehicle. "Yes, Gregor, it's a nice day for traveling."
Gregor paused for a moment before speaking again. "I'm here for Suniah, Elot. I'm here for your little girl."
Walking around to the driver's side of his vehicle, Elot nodded. "I know why you're here, Gregor. You know I appreciate it. It's the only way."
Gregor spit into the spongy moss underfoot. Leveling his gaze at the raised, pale-colored dwelling behind the scientist, an open window allowed him to see a shape or two moving around inside. "Elot, that woman..." He waited as Mongrave turned to face him. "That woman, there's something wrong with her. She shouldn't be leaving her daughter here, and neither should you. It's just wrong."
"You know damned well I'd be taking her if there was room, Greg. It was all I could afford to get the two berths I did."
Gregor laughed. "So don't go. You're destroying your family."
Elot inspected one of the swamp-crawler's oversized bumpers. His voice fell to a hoarse whisper. "Cassandra can't stay here, Gregor. She's hated it here since day one. She's an Earth girl, and with the Concordat pullout, you know as well as I do that this whole planet is going to go straight to hell."
Gregor shook his head. "So you'll leave your little girl in 'hell,' while you and your wife rocket away to live happily ever after? That's pretty sick."
Elot was silent for a moment. Looking back towards his house, he watched the door open and Cassandra plunk down another waterproof case. He'd told her the shuttle wouldn't take a tenth of what she'd packed, but she was resolute that she 'wouldn't leave behind the semblances of a civilized life she'd accumulated on this miserable planet.' "It's not that simple," he said finally. "Cassie just can't stay here, Gregor. It's too wild. The jungle, the desert, whatever -- without Earth's support, she doesn't have the constitution to make it. She can't very well go back alone, and she can't take Suniah with her, or they'd both be goners. I need to take care of Cassie, and little Suniah has to fend for herself. You know as well as I do that she's going to be a strong woman. She'll be alright."
Loosening the cap on a vapor canteen he produced from his belt, the tall visitor took a long swig, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "You hope," he finally added. "You really going to come back looking for her?"
"Absolutely," Elot answered without hesitation. "Once Cassie is settled, I'm coming back for Suniah. I won't rest until my family is reunited. Promise me you'll tell Suniah that. Every day, if you have to."
Gregor hesitated a moment, then saw the look in his friend's eyes. "I promise," he said finally.
Cassandra scowled her best as she looked out the doorway at the former research base's chief mechanical technician. He and her husband were discussing something or other, and it was obviously keeping Elot from his packing. "Gregor Delaney, you leave that man to his work," she called out the front door. To her spouse she added, "Elot, is that machine fueled up yet? We need to be on the road in thirty minutes."
Peeking through a small window as her father answered and the other man looked away, Suniah stepped away from the glass just before her mother caught her looking. "I'm finished packing," she said.
Cassandra bustled over towards her. Amidst a flurry of wipes, strokes and straightens, she quietly but firmly said, "And it's about time. Don't keep Uncle Gregor waiting, now. Go put your bags on his jeep."
"He's not my uncle, mother," Suniah responded, dragging her baggage out the door.
When Gregor saw her coming, he smiled broadly, if a little uncomfortably. "Hey, Sunnie, good to see you, kid."
Suniah didn't respond, and instead stood defiantly halfway down the front steps.
"Put your things on Gregor's buggy, Suniah," her father said without looking at her.
The girl continued down the stairs, and didn't protest when her 'uncle' took the heaviest bags out of her small hands. She watched as he expertly strapped her luggage to the back and top of his jeep, and by the time he'd finished, her parents had likewise loaded their last into the rear bay of the swamp-crawler.
"Sunnie, come here," Cassandra suddenly beckoned warmly. When the girl did as ordered, her mother gathered her into a warm, tight embrace. "God bless you, Suniah," she whispered. "Forgive us, and God bless you."
Suniah vainly tried to return her mother's hug, but it was over before she was able to squirm her arms free. Her father, standing against the jungle's dense canopy, had a sullen, hollow look in his eyes. He lifted his daughter from her feet as Cassandra climbed into their semi-aquatic vehicle. Kissing her softly on the forehead, he said nothing as hot tears dripped from his rough cheeks. "I love you, Suniah," he said finally. "You'll see me again."
Strangely, Suniah did not cry. Her soul felt queer and empty. It was as though the incessant gurgle of marsh water had suddenly been bottled up. As though the always-rustling sapa leaves had been lulled to sleep. As though Suniah's heart had paused between beats. And when her heart began beating again, her parents were gone. Lost amidst the thick, green foliage. Forever gone.
"So. It's you and me, kid," Gregor said after a long silence. "You ready to go?"
Suniah nodded dumbly, then nimbly climbed into the back of Gregor's open-caged, fat-tired car. "Ready," she said, blowing a curl of dark hair from her face.
That night, Suniah and Gregor watched the last Port Oasis launches from afar. Lately, the city had been a dangerous, violent place, and Elot had pleaded with Gregor not to bring his girl to the launch site, no matter how badly she'd begged. The least he could do, Gregor reasoned, was give her front row seats on top of Saber Ridge. The view was spectacular. The cool night air had been pierced again and again with the white-hot engines of trans-orbital shuttles ferrying people to the last starships in the system. Elot had said that by now only a few gateships remained, and that once they departed, there would be no means of reaching Earth or any of the other colonies.
Suniah asked no questions, and she offered no answers to Gregor's mild queries. She only watched as ship after ship climbed into the atmosphere, winking out of sight as another flared on the ground and raced into the sky. Finally, after the last of the shuttles had gone, the girl laid back into her blanket and looked at her new guardian. His eyelids were closed, and she thought for a moment he might be asleep.
"Gregor?" she asked.
"Why are they leaving us?"
Gregor kept his eyes closed. "They were afraid. You mother was afraid of the future here, and your father was afraid for your mother."
"I mean why did the Concordat leave?"
"Good question, Sunnie. Politics. Trouble back on Earth. All we know for sure is that they are leaving."
"Daddy said he'd come back, but I don't believe him." Suniah's face was as cold as a mask of stone.
Gregor's heart sank. "You should. He'll come back for you -- he promised he would."
"I'm not afraid."
"You said my mother and father were afraid. I'm not afraid."
Gregor opened his eyes. Perhaps Elot knew what he was doing after all. He was thinking about how to respond to the girl's declaration when Suniah, whose eyes had been drawn to a shining object in the night sky, asked, "What's that?"
Getting up on his elbows, Gregor looked to where the child was pointing. Sure enough, something remarkable was falling out of the sky. Slowly descending, it burned brighter with each passing second. Lifting powerful low-light binoculars to his eyes, the man felt his blood run cold when he got a better look at the fireball. "It's a ship, honey... it's going down. It's going to crash." Seconds later, the distant, flaming craft disappeared beyond the eastern horizon.
"I don't think it was a shuttle, Suniah. It was too big." Gregor finally said. He watched the girl's expression carefully.
She shrugged, then gathered up her blanket and climbed aboard the man's jungle buggy.
"I think your parents are still okay, I mean," Gregor added, coming to the side of the car. The youngster shrugged again and settled into the cramped rear seat of the vehicle. Gregor buckled in and fired up the engine, uneasy with the girl's silence. "Hang on tight," he said with half a smile. "I'm not going to waste any time getting us home."
At good speed, the winding trial leading to tiny Carmichael took over five hours to traverse. Suniah would later remember little of the dark journey other than the roar of the engine and the splash of stagnant, foul-smelling water.
It was dawn when the pair wheeled into the desolate village. Nearly everyone had fled for either the shuttles or the cities, fearful of the uncertain times ahead. Gregor Delaney, however, was a third generation Terranovan, and he wasn't concerned about having to live off the land. That was likely the reason why Dr. Mongrave charged him with raising Suniah. What did concern him, however, was what would become of the remaining population on the planet. Lawless times were ahead, that much was certain. Rioting mobs had become a common sight in the cities of both hemispheres. People had become desperate for some, for any way to squeeze onto already full-to-bursting starships. Gregor thought their behavior disgraceful; hundreds, if not thousands of people had been injured or killed by those they once counted as friends and neighbors. Many of those forced to remain behind were going to be desperate and violent. He and Suniah would have to choose their friends and make their enemies wisely.
Pulling the buggy to a stop, Gregor climbed out and gently lifted Suniah down to the crudely paved ground. "We're home," he said, sweeping his arm to show the girl his humble homestead, which included a dwelling, a storage shed, an aging diesel generator, a heavily modified solar array, two massive water reservoirs and a series of rainwater traps.
Suniah squinted up at Gregor. The sunrise cast beautiful orange light across the man's features, which she had never seen look so kind. "Are you going to leave me, too, when you're afraid?" she asked plainly.
Gregor smiled weakly, then knelt and crushed the girl against his chest. "No," he whispered gently. "I'm not afraid, Suniah. And I'm not going to leave you."
Gregor kept his promise for ten long cycles, though each day was in its own way a battle to stay alive. Wild animals, strange fevers, frightful storms and marauding bandits kept life interesting for the dozen-strong community of Carmichael, but the greatest struggle of all was in keeping the precious, life-giving machinery of the solar panels, capacitors and water filters in good working order. Gregor was something of a mechanical genius, and he happily found that Sunnie was a quick study. As obstacle after obstacle had been overcome, it slowly became clear that they were a rather remarkable team. Gregor knew the land better than anyone in the village, and Suniah's survival instincts, even at a young age, were unmatched.
The girl had grown into an intelligent, confident and beautiful young woman, her guardian had grudgingly noticed. Her dark complexion had been made darker still by Helios' powerful rays, and she wore her unruly black hair just short enough to keep it out of her face. Her small frame belied an impressive strength, and her neighbors knew well her ability to toil for hours under harsh conditions without complaint. The chink in her otherwise impressive armor remained her parents. Her too-immediate refusals to accept Gregor's half-hearted promises of their return was sure sign of the secret hopes the girl harbored. It pained Gregor to continue the charade, but he'd given Elot his word.
One tropical summer evening, Suniah, who had come in caked in grime and sweat from a day's hard work on one of the community wells, was greeted by the sweet smells of one of Gregor's delicious stews. "Smells good," she said, hanging up her well-worn cloak before peeling off her oft-patched survival suit.
"Yes, it does," Gregor beamed. "Springer meat, onions, carrots, peppers and sapa leaves. Plus all my secret spices." He motioned to the dinner table, where a pair of hand-carved candlesticks held flickering candles. "Plus just-squeezed waterroot juice and fresh-baked johar biscuits."
Suniah offered the proud man a slight grin as she washed up, then pulled a pair of bowls from the cupboard and held each out in turn so Gregor could fill them with stew. She searched his eyes with her own for a moment as he replaced the lid on the pot.
"What is it Sunnie?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Why the big dinner?" she asked, handing him his bowl of stew before moving to the table to sit down.
"Suniah... it's your birthday. You're twenty-three today."
Pouring herself a glass of juice, she shrugged. "Yeah. I'm catching up to you."
Gregor sat down across from her. "Well, I thought you might enjoy a nice meal, that's all. You've been working long hours lately."
Suniah nodded while chewing. After swallowing, she said, "Thanks for the food, Gregor. It's great, as always."
It was Gregor's turn to shrug. He then let the girl eat in peace, as she didn't seem to be in the mood to talk. After they'd both finished two bowls worth of his lizard stew, he brewed a pot of cawfee and returned to the table with a pair of steaming mugs. "So..." he started.
"It makes me think about my parents."
Gregor raised his brow and handed her a mug. "What does?"
Blowing gently on her cawfee, Suniah continued, "Being another cycle older. It reminds me of the huge fuss my mother used to make over my birthday. And over her own birthday."
Gregor's brow came back down. "Oh. Sorry. I didn't mean to-"
"Don't apologize. I'm fine." Suniah drank deeply from her mug, then continued. "I just don't feel much like celebrating, that's all."
"I understand," Gregor said simply.
Suniah looked down, then uncharacteristically mused aloud about her parents. "I just wish I could see them once more. I often wonder where they are... what their lives are like."
Gregor looked carefully at girl he'd partially raised. "I... suspect their lives aren't much like our own, Sunnie. They're living comfortably, on Earth or one of the other colonies, I would imagine. Likely planning their-"
"I have a pointed question for you, Mr. Delaney."
Gregor cocked his head at being addressed formally. "And what's that, Miss Mongrave?" he returned.
"Why didn't you leave me behind? Like my parents did. You didn't owe me anything. Those were hard times at the start... hard times that would have been a hell of a lot easier if you hadn't had a small girl tagging along behind you every step of the way. So why didn't you abandon me or just pass me off to someone like Jaeda when you had the chance?"
"Jaeda?" the man exclaimed. "God help you. That woman's a menace. She couldn't even raise a dawg let alone a child -- remember poor Olrac? Anyway, I couldn't very well leave you, Sunnie, not after having promised to stay. Remember? That morning we arrived here."
Suniah nodded. "I remember. After the night my parents left."
"Right. So I was locked in." Gregor's white grin flashed as he lightened the mood. "What can I say? I'm a man of my word."
Thunder pealed distantly outside, sure sign an evening rain was coming. Indeed, by the time they'd finished their cawfees, it was pouring. Satisfied with the man's answer, Suniah moved into the front room where she nestled into the most comfortable fernwood chair in the house. Once there, it wasn't long before she closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.
Normally the cook didn't also get stuck with clean-up duty, but Gregor rationalized that it was, after all, Sunnie's birthday, she was tired, and also that she obviously had a lot on her mind. He quietly washed the dishes and counter tops while Suniah slumbered in the adjoining room.
After spending the evening in his workshop, Gregor closed up the house for the night, securing windows and turning off lights in a well-practiced ritual. Suniah he had shepherded to her room, where a quick tuck-in was answered by sleepy mumbles of thanks. She was obviously exhausted from the day's labors. Stoking the fire to ward off the chill that inevitably followed such a heavy rain, Gregor turned in.
That night, the storm took its toll on the jungle. Countless ferns and sapa trees, some of them quite large, were felled by high winds and pounding rain. Bogs and lakes brimmed to overflowing, and the next morning saw the rainforest literally humming with the resounding song of insects and animals busily exploring their changed environment.
Gregor was finishing his second cup of cawfee when someone knocked loudly at the door. Opening it revealed old man Heinz in a state.
"Telling ya!" he shouted. "Something's at the bottom of Cershaw Lake!"
Gregor brought the bearded old man inside, sat him down, and forced a mug into his hands before allowing him to go on. "Now Mr. Heinz," he said, "what are you talking about?"
"The lake's down!"
"Cershaw Lake?" Gregor asked, skepticism plain on his face. "After all that rain, I thought it'd be swelled right up."
Heinz made a face. "Well, yeah, but the-"
"Dam broke," Suniah finished, entering the room from the back of the house. She had just come from the shower, and her dark hair was still wet. "Right?"
Heinz nodded very emphatically. "Yep. Old hydro-dam broke. Drained that sucker right good. I was headed up there for some fishing this morning, when I seen it. Seen it at the bottom of the lake."
"What?" Gregor asked, glancing sidelong at Suniah. "What did you see?"
"A cargo pod! A cargo pod offa space-ship!"
Gregor and Suniah exchanged looks. Such a thing, if it were intact, could contain a host of invaluable supplies. Electronics. Weapons. Garments. Foodstuffs. Medicine. "Are you sure?" Gregor asked more seriously. "Did it have Concordat markings?"
"Yep, sure as shit!" Quickly glancing at Suniah, Heinz amended, "Er, I mean sure as sunshine!"
"You want to go have a look?" Gregor asked Suniah.
"Sure as sunshine," Suniah answered sweetly.
In short order they had their gear aboard a buggy and were on their way to the lake.
"Be careful not to disturb them spineytrout! And I get dibs on any bait you find inside that pod!" Heinz yelled after them.
Gregor gave the man a thumbs up, then held on as Sunnie gunned the engine and the pair sped off out of sight.
"Incredible," Gregor said aloud, surveying the area with his binoculars. Cershaw Lake, normally a body of water four kilometers long and almost two across, was currently nothing more than a giant mud-puddle. The old dam at the south end of the lake had indeed given way during the night, and the subsequent rush of water had carved a channel deep into the soft landscape. Most of the lake's water had escaped, leaving behind a mixture of rank black ooze and fetid vegetation.
Suniah was already getting into the bulky, well-worn hazard suit the pair had scavenged and repaired earier in the cycle.
"Suniah," Gregor began, frowning.
"What?" the young woman asked. "We both know your back is still bad. I'm up to this, so don't worry."
Gregor scowled as he stretched his sore back. Though his health was good, from time to time his aging body unkindly reminded him that he'd lived a hard life. "Just be careful. I didn't see any crocs or vipers with my viewers, but be on the look out."
Stomping over to the lake's edge, Suniah hefted the 7mm rifle Gregor taught her to use when she was 16. "I said don't worry." With that, she lumbered down into the muck, sinking knee-deep before starting off towards the capsule, which was some three hundred meters distant.
Gregor raised his own rifle as the girl plodded along. It's telescopic sight allowed him to search the area carefully, and though all manner of wriggling, chittering creatures flipped and snapped about, he saw nothing dangerous in her path. "Looks clear so far," he said into his headset.
"Yeah, I'm good," Suniah returned, fighting to lift a boot out of the sucking mud. "Only another hundred meters or s-"
Suniah froze at Gregor's hissed warning. Quickly scanning the area around her, she tightened her grip on her gun.
Gregor adjusted the scope's optics for a closer look, zooming in and turning on the thermal imager. Something was lying in wait in the mud in front of Suniah, and Gregor knew Terranovan fauna well enough not to hesitate. Two shots rang out, and the young woman in the middle of the lake flinched when, a scant five meters away, a Novian Crocodile reared in pain and darted away with alarming speed.
Gregor could hear the woman breathing hard in his earpiece as he noted where the cartridge casings he'd collect later fell. The girl had fallen to a defensive stance, and watched to make sure the dangerous predator had truly been driven off. "Thanks," she said finally.
She crossed the remaining distance without incident. Coming to the side of the scorched, rust-stained, hexagonal pod, she unshouldered her heavy pack, stowed her rifle and began searching for means to gain access to the interior of the space-ship module. Gregor lowered his rifle and used his binoculars to watch the girl clamber around the massive, half-buried object.
"Looks to me," Suniah said after a moment, "that the hatch is on top." Gathering some tools, she carefully climbed up the side of the pod. In short order she lit a cutting torch and began working on the damaged access door.
"How's the suit integrity?" Gregor asked, suddenly feeling nervous for the woman.
"Everything's in the green," she answered, wishing she could wipe her sweat-slicked brow behind the suit's thick face shield. Raising her forearm, she looked at a series of chemically sensitive strips. "And none of the hazard cells have gone -- I think the site's pretty clean anyway."
Gregor nodded. "That's good, but let's not call it clean until you've cracked the seal."
"Working on it," Suniah responded, concentrating on the task of cutting open the pod. The suit's clumsy gloves would slow the woman down, but she'd long ago learned from Gregor to be patient in such tasks. Thirty minutes later, she was peering into the black interior of the module, having pulled open the damaged and curiously small door.
Gregor watched as the woman readied a high-intensity light and lowered herself into the pod. He was about to caution her about watching her step when her voice, soft and more vulnerable than he had ever heard it, sounded in his ear.
"Oh my God..."
"What is it, Suniah?!" Gregor felt a sense of urgency wash over him, and when he next spoke into his mic he was slogging towards the module at top-speed. "Suniah -- Suniah, are you alright?!"
"Yes," she answered calmly. "It's not a cargo pod, Gregor. It's was a life-boat."
Gregor stopped in his tracks. An escape pod.
"My God... they've been here the whole time, Gregor."
Gregor touched a hand to his earpiece. He was about to ask the young woman what she meant when he suddenly realized what -- or rather who -- she'd found. A sob escaped Suniah's lips as she sank to her knees, and outside Gregor bowed his head. He found himself hoping that Elot could rest now that his family had finally been reunited.
|APAGear II Archives||Volume 1, Number 1||December, 1998|
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