Aloha – Just back from the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Time to add chapter 7 from Demeter. Enjoy, Doc
Arion (Hold Your Horses)
Demeter looked like a small planet, although Ryder knew that it had a diameter of only about half the size of the Earth’s moon. For him, it would be better to think of it as a large asteroid. It was basically round, although elliptical like an egg might be more accurate. The surface was heavily pockmarked. In fact, there seemed to be craters inside craters and then more craters. It was very uninviting, increasing Ryder’s sense of foreboding and concerns.
“Is that metal?” Cynthia asked as she looked out the portal from which Ryder was observing the surface.
Cynthia put her arm on Ryder’s shoulder for support then pointed to a spot slightly off to the left.
Ryder got goose bumps at her touch, but then followed her pointing finger. “Yes, I think so, but I’m not sure,” he added cautiously.
“Hey!” Joel called from the other side of the ship, which had reconfigured to a comfortable, nearly round, two-level shape. “Come and see this.”
Cynthia released Ryder’s arm as they hurried over to join Joel. “What are we looking for?” Ryder asked.
“Fried eggs.” Joel laughed.
Ryder had to look down at an acute angle. Joel was correct, it looked like a fried egg, a giant fried egg.
“What is it?” Cynthia asked, turning to Ryder.
“Well I can see what looks like three toy ships on the white part. But the yellow dome? Look closely. Can you see the antennae? It has to be a base of some sort. Assuming those ships are fighters, that has to be a pretty small base.”
“Look, there’s another one!” Joel called out, pointing toward the horizon.
Mr. Small joined them at that moment. “Yes, we have eighty monitoring centers around the exterior of Demeter. When I was on fighter training, I spent a lot of time out here. Not much room inside those domes though. I thought I’d go crazy when I was posted at old number fifty-nine for two Demeter weeks” he paused, then added “twenty days.”
“Will we get a chance to visit the domes?” Cynthia inquired.
“Not much to see,” Mr. Small reiterated. “Unless you’re in fighter training or the K-Corps, I wouldn’t think you’d make it out here. So take it in while you can. Two minutes would be enough for me.” He snickered and then left for the pilot’s cabin.
A few minutes later, he returned. “I thought you might like to catch a glimpse of something a little more impressive, so Captain White is taking the long way to the locks.”
Ryder and his friends assembled at what was currently the front of the ship, staring out the four portals at the bow of the Pegasus. They rapidly approached a massive structure. Much like the asteroid itself, the complex was oval and extended for several miles. At first it seemed a chaotic maze, but as they drew closer they were able to differentiate structures. There were eight huge starships docked or secured to eight of the dozen different berthing facilities. Cranes expanding hundreds of feet from the airless surface surrounded each vessel in dry dock like vultures.
“Is that a battleship?” Joel asked in awe.
Mr. Small laughed. “So you have been studying the materials we gave you,” he said, then shook his head. “No, that’s actually a light cruiser. That dock is about six city blocks in size. Look forward and to the right. See that huge empty series of cradles? It would take that entire gallery to bring in a full-sized battleship. This,” he waved his arm expansively toward the facilities, “is the reason that Demeter is considered a prize. You would think that the Pervs or the Slicks would just blast it to oblivion and be done with it, but if they did, crossing the gulf between the galactic arms in this region would be impossible. So no matter how many times this planetoid has changed hands, this facility has never been damaged or attacked. It’s neutral territory. In reading the histories, it’s very ritualistic. Once one side or the other has control of the surface, the other side relinquishes control of the facility. The workers are either exported or take up defense in the interior. It’s a massive time-out when that happens. Last time it occurred was over two hundred years ago.
Ryder was reflective as he considered the thousands of Sagittarians, Per-Sians, and Terrans that had died to control Demeter, and more specifically the repair facilities. He couldn’t help but think everyone would be better off if they didn’t exist at all.
“We’re going to have to alter course,” the captain said over the intercom.
Mr. Small looked off to the right. “Oh, we’ve stirred up the guardians.” He laughed. “Look over there.” He pointed.
“Looks like some dots of light,” Joel commented.
“They’ll get bigger. I suspect it’s a squadron of fighters from the Sagittarian fleet. We’re not supposed to be here.”
Two pairs of fighters caught up with the Pegasus as it approached the surface of the asteroid. The fighters veered off as their ship slowed to a crawl in its approach to a cavern three times the size of the Pegasus itself. Ryder began to wonder where the ship would land when he felt a vibration. The wall in front of them was groaning as a crack appeared in the center. The first gate to the interior of the asteroid was opening like a curtain on a stage.
Randy, Joel, and Athena all stood together barely breathing. In an excited whisper Joel asked, “What do you think it will look like?”
Ryder broke out laughing as the gates separated and tracking lights guided the ship into the channel. “I figure it will look like a tunnel,” he said.
Cynthia glared at him then added, “We have to go through several locks to actually reach the interior. That’s how they maintain the atmosphere inside. So there won’t be a lot to see.”
“How do you know that?” Joel asked, nearly losing his balance as he turned toward Cynthia just as the Pegasus began to move forward.
“It was in the readings. Two chapters after the section about the various classifications of warships.”
“Oh?” Joel responded, then lightened. “Actually, the section after the ships was the one I found fascinating. You know, the one on the K-Force? Those suits are awesome.”
The Pegasus slowly moved through the tunnel for nearly a mile when the ship stopped again. The cavern looked like some sort of roughhewn mining chamber. They waited, hanging for perhaps two minutes before the doors began to open in front of them again, leading to another chamber of similar dimensions. The process began again.
One by one, Ryder’s friends began to lose interest. Cynthia and Ryder remained, watching the process. “How many locks did you say?” Ryder queried.
“It varies. There were eight different lock systems built, but one of the systems collapsed,” Cynthia stated.
Ryder, hearing the groaning sounds, looked toward the roof of the tunnel. “Collapsed?”
Cynthia smiled. “On purpose,” she clarified.
“Oh my gosh,” came from somewhere behind them.
“What now?” Ryder asked, and he and Cynthia moved back to see what was going on.
Athena was staring out the port side of the Pegasus. “Look at that!” she exclaimed.
As they had watched the progress of the ship from the bow, the tunnel had been lit up with the tracks and the external lights of the Pegasus. Outside the side portals toward the rear of the craft, the rock formations came alive with a dim radiance that came from the rocks themselves. It further reflected and refracted light off the embedded stones in the cavern.
“Are those diamonds?” Ryder mused, almost to himself.
“Among others,” Cynthia added. “If you had read chapter thirty-two, you would have known the rock formations include all sorts of gems and crystals.” She paused, inhaling. “But I didn’t realize the self-illuminating crystal forms would provide such a haunting and beautiful aura.”
“Huh?” Joel turned.
“I think she means they’re pretty,” Ryder said and smiled. It was mesmerizing as the lights jumped and reflected off various gemstones. He and the others remained entranced until another type of light started to dim the illumination of the rock formations.
“We’re here,” Captain White announced from the pilot’s cabin.
From the side portals, they could see the sheer face of a mountain wall rising on either side of the lock. As Ryder followed the line of the jagged obsidian cliffs that rose out of sight, he saw patches of chartreuse vegetation struggling to survive on the glassy surface. The sky was difficult to read. They could not see any clouds, but it felt hazy as if twilight were approaching. It was obviously daytime for this world, but Ryder could not locate a central source of the light. As the Pegasus continued to move forward and exit the final lock, a pale aqua surface mirrored below. It wasn’t until a large creature of some sort broke the surface that they realized it was water.
“The Sea of Demeter,” Cynthia said. “Chapter thirty-three, by the way.”
“I’ve never seen water so still,” Athena said. “Look, there’s a whole school of fish jumping!”
“No waves. Guess surfing is out.” Randy leaned closer to the portal to look straight down.
Miss Li had quietly joined the group. “Actually, there are waves during the nightly rains, but not during the day”
Everyone jumped and turned.
“We are inside a giant geode. It has been terra formed for millennia. The whole eco-system is carefully monitored with an extensive climate control system tied to the ice fields. The ice fields are at the top of the interior, and the oceans and islands are at the bottom, at least from our perspective. It can be very confusing. When you’re in the ice fields, you think it is the other way around.”
A short hour passed as Ryder and his friends took in the water and the occasional lush green islands that they flew over. The Pegasus once again began to slow down as they approached a much larger landmass. Debbie’s voice came over the intercom and announced, “Everyone take your seat and secure your valuables. We’re reconfiguring the ship.”
Ryder barely made it back to his seat when the Pegasus began shifting and shrinking with all the compartments folding, or disappearing completely. The windows also began to disappear. He heard Joel bark, and turned in time to see him fighting to loosen his foot from a shrinking locker. Moments later they were on the ground.
“Let’s get our luggage together and get ready to get off this tub,” Mr. Small announced.
Mr. Small was dressed in fresh cargo shorts with numerous pockets and a forest green T-shirt. Miss Li was again dressed in a baju kurung that seemed very formal as it was a black, silk dress with gold embroidery. They made an extraordinarily odd couple.
As they approached what was now the exit for the Pegasus, Ryder wasn’t sure what to expect. The light coming in from the doorway was much brighter than he had anticipated. Cynthia turned to him and sighed heavily. “Here goes nothing.” Ryder followed a little too closely and stumbled over the back of her suitcase, taking them both down in the aisle. Everyone laughed, including Ryder.
The group exited the ship via a roll up staircase to the tarmac. Ryder had expected something a little more dramatic. Even O’Hare International Airport had caterpillar-like tunnels right into the terminal, along with multiple moving walkways. Instead, here they were just stepping down to the ground. But once he stepped out of the Pegasus, he gasped. They were on a rise, perhaps five hundred feet above the Sea of Demeter. The water dotted with islands stretched as far as he could see. He identified seven small isles a short distance from where they were standing. They were lush with some sort of tropical vegetation. He thought he spotted palm trees with coconuts on the nearest island. The largest island was no more than a mile long, and he guessed, perhaps half a mile wide. He could not discern any people or housing on any of the islands. It looked very much like the mural on Miss Li’s wall at school.
“Hey, move it up there,” he could hear Randy complaining.
Ryder came to himself and moved on down the stairway. At the bottom, he turned and looked at the Pegasus and realized why they had lost their windows. The ship had reformed to a circular shape. “A flying saucer?” Ryder commented.
Cynthia came up and stood next to him. “It sure looks like a flying saucer, like they show on those UFO movies. Maybe this is where they got the idea from.”
“I wonder how big it is now?” Ryder asked.
About this time, Debbie came bouncing down the staircase. “It’s three stories high, and in saucer mode it can be as small as sixty feet wide. However, at the moment it is ninety-four feet in diameter to meet the minimum needs of its passengers, luggage, and cargo.”
“Great, now I have a walking encyclopedia for a sister. We’ll start calling you Debbipedia.”
“You can’t bother me today. I got to fly the Pegasus,” Debbie gushed. “In fact, Captain White has agreed to give me and Becky flying lessons as soon as we settle in.”
“Great! There goes our ride home. I hope they have a good body shop here,” Ryder responded.
As the lights began to flare in Debbie’s eyes, Cynthia interjected, “That’s wonderful news Debbie. I’m sure you’ll make a great pilot.”
This seemed to defuse the battle before it even began. Cynthia whispered to Ryder, “You could lighten up on her once in a while.”
“Sure,” Ryder replied. “Debbie, I’m sure you’ll be the best pilot in the class.”
Just then Rebecca joined them. “Oh, so you think I’ll stink as a pilot?”
Ryder just turned red and realized he was in a no-win situation. “Look at that,” he exclaimed, pointing beyond the Pegasus. Apparently they were on a much larger landmass than the ones that Ryder had spotted in front of him. The verdant mountain range climbing behind them rose several hundred feet.
“Any idea how tall those peaks are?” Cynthia asked, bumping into Ryder and knocking them both over. They both stood up turning bright red. She started to apologize, but Debbie interrupted.
“Those are the Five Sisters.”
“How do you know that, Dweeb?” Ryder asked, getting irritated.
“Jonas told me.”
“Jonas?” Cynthia and Ryder asked simultaneously.
“You know, Captain White. He was telling me about Arion. This is the main port of entry for civilian ships. It looked cool as we were landing. It’s shaped sort of like the silhouette of a horse. It has five mountains, the tallest was called…Phar Lap. Let’s see….” Debbie pointed to the mountain far to the right. “That’s Northern Dancer, and then Citation. Phar lap is the one in the middle, then Secretariat, and finally Sunday Silence. Jonas says we may get a chance to climb Sunday Silence.”
“Sunday Silence? That sounds like a great place for you,” Ryder chided, immediately trying to cut himself off as Cynthia scowled at him.
Debbie ignored him. “That’s not all,” she said. “Watch this.” She concentrated for a moment, then folded into a jumping position and launched. She jumped about twelve feet. “We’re only at forty percent of Earth’s normal gravity. Jonas says we’ll be a little clumsy getting used to this.” She landed smoothly.
Ryder realized that he had felt a little lighter on his feet, but just assumed that was from getting back on solid ground after being aboard the Pegasus for five days.
“That was cool.” Cynthia winked at Ryder. “Let me try it.” She jumped and landed awkwardly about eight feet away. “Your turn, Ryder.”
That was the first time Cynthia had called him by his preferred name, and he started to turn red again. He decided to cover it with some acrobatics. “Watch this.” He jumped high and did a somersault. As he was landing, he realized that he was overcorrecting by about twenty degrees. This isn’t going to be pretty, he had time to think as he landed on one foot, then spun toward the ground in an ugly fall. Cynthia and Debbie were close enough to each catch an arm as he was going down, preventing a more serious end. Debbie burst out laughing.
“I think you dislocated my shoulder,” Ryder complained toward his sister.
“You’re welcome,” Cynthia said back at him, smiling.
In the distance they saw Randy, Joel, and Athena playing a game of leapfrog, headed toward a low building about sixty yards from the Pegasus. Miss Li was smiling at them, and then turned back toward Ryder. “I think it’s time we gather up our bags and walk,” she said, emphasizing the word walk, “into the port of entry.” She motioned toward the building.
Cynthia quickly grabbed her bags and said, “Let’s go.”
Ryder picked up his own bags, now realizing how much lighter they felt in the lower gravity, and joined Cynthia. “Come on, Dweeb,” he called to Debbie.
Debbie grabbed her bags and started to catch up, then paused. “Becky, come on.”
Ryder caught a glimpse of Rebecca out of the corner of his eye and saw the girl smile for the first time since he’d known her. She grabbed her bag and quickly joined the small entourage.
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