Humanity’s Mirror - Ch. 1

Chapter 1

     "The world's truly Nirvana today!" I smelled fresh chlorophyll in the warm breeze blowing through the engine's left porthole. Gazing out at the normally inhospitable world moving by, I saw the green life of spring blanketing the brown death of the winter.

     "Feels good to be out, doesn't it?" Cheryl took off her gray polymer helmet releasing her long golden hair streaked with silver. After removing her gray composite upper armor, white tactical undershirt, and bra, she hung them on cloak hooks next to the open right hatch. She then sat down on the passenger bench in the bright sunlight.

     As Cheryl leaned back to relax, I appreciated my first view of natural light illuminating her bare white skin. "I've dreamed of exploring the outside world since I was young."

     "Still feels the same as my first time out." She stretched her long muscular arms, now free from the constraining armor.

     The needle on the boiler's pressure gauge was still significantly below the red, so I shoveled another shovelful of coal into the firebox.

     "We have enough steam to make it, I did the calc."

     "Just wanted to see whether I could get another kph out of this old locomotive." I pushed the firebox door closed and slid its latch home with the shovel. After hanging the shovel on its hook by the box, I closed the coal chute.

     She looked right then left through the open hatches over the steam streaming from the twin turbine's dual side exhausts. When her scan didn't reveal any antagonists on our perimeter, her inquisitive blue eyes focused on my browns. "Ben, now that we're away from the inspectors, why did you really want to become a field searcher?"

     I looked away and clicked the throttle into its highest notch. "You've studied my psych profile; you tell me."

     "Your profile was a perfect match for what the Council requires."

     I faced her. "It isn't really a secret, just made sure I complied with the Overseer's expectations."

     "Okay." She inspected me with her deep blue eyes. "Why did you really want to be a field searcher?"

     "Other than field work is so much more exciting than endless boring computer sims?"

     Her intelligent blue eyes bore into mine.

     "My father was a field searcher."

     "Your birth was allowed?"

     "Assigned, but it's not that hard to find—"

     "That information's confidential."

     I sat down next to Cheryl on the recently replaced wooden slats of the centuries old steel bench with them creaking under my dense muscular body. "It's true the system won't answer a voice inquiry for 'who's my father?' Although, when you run a simulation for an allowed birth app., the system pulls up the genomes of your parents. I recognized my mother's genome, so I queried the system for the other. The system has no issues with disclosing the identity of genome when queried by keyboard." I sat back relaxing. "Why'd ya wanna know now?"

     "You're good at hiding things from the auditors," she raised her hand to stop my proclamation of innocence. "It's just us for the next five years. If we're going to survive, we can't have any secrets between us."

     I concentrated on her microexpressions. "All right, no secrets. Why did you choose this hazardous life?"

     "An approved allowed birth by the father of my choice at the end of my last field deployment." Tears filled her enticing blues. "Would you agree to be the father of my child after this expedition?"

     This tough as titanium senior searcher that put me through hell during the last four years of field training, was actually crying. I wouldn't have to analyze her microexpressions; her feelings were plain to see. "Don't get emotional on me."

     "I know you've been assigned five times, all with favorable results. I—"

     "That data is confidential."

     "As senior partner, I was given full access to your history. I know you've kept in contact with the mothers of your children."

     I shook my head. "I've spoken with my children, but I've never informed any of them I was their father."

     "Your file was clear of infractions, but I want a father who's concerned about his child."

     A child allowed to know me! "I agree."

     "Thank you!" Cheryl hugged me. "Out here, don't have to hide how I feel from the deviant inspectors."

     I hugged her back. I did feel something for this exceptional woman. Living with her for the last four years, we'd built more than just a functional partnership. She'd taught me more than just how to survive.

     I released her and stood by the controls before she would think I desired sex. We were alone, and there was enough room in the cab, but I wouldn't be able to relax and enjoy it since we were steaming at top speed along the ancient stainless steel rails. "How long before we reach the Chapter House?"

     Cheryl scanned out the hatches. "We should reach it by lunch." She focused on me. "We should talk."

     I smiled. "Thought we have been."

     She frowned. "About why I ended your field training a year early."

     "Thought it was that I'd done so well."

     "Exceptionally well, but that's not why. I wasn't supposed to tell you, but the brother and sister at Crick's Chapter House have been having some difficulties."

     "What kind—" With my combat focus snapping to the blur of motion at the right hatch, I snatched the coal shovel off its hook.

     Cheryl dodged a raptor's feathered head darting in through the right hatch, but its saw-toothed beak bit deep into her armored thigh. Drawing her tomahawk, she kicked its vulnerable throat with her other foot. The injured raptor released her thigh and chomped above her armored boot crushing her other calf. Screaming in pain, she chopped through its eye ridge into one of its huge dark eyes.

    The half-blind raptor dodged a second swing at its other eye from Cheryl's tomahawk. I smashed its iridescent red crown with my shovel and continued beating on its massive ridged skull until it withdrew through the right hatch. After slamming and latching the heavy hatch, I jumped across the cab while swinging at another raptor to keep it away from my wounded partner. My shovel bounced out of my hands, so I smacked its red and blue banded neck with the left hatch. When the hurt raptor withdrew, I slammed the hatch shut.

   After quickly securing the left hatch, I leaned on it and tried to catch my breath. I'd seen holographs of native birds that the original colonists had simply described as similar to Terran predatory birds, but flightless, three meters tall, and capable of running 70 kph. That limited technical description hadn't prepared me for the monstrosity pecking thunderously at the secured hatch behind me.

     After another deep breath, I shut down the throttle and grabbed the medical kit. Cheryl was going into shock. Her long legs were mangled, but she had managed to tighten the tourniquets built into her lower armor above calf and thigh. I started a saline IV in her right arm and transfusion of synthetic blood in her other. After the train had slowed, I checked the rear periscope, then reversed the engine, and opened the throttle all the way.

     I checked Cheryl's pulse at her neck and looked at her pupils. She was doing okay for now, so I pushed a dose of morphine into the IV line. I observed her until I could determine the pain killer was beginning to take affect. "Feeling better now?"

     "Doesn't hurt too bad, but I've really fucked the mission, Ben."

     That was the first profanity I'd heard from her since she'd called me an arrogant prick right after she'd selected me to be her junior partner four years ago. "It'll be okay. We'll get you back and into a pod."

     Shaking her head, she looked down at her bloody legs. "I just got them to match."

     "Don't worry, your legs will look just as great after they're regenerated."

     "You think my legs look great?"

     "Ever since the first time I chased you around the track."

     "Why didn't you tell me?"

     "You know why."

     She nodded. "If the inspectors documented any unusual sexual attraction, then the Overseer would have separated us." She slumped down to her side with her eyelids drooping as the opiate hit.

     I checked her pulse. It was strong and steady, so I took off her utility belt then carefully repositioned her, so she could lie flat. I then rolled up her cloak and gently slipped it under her damaged legs. "You just rest all the way back."

     "Gotta tell ya 'bout da fuckin' mess...." She closed her eyes completely.

     The morphine was definitely working. I carefully checked her all vitals. She was stable, so I shot another dose into the IV bag, so she would remain comfortable on the way back to the depot.

     I looked into the rear periscope to verify the tracks behind us were clear, no more scary giant predatory birds. My first expedition was over on its first day. I was returning to the City.

     I'd worked hard to be selected for the Searcher program at fifteen. The next twenty years of medicine, genetics and nanotechnology had been interesting, but the combat training had been challenging. The last four years of learning field craft with Cheryl had been grueling. She had pushed me way past what I'd thought were my limits.

     My childhood friends had never understood why I had put myself through all that just so I could be a Searcher. They'd never wanted to leave the domes; I always had.

     I would have to spend a minimum of five months at the Searcher Dome waiting for Cheryl's great legs to heal. At least, now I have the time to review the extensive material on the local culture instead of learning it after I reached Crick's Chapter House. As a plus, I would get to help Cheryl with her physical therapy after she got out of the pod. I'd have to massage her great legs everyday. With Cheryl, that always led to something more enjoyable.

     I closed the throttle as I approached the covered depot. The weathered concrete geodesic dome appeared like a small rounded hill standing alone on the plain. Only the gray vertexes of the polygonal surfaces peeking out of the vegetation revealed the hill was artificial.

     I braked before reaching the corroded stainless steel hatch. After the train had come to a stop, I triggered the steam driven air hammer to tap out the access code on a rail. After the pneumatic control valve linked to the acoustic couple on the rail had acknowledged the code, hydraulics raised the massive outer hatch.

     I cracked the throttle and idled the train through the outer air wall. After a trip through washing and rinsing water jets, I backed slowly through the inner air wall to dry the train. A final spray of cleaner, lubricant, and protectant was applied as the depot's inner hatch opened.

     The outer hatch closed as I finished backing into the depot. I released the steam from the boiler, and it billowed out in dense clouds from both sides of the engine. The depot's inner hatch closed as the clouds dissipated.

     I swung open the engine's hatch then quickly checked Cheryl's vitals. She was stable, but the sooner I got her into a medical pod the better. I dismounted and ran through the cavernous depot past the mothballed engines and rail cars to the passenger elevator.

     I jumped into the waiting elevator and pushed the control valve's handle down. The elevator's hydraulics seemed to take forever to lower the car thirty meters to the subway station below. Now shielded from the atmospheric conditions on the surface, sensitive electronics functioned reliably in the underground station. When the doors opened, I removed my mirror from its nonconductive pouch.

     As I stepped through the doors, I waked my mirror then accessed the station's system to prep a medical pod and the emergency medical car. After putting my mirror to sleep and slipping it back into its shielded pouch, I ran to get a gurney from the infirmary. It took me a moment to release the gurney's brakes, but then I sped back to the waiting elevator. I banged the gurney into the back as I slid in and pushed the control valve's handle up.

     After a painfully slow ascent, it took longer to cross the depot with the bouncing gurney, but Cheryl was still resting contently when I returned. I tossed her gear onto the bottom shelf of the gurney, then climbed back into the engine's cab, took the IV bags off the cloak hook and laid them between her bare breasts. When I had picked her up, she put her arms around my neck. I carefully carried her through the engine hatch then laid her gently on the gurney. After carefully hanging the IV bags on the gurney's post, I pushed her to the elevator as fast as the rutted concrete floor would allow.

     After another long ride in the elevator, we sped across the underground station. Reaching the infirmary, I transferred Cheryl into one of the waiting medical pods. She was tall for a Citizen, but I could comfortably lay her down on the polymer bed inside the titanium and ceramic cylinder. I reconnected the IVs into the medical pod's systems then woke my mirror to initiate supplemental life support and treatment for traumatic injuries. I watched as the shiny metal probes snaked out of the smooth white sides of the pod's interior to diagnose her injuries.

     Cheryl's eyes fluttered open as her internal nanotech came fully online. "Bad as we thought?"

     I looked up from the diagnoses and recommended treatments listed on my mirror. "We were right, there's significant nerve damage, your legs will require amputation above the damage and a full regeneration."

     "Orbit! I was hoping for a partial."

     I looked up from the surgical lasers cutting away the armor around the wounds of her damaged legs and into her eyes. "I feel really bad about not seeing the raptors coming."

     "Don't, I was just as surprised as you. They are sight hunters, so only attack visible prey." She took out her mirror and after accessing it, showed it to me. "In a thousand years of expeditions, there hasn't been one documented incident of raptors attacking a train. They just don't."

     "At least, you can finish my training during—"

     "You'll have to continue without me."

     "Surely the brother and sister can hold out for another five months—"

     "The auditing team recommended immediate recall. You'll have to cover by yourself until I arrive in the fall."

     "By myself?"

     "You're the youngest searcher ever to have completed the field training, you'll do fine."

     "Thanks for your vote of confidence."

     "Beam me with reports whenever you have a clear laser uplink, I'll advise you the best I can."

     I glanced at her legs.

     "Well, after I wake up."

     "I'd like to speak openly if I have any personal issues." I accessed my mirror. "Here are the send and receive encryption keys for private messages."

     "Got them. The existing team will help you settle in before they leave"

     I picked up Cheryl's gear then initiated the med pod loading routine. I walked beside it out to the waiting emergency medical car. "Why was the team recalled?"

     "It's expected for a team to partially integrate into the community, but the brother's gone completely native and the sister's sequestered herself in the Chapter House. The Overseer ordered the team pulled when research on the Cure ceased."

     "Must be bad."

     "Yeah." She solemnly bowed her head. "The Cure."

     I also bowed my head with reverence. "The Cure."

     I waited for the emergency car's door to slide open and the med pod to roll into its dedicated location. As the pod latched in, I placed Cheryl's gear into a storage bin. I then checked the interface between the pod and the car. All lights were green. I looked over into her beautiful blue eyes. "Wish I could go with you."

     She reached up and grasped my hand. "I'll miss you."

     "I'll miss you, too." I squeezed her hand not wanting to let go.

     "You'll have to leave right now to get there before the evening thunderstorm." She released my hand then lay back and closed her eyes.

     I closed the clear polymer clamshell lid sealing the pod. After taking one last look at Cheryl's serene face, I entered the emergency priority return command and exited the emergency medical car. A moment later the car's door slid closed, and the car floated over to the maglev rails then silently accelerated down the dark subway tunnel.

     I shouldn't spend any time worrying about her. The pod was nearly indestructible and would keep her alive regardless on any complications with her injuries. Searcher Medical would then take good care of her when she reached the City.

     I stood in the silence of the empty station. There were no voices, no muted music resonating through the walls, no public address announcements, just the whispering of the ventilation system. When I had accessed my mirror to plan my next series of tasks, it was so quiet I could hear my heart beating in my ears. My heart rate was unusually elevated.

© Tony Tirico 2017