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3rd World Products, Book 12 [NOOK Book]

Overview

Searching for an NSA agent's missing sister turns up hidden gold and an Amaran flitter buried in the 17th century by an eruption of Glacier Peak volcano. Missing Russian suitcase nukes are discovered in Las Vegas and several other US cities and new AI flitter goddess Catherine is born in the midst of a crisis.
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3rd World Products, Book 12

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Overview

Searching for an NSA agent's missing sister turns up hidden gold and an Amaran flitter buried in the 17th century by an eruption of Glacier Peak volcano. Missing Russian suitcase nukes are discovered in Las Vegas and several other US cities and new AI flitter goddess Catherine is born in the midst of a crisis.
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Product Details

  • BN ID: 2940000149102
  • Publisher: Abintra Press
  • Publication date: 10/5/2008
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 380 KB

Read an Excerpt

* * * *

Chapter One

Myra Berens pinged me late Thursday afternoon as I lifted my lawn mower onto a workbench and tilted its left side up. Calling up a screen, I answered, "You got me," and sent a thin, tiny field to trim the leading edge of one side of the blade at about a thirty-degree angle.

"Hi, Ed," said Myra, "You're keeping busy, I see."

"Yup." I turned the blade to sharpen the other side, then lifted the mower off the bench and down to the ground. Straightening, I looked at the screen and said, "Long time between calls, ma'am. What's up?"

Her eyes left the mower and focused on me as she shook her head slightly. "Damn. You make using fields look so easy."

I replied, "Years of practice," and sipped coffee as I waited for her to get around to telling me why she'd called.

Myra glanced down and I heard her pen tap the desk a few times, then she met my gaze and said, "I may need to ask you for a favor, Ed. It would be personal, not business."

A moment passed, then two. I sipped again, then said, "Sounds serious. Will I have to guess what it is?"

Pursing her lips, Myra replied, "No. Could I drop by after work to talk about it? Say around six?"

"Sounds fine. Will we be going anywhere?"

"Dinner. On me. A buffet would be good."

"Suits me."

Another pause. Myra nibbled her lower lip, took a breath, and seemed to come to some sort of conclusion. "Okay, then. Thanks, Ed. Bye 'til later."

I nodded. "See you then."

She dropped the link and I took another sip of coffee. Rolling the mower back to its hutch, I considered Myra's call. I hadn't heard from her since ... when? Back when I'd taken that long-assed busride to Texas with Linda's niece. Two years. Too long to try to guess what was on her mind.

Changing the bike's oil and filter, cleaning up, and checking email used the time until I heard a car pull into the driveway. I went to the door and saw Myra levering herself up and out of some kind of a low-slung red convertible. When she closed the car door, I saw she wore red shorts, a white blouse, and white sneakers. Even her purse was red. Heh. Okay.

Walking out to meet her, I opined, "Well, aren't you the very personification of the American Dream, ma'am?"

Adjusting her blouse, she asked, "How's that?"

"A gorgeous woman and a red convertible. Might be the dream's changed a little since the sixties, but you still look like one to me. Why so long between calls?"

Canting her head slightly, Myra chuckled, "You had two girlfriends the last time I saw you and I didn't take that job with Stephanie. There'd have been conflicts of interest."

I shrugged. "The job was your business to take or not. Wouldn't have mattered to me." Looking at the sky, I suggested putting the car's top up.

Myra glanced up and nodded. "Good idea. What about Selena and Toni?"

She got back in the car, turned the key, and pressed a button as I said, "Selena found somebody who seemed special and took herself out of the picture a year ago. Toni's still in Inverness, but we don't see each other too often these days."

A panel opened behind the passenger seat and the car's top began lifting. Myra asked, "Why not?"

"Times change, interests change. People grow apart. She's got a steady girl now and I don't want to rock her boat."

With a small shudder, Myra muttered, "A steady 'girl'. Ugh," then she asked, "Ed, she chose a woman over you. Doesn't that bother you?"

I shrugged again. "Hasn't so far. No point. Gone is gone, no matter who she's with."

Securing the car's top, Myra said, "No matter 'what' she's with, you mean."

"No, that's not what I meant, and her current flame isn't a topic we need to discuss. I'd rather get fed and find out why you chose to call after two years."

She met my gaze for a moment, then nodded firmly. "Right. Want to go in my car or take the flitter?"

"The flitter." I called it down as she got out of her car, handed her aboard after the flitter landed, and we headed for Ryan's Steakhouse. After we'd settled at a table, Myra said, "I have a younger sister. She went through a nasty divorce last year and seemed to go a little crazy with her 'newfound freedom', as she called it."

Munching some green beans, I waited for more info.

Myra sliced some steak into tiny bits as she seemed to put some things together, then she said, "She went back to college to finish her degree in Sociology. That's where she met a guy named Ted Martin. He's a vulcanologist."

We nibbled some more before she somewhat frustratedly sighed, "He got some kind of extracurricular grant and invited her to go climbing someplace called Sitkum Glacier. I looked it up. It's an iceberg on the side of a goddamned volcano!"

"Well, you did mention he's a vulcanologist, ma'am. How old is your sister?"

"Twenty-nine."

I shrugged. "Old enough to go where she wants with whomever she wants. What's the problem?"

"I haven't heard from her since I took them to the airport. That's six days ago, Ed. They were supposed to start up the mountain on Monday."

"Maybe she's just having too good a time in the great outdoors, ma'am. Away from it all, y'know? Maybe she figures you might forgive her if she was a little late..."

Setting her fork down firmly, Myra met my eyes as she interrupted with, "Ed, ever since she set her divorce in motion, we've been in almost daily contact. She said the climb up the glacier would take three or four days."

"Was she supposed to call you from the top?"

"Well ... no, it wasn't planned, but..." Shaking her head, Myra sighed, "Look, I just expected to hear from her, okay? They have a radio and cell phones."

"Okay. How's cell service out there?"

"Ted said getting a signal was easy in some areas and almost impossible in others. But I expected her to call before they left the motel they used as a staging area."

"How many people are in the group?"

"She said there'd be six. Three interns of some sort to take measurements and the girlfriend of one of them."

"Were they supposed to check in with anyone? As a science group or whatever?"

Nodding, Myra said, "Yes. It was something to do with a special permit from the Park Service. I called and they haven't been heard from since they entered the park."

No surprise there. I nibbled some steak and mashed potatoes as I considered the group. Students and girlfriends, some of whom very likely weren't in top condition, climbing a glacier. Well, at least it was August. They'd definitely get pretty chilled, but maybe not actually frozen if they didn't camp on the ice.

"Did the Park Service seem concerned?"

With a dour expression, Myra replied, "No. They said delays were common, even on the established routes. Weather. Detours. Animals. Rotten ice. Other things."

Linking to the flitter as I sliced my steak, I used its monitor screen to have a look at some info about Glacier Peak. Elevation about 10,500 feet. Good news; yes, it was a volcano, but it hadn't even burped since about the 1700's. Sitkum Glacier was listed as an 'easy, barely-crevassed route.' Footnotes said it was generally skiable until early Spring.

Hm. Yeah, big cracks could definitely hinder a downhill ski run. Reviewing a bit more data concerning crevasses, I wondered why the hell they hadn't gone up White Chuck Glacier, which was supposed to be a much shorter and easier climb and--per the info--'crevasse-free', then I saw that floods had washed out the White Chuck trail and road.

Now the easiest way to Glacier Peak was on the North Fork Sauk Trail to the Pacific Crest Trail at White Pass, then across White Chuck Basin to the south ridge. Yeah, that could account for a four-day expedition. Sitkum looked as if it had almost no cover for camping. There'd be wind, ice, snow, and probably even clouds of mosquitoes under six thousand feet or so.

The area around the mountain was sparsely littered with abandoned mines and equipment remnants from the North Cascades "gold rush" of the 1880's and 1890's. Hm, again. Glaciers and erosion move a lot of debris. Maybe the group had stopped to do some melt-water panning or...?

Myra said, "Ed!"

I refocused on her. "Yes'm?"

"Are you okay? I said your name twice before you answered. You've been sitting like a statue for the last five minutes."

Dropping my link to the flitter, I said, "I was just thinking about climbing glaciers and how some peoples' definition of 'fun' is prob'ly fairly painful. Were they on a solid schedule, or was this some kind of vacation adventure?"

She canted her head and looked at me questioningly, then answered matter-of-factly, "Cori said they had enough supplies for two weeks. I don't know if she was just exaggerating about the amount of stuff they'd have to carry."

"Cori? Short for Corinne?"

Nodding, she said, "Yes, and she kept her married name after the divorce. Wald."

"Did they take guns into the park?"

"Yes. She said one of the men had a big pistol. Cori took her Glock."

"A nine or a forty?"

"It's a forty."

"Good. She'd have a chance against a bear if she can use it. Does the Park Service know they have guns?"

With a shrugging sigh, Myra replied, "Hell, I don't know. I don't care, either. In a place like that, you need one, and the bigger, the better."

Finishing my green beans, I said, "Yeah, I'd agree with that. Okay, I'll go see if I can locate them."

Myra froze in surprise with a forkful of peas halfway to her mouth. "Just like that?"

Matching her expression, I asked, "Did I give in too soon, ma'am? Should I pretend to be reluctant and make you practice your feminine wiles on me tonight?"

Her gaze narrowed. Glancing around as if to see if anyone might notice, she picked a pea off her fork and tossed it at me with an annoyed look, then snorted a soft chuckle. I caught the pea and ate it as I watched her.

Setting her fork down, Myra said, "For your information, I was prepared to go out there with or without you."

"When were you going to leave?"

"Tomorrow. I've arranged two weeks off. I was going to fly out to Seattle and rent a car."

I shrugged. "Might as well get underway tonight. I'll throw a few things on the flitter when we get back. We can swing by your place for whatever you'll need and pick up some canned food and microwave dinners for the road."

Picking up her fork, Myra quietly admitted, "My bags are in my car." She looked up and quickly added, "I wasn't taking anything for granted. I just wanted to be ready if you said yes."

Nodding, I replied, "Figured that. No sweat."

We finished our meals and headed back to the house by way of a supermarket. I let Myra do the food shopping while I spent some more time studying Glacier Peak info on a field screen aboard the flitter.

A bit more rooting discovered that Ted Martin and Corinne Wald had bought park passes over a month ago. Checking her credit card purchases revealed she'd bought a bunch of hard-weather and camping gear about the same time she'd bought her park pass. As I looked over her equipment list, the flitter said it had found Martin's Jeep in the town of Silverton.

"Good going, flitter. How'd you locate it?"

It said Martin had used a credit card to pay for having a flat tire fixed, a deposit for vehicle storage, and transportation to a trailhead on Tuesday. I checked the receipt's info; the charge had been cleared at eleven-ten. Figure at least two hours to transfer gear and drive to the trailhead, which would have been a rather late start for a climb.

Unless time wasn't really a factor, of course. They were a day late getting to the mountain, by Myra's estimates, and the first day of a climb like that would be shakeout time. Strap and gear adjustments for comfort or balance. Adapting to the terrain and altitude. Setting up camp while there was still a lot of daylight. No amount of city walking or treadmill time prepares you for broken rocks, gravel and dirt trails, and ice. Even if Cori'd been wearing her new boots intermittently for a month, they--and she--might have needed a little more breaking-in for trail service.

A group moves at the slowest member's pace. Add in some stops for any of a dozen routine new-guy reasons and they'd have been lucky to get more than a few miles uphill from the trailhead the first day. Figure a full day's hike on days two, three, and maybe four to arrive at the summit. If that's where they were actually going. Seismic monitors might have been installed further downhill.

Sending a probe to the Sitkum trailhead, I found tracks from eight different vehicles, but there was only one parked vehicle; a white 1988 Dodge van. It was empty and the engine was cold. I sent the probe along the trail in a loop, but found nobody on foot or camped within two miles of the van.

Returning the probe to the trailhead, I studied foot prints in the area. Three sets of smaller boot prints looked as if they might belong to women and one set of those small prints seemed to originate at the van. All the prints eventually led up the trail past a wooden marker sign. I asked the flitter to assign probes to each distinct set of prints near the van and let me know when it found the people who'd made them.

Myra came out of the store carrying two plastic bags that looked rather full for what I anticipated to be a short trip. She handed them up and I saw what looked like two dozen Hormel 'Compleats' zappable dinners in small plastic dishes. One of the bags also held a small box of plastic spoons.

Handing her up, I asked, "How long do you think finding Cori will take, ma'am?"

She gave me a droll glance. "They were on sale and they don't need refrigeration. What we don't use, I'll take home."

As she took her seat, the flitter said, "Ed, I've found one of the people."

"Show us, please."

The screen changed to display a short person lying face down near a well-used green backpack topped with a rolled ground mat. The pack had apparently been opened and turned upside down. I noted three sizes of boot prints in the area. One set of prints were small and matched the boots on the body.

Myra hissed softly, so I asked, "Flitter, is that a man or a woman?"

"A man."

"Is he alive?"

"No, Ed."

Silently directing the flitter to head for my house, I asked, "What killed him?"

"A myocardial infarction."

"Have you found any of the others yet?"

"No, Ed."

"Okay. Station a probe to protect the body from anything and anyone other than cops, please."

Conjuring a separate screen, I called Angela Horn. Her secretary answered, an attractive brunette woman named Beverly. I'd met her twice and she'd impressed me beyond her looks and office abilities.

We landed in my driveway as I said, "Hi, Bev. Is Angie available?"

"No, Ed, she's gone for the day. I'm just finishing up a few things before I go."

"Well, hang on a minute, ma'am. I was gonna drop this on Angie, but you'll do as well. Flitter, send a picture and the location of the body to Bev, please. Bev, I'm looking for hikers in a national park. So far I've only found one of 'em, and he's dead. I'd like you to hand this info to the right agency while I continue looking for the others. Okay?"

Bev's eyes were on her pad as she nodded. "No problem. It'll take all of five minutes. So why didn't you do it?"

"I need to stay out of it so I can look for the others. Thanks, Bev. Gotta go. Bye."

She glanced up, said, "Yeah, bye," and returned her gaze to her pad. I dropped the link and headed into the house to get my jump kit. After a couple of minutes, Myra entered the house and appeared angrily dumbfounded to find me making a fresh coffee for the road.

Stirring coffee, I said, "Patience, please. There's no hurry."

She snapped, "The hell there isn't! My sister's out there!"

Capping my mug, I said, "First we have to find them. The probes are in the process of doing that. If they're alive, the probes will help keep them that way. All we have to do is fly out there, and that'll take about an hour. By then we'll probably know where they are."

Grabbing my pack, I led the way to the door. Myra followed quickly and continued on to the flitter as I locked the house. I pinged Tiger as I headed for the flitter and asked if he wanted to come with us. He declined because Sophie was visiting her grandmother.

"Okay. See you later, Tiger."

"Okay. Goodbye, Ed."

Hm. Through his relationship with Annabelle, he'd become particularly fond of Martha and Sophie. I sometimes wondered how much longer I'd be able to say he was my cat. As I boarded the flitter, Myra asked who I'd been talking to.

Silently directing the flitter to get us underway, I said, "Tiger. He's with his girlfriend, as usual. Could be he'll wind up being their cat someday."

"Tiger has a girlfriend? I thought he was fixed."

"Being fixed hasn't kept me from having girlfriends."

"But ... but it's different with animals, isn't it? Don't they remove some of the equipment?"

Shaking my head, I replied, "Not in his case. Stephanie reprogrammed some nanobots to permanently block his vas deferens tubes back when he was about three months old. Same as a vasectomy, 'cept no cutting."

Looking somewhat enlightened, Myra studied the Earth below for a few moments, then asked, "Are you really worried that you'll lose him?"

Sipping coffee, I said, "Nope. He'd visit now and then. Flitter, make the trip last an hour and let us have a couple of beds and a bathroom, please."

The field fixtures popped into being and Myra's face fell open in surprise. I took my coffee to the left bed, set it on the deck out of harm's way, and got flat.

"Myra, it's shaping up to be a long evening and I've been up since a little after dawn, so I'm gonna take a nap. If you need anything, ask the flitter. Flitter, unless you find another body or an emergency, wake me when we're five minutes from the trailhead, please."

"Yes, Ed."

Myra snapped, "How the hell can you just ... turn off ... in the middle of things, damn it?!"

"Theta waves. Care to join me in a short nap?"

Looking rather irritated, she replied, "No. I'm going to keep an eye on these probes."

Uh, huh. Okay. I used theta waves to put myself to sleep, and what seemed only a few minutes later, the flitter woke me by pinging my implant. I noted a bright half-moon above as I took a minute to wake up a little more.

"Thanks, flitter. Park us half a mile above Yakima, please."

Rolling over and sitting up, I said, "Hey, lady. If you don't give me a hard time about my nap, I'll buy you some coffee while we look over whatever the probes found."

Giving me a rather flat expression, Myra said archly, "I've already seen what the probes found."

I sighed, "Yeah, well, good for you, sweetie. In that case, buy your own coffee."

There was a fairly crowded truck stop along the Interstate below. Good 'nuff. The flitter let us off near the front doors and a man coming out with a big drink stopped cold as we stepped out of the flitter's field. He stared for a moment, then shook his head tersely and kept walking.

Myra snickered softly, "I forgot we couldn't be seen aboard the flitter. To him, we just appeared out of nowhere."

Once we'd bought coffee, sandwiches, and pastries, and had reboarded the flitter, I asked it to show us what it had turned up. A field screen over a yard wide and tall popped into being and split into nine segments. The bottom left segment contained the body it had found. The other eight segments each displayed one of the live people, only two of whom were up and moving. The rest were seated around a campfire in front of three tents.

I said, "Point out Corinne and Ted," and Myra pointed to the blonde in the second row middle panel as she said, "Cori." Pointing at the top right panel, she said, "Ted."

Touching the panels, I dragged Cori to the top left and placed Ted next to her. Ted was talking about something that made him point up the mountain, then toward the southwest.

Opening another screen, I asked for a topographical display of the area with green dots for Cori's group and red dots for the owners of the boot prints we'd found near the pack. The green dots were clustered at a spot maybe halfway to the top of the mountain. The two red dots were about half a mile below them and continued to move slowly upward for some moments before they stopped.

Zooming in on the red dots displayed two men in their forties. I turned on the volume. The bigger of the men looked up the hillside and said, "We'll break here for fifteen minutes."

His buddy practically collapsed into a crouch and began struggling to peel off his backpack as he said, "Clinton, they ain't goin' anywhere tonight. Make it half an hour. Hell, make it an hour. Pushin' too hard is what killed Steen."

Turning to face his companion, Clinton said, "We still have to set up camp and what killed Steen was plain damned stupidity. That wasn't his first heart attack. He knew he shouldn't have come out here."

"He said the docs weren't sure the others were really heart attacks."

Snorting a chuckle, Clinton replied, "Well, there's damned little doubt now, right?"

In an accusing tone, the guy yelped, "You could have stopped him from coming."

Clinton stared down at the guy and laughed. "Bullshit, Edwards. Steen thought we were trying to dump him when we tried to get him to stay with the van. He threatened to blow the whole thing if we didn't let him come along."

Edwards snapped, "Well? What would you'a thought?"

Looking really irritated for the first time, Clinton said, "If you can ask that, you're no damned smarter than he was. Where the hell else is there to go? Up the hill. Down the hill." Leaning down toward Edwards for emphasis, he snarled, "The nearest other trailhead is almost-fifty-fucking-miles-away and the two of us're gonna be hauling a hundred and sixty pounds each on the way out."

Edwards held his gaze for a moment, but backed down. He slumped against his pack and muttered, "If it's even still there. What if somebody found it?"

Clinton squatted, then sat and let the ground take the weight of his pack as he sighed, "Nobody's found it, Edwards."

"You can't know that. It's been years since Tony stashed it."

"Okay, so I can't know for sure, but we don't have a good reason to think otherwise, do we?"

Myra muttered, "When will one of these bozos tell us what the hell 'it' is?"

Sipping coffee, I chuckled, "Is this your first stakeout, ma'am? Didn't they teach you patience in spook school?"

She gave me a droll look and said coaxingly to the screen, "Come on, guys. Let us in on your little secret, okay?"

As if on cue, Edwards asked, "Are you sure these folding carts'll make it back to the van? Maybe we shoulda brought Steen's cart, too. The instruction paper said they're only rated for a hundred pounds."

"They'll make it, damn it. We'll take it easy coming down."

"But what if..?"

Clinton snapped, "Edwards, shut the fuck up! Now! We've got what we've got and we don't have time to go back for Steen's cart and if it's gone, it's just fucking gone! Jeezus! Gimme a goddamned break, willya?!"

Glowering, Edwards subsided. He located his canteen, took a swig, and put it back on his pack, then sighed, "I'm just nervous as hell about the whole damned thing now. First Tony, then Steen. It's like we're cursed or something."

Rolling his eyes, Clinton said, "Crap. Curses don't cause bullet wounds and heart attacks."

* * * *

Chapter Two

Sipping her coffee, Myra sighed, "Anytime, guys. Just say the magic word. What the hell is 'it'?"

Heh. Waiting wasn't her best talent. I sipped my coffee and leaned back as I looked at the other screen. One of the guys was serving portions of something from a fry pan. Fingers holding toothpicks stabbed evenly-sliced chunks of whatever in the pan. Did we really need probes for everybody? Nah. I canceled all but one probe at the campfire site, the probe for Steen's body, and a probe to monitor Clinton and Edwards.

Myra startled as the screen changes occurred and looked at me, but after a moment she settled back without comment and resumed watching the show. A few minutes later, she sipped her coffee and asked, "What do you think 'it' is?"

Trying to appear thoughtful, I ventured, "Well, I'd guess it's probably animal, vegetable, or mineral."

"Oh, brilliant, Sherlock! Care to try again?"

"Okay. Something some guy named Tony stashed." She started to say something. I added, "Something heavy that would be worth the climb and could survive this environment. Gee, I dunno, lady, maybe gold, d'ya think?"

She grinned. "Yeah. That's what I thought too. So why'd Mr. Tony stash it on a damned volcano?"

"This is prob'ly where he found it. The Cascades are cluttered with old mines. Maybe bad weather was closing in and he had no way to get it down the hill alone, or without being noticed. Clinton said one-sixty pounds each. Three-twenty total. But that's not the question of the moment."

Giving me a fisheye, Myra asked, "It isn't? What is?"

Pulling up park records on the screen, I pointed at line six, which read '11' and said, "That's how many individual climbers or groups have registered flight plans for parts of Glacier Peak for this week. Why are Clinton and Edwards interested in Cori's group in particular? For that matter, are they really interested, or are they just keeping an eye on them in transit?"

"In transit? You think Clinton and Edwards will keep moving through the night?"

Shaking my head, I replied, "Doubtful. It's hard enough by day. But now that Clinton and Edwards have caught up to Cori's group, I think Clinton will call a halt somewhat above them, where he can watch them a little more closely."

After a long moment, Myra quietly, coolly said, "Tell me exactly why you think that, Ed."

"You know why. High ground and field of fire. Look at the tracks around the tents and the campfire. Some of the tent lines are a little slack and there are half a dozen cat holes in the dirt twenty feet from the fire. They've already been there a couple of days and that's what's bugging Clinton."

My implant pinged and I put up a screen for Angela Horn. She was out of uniform and I could see her bedroom behind her as she said, "Hi, Ed. Bev showed me the stuff you sent her and I told her to send it where it needs to go. What do you think's going on?"

"It's hard to tell yet, Angie. Doesn't really matter, either. Myra Berens is with me and her baby sister is in a group of campers. We're gonna keep an eye on her."

Myra gave Angie a little wave and "Hi, Angela."

"Hi, Myra. Ed, what's your agenda?"

"Watch and listen. Nobody's done anything illegal 'cept maybe not reporting a corpse in the woods. If things get rowdy, I'll deal with it."

On my other screen, people with badges were approaching Steen's body. After a moment, Angie nodded. "Okay. Myra?"

Myra replied, "Yes?"

With a grinning glance at me, Angie said, "Ed once told me he thought you had magnificent legs. That's the exact word he used. 'Magnificent'. Just thought you'd like to know."

Grinning back at her, Myra said, "Thanks, Angela."

She laughed, "You're welcome. Goodnight, all," then she poked the 'off' icon at her end.

I removed the Steen segment from our screen and doubled the size of the Clinton-Edwards block. Clinton helped Edwards get his pack back on, then pulled him to his feet. After hefting their loads, they got moving on a course that would take them uphill almost two hundred yards from Cori's group.

As we watched them, Myra said, "You thought my legs were 'magnificent', huh?"

Meeting her grinning gaze, I replied, "As if you didn't know, right? As if you didn't change into shorts on your way from your office to my house? As if you can't remember the time I talked about licking my way up your thighs?"

She shrugged lightly and chuckled, "Okay, so I may have had a vague inkling, but it's been a few years, you know. Do you still think they're magnificent?"

Eyeing her legs, I nodded. "Oh, yeah. Definitely."

Motion on one of the other screens caught my eye and I checked it out. The probe covering the camp showed a bear snuffling his way along the side of the mountain, seemingly heading directly toward the campfire. Myra's gaze followed mine and she hissed, "Oh, my God! There's a bear behind ... Oh, hell! I don't know his name!"

"The bear's a hundred feet from the camp. All we need is a good distraction. Flitter, hover above Clinton, please."

Grabbing Tiger's kitty kibble out of the flitter's console, I called up my board and slid off the deck to loop under the flitter before I turned on my three suit. The wind was flowing up the mountain, so I positioned myself a few feet off the ground twenty feet or so downhill from the bear. Opening the bag of cat food, I gently rustled the bag. The bear's ears flicked and its face turned in my direction. I rustled the bag again and flapped it open and closed a few times to get the food scent moving on the breeze. The bear's head came up and he froze as he seemed to give the matter considerable thought. After a moment, he began ambling in my direction.

I stayed twenty feet ahead of him for the next fifteen minutes or so, rustling the bag whenever his interest seemed to weaken. Once he heard something up the hill and turned his head to look, but the sound of the bag and the smell of the cat food helped him regain his focus. Once we reached some hefty chunks of rubble a good distance down the slope, I let a small handful of the kibble trickle around within arm's reach on the dirt just before the rocks and backed away from the spot.

The bear discovered the kibble and spent some time locating as much as he could find, then started sniffing in my direction again. I rustled the bag to regain his immediate attention and tossed a few handfuls of kibble around both the dirt area and the rocks. The bear found some kibble and looked for more. I tossed another handful into the rocks in front of his face and he startled slightly, but soon continued snuffling and began turning rocks to find the kibble. Good 'nuff. That ought to keep him busy for a while. Just to be sure, I dribbled a hefty handful that would be easy to find among some lower rocks.

Leaving the bear to his kibble hunting, I flew back up the mountain and had a close look at the student campsite. They had camping gear and science gear. People chatted around a fire and two of them entered a tent; the other guy and girl. Moving to the right a hundred yards let me see Clinton and Edwards choose a boulder-strewn area as an observation point.

Clinton shrugged out of his gear, produced a small pair of binoculars, and aimed them at the campfire below. Edwards sat on a rock, panting hard and not even trying to get his pack off.

After a few moments, Clinton aimed the binoculars laterally along the mountainside for a time, then said, "Thought I saw something move. There's a bear half a mile down. Take five, then set up the tent. I'll be back in a while."

Edwards stopped panting for a moment, then took a deep breath and asked, "What're you gonna do?"

"Have a closer look and a listen. Set up the tent."

Clinton moved away around one of the bigger boulders and began easing his way down toward the other campsite. About halfway between his site and theirs, he stopped and seemed to listen for a few moments, then he continued downward until he could crouch behind a boulder only thirty feet from the tents. For the next fifteen minutes or so he simply sat there, occasionally peeking around the boulder. We listened to Cori, Ted, and two of the other guys talk about glaciers, volcanoes, seismic instruments, and odd foods.

It wasn't too long before Clinton started to get to his feet and almost fell over. He was shivering and his right leg didn't seem to want to work right. Letting himself back down to the ground, he settled for crawling to a nearby bigger boulder, where he put his back to the uphill side of it and stood working his arms and legs for a few minutes.

Credit where it's due; despite hearing nothing that wasn't camp chatter and suffering the cold wind in an exposed, cramped position, Clinton maintained silence. He hadn't uttered so much as a grunt of discomfort from the time he left Edwards until he returned.

As he climbed into their two-man dome tent, Edwards asked, "Well? What'd you find out?"

Clinton replied, "Nothing. Didn't hear shit. I don't think they know anything about it."

Heh. I could envision Myra groaning--or maybe even swearing?--at yet another reference to the great unnamed 'it'. I zipped back to the flitter and turned off my three suit just before I passed through the flitter's hull field.

Walking past the bathroom field and between seats to put the kibble back in the console, I said, "I'm back."

Myra whipped around, eyes wide and pulse pounding. "Oh, Jeez! Where the hell were you all this time?"

"Leading bears downhill. Watching people. You heard what Clinton said when he got back to the tent?"

"Yes. He thinks they don't know anything." She looked at the campsites below and asked, "Wait. You were close enough to hear him? Why didn't I see you?"

"I went to a better spook school, ma'am. They taught us superior woodsmanship."

"Crap. The nearest trees are a quarter of a mile away."

"That's a damned good point. Flitter, if any potentially dangerous animals get within a hundred yards of the people we're watching, let us know immediately, please. Also let us know if either Clinton or Edwards should wander more than fifty feet from their tent tonight."

Calling up another field probe, I said, "Flitter, stop recording activities aboard, please," and sent the probe northward along the mountainside using penetrating radar to scan the surface. Myra watched the screen for a moment, then asked what I was looking for in particular.

"Holes. Places where stuff might be hidden."

"You're trying to find their gold?"

"If that's what they're looking for, yes. Might be something else, though."

"For instance?"

I shrugged. "Maybe money. How many hundred dollar bills are there in a hundred and sixty pounds?" I grinned at her. "Until one of them mentions what 'it' is, we're just guessing."

Myra gave me a sidelong glance and continued watching as the probe plodded on, slowly scanning the hillside. It was three hundred yards from the trail when a return echo displayed what looked like a collapsed entrance to a mine. I moved the flitter over there and sent the probe through almost twenty feet of dirt and rubble. Once the probe emerged from the other side of the blockage, I had it provide some light and discovered it was in a man-made hole in the mountain that extended about sixty feet further.

There were no wooden beams; it looked as if whoever had dug the hole had simply found a soft spot among ancient lava flows and had followed it until progress had been blocked by harder rock. Rusty remnants of a frying pan and a lantern lay on the floor of the shaft about halfway from the entrance. Three glass gallon jugs and a metal bucket lay on their sides at the wall near the lantern. A bolt-action rifle leaned on the wall nearby. Flat brown scraps of something lay here and there and I had the probe take a closer look at them. Leather? Yes. A bootstrap was attached to one of the pieces. Something had chewed a boot to pieces. Moving the probe further into the shaft, I discovered what had likely done the chewing; the skeleton of a good-sized dog lay on a ratty sleeping bag on one side of the shaft.

Myra muttered, "Oh, that poor thing! It must have been trapped in there!"

I moved the probe further and she gasped softly as the probe's soft glow revealed another--human--skeleton near a shallow hole in the floor of the shaft. Some of the bones were scattered around the spot and remnants of clothing had nearly disintegrated. I saw a damaged pair of black plastic men's glasses to one side of the shaft and spotted a ball-point pen and a small folding shovel leaning on the wall near them. This was no prospector from the olden days.

"Flitter, did you find any ID on or around that guy?"

"No, Ed."

"Can you figure out what killed him?"

"I may only speculate based on forensic evidence."

"Okay. Do so, please."

"A combination of disease, dehydration, and hypothermia."

Myra asked, "How can it tell that? Maybe the dog attacked him or maybe he was killed and sealed in with his dog."

The flitter replied, "There are remnants of diseased tissue within the skull and spinal column and concentrations of influenza spores in the soil beneath the body."

After a moment, Myra said, "It looks as if he was trying to dig his own grave." She looked at me and saw my doubt. "Well? What do you think he was doing?"

Pointing, I said, "The shovel's way over there, ma'am. It's more likely he just died while he was taking a dump."

Her expression soured a bit and she looked at the screen again without comment. I panned the probe around the immediate area and didn't see a number of things one might expect to see in a camping environment. No tent. Even inside a cave, a tent can be damned comforting. No backpack. No rope. No fire pit. No other tools. I sent the probe back into the rubble blocking the entrance. After a few moments, it found the ratty remnants of a wood-framed canvas backpack that held cans of food and various necessities, but it found no mining tools.

Possible scenario; a sudden collapse of the roof made him drop everything and dive clear of the falling debris? No. When a mine roof collapses, everything just drops. Maybe a landslide? I flew the probe outside for a look at the entrance. It didn't look any different from the rest of the area, but the guy had been there since before synthetic backpacks, so it might be hard to tell what caused the fall.

"Flitter, can you tell us what caused the collapse at the front of the mine and when?"

"Yes, Ed. Chemical residues and shock patterns indicate the use of dynamite. Deterioration of chemical compositions indicates the explosion happened in approximately 1947."

"Thank you. Show us where it exploded, please."

The probe burrowed back into the debris and through it to the left, then upward. I turned off its glow to avoid lighting a spot on the hillside as it emerged above the center of the blockage. The flitter said, "Approximately here. I am unable to be more precise."

"That's precise enough. Thanks, flitter."

Myra ventured, "So he was murdered?"

"Seems likely. Would he have sealed himself in?"

"So where's the gold?"

I grinned. "You've decided to assume 'it's' gold?"

With a wry grin, she nodded. "What else would it be?"

"Flitter, please scan the floor and walls of that shaft and let us know whether you find any gold."

A few moments passed before the flitter said, "I have found no gold, Ed."

* * * *

Chapter Three

Myra's expression became somewhat dark as she studied the screen. She snapped, "Well, if there's no damned gold, why the hell was he murdered? And why did those other guys bring carts up here?"

"Maybe they think there ought to be gold, too."

"Don't you?"

I shrugged. "Doesn't really matter to me what 'it' is."

Blinking at me, she asked, "Why doesn't it matter?"

"Where are we, Myra? Who owns national parks?"

About to reply, she stopped, then said, "Oh."

"Right. On to more important things."

"Such as?"

"Since neither of those guys was alive in 1947, how would they have found out about this place?"

"Half a dozen ways. How is that more important?"

"It might lead us to whoever sealed the mine. Or this mine may not be what they're looking for."

Poking the 'reverse' on the Clinton-Edwards block, I ran it back to where I'd returned to the flitter and let it proceed forward at double speed. Neither man left the tent, but shadows on a wall made it obvious that one of them--likely Clinton, from his size--spent some time studying something that he had to fold when he put it away.

"Flitter, continue probing the mountain as before, please. We're still looking for holes and hiding places."

Sipping the last of my coffee, I reached into the console for my jar of instant coffee and rinsed my mug in the bathroom. Myra followed me in, swilled the last of her coffee, and rinsed her Styrofoam cup as she said, "It's after nine. Are you sure you want another coffee at this hour?"

"Sure enough to make one. I'd like to try to be awake and alert if you decide to pounce on me."

Giving me an arched-eyebrow fisheye, Myra set her cup by mine and said, "You sound hopeful."

I tapped some instant into her cup and added hot water as I replied, "Damned right I am. You're kinda pretty, y'know."

The flitter said, "I have discovered another opening, Ed."

Stirring our coffees, I replied, "Thanks, flitter," and capped my mug, then went to look at the screen's display of the mountainside and saw nothing.

Myra came to stand beside me, eyed the screen as she sipped, and asked, "So where's the opening?"

I sent the probe straight ahead through the surface of what appeared to be eroded rubble. The probe flew through a pile of rocks and emerged into what its signal echoes presented as another mine entrance, but this one was easily eight feet wide. Making the probe glow as before, I moved it forward.

For the first forty feet we saw nothing but the floor, walls, and ceiling of the shaft. Darker rock to our left and right made me think whoever had dug the mine had also followed a path of softer rock between ancient lava flows. The shaft narrowed a bit and angled slightly upward, likely to allow for drainage. Sixty feet inside we saw a couple of picks lying near the left wall and about ten feet beyond them we found a hand cart.

It had a wood frame with metal braces, a deck made of 1x4 boards, and had rolled on what appeared to be trailer wheels. The tires were flat and cracked and the rims and fittings were heavily rusted, as were a couple of washtubs on the cart. As I flew the probe around it, I noticed a rusty two-hand air pump strapped to the side of the cart.

Twenty feet past the cart we found two more washtubs sitting on the floor of the shaft. As the probe stopped in front of them, Myra gasped, "Oh, my God ... " then said in a low, excited tone, "Ed, that has to be the gold! We've found it!"

Yeah, that seemed likely. The tubs were both about half-filled with string-top bags that looked as if they could hold about a pint of something.

"Flitter, what's in those bags?"

"Gold, Ed."

Nodding, I said, "Thanks, flitter," and moved the probe further into the mine. We encountered no more tools, carts, or washtubs, but after about another fifty feet, we found four skeletons lying by the right-hand wall. Three lay together and the fourth lay about six feet from the others. The three at the wall had all been shot in the backs of their heads. Number four had probably tried to run.

Myra gazed at the skeletons in silence. I asked, "Do we really want to know all the gory details about this?"

With a tiny shake of her head, she replied softly, "No, not really. This is definitely a matter for the police, not us."

Nodding, I said, "Fine with me. Flitter, is there any more gold to be dug out of this mine?"

"Very little, Ed."

"Please retrieve whatever gold is left and clear a space at the entrance large enough for a man to climb through easily, then bring all the gold aboard the flitter."

We watched the flitter's progress on the screen as it cleared a space at the top of the rubble pile and began fielding bags of gold to the deck. I said, "Flitter, if there are any empty bags, bring them aboard too, please," and six empty bags settled to the deck a few seconds later.

The bags were made of canvas, which meant nothing. You can still buy those types of bags as readily as bags made of synthetic fabrics. Opening one, I looked inside and saw tiny nuggets, dust, and flakes of gold. I poured about half the contents of one of the full bags into an empty bag, then set the two bags on the deck and said, "Those are for Clinton and Edwards."

"Why do they get any of it?"

About another bag's worth of loose gold arrived and settled to the deck. I opened another empty bag and said, "Flitter, put the loose gold in this bag, please." It did so and I had to open another bag for the remainder. As I tied the last sack and set it on the deck, Myra cleared her throat.

When I looked up, she said, "I repeat; why do those two get any of it?"

Thumbing back down the mountain, I said, "The cops'll check park records, see who came in with Steen, and prob'ly come up here sometime tomorrow morning. Clinton seems to think Cori's group is harmless, so he and Edwards'll prob'ly either sit tight or head over here to look for the mine. If they come looking, they should find something."

With a sigh of exasperation, Myra asked, "Why should they find anything, Ed?"

"A minor misdirection. They'll think someone else got here first and the cops'll think they're lying, especially when they see what's left of the guys in the mines. And who knows? Since they knew enough to come looking, maybe one of 'em really does know what happened. In the meantime, the gold's safe."

That earned me a fisheye look. "Safe?"

"Yup. I'll turn it in somewhere and be done with it. In the meantime, none of it will walk off or disappear. Flitter, keep probing the mountain, please, in case there are any more mines like this one."

Myra's fisheye look continued unabated. I said, "And if you're wondering who's gonna keep me honest, remember the flitter won't let us do anything illegal."

Her gaze became questioning for a moment, then she seemed to realize what I was trying to get across to her. With a glance at the bags of gold, Myra sat back and sipped her coffee as she studied me.

After a moment, she asked, "How much is there?"

"I dunno. Flitter, how much gold is there?"

"Three hundred sixty-eight pounds, four point two ounces."

With a raised eyebrow, Myra asked, "Avoirdupois ounces?"

"Yes."

I said, "Thanks, flitter."

"Wait," said Myra, "Don't you want to know what it's worth?"

Shrugging, I said, "Why bother? Prices change and it doesn't matter. I won't be keeping it."

Myra's expression seemed to yelp, "You won't?! Really?!" but she kept her mouth shut with very visible effort. After a moment, she asked, "What now? Do we just wait for morning?"

"Got a better idea?"

On the screen, Ted and Cori excused themselves from the campfire to climb into their tent. I was actually somewhat surprised their gabfest had lasted so long, given the cold breeze on the mountainside. The two other guys messed with equipment for a time, then closed the containers before they also entered a tent. After a short time, one of the guys returned to the fire. He took a seat on an overturned bucket, turned his back to the breeze, wrapped a space blanket around himself, and then looked at his watch and swore softly.

I silently agreed, 'Yeah, sentry duty sucks.'

The world seemed to become almost unearthly. I looked over the vast sheet of ice leading down and away from the campsites and couldn't see the other side of it. Other than a few thin clouds, nothing moved. Except for the sound of the steady wind, there was total quiet.

Yet something nudged at my mind. I felt some kind of presence nearby, but it didn't seem to belong to anyone or anything recognizable. The flitters and the AIs had their own signature presences, as did some people and animals, but none were as faint as the one I now felt.

Myra softly called, "Ed?" and when I looked at her, she said, "You were off in space again. Does that happen often?"

Shrugging, I sipped coffee and said, "Only as often as necessary. At the risk of sounding mystical, there's something out there other than these people and some animals on the mountain. I was trying to figure out where and what it is."

Eyeing me, she replied, "Yeah, that does sound mystical."

"It isn't. I can feel fields. Whatever this is sort of feels like one, but it's so faint I can barely tell it's there."

"Are you sure you haven't just had a very long day?"

"No, I'm fine. Flitter, are you detecting any field activity on this mountain other than our own?"

"No, Ed."

"Serena."

She appeared by the console in a jeans and blouse outfit and canted her head slightly. Myra recoiled hard in her seat as Serena smilingly said, "Hello, Myra. Yes, Ed?"

"I'm feeling something in the neighborhood. Like a field, but not quite the same. Faint, but steady. Can you feel it?"

Perhaps only for our benefit, she studied the area for a moment, then shook her head. "No. Can you match the range and give me a sample?"

I tried. I created a tendril and tuned it down until it seemed to almost disappear, but I couldn't take it down any lower. Serena's left eyebrow went up as she monitored my effort, then she took over the tendril and dropped its ... 'pitch' ... until I felt a throbbing in my head. It wasn't painful; it was about the same as when a neighbor's stereo is thumping in the distance. You can't hear the music, but you can barely feel the beat. The presence suddenly seemed more intense and I pointed south.

"It's coming from over there. I can't tell how far."

Serena's watchful expression began to change until it was a mask of what I can only call 'shock', if such a word could truly apply to an AI. Elkor and Stephanie popped into being, Steph on the other side of the console and Elkor on top of it. All of them stood or sat absolutely still as they intently communed--and presumably scanned the mountain.

The flitter suddenly began to move south at what looked like fifty miles an hour or so. A few miles later, my head was throbbing worse than ever, and now it was painful. Serena looked at me and the pain stopped, though the pounding didn't. She raised an arm and pointed--likely also for our benefit. I saw nothing but ice-covered mountain.

Her arm gradually dropped as we moved and she eventually said, "I'll park your flitter fifty feet from the spot until we know a little more. We've sent probes to ... oh. Oh, my..."

Her surprise was no less than my own. I'd never seen an AI react to anything like that. She looked exactly like any human woman facing something very shocking. So did Steph. Elkor's little cat face was less readable, but he was staring straight over the nose of the flitter at the ground.

Standing up, I asked, "What's down there?"

Steph said, "It appears to be an Amaran survey vessel."

I said, "Put it on a screen, please. How far down is it?"

A four-foot wide field screen popped into being as Steph replied, "Four hundred and six feet."

On the screen we saw a probe's view of what looked to me like some kind of flitter. Correction; make that a really heavy duty flitter. That thing was a friggin' Mac truck compared to mine. The sides and deck were twice as thick, it had large padded seats, and it looked as if it might be three times as large. There was also a real pilot's seat with hand controls instead of a directional egg.

I muttered, "Damn! Check out the cockpit seat. This thing's kind of an antique, isn't it?"

"You could call it that. This one was constructed in 1631 and presumed destroyed in 1709."

Also standing up, Myra blurted, "1631?! There have been Amarans on Earth since 1631?!"

"Not continuously. Amarans visited prior to 1993 for purposes of observation and evaluation only."

"Well, how did this flitter manage to get itself buried under four hundred feet of rock on the side of a volcano?"

"It would appear that volcanic activity buried it."

Myra blinked at her, then her expression became very annoyed and she took a breath to say something, but I raised a finger to stop her.

"Hold one. You actually want to know considerably more than that about the circumstances of the event, right?"

Fixing her glare on me, Myra snapped, "Yes."

Pointing down, I said, "Then there's nothing to get pissed about, ma'am. The only one who could tell us that is the flitter. Steph answered your question to the best of her immediate knowledge of the event."

Steph smilingly nodded. "Indeed so. Ed, Elkor has retrieved the flitter's logs. I'll put them on the screen shortly."

"Thanks, ma'am. Is this flitter sentient?"

"No."

"Is it capable of achieving sentience?"

"That isn't altogether impossible, but it's unlikely."

"This flitter's had three hundred years to think about things without distractions. Is it still functional?"

"It will be once we repair and charge its engine."

Myra sighed expressively, "Ed, would you please get to whateverthehell point you're trying to make?"

"Sure. Like the gold, there's a question of ownership."

Myra gave me a sharp, questioning glance. Steph simply raised an eyebrow and replied, "Explain, please."

"Okay. You--the lady who has always given me grief about doing things of questionable legality--now have to make what may be a questionable decision. Are you going to turn this antique flitter over to the US government?"

Steph's gaze met mine as she said, "That is yet to be determined, Ed."

"Evasively spoken, ma'am. How do you intend to avoid it?"

"That, too, is yet to be determined."

I grinned. "Uh, huh. Hey, the Amarans made some really durable hardware back then, didn't they?"

Myra gave me a fisheye look, but Steph simply nodded. "Yes, they did. Elkor is initiating contact with it. In the meantime, here are some probe views."

On the screen, the probe panned the buried flitter's deck. The first thing I noticed was that the flitter lay at the bottom of a perfectly smooth, elongated bubble. Moisture had stained the bubble's walls and ceiling, but hadn't reached the flitter; its deck and console were in pristine condition ... or so it seemed until I noticed a booted foot protruding beyond one of the oversized seats.

"Aw, hell. There were people aboard when it got buried."

Turning his head to look at me, Elkor said, "There were two men and two women aboard. The flitter's records indicate it initiated stasis fields to protect them during the event. When it discovered it was unable to extricate itself, it continued the stasis fields until it could no longer sustain them."

That didn't make sense to me. Flitters can construct field generators. "Why couldn't it make a generator?"

"After surviving the lahar that engulfed and buried it, this flitter barely had power enough to sustain stasis fields and emit a signal."

Myra asked, "What's a lahar?"

I said, "A pyroclastic flow." Gesturing at the world outside the flitter, I added, "Mixed with steam and any available water. Or plain ol' landslides and mudslides in a place like this. Maybe some glacial melt water shook loose. It would be like an entire lake emptying itself down the hill along with all the ice, mud, and other crap it could pick up and carry."

Looking at Steph, I asked, "Sound about right?"

She nodded. "Close. The flitter's logs are ready for review. I'll show you edits of probe views of their last twelve hours before the incident and run them at triple speed."

On the screen, alternating probe views showed us views of the mountain and quite a few people doing various things on the ground. One probe pivoted several degrees and we saw the front of a flitter like the one below as a man lifted a box with handles on its top and sides from the deck to the ground. The probe swiveled again and we saw another flitter being unloaded nearby as a woman planted what looked like four-foot garden stakes in the ground. She planted five more of the stakes and I drew a mental line through them; she was making a circular arrangement, likely a perimeter fence.

Everybody wore what looked like athletic jumpsuits until the perimeter fence was finished. The woman sank the last stake and waved to someone, then smiled as she peeled off her jumpsuit to reveal shorts and what looked like a t-shirt. Others within the perimeter also got out of their jumpsuits, then went back to work.

One of the flitters launched skyward with what looked like samples of local flora and fauna as the sky grew darker with approaching night. People pushed buttons on boxes which unfolded and became small tent-like enclosures that seemed to pretty much set themselves up. Curious animals were turned away by the circle of stakes, though I couldn't see what might be deterring them. When clouds settled over the area and rain began to fall, I saw what the stakes were truly for; there was an invisible dome over the campsite.

The other flitter had settled to the ground among the tents and a man sat aboard it watching the console screen. A movie? A letter from home? Data gathered during the day? Couldn't tell. Another man took his place what seemed like only a few minutes later, though it had been hours for them. The moon and stars moved across the sky as the night progressed, then everything on the ground suddenly began to shake and bounce and trees farther down the slope began swaying and breaking.

The flitter lifted slightly, but stayed where it was. One of the perimeter stakes fell over and another snapped off just above the ground. An open wedge formed in the field dome and heavy, driving rain soaked everything and everybody it could reach almost instantly as the shaking stopped. The flitter put up its hull field and cold, drenched people from all around the camp hurried toward its shelter as best they could while more of the dome field failed.

That was where Steph slowed the replay to normal speed. The only sound before had been little more than a high-pitched rattle when people had talked, but now we heard them yelling to each other. I watched them help each other stagger across the rocky, muddy slope through rain so dense I could barely see them at all. Several were suddenly thrown off their feet as the ground shook again.

Hefty boulders and scientific equipment leaped a foot into the air. A woman fell hard, screamed, and clutched her knee. A man and a woman who'd reached the flitter leaped back into the cold rain to run to her side. They'd almost reached her when a wall of blackness taller than our probe's view of the area swept from right to left across the screen in an instant.

* * * *

Chapter Four

The screen display changed to a view of the flitter's seats and deck from front to rear. All aboard were sitting stiff and still in their seats, held in place by stasis fields. A green bar glowed on the console where before had been only a small glowing square. A power indicator? Made sense. The flitter would probably try to move with the flow and rise out of it.

As if to confirm my thoughts, Steph said, "The flitter is trying to maintain stability and rise out of the lahar."

Thick rocky mud that had engulfed the flitter silently swirled and slammed against its hull field for about the next two minutes, then the swirling seemed to stop. For the next minute or so there was a slow rain of rocks and boulders from above, then the world seemed to lurch and the whole mess started moving again. After another few minutes of swirling and slamming, things beyond the field seemed to stop moving much and simply hung in place around the flitter.

"Oh, shit," I muttered, "After all that, now they're falling, aren't they?"

Steph nodded. "Yes. This spot in the chasm was six hundred and eighty-four feet deep. Debris preceding the flitter partially filled it."

The fall didn't last as long as her reply. Rocks and chunks of ice slammed down onto the flitter's hull field and I heard a loud humming sound that lasted for another two minutes before it gradually lessened and faded away.

When I glanced at Steph, she said, "The flitter's efforts to maintain its fields destroyed crucial circuitry and almost caused its engine to implode. It had no way to broadcast a distress signal and less than six percent of its fuel remained."

On the screen, one of the men stirred and the flitter spoke in Amaran. The guy said something as he looked around in amazement for a moment, then he studied his companions for another moment before speaking again.

The flitter's monitor replayed what had happened and ended with cutaway views of its own inner workings. The guy returned to his seat looking as if he'd been slugged in the gut. After a short time, he sighed as he seemed to steel himself and issued his final command, then his stillness became complete.

I said, "So he decided to go back into stasis. Wait and hope. Wasn't there any other option? Anything at all?"

"Apparently not."

"Steph, my flitter tunneled halfway through a damned mountain in Iran. Why couldn't this one manage a few hundred feet of mud and rubble?"

"For all its size, that model had less than a quarter of the power of today's flitters."

Myra said, "There were fifteen people in that group. What are the chances that any of them survived?"

"Poor. When the transport ship returned twenty-eight days later, they found there'd been a small volcanic eruption. An extensive search found asphyxiated humans and animals over two miles from the volcano's cone. All undiscovered personnel and equipment were presumed destroyed."

I sipped coffee and said, "Steph, I'd suggest you inform 3rd World about this and le t them inform the government at their convenience. How long will it take us to excavate that flitter and refill the hole using three flitters?"

Myra gave me a strange look and asked, "Refill it?"

I shrugged. "All that crap has to go somewhere. Tossing it loose on the hillside could be dangerous for someone else sooner or later."

Steph said, "If there are no difficulties, we could complete the excavation in about six hours."

"Any reason I shouldn't call Angie for the Carrington flits? Maybe reservations about the legality of digging things up on government land or like that?"

With a droll expression, Steph said, "Of course, but they can be settled in some manner later."

Calling up a screen of my own, I sent a jingle to Angie's pad. She didn't answer immediately, and when she did, she didn't open a video link as she said, "I had to get out of a shower to answer this, so it had better be good."

"Yes'm, it is. We need to borrow the Carrington flitters."

"Who's 'we' and why do you need them?"

"Steph, Serena, Elkor, and I found a three hundred year old flitter buried on a volcano. We need them to dig it out before daylight. Steph, send her the data, please."

After a few moments, Angie opened a video link. She wore a light blue terrycloth robe and a towel around her hair and looked pretty excited. "Okay," she said, "But some of our people are going to want to be there. I'll send flit one out immediately. Give me another hour to rouse people and get them out there on flit two."

I looked at Steph to answer that. She nodded. "That would be fine, Angela. Thank you."

"You're welcome, Stephanie. Bye for now, everybody."

We said our goodbyes and closed the link. Moments later a double sonic boom sounded high above us and Elkor said, "My flitter has arrived. Its assistance should reduce excavation time to four hours or less."

Myra leaned toward me and whispered, "Elkor has a flitter?"

I whispered back, "Yup, but it's not a secret, ma'am."

She gave me a wry look in return as our flitters

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