Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 15
Chapter 5 – Gathering Clouds
Syma shone. No, that didn’t do it justice. Syma glowed with a thousand hues and colors. Once it must have been a desert, a wilderness covered in wind-blown dunes. Then a serendipitous catastrophe intervened. A vast flare of energy that fused the sands into a crystalline sheet exploded in the sky.
The learned savants from the Homeworlds still squabbled over the exact sequence, timing or even structure of events. Every few years a new expedition ventured forth to put a new hypothesis to the test. Perhaps a comet exploded in the upper atmosphere. If so, it must have been one of almost unique composition to release such a burst of heat with so little blast. The strangely focused solar flare hypothesis also had adherents although they failed to agree on the cause of such a phenomenon.
And then came the crackpots, the conspiracy theorists and the plain madmen. Syma allegedly marked the site where, to take the suggestions in no particular order of unlikeliness, an alien faster-than-light starship had crashed, aliens had tested a giant energy weapon, a Homeworld had tested a giant energy weapon, a secret society…well, fill in with your own bogie men of choice.
The catastrophe, whatever it was, changed the regional climate bringing water to the desert. It seeped into the glass cutting riverlets, caves and canyons. It washed in colored minerals and pigments. Researchers loved expeditions to Syma not just because it was unique but because it was so hauntingly beautiful. Academia constructed a port on the edge of the glass sheet to the delight of wealthy tourists.
An autobeacon landed Allenson’s carriage on the reinforced pad. The sun was high in the reddish sky and it was hot. He adjusted the coverage of his eye shade to keep the worst of the rays off his head and neck. Syma’s air smelt dryer than the dust on a corpse.
The pad was completely bare of buildings or fences. The carriage rested by a low rectangular box about a meter long and half a meter high. It was made of some sophisticated reflective white ceramic, featureless except for a chip slot. Allenson noted similar structures dotted around the pad.
Nothing lived on the surface in Syma, human or otherwise. No one met them: no customs officials, no hawkers, no beggars. Allenson’s data pad chimed. A holographic arrow appeared, directing him around the back of the box where a hatch opened. A ramp spiraled down into the syncrete surface. The travelers descended and the hatch slid noiselessly closed behind them.
The air in the tunnel was noticeably cooler. Only dim illumination seeped around the spiral so Allenson turned off his eye shade. He rounded a bend in the corridor to enter a wonderland of glass and light. His body cast many soft shadows tinted in a kaleidoscope of colors. Multiple images of the sun shone through the glass ceiling, each a different color of the rainbow as every frequency of light found its own unique path through the layers of glass.
Vitrified glass lined the walls in frozen raindrops and rivulets. In some places he could see deep into the layers but elsewhere the glass was near opaque, stained with mineral streamers. Allenson found himself rubber necking like a country bumpkin on his first visit to town.
Buller pushed past him.
“Are you going to serve us or what?” Buller asked an elderly white-haired man sitting unobtrusively on a stool in the corner.
“Your pardon, sar, but I have found that most of our guests prefer to be given a period of reflection to enjoy the ambiance when they first enter Syma,” the lackey replied, quite uncrushed. “My name is…”
“I don’t give a tinker’s fart what your name is,” Buller interrupted. “I want to know where I can get a room and a decent meal.”
The receptionist waved a hand.
“If you would care to register.”
Buller looked on uncomprehendingly.
“Your datapad,” Allenson said, softly.
Buller pulled out his pad and stabbed at it viciously.
“Hmmph! You have to do everything yourself in this one-frame dump.”
Allenson used his own pad to check in. He winced at the prices. He wished to conserve the Brasilian Crowns he carried in case of unexpected demands on his purse. One of the handicaps to interworld commerce was that information could only be carried through the Continuum inside a frame field. Places more than a few days light speed apart relied on packet ships to exchange funds and other information.
“I have an arrangement with the PanStream Bank, Master…?”
“Sederer, sar,” said the receptionist.
Allenson didn’t catch what the receptionist did but he opened a holographic screen. The man touched a series of icons and Allenson’s datapad chimed to remind him that it was downloading information.
“The local branch of PanStream confirms your membership, Sar Allenson. A map to your room is on your pad.”
“And an adjacent room for my aide charged on my account,” Allenson said, gesturing to Todd.
The receptionist made the necessary arrangements.
“I’m with Colico,” Buller said.
The receptionist looked at him without moving.
“I regret that Colico have no branch on Syma, Sar.”
“Then I’ll have to send you a tab to cover the bill when I get home,” Buller said.
The receptionist made no move to accept Buller’s booking.
“We accept Brasilian or Terran coin, sar, if that is convenient.”
Buller thrust his chin forward. He looked for all the world like a guard dog straining at a chain.
“See here my man, are you questioning my honor.”
Allenson moved to defuse the confrontation.
“Charge Sar Buller’s room to my account.”
The receptionist made the necessary connections.
Buller nodded complacently.
“Good man, Allenson, we’ll settle up back on Manzanita.”
Allenson mentally wrote off the money.
“As you find convenient.”
“And you need to improve your attitude when dealing with your betters,” Buller said, wagging his finger at the receptionist. “Think yourself damn lucky Sar Allenson chose to get you off the hook.”
“Oh I do, sar,” said the receptionist.
Buller looked at the man suspiciously but the receptionist stared back with a bland countenance as devoid of any hint of sarcasm as it was of concern.
“My carriage needs recharging,” Allenson said.
“Yes, sar,” The receptionist fluttered his fingertips over the display. “It will be fully charged in two hours.”
He stared closely at the screen and sighed.
“As fully charged as the system in your carriage can take at any rate.”
“I didn’t see any mechanics on the surface?” Allenson asked.
The receptionist replied without looking up, still busy with his display.
“No, sar, the surface is hardly the sort of work-environment to attract skilled employees except at exorbitant rates of pay. We find it cheaper to use automatons. You may have noticed the storage unit by your carriage.”
“I see,” Allenson replied.
Syma used astonishingly high technology. Perhaps he should have anticipated that at a Homeworld university research station. He glanced at his datapad and winced anew at the cost of the recharge. Sophistication had its downside.
Allenson’s room was splendid but tiny. Not something that bothered him unduly as he usually travelled light. One-man frames lacked generous luggage facilities. The glass walls and floor opaqued for privacy but the ceiling let in glass-filtered sunlight. He discovered a control that polarized the glass. Darkening the room he managed a short nap. Something he had learnt in the army was to sleep whenever you could for you never knew when the chance might come again.
When he woke up he splashed some water on his face to wake up. Then he buzzed Todd through his datapad to invite him to dine in the restaurant. Todd was only next door but Allenson did not want to wake him if he was still asleep. The receptionist had placed Buller way down in the complex below the sunlit level. Politeness may or may not be its own reward but it cost nothing and did no harm in dealing with people who could exact petty revenge. Never be rude to waiters unless one likes spit in one’s food.
Todd replied immediately with enthusiasm. After a moment’s refection Allenson also sent a note to Buller although he extended the invitation without enthusiasm. Fortunately he did not get a reply. Allenson found the restaurant using his datapad which projected a holographic arrow to show the route down through a maze of corridors.