Of Thunder And Sunshine


by Garth Melnick




	I spotted them on the thermals, like always. It looked like six
this time, in the forest outside of the killzone. I slapped the hedgehog
mortar's safety off with my right hand and grabbed the mike with my left.
	"Duster Eleven to Duster, alert three, over." The alert warning
flashed on the Companion network repeater screen. 
	A beep and a momentary crackle in my earbug. "Duster Eleven, this
is Duster. Copy your alert three. Status? Over."
	My right hand danced on the input pad of the console in front of
me. "Duster, I have six bogies in my zone. Requesting permission to
engage." On the screen in front of me, a grid snapped over the thermal
targets, now crouched near a tree. 
	"Duster Eleven, you are cleared to engage." I smiled thinly ...
this was one commando team that wasnUt getting through.
	"Acknowledged, Duster. All units, Duster Eleven engaging hostile
targets in Zone Four this time." I snapped the black-and-red banded cover
off the pickle button and glanced at the targeting screen again. Forty
feet behind me, the 'hog twisted into alignment, one gear at its base
whining a bit. A glow of happiness at making this intercept on my first
solo watch spread through my stomach. I punched the pickle button as the
radio beeped again.
	"Duster Eleven, Duster Eleven, hold fire-"
	The 'hog behind me fired twice, ripping explosions that blanked
out everything from my existence.
	"-those aren't hostiles, Duster Eleven! Hold your fire!"
	The happiness in my stomach rolled into a ball of ice. On the
thermal screen, fire blossomed among the figures. The radio was still
going: "Duster Eleven, this is Duster Seven, hold your fire! Oh merciful
... Duster Eleven, you just potted a bunch of kids! Didn't you check your
targeting? Duster Seven to Duster, we need a medical team out here ASAP." 
	The icy ball in my stomach crawled into my gut. Kids? I hadn't
checked the thermals out with a pattern-analysis, but that was only
because a P-A could take three or four minutes, the way the field links
were. I must have had a bad angle and not seen ... merciful Eris, what had
I done? I switched the hog to safe, intending to go out and see if I could
help somehow, but the radio beeped a final time. 
	"This is Duster. Duster Seven, medical team is enroute. Prepare to
direct." The howl of a jumpjet from somewhere behind me confirmed the
words. "Duster Eleven, safe your weapon and stand by. YouUre relieved of
duty."  

	"Leland?"
	I jerked spasmodically, coming awake. The features of the room
around me stabilized into focus - grey walls, softly glowing screens, and
massive steelglass windows showing space and the shining blue world below
us. I wasn't on perimeter duty at New Colorado, with Wysocki's Free
Companions. I wasn't Geoffrey Jameson, Lieutenant of the Free Companions
and murderer of six teenagers by negligence; I wasn't the fourth man ever
to be drummed out of the Free Companions; I wasn't the pariah who had left
the Core Worlds without a home, a family, or the proverbial centicred to
my name. I was Leland Cartwright, employee of the Jericho Corporation,
Ltd., currently on the Station over Jericho IV; the shakier of the two
Jericho colonies. I was the senior member of the troubleshooting team on
duty watching over the fifteen thousand colonists below. I was a man
without a past here.  Yet, five years later, I still dreamt nightly of my
horrible mistake.
	"Leland, you okay?"
	I focused on the speaker, Amon Powell, my partner on the
troubleshooting team for this early-morning watch. He was a few years
younger than me, a good kid. Sitting up, I swallowed, and nodded.
	"Yeah, I'm fine," I said slowly. "Just dozed, I guess."
	He mm-hmmed, and pointed at a screen. "Anyway, I wanted to show
you something. You know there's been a lot of rain up in the North Cascade
Mountains this week..."
	"Right," I murmured, swinging my own panel around and bringing up
the map he was looking at. "You mean that funny storm system that's just
been hanging there?" I looked at the map for a moment longer. "So?"
	"So," he explained, flashing a series of figures onto our screens,
"look at that."
	I raised an eyebrow at the list of river levels. "The Platte and
Rio aren't coming up ... but they drain right out of the North Cascades."
	He nodded, "Right. I backtracked to find out why. Came up with
this." Another image, this a series of satellite photographs, appeared.
	I shook my head, "Amon, you're a trip when you're bored." I
paused, looked closer. "It looks like an natural dam to me."
	He grinned. "Yup." He poked at his console, and another series of
photos, these older, paraded across the screens. "As near as I can figure
it, the runoff from the storms is all draining into one of the basins that
we made five years ago when we dropped all those ice 'roids down here to
warm up the atmosphere. The Rio and the Platte are mostly fed from other
streams, and ..."
	A sudden cold shiver jumped onto my neck, sprinted down my spine,
and sat at the base of my back, gibbering. "Amon ..." I said slowly. "How
high is the lip on that crater?"	
	He shrugged. "Two hundred feet?"
	The shiver intensified. "And how much water is in it?"
	He froze, eyes widening. "Eris ..." he whispered, before spinning
back to his console. It took only a moment for a com laser to range the
crater, and I punched up a list of the homesteads that were on the Platte
and Rio. There were five homesteads that could be threatened if the crater
broke open or ran over. Five families. More kids. I ignored the ice
congealing in my gut as I passed this along to Amon.
	Amon looked over at me. "Leland, there's a hundred and forty feet
of water in that crater, and it's not even two hundred feet high at the
lip. More like one-seventy."
	"Can we get a look at the face, realtime?"
	He paused, fingers flying on his console. "No ... yes. Sat Four
can get it, it has the right angle." He stopped speaking for a moment,
then asked, "Y'think it could break?"
	I ran a hand across my centimeter-length brown hair. "I'd say yes.
But we can take the shuttle and get 'em all out in one trip. The question
is, do we need to?"
	Amon shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. We'll have the visual in
a second ... there."
	We both bent forward to look at the screen. Amon zoomed the view
in, and played it across the downslope side of the crater, lit by
early-morning sunlight. We could see easily that the wall was weak. I saw
a rock the size of the shuttle docked below us fall. 
	"Oh merciful Eris," Amon muttered. "That'll go inside of an hour."
	Nodding, I turned back to my console and poked the alarm key. As
the klaxon began hooting, I opened a com channel to New Seattle, well out
of the danger zone. I quickly explained to the duty chief there, and told
him to get everyone awake, informed, and going. We were the ready team,
and we were going to get those families out. He nodded and signed off. 
	We stood, almost running down the ladder to the docking port below
as the replacement team came in the door to take over our jobs. The deck
below was barely a deck, just a tiny room with the ladder up and the
docking port to the ready shuttle.
	I dropped into the pilot's seat of the shuttle as Amon closed the
hatch. The fusion bottle was hot, and I keyed the comm on as the
umbilicals disconnected and I struggled into my harness.
	"Shuttle Romeo-One to Station. Requesting permission to undock,
priority alpha." 
	The reply was immediate: "Romeo-One, this is Station Control.
Cleared. Good luck."
	"Acknowledged, Control," I returned. I popped the clamps and
dropped us from the station with a generous puff from the maneuvering
jets. Amon handed me my helmet before dropping down into the seat behind
me. I slipped it on, and took a moment to make sure my harness was tight.
I tried to force my stomach to calm down, but it was useless. Five
families. Gods.
	Behind me, Amon spoke up. "I don't know if we can get there in
time. A re-entry will take half an hour, and our flight time in the
atmosphere to the rivers will be another twenty minutes because re-entry
will take us too far east."
	I snorted. The shuttle we were flying was a reconditioned IMC
Kestrel. I had flown Kestrels more times than I cared to remember in
training, and six times in combat drops. 
	"Amon, are your straps tight?" I asked, snugging my own up and
bringing the belly jets, normally only used for landings, online. A chief
petty officer of the Companions had taught me a combat drop technique that
was as effective as it was brutal, and my right hand flickered across the
keypad setting it up. 
	"Uh, yeah," he replied, "but how can we get the time down? I mean,
we canUt do anything about the entry angles or our top speed."
	I grinned as I tugged the visor of my helmet down and grabbed the
joystick. "I dunno." I rolled the shuttle a hundred and eighty degrees,
putting our belly to space, and lit the main jets with a shuddering roar.
"For starters, the entry angles are conservative." I kicked in the belly
jets and we dropped like a stone. The main jets had been set with a
hundred-percent benchmark that was barely sixty percent of maximum
military power; I overrode the safeguards and rammed the jets to military
power. We needed it. Amon yowled in my ear and the stress gauges rose, but
I knew what this craft could take. 
	It took us a bit under seventeen minutes to re-enter, and when we
did we were within five minutes' flight time of the homesteads. I glanced
at a side display, checking the progress of the others. There was a short
message indicating the homesteaders were ready to be evacuated, or would
be, and a blinking icon marked a second shuttle, this one with a full
rescue team onboard, on a much more conventional drop path down from the
Station.
	Behind me, Amon opened his helmet and wiped his mouth as we
dropped below Mach Twelve and I eased the main jets down to the nominal
hundred-percent.
	"Saint Gulik save us, where did you learn to fly like that?" Amon
gasped, incredulous.
	I glanced at the map, swallowing my fear. No one could know. If
they did, I would have to leave again. But if I hadn't used that drop, the
families would surely have died. We had a minute to the first pickup.
	"Uh ... the Free Companions," I muttered.
	"The WHAT?!" Amon screeched. "But you weren't ... how could you
have ... I don't understand."
	My jaw tightened. "I falsified the records. It would take too long
to explain." I braked with the bow thrusters, and dropped another hundred
feet off our altitude with a single sickening lurch. I could see the
homestead ahead, and brought us down in a J-flare that I hadnUt used since
Villa Blanco. We settled onto our skids as the side hatch came open, and I
had the landing lights on. Amon was by the hatch, quickly getting the
homesteaders aboard and making sure they were all present. When heUd
counted twice, he yelled up to me. 
	I lifted, my stomach still wound tightly. Four to go, and then I
could slink off with my tail between my legs again. I'd need to explain
but perhaps they'd let me go again. The disappointment and sorrow of
having to leave again tore at my soul, but I crushed it down beneath my
will. I had a mission, damn it all. 
	The next three pickups went fairly smoothly. Amon kept looking at
me sideways, as if I was a housecat whoUd suddenly shown the fangs of a
tiger. That hurt as much as the rest, if not more. I caught a gust of wind
on the fourth pickup as we neared landing that would have burned the
homesteaders with our belly jets if I hadn't killed the jets and trusted
the shocks to catch us. 
	But as we lifted to retrieve the fifth family, the com came to
life. It was the Station - the crater wall had broken open. The rivers
were expected to rise as much as fifteen feet in the next ten minutes. I
knew that would innundate the last homestead. Amon sighed, saying
something like, "Well, we got four out..." I don't know what his exact
words were. My vision disappeared for a second, covered with a white haze
of anger and shame. 
	A fireball bloomed among shapes on a thermal screen, throwing them
aside, and another ripped them apart. The outlines of the figures were
still visible, but distorted in some cases, and cooling rapidly...
	I could not let a family die. I could not let another child die on
my watch. I slammed the throttles under my left hand to the stops,
ignoring Amon's surprised yelp and the muffled yells of the passengers in
back. They would live. I turned us onto our side in a punishing turn that
left a line of fire across the sky. It took eight minutes to get to the
homestead, and by then there was nothing but the roof visible beneath the
waters. But it was bare ... no sign of the family. I was out of my seat
even before we had stabilized into a hover.
	"What ... ?" Amon asked.
	"You've got the stick," I snarled. "Hold us here. The homesteaders
in back can use the winch and harness to get us out."
	"Leland, they're DEAD!"
	I didn't even answer. I simply turned to walk back to the open
side hatch. Shame and guilt mixed with the fear that Amon was right ripped
at my innards, but I submerged it all below a terribly thin veneer of
control. I had to maintain my control, had to try. 
	Behind me, I heard Amon speaking into his mike: "We're at the
Orley homestead right now, it's submerged, but Leland's going in. What's
the ETA on the second shuttle?"
	I stripped off my jacket, grabbed a million-candlepower hand spot
from its clip, and jumped. It was twenty feet down to the water, murky and
foreboding. I hit next to the roof with a splash, almost losing the light.
The water was glacially cold. I took a deep breath, clicked the spot on,
and dove. The first time down, I found no one. I came back up for air.
Amon had turned on the landing lights, countering the sun. I bit my lip.
They were down there somewhere. I dove again. As I went down the side of
the homestead, I came across a window. A sudden thought struck me - what
if they were inside? I pulled at the window - no use, it was locked. My
lungs were beginning to ache. I grabbed the frame with my hands and swung
in with both feet. The window shattered, and I swam inside.
	At the very top of the main room, in an air pocket, I found the
family. The parents were treading water, hanging on to three kids. I've
never seen more surprised people when I popped out of the water. 
	"You all alright?" I asked, breathlessly. The father nodded
jerkily. His face was white, and the young boy in his arms looked nearly
hypothermic. 
	"Okay," I explained, "You'll need to swim down to the window, uh,
the one by the stairs. We've got a shuttle hovering, and they can winch
you in. Okay?" I couldn't feel my feet. Panic boiled against the ice of my
control. They nodded numbly. "Alright," I continued, "Mom, you go first,
with the youngest. Dad, you take the one you've got with you, and I'll get
the last one." The father nodded, passing the kid I'd pointed to over to
me.
	"Thomas," he mumbled. I was confused. He said again, more clearly,
"His name's Thomas." 
	"Right," I said. "We'll be out of air in a minute, so go."
	The mother looked at her husband, took a deep breath, and vanished
under the water. The child she'd held clasped to her chest was no more
than three years old. One out. After a moment, I handed the spot to the
father. "There, use that. I'll be right behind you." He nodded and dove. I
looked at the boy hanging onto my chest. He was maybe eight years old. I
wrapped my left arm tightly around him. 
	"Ready to go, Thomas?" Just let me save this one, and I'll slink
off into the night like I should. The boy nodded. "Okay," I said, "take a
big breath." He did so, and I followed suit, then dove. It was further
down than I'd remembered. I could barely see in the murky water, but dim
light from the sun and the shuttle's lights leaked in. After a second, I
realized I couldn't find the window. My lungs burned as I felt my way
along the wall toward the one faint source of light. Oh Eris, let this kid
live. My vision began to fade.
	My face was pressed against the cool side of a command AFV. The
cuffs on my hands and the MP holding me against the side of the AFV did
not prevent me from seeing the medical jumpjet set back down. The voice of
the officer formally placing me under arrest faded as I saw grim-faced
Companions remove a green rubber bodybag from the jet ... and another ...
and more. The MP finally jerked me away, but not before I had seen enough
to know that all the kids had died.
	My groping hand encountered a frame, then broken glass. I grabbed
the frame, ignoring the sudden flare of pain, and pulled forward as
powerfully as I could with my remaining strength. We barely cleared the
window, and I kicked upwards. 
	The sensation as we broke the surface was extraordinary. Simply to
breathe ... next to me, the boy, Thomas, coughed and spat out muddy water
before taking a deep, shaky breath. I blinked upwards at the light and
noise; after a second, I realized there were TWO shuttles hovering. The
second one must be the rescue team from the Station, I thought. In a
moment, it slid closer and two shapes dropped from the door to land ten
feet away. They swam up to us, wearing slick, black wetsuits and
floatation collars. One of them gently took Thomas from my arms; the other
one clipped a floatation collar around me. Pain rippled vaguely from my
hand. Drawing it out of the water, I saw a shard of glass impaling my
palm. My hand was covered in blood. It didn't matter, I'd gotten them
out. I'd gotten those kids out, and nothing else mattered.


	I floated through an indeterminate period of time (later, I was to
learn it was four days), drifting in and out of semi-consciousness and
fever dreams. The voices of people by my bed mixed with memories from
across my life and scattered visions.
	The 'hog fired, two crashes that blanked out my universe...
	"Momma, where'd Daddy go? Where'd Daddy go?"
	"I don't know how he did it. He's a hero, an absolute hero. He was
totally in control the whole time. Dammit, sir, did you see the file they
sent us? I don't know how a man who'd done something like that could have
held himself together. I know why he was so determined, now. Merciful
Eris...."
	The flicker of DEW lines and the orange fireballs of artillery
ripped across LZ Tango; I was screaming into my mike, trying to get
support to knock out the orbital station that was pounding us...
	"Duster Eleven, safe your weapon and stand by. You're relieved of
duty."
	"Mister Jameson? It's Stilgar Orley. Well, you don't look like
youUre awake, but the doc says you are. So anyway, I just wanted to say
thanks a lot. They say if you hadn't jumped in the water we all would have
drowned..."
	"Delta Six-One, this is Michael Four. Immediate fire mission,
immediate fire mission. Target is orbital; right ascension one oh hours oh
six minutes three one seconds, declination two twenty four degrees one
seven minutes five four seconds, MARK!"
	Hitting the black muddy floodwaters; the immediate sensation of
glacial coldness...
	"No, he's been out so long because of that dammned cut. We finally
got it cleaned out - five hours in surgery - but he has a serious
methocycla-D infection. That's what's slowing up the recovery."
	Explosions smashed figures aside in the uncaring shapes of a
thermal sensor image...
	The boy, Thomas, hanging onto me, totally trusting as I searched
for the window frantically in the icy water...
	Six coffins, crying families, the shame burning on my face as I
watched on a holo tank in the stockade...
	"Geoffrey, wake up. Geoffrey ... Geoffrey, wake up."

	I blinked. then slowly opened my eyes.
	"Geoffrey, wake ... good." The speaker was a man in a plain blue
jumpsuit with a medical caucadeus patch on his shoulder. He looked down at
me with a concerned expression. "You've been rather sick, you know. It
took our best surgeon five hours to put your hand back together, and you
spent two days on life-support because of a methocycla infection."
	I nodded weakly. My throat was dry, but I managed to speak. "You
found out?"
	His expression changed imperceptibly. "Yes, we did, Mister
Jameson. The Free Companions were kind enough to 'stat us your file after
we gave them your retina prints. It caused some consternation to have a
man of such a ... reputation living here." He paused, looked behind him,
and said, "But there's someone else who can explain better."
	I looked up, my guts slowly twisting into a knot. The man who
stepped forward was familiar to me; he was the Governor of the Jericho IV
colony. I began to talk, trying to get it all out before my voice failed
me.
	"Sir, I'm sorry I did what I did. I just wanted a chance, I know I
shouldn't have. I can leave; I'll go as soon as I'm better..."
	The Governor smiled gently, reaching out to pat my shoulder.
"Shhh, don't worry." He motioned with his head to the bed. "May I sit
down?"
	Confusion swam through my head, but I managed to nod. He smiled,
sat. 
	"Mister Jameson, I was naturally as surprised as anyone to find
out that you had falsified the records and had lied to us for four years."
	My stomach grew colder than the floodwater had been.
	"However," the man continued, "after some discussion with the
Governing Board on Jericho II, we managed to reach a decision concerning
you. We've looked at your record here, your record in the Companions, and
in particular the testimony of the persons involved in the rescue last
week." He reached into a pocket, and came out with a sheet of paper. "The
official decision of the Governing Board is that they cannot find a
compelling reason to expel you from the colony, and a great many reasons
not to."
	The world dropped away. After a long moment, I coughed, and said,
"But ... the people ..."
	His smile turned into an outright grin. "Yes. The people. Mister
Jameson, the full details of your record and the rescue went out on the
public 'nets two days ago. Since then, my office has received over twenty
thousand messages from colonists here and on Jericho II asking that you be
allowed to stay."
	My head spun. "Why?" was all I could say.
	"Because you're a hero, Mister Jameson. Because you're not a
criminal. You made a mistake; the Core Worlds and the Companions judged
you by it. We didn't. Twenty thousand people, Mister Jameson. They all
believe you deserve a second chance. I do too." He turned behind him,
waved to someone else. "Now, there's someone who'll knock down the door if
we don't let him in..."
	I twisted my head as a brown-haired blur ripped into the room.
Thomas Orley jumped up on my bed with a total disregard for propriety and
dignity.
	"Mister Jameson, youUre awake! I'm so happy you're awake, Momma
said you were really sick, and I'm really glad you're better, and they
were going to send you away but we told 'em they better not, and youUre
going to stay, right?"
	My guts finally began to untwist. The world blurred, and I
blinked, surprisedly, as a tear slipped down my cheek. I wiped my face off
with my unbandaged hand, patted the boy on the shoulder, and smiled
slowly. "Yes, I think I'll stay, Thomas. I think so."



Comments? Write to me.

Copyright Garth Melnick 1999. All rights reserved.