Monday, September 12, 2011

Coldseeker - Part 3 of 4

© 2011 by Henry Melton

He slogged through the dunes toward his generator.  Several times, he stopped to catch his breath.  The windturbine blades made their whoop-whoop-whoop overhead–a comforting sound.  Generations of design had produced an electric generator that could run years with no maintenance, even in these dusty winds.  He’d hauled this one out on his crawler, those long years ago, and set it up himself.  Reuel watched, but had no interest in helping.
Not that he didn’t take his quota of electricity.  Rural power lines were long gone, and photocells degraded over time in the eroding winds.  Power was still needed.
The generator looked in good shape.  He punched the lock code and entered.  Clean metal and glass shone from the reflection of the overhead lights.  Electricity was nominal.  The coldtraps were running down near freezing.  The wind channels were closed, since it was daytime, but as soon as the sun went down, they would spring open, routing air to the coldtraps to be stripped of what little moisture it had.  The trickle of pure water would run down to the separators where electricity would split the hydrogen and oxygen.
And the H2 would be adsorbed by the carbon nanotubes in the cluster of removable storage tanks all ready to be shipped to the customer.
Ike tapped the hydrogen gauge.  It read empty.  He thumped it again.  No change.
There was no hydrogen in the tanks.
His hammering heartbeat sent spikes of pain to his head.
Frantically, he started rechecking all the readings from the beginning.
Yes, the coldtrap tubes were working.  As recently as last night, the roman-guards had opened, exposing the interior of the tubes to the intense cold of outer space.  Aligned like telescopes to a narrow band of the sky, the tubes only let heat out, never in.  Regulating circuitry took every opportunity to let heat escape when the sky was cold, and closed the insulating roman-guard lids when there was any hint of warm cloud cover or daytime sky glow.
And yes, the wind pipes were still working, bringing measured loads of air down among the coldtraps to be scavenged of their moisture.
But the water storage tank was empty.  Ike read the log files.  The water tank had been empty for months.
Without water, there’d be no hydrogen.
Ike shook from weakness.  He lurched out the door and began circling the facility.  A dozen paces later he stopped.
The outer shield had a three-foot door cut into it with ragged edges.  Someone took a hacksaw to it.  The ‘door’ was secured shut by a large rock.
Ike pushed it aside and bent the door open.  Inside a large washtub was capturing the drip-drip-drip of water from the severed outflow pipe.
She sabotaged it.  No wonder she’s living in a rain forest.  She’s stealing my water.
And no wonder she shot at him rather than let him discover what she had been doing.
I could kill her.  
His first idea had been correct.  She was a poacher, raiding his generator.
He turned back towards the house.
She was standing there, wrapped in her outside garb, facelessly watching him.  This time there was no rifle.
“I could hear it.  Tinkle tinkle.  Day in and day out.  Tinkle tinkle.  Dad said ‘Leave it alone.  It’s not ours.’”  But then ... then he died.  The deep well had nothing in it but salt.  The plants were dying.  The frogs had gone missing.  You used to come.  I watched you from the house. And then even you stopped coming.
“Tinkle tinkle.  Tinkle tinkle.  It was water.  I knew it was water.”
She turned and went back into the dome.
Ike sat down in the sand, too weak to continue.  The anger drained out of him.
Survival.  It’s all about survival.  She didn’t know she would be snagging me here in this deathtrap with her.
“What’s your name?”  he asked, mainly to shake away the depression.  His life had been wrecked, and maybe the livelihoods of the people who depended on him.  More than anything, he ached to get back to his crawler, back to his routine.  He couldn’t abide being a potted plant in her garden.  He had to be working.
There was one chore that nagged at him.
She looked startled at his question, and folded her arms around her in the water.
“Don’t worry, I can’t see anything.”  Much.
She looked up at him suspiciously.  “Zip.  My name is Zip.”
He crouched down at the edge of the pool.  Gently, he asked, “Well, Zip, I want to bury your father.  Do you have any objections?”
She looked away, a hurt expression on her face.
“I couldn’t find her,” she said.
“Who?  Who couldn’t you find?”
“My mother.  She’s buried by the cottonwood, but it fell down and the sand covered it.”
Wide eyed, she pled to be understood.  “I looked.  I dug.  I took a pole and poked into the sand.  I couldn’t find her!”  She burst into tears.
He couldn’t take it.  It was a mistake to get involved with a basket case, but he was a sucker for puppies and girls’ tears.  He kicked off his shoes and waded in to her.  His hands, he knew they were rough and he winced to touch her soft skin, but he reached out to her and she curled up into the circle of his arms.
“It’s okay, Zip.  It’s okay.”  He wanted to look to heaven for help, but all he could see was the dome overhead.
They decided on a stone crypt in the red clay sides of Happy Canyon.  Old Man Reuel’s body was mummified by the dry air.  Zip stayed outside while Ike wrapped him in the sheets where he lay and carried him up to a ledge.  Ike judged it would last long after the homestead was covered by the creeping sands.
“He’ll have a good view over his land.”  It had been an idle thought, but Zip repeated it for days afterwards, murmuring it like a mantra.
The girl wasn’t right in the head.  He knew it, and knew enough to keep his distance.  She only looked normal, even cheerful at times, as she tended her plants.
Ike watched her work.  She must have spent her whole life tending the dome’s ecosystem, and she was good at it.  Some plants were cultivated, others were untouched.  Several times she went out into the canyon to scrape minerals from the ancient red clay and folded the result into the dome’s garden plots by hand.
She cared for more than just the plants.
One evening, he sat motionless near the pool.  She swam up to the steep side, where boulders had been moved to the edge of the water and three frogs sat among the moss.
“Bobby, Joe, Mary.  How would you like a bed-time story?  You would?
“Well, once upon a time, there were three little pigs...”
She told the story well, acting out the scene with gestures, huffing and puffing with the big bad wolf, and giving distinctive voices to all the players.
The frogs were good listeners, tolerating her touch as she stroked each on the head and said her goodnights.
Ike held his breath as she climbed out of the pool and headed for her bed.
She’s forgotten I’m here.  He saw it in her expression, as time after time she was startled when he moved.
The nudity didn’t have any sexual motive, he decided at last.  She just didn’t have any clothes.  There were the dust wraps for outside.  There was the robe, thin and torn, which she wore when she thought about it, and a work apron for when she tended her plants.  None were new.  Probably all had belonged to her mother.
“Zip, may I check in your house for....”
“No!  There’s nothing there.  It’s gone.”
“But it’s just....”
“It’s gone.  It’s gone.”  She shook her head.  “It’s gone.”  Her eyes were focussed on the ground a few feet away as she mumbled it over and over.
In her head, it’s gone.  If I push, will she break?
Even at that instant, as concerned as he was for her mental health, the curve of her hip uncovered by the apron nagged at his male brain.
For Ike, there was no other choice.  He had to avoid watching her, avoid being close to her.
Her routine was as regular and predictable as his had been before the crash.  He’d spend his time outside, away from her disturbing appearance.
The crawler was very beat up, a two hour hike from the homestead.
How long did it take her to wheel me back on the trolley? 
There didn’t appear to be any damage to the power train.  The front end of the crawler was on its side, but the drive wheels on the cargo end still touched ground.
I’ve been in worse positions.  However, the batteries were drained and no fuel was left.  Zip hadn’t thought to turn off the engines.
Ike started a trickle charge from the roof cells, but the crawler was going nowhere without hydrogen.
He returned with foodpacks to suppliment Zip’s carrots and bean sprouts.  And a gift.
“Zip.  This is for you.”
She looked up from her garden, startled, when he spoke to her.
He held out his spare shirt, dark brown, with the “Walker Hydrofuel” logo on it.
She wiped her hands clean on her apron and took it.  For a moment, she fingered the fabric and then ducked her head and dashed down the footpath.
Was that a blush?  She does know about clothes.
She returned a few minutes later.  The shirt was large enough to make a presentable dress for her.  She even found a sash to belt it.
“Very nice, Zip.  I’d like you to wear it for me.”
She flashed a smile, and then dashed away again.
Another blush.  We’re making progress here.
It took days to repair the generator.  The water pipe didn’t take too long, but there’d been a leak in the hydrogen tanks, and purging the system had to be done carefully.
Ike didn’t feel like rushing it.  His strength was slowly recovering.
The Reuel homestead needed work too.  The place was decaying under the daily attack of sun and sand.
She doesn’t see this outside stuff.  It isn’t green and wet.  Zip had abandoned the house to unpleasant memories and the dust.
Ike slept in the dome too, on cushions he’d scavenged from the house, on the opposite side of the dome from her screened-off bedroom.  If she made a noise in the night, it took hours before he could get back to sleep.
It was more than just the disruption a hermit’s comfortable silence.  He dreamed about her.  Sometimes she was a backward child.  Other times she was more.
Often, all he could do was stare at the texture of the dome overhead and pretend she wasn’t there.  He needed to get the crawler back in service, but every day, between maintenance in the dome and his cronic weakness, he got little done on his own repairs.
The crack in the dome shook Ike out of his easy days.
He’d gone into the storage area to search Reuel’s toolbox.  There were no electric lights in that part of the dome, and the sand on the outside blocked the sunlight.
He found the toolbox and pulled it out into the open area where he could see.  The box was filled with sand.
Not even Zip would be that careless with tools.  Tools were priceless to the isolated.  He went back into the darkened storage area and checked.  All along a three foot fracture line, sand was spilling in like a hourglass.
Dunes had been building up against the dome for years and the weight was considerable.  Spun-glass domes were strong, but they’d never been intended to be buried.
Ike grabbed a shovel and went outside.

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