Chapter 35: On the Yellow Brick Road
Dorothy's view on her situation was quite multifaceted. There were the terrible moments when she had nearly been captured by the Cyborgs. There were all these new people and places she was getting to know. There was, above everything else, the longing for her parents. And, at the core of her being, a new and quickly growing part of her mind that reacted to all of this.
It did not go unnoticed.
"She's hardening", Jim commented to Sebastian as they rested inside the rovers after the second terran day of their travel. They had passed the border into Morgan territory without incident, and were now circling around Morgan Processing. "Her eyes have lost that bright expression. She looks much more weary now. She looks like, I hope you know the expression, an old soul."
Steiner was eating some soup, but he nodded and his movements slowed down as his line of thought switched to the unpleasant subject. He gulped down a spoonful of the orange liquid and glanced at Dorothy. She was in the drivers' cabin, talking to Hatchet. "Bound to happen eventually, right? I mean, her parents are alive, aren't they? She can't write them off in her mind as lost, and yet she can't go to them. We won't let her."
"That's unfair. You make it sound like it's our fault they're separated."
"Yes, but you know what I mean. We can't give her to the enemy. We must try to extract her parents, but that could take years."
"Yes. So what are you going to do? I know you're trained to guard her from bullets, bombs and kidnappings, but can you protect her from despair?"
In the cabin, Hatchet pointed at a gauge. "That's the cabin air-pressure monitor. It's in percentages, one hundred percent meaning equal pressure to the outer atmosphere. For safety reasons, it should never be lower than a hundred and five."
Dorothy nodded. "The higher pressure keeps the outer atmosphere of Planet from entering the rover through any holes in the hull."
"Very good. Now that I've shown you all the equipment, what do you want to do?"
"Could I drive the rover?"
Hatchet nodded. "Once I've made sure you know what you're doing, and that you paid attention when I taught you about the various instruments. If you know them, then you'll get to drive the rover as soon as we start again." He pointed to a row of flashing buttons in the roof of the cabin. "What do these do?" Dorothy concentrated.
Five hours later the two rovers started moving again. As they accelerated to a steady thirty kilometers per hour the second rover weaved back and forth as Dorothy attempted to keep a constant distance to the lead rover, but she learned quickly. Once they had reached their cruise velocity, possible in this quite flat region, Hatchet could relieve some of Static's work by watching the perimeter-sensors, only occasionally checking on how Dorothy was doing.
This enabled him to spot the warning signs long before Static would have. What he was watching was a colour-coded map that showed input of disturbances from every sensor the rover had, plus several of the sensors mounted on the lead rover, painted over a wireframe representation of the surrounding terrain. Each sensor's output had it's own distinct colour, and a human would have been portrayed as a rainbow-hued smudge as the various sensors scanned the intruder. As a rule of thumb, monochrome signals could be safely ignored unless they were intense, while three colours or more in a 'smudge' should be avoided or investigated.
Of course, it was possible to identify an object by the 'spectrum' it produced, if you were trained for it. Thus, when Hatchet saw a swarm of small blue dots (indicating they had been registered by the motion scanner and nothing else) enter the screen in front and to the left of the lead rover, he knew what it was. He quickly entered the steering cabin and told Dorothy to move to the passenger's seat.
"We have incoming mindworms. Merlin, can you hide us?"
"We've already been detected", Merlin called back, his voice slightly strained. "I'm keeping them out right now, but I'd floor it if I were you."
Hatchet didn't need to be told twice. The rover accelerated and turned to the right. The lead rover was doing the same, but it turned more, eventually positioning it on the other side of Hatchet's rover. It assumed a position to the right and slightly ahead, and accelerated further. Hatchet strained to keep up the same pace.
"Grinder, ease up on the gas a bit or you'll hit a stone!"
Grinder replied with a grunt, but merlin glanced up briefly, with droplets of sweat forming on his forehead. "No, no. Faster. Faster!" Hatchet turned around briefly to look at him, and then pressed his throttle as far down as it went. He clearly wasn't pleased.
Then Dorothy was aware of a growing feeling. It was hard to describe, but she became clearly aware of Merlin in the cargo-area of the rover, even though she was looking out of the front window. Puzzled, she turned around and looked at the probe-operative.
She gasped. He seemed to be surrounded by a slight bluish haze, reminiscent of the texture of a monochromatic soap-bubble. He was grimacing, and his hands were clenching and unclenching as if he was enduring a great deal of pain. Jim was watching him with his mouth open.
"Jim, what's happening to him?!"
"He's holding the 'fluence of the mindworms at bay. We'd all be crawling around on the floor, looking for our brains, if he wasn't here to keep them checked. But they must be amazingly strong, 'cause he's giving everything he's got and there's visible pyrokinetic residue forming! And.. yess.. they're beginning to get through.. " He clutched his head.
Dorothy watched, mesmerized by the shifting haze, and wondered what she should be looking for. Then she felt it. Looking at Merlin was beginning to make her eyes sting. So she turned away and blinked furiously. Now it felt as though she had eyes in her neck, and they were beginning to water.
Then the feeling changed. The eyes weren't in her neck anymore, and they weren't hers. She felt sure that, should she turn around, she'd see several pairs of disembodied eyes staring at her with hate and malignance. The feeling was getting stronger, and her neck started to prickle as if a crowd of people was critically inspecting it. She heard Merlin whisper hoarsely.
"Gooo.. plleeasse; gooo.. faaster.."
But these rovers weren't built for speed. Speed as a subject didn't show up much in any manual on how to stay undetected. Hatchet was blinking furiously, trying to dispel the green and purple dots in his vision, caused by the telepathic attack stunning his synapses one by one. It was hard to steer since his entire body felt like it had gone to sleep. He was gasping for air, yet felt out of breath. Behind him, in the cargo-hold, Merlin groaned and slumped on the floor. Static rose to assist him, and fell on top of him without a sound.
Hatchet saw how the lead rover was slowing down and tried to contact Grinder via the commlink, but as soon as he opened his mouth his consciousness imploded. He fell forward onto the steering wheel, sending the rover into a skid. Dorothy tried to shove him back into the driver's seat, but the centrifugal force was holding her back. The rover bounced and lurched wildly, and then stopped with a grinding noise. Hatchet's foot slid off the throttle, and the wheels stopped skidding.
Jim and Sebastian rose simultaneously, and Dorothy saw out of the corner of her eye how the psychic attack sent them into unconsciousness. They fell against each other, and piled up on the floor next to Merlin and Static.
Dorothy froze. If I move, they'll sense me. She didn't have asolute proof, but everything seemed to indicate this. She could feel all those mind's eyes, looking for a target. She felt their senses were far more powerful than any sensor the rovers had.
With reptile sluggishness, she swivelled her eyes to look out of the side window. The lead rover was fifty meters away, stuck in a patch of xenofungus. She saw how mindworms emerged from the patch and tried to climb onto it. She had imagined they would be slow and clumsy creatures, but they seemed to have all the energy of fireworks; their movements were short bursts of speed as they lunged forward, or upward as they tried to scale the vehicle. They seemed to be succeeding, for one managed to slither/leap onto the hood. It proceeded to peck at the windshield with it's beak/stinger.
Then one appeared on the front window of Dorothy's rover. She jumped and let out a short scream, regretting it even before she'd stopped. She had a sensation like- well, a pilot of a hangglider would have the same feeling if he saw every anti-air weapon of a military base being aimed at him, and heard the distant blaring of sirens.
There was a moment of time stretched out, as if a huge potential of energy was about to reach a critical mass..
And then a feeling of hesitation. The mindworm slithered down from the window, and there was a clonk as the outer door in the rear, leading to the small airlock, opened and shut again. The air of the cabin felt like an impending thunderstorm, and Dorothy suddenly felt very drowsy. There was the whirr of the airlock's fans and filters. Dorothy's head slumped against the back of the driver's seat. There was a hiss as the inner door was unsealed, making it possible to open. Dorothy was asleep.
The door opened.
End of chapter 35.