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22 December 2008 @ 06:08 pm
D E S E R T S - W I T H O U T - S A N D
                                     Chapter Eleven



Present Day
Open space


Detective Carlo watched Moretti fidget with the fold down lunch table on the seat in front. It appeared that the latch holding the sleek plastic tray was stuck and, despite Moretti’s almost violent shuffling, was determined to remain so.

“Are you all right?” he finally asked the Caprican, concerned that the woman’s patience in front was waning as her seat jerked forwards. She was holding a dark stare with her newspaper, no doubt wondering how long the flight would be.

Vince beat the tray one last time. It fell in a clatter to his lap, frightening the life out of him. Vince observed it warily for a moment and then retrieved his glass of Ambrosia from the unfortunate passenger beside him.

“I am now,” he replied, sipping happily. “Do you usually travel on public transport?”

Carlo smirked from the seat opposite and glanced out through the heavily filtered windows as the shuttle began its sling shot around the star. “I find it best,” he replied, waving off a hostess offering hot towels.

“I find it tiresome.” Vince reached into the narrow passageway between rows as a trolley shuffled past. “One of – thanks,” he muttered, eagerly accepting the strange looking fruit.

The other detective pushed his own tray back into the upright position and deflated into his seat. Long flights made him ill and he could think of nothing worse than consuming liquor. “I’m getting some rest,” he said, closing his eyes. “Too close to jump so it’s going to be a long flight.”

Moretti raised his eyebrows for a moment before turning his attention to the violet covered object. Its spines stuck sharply into his skin as he started to peel it revealing the bright orange flesh. A pungent fragrance fouled the air and the man beside him coughed and turned away.

*   *   *

They changed to a private shuttle at Yyima’s lofty airport and quickly found themselves racing over Canceron’s waves at low altitude until the small city of Crane materialised out of the ocean spray. A flock of gulls sat along the metal extensions, gazing over their watery domain. They preened the soft duffle under their wings, awaiting the afternoon tides which coaxed the fish from their cold depths and brought them within reach of the hungry beaks.

“How did you do it?” asked Vince, watching several black structures peak from the waves on approach.

“I tried asking.” Carlo bent his neck awkwardly to catch a glimpse of a sprawl of metal arching up from the water in several peaks. He could see the suction nets drifting out from the main structure and below, the green stain. Miles beneath, black silk was being pumped from the depths of the past and spat out into the container ships moored on the flanks of the rig. The strain of metal against liquid was tangible in the air as the shuttle veered to the left and performed an elegant circuit of Crane and its watery satellites. The birds looked like a light dusting of snow, scattered over each of the dozen oil rigs.

“You’re a liar,” said Vince, catching his newly filled glass as it slid to the left.

Carlo turned to Vince. “You’re an alcoholic,” he accused the other detective.

“Only when I’m working,” replied Vince, quite seriously.

Their shuttle passed by Crane with its glittering central tower and grey cement jetties patterned by fish scales before it headed back towards the largest of the oil rigs. Threatening to outshine the city in grandeur, Amphitrite stood over the ocean. Its elegant legs held the station safely above the pounding waves which nipped jealously at its ankles. Some days the sea rose up in great rolling tides pulled by the moons and breathed over her decks, reminding the souls aboard that this is the ocean. It humours man, but does not surrender. Amphitrite smiles back and waves its blood red metal. She is buried deep within the continental shelf and whispers back, I am here.

Ceto drifts not far off, floating ever further from Crane as it follows a deep band of oil. Its ugly sprawl sighs, watching a shuttle approach its rival.

Their shuttle veers up, climbing on approach. Soon the waves had become white smears on the blue expanse, forming the ripples of a greater cause. The deck itself was one hundred and twenty-three metres from the calm tide. Winds whipped over its surface shaking the shuttle as it came in to land. Carlo had hold of his armrest, uneasily watching as the concrete landing strip shifted in and out of vision.

The seat belt sign flashed pleadingly until Vince slipped the strap around his waist and pulled it tight. “Rough landing,” he said, as the shuttle bounced off the concrete before settling to a stop.

*   *   *

They were met on deck by the PSTL. He was a short man whose statue was accentuated by the bright red helmet fastened below his chin. Introducing himself in a friendly manner, he handed the Detectives similar protective gear and led them over to the central lift which took them up through the metal cage to the command levels of the rig.

The lift was an open weave of scaffolding. Vince could feel the rush of cold air over his face as they accelerated. Nobody could speak through the howl of machinery as pumps and drills whizzed by.

“Gods this is high up,” Carlo muttered, as he stepped off the lift. In front was a span of concrete and past the railings that lined the rig, nothing but sky. A small building was perched on this ledge, basking in the clear weather. Vince and Carlo trailed their guide who swiped a small card over a panel jutting from the wall, and stepped into the building.

For the first time since their arrival, the noise of the wind was silenced. The familiar sounds of people breathing returned while Vince licked his cracked lips. They handed their helmets to a junior workman and accepted a glass of water. When Vince spoke, it was loud.

“I wonder how much a place like this costs?”

Carlo wiped his eyes which stung from the wind. “A lot,” he replied, glancing over the room. Below the windows which lined the room were stations of computers and control panels all alight. A controller wired in with head phones and visual display systems sat two to each consol. They muttered things to their microphones, unaware of the visitors gawking at them. “More than we’ll ever have.” Carlo pointed to the golden bell hung in the centre of the room. Every oil rig had its own bell. Like the ships, it was a sentimental feature. The crew called it the heart.

“Do you feel that?” said Carlo, more quietly as their hearing returned. Vince looked up at him with a confused shrug. “Ill,” he clarified.

“I’m not afraid of heights.” Vince rolled his eyes. Carlo stammered defensively, his tall, slender figure stepping closer to Vince as he denied the charge. Vince found the Aerelonian quite amusing. He was not surprised though, living on the edge of a desert he couldn’t imagine that Carlo had seen much in the way of heights. Granted his office was high up, but being suspended on fragile pylons with the world lapping beneath was something else entirely. “Apparently you are.”

Carlo opened his mouth but was interrupted by man making his way through the room. Troy Procris’s employees weren’t bowing but the nod they gave in his direction came close.

“Gentlemen,” he said, his dark eyes sparkling in an unsettling fashion. “To what do I owe the please Detective Carlos and,” Troy’s eyes swivelled, “Detective  Moretti...”

“Will you allow us to speak to you in the capacity of representatives to Plume Industries?” Carlos kept his tone deliberately polite. As an Aerelonian on a Canceronian oil rig, neutrality was imperative.

He gave a look that distinctly said, I am Plume. “Certainly, but I can guess what it is about. Come this way, I have a room prepared for you.”

Troy Procris’s office overlooked the city of Crane. He sat at the end of a deep coloured, polished table. The petrified wood was from the ocean floor, incredibly rare but infinitely gorgeous. Vince wanted to reach out and stroke it, which he did, running his roughened fingers along the curved edge and down under its reverse side, still raw.

Detective Carlo withdrew his glasses from his coat pocket and slid them on. “It is my regret to inform you that there has been an accident in Colony Y. Two of your –”

“Is that what we’re calling it now?” Troy Procris offered the detectives a cigar. Both refused which he found appealing, he snapped the box shut without taking one himself. “Call it what you want Detectives, I am listening.”

Carlo nodded. “The two men involved were assets to both our worlds, and I think, personal friends of yourself.” Troy held Carlo’s gaze without a flinch nevertheless Carlo knew his suspicions to be correct. “I came to ask for your help. I want to catch their killers, for both our sakes. Mr. Procris?”

Troy had been silent for quite sometime, spending the dragging minutes scrutinizing Moretti’s demeanour.

“And you, Mr. Moretti?” he said, ignoring Carlo.

Moretti leant forward, purposely sliding both his hands over the polished wood. “Same old,” he replied.

“You believe that the deaths at Plume are related to that of my daughter.”

Carlo had to admit that he’d been caught out.

“It’s a guess,” said Moretti. “Only a guess.”

“A good one though,” Troy looked out over the ocean where the first of hundreds of sails had just appeared on the horizon. The mid-summer yacht race from city to city would encircle Crane in a few hours. Hulls cutting through the icy water and breakneck speeds stopping for no-one. “The gods are smiling.”

“You don’t believe in the gods.” Vince moved to block Troy’s view.

“Of course not, but fiction can still smile.”

“I get the feeling that you want to be my friend,” continued Vince, “but for the life of you, you can’t work out how.”

“I doubt that we shall ever be friends.” Troy’s words were not spiteful, they were honest. “You disapprove of my nature yet you need me, and that brings out the worst in you, Mr. Moretti. So you see, we shall not be friends.”

“What about enemy of my enemy is my ally?”

Troy nodded. “More than likely.”

Carlo rolled his eyes. Cancerons and Capricans were nearly as bad as each other.

“Settled then,” said Troy, leaning back into his chair. “What do you require of me?”

Moretti was not stupid enough to miss that Troy was a broken man seeking revenge. The death of his only child had left a scar on him and for that, at least, Moretti felt sorry. If nothing else, Troy had been a father. He was still a dangerous man though, one who would seek to use any alliance to his own benefit, rather than Vince’s.

A soft rumble made the items on Troy’s desk shiver. All three men felt the vibration. Moretti and Carlo said nothing, assuming it was part of general operations, but Troy pushed his chair back and paced to the window, nervously twisting his head from side to side before leaping back as an enormous burst of flame roared past, stretching into the sky.

The room went red, consumed by the glowing river of light outside the window. Its edges were black with smoke. The carbon layered itself over the glass in a deathly glaze.

“Frakking Kobol!” yelled Carlo, jumping from his chair. Vince was on his feet too, already heading for the door as the glass creaked, melting against the heat of the burning plume of oil.

“Shit – out, get out –” Troy pushed them forward. He reached the door behind them as a crack splintered the lower corner of the window. “No...” he whispered under his breath, racing back into the room amidst the sirens and shouts of both detectives. Troy ignored them, snatching the cigar box from his desk and tucking it into his coat pocket.

Troy slammed and locked the steel door of his office door behind them as the window shattered and the room was pulverised by the hungry flames.

“Get back to your shuttle,” Troy screamed at them. “Here,” he pulled them through the room, dodging the panicked employees who crawled over everything, cursing and shouting as another explosion rocked the oil rig.

This wasn’t right, thought Troy. Someone was bringing this place down, and doing a damn good job at it.

The three of them burst onto the open deck where the shuttle waited. The pilot already had the engines going, clearly worried by the two enormous towers of black and red burning into the sky. Vince, Carlo and Troy pushed through a crowd of red hats, stumbling as a third explosion rumbled through the steel. This time, the deck tilted, overbalancing several people who smacked onto the concrete. The shuttle lifted off the ground, hovering a foot in the air.

“Frakker’s leaving without us,” muttered Moretti, leaping over a fallen worker.

“He won’t leave,” Carlo assured him.

Carlo made it first, grabbing the hand holds and hauling himself into the shuttle. It rocked as he did so, the pilot struggling to keep the craft just off the unsteady ground. The detective re-appeared from inside the shuttle, offering his hand.

“You next, Mr. Procris,” instructed Carlo.

Troy shook his head, “I need to get back to my people. This rig looks like it’s going under.”

“Exactly, that’s why you have to come with us.”

When Troy didn’t move, Moretti pushed past him and scrambled aboard the shuttle. “Gods, just leave the bugger here. He’ll be nothing but trouble.”

Carlo ignored Moretti, beckoning again to Troy. “You want to know who killed your daughter? You come with us. You’re no good to anyone dead.”

Troy could hear people screaming behind. The main structure had caught alight and the fire was quickly spreading through the maze of living quarters. It wouldn’t be long now until the whole thing was buried under the waves.

“Who said anything about dying...” Troy growled, taking a final glance at Amphitrite before vaulting into the shuttle. His feet had just left the ground when the deck of the oil rig shuddered and fell away. The shuttle veered, copping a solid knock from the deck. Bodies and equipment flew toward the shallow railing – those that caught it were knocked clear by debris, flailing as they fell toward the ocean below. The lucky ones were dead before they reached the water.

Troy Procris teetered backwards, not quite inside the shuttle door. The pilot took off, swerving away from the crippled oil rig which had lost two of its legs and was quickly crumbling under its own weight. One worker leapt for the shuttle as it edged off the deck. He stretched his body to breaking point, but soon felt the sickening pull of the world below drag him ruthlessly down.

It took both Carlo and Moretti to pull Troy into the shuttle.

“Can’t stress enough the importance of that seatbelt sign,” shouted the pilot from in front. The three passengers fell into the nearest seats and yanked the black straps around their waists.

A sickening crunch reverberated like thunder, shaking the cabin of the shuttle with its force as the main oil line caught fire, erupting through the centre of the rig.

It rained oil.

Deep, brown, raw oil. A white foam splashed around the dying structure, from this height you could see a great circle propagate out from the dying rig. Its beauty had left it and now it was a scrap of twisted metal, groaning and burning with peoples’ souls flickering out, consumed by an almighty expanse of black that blocked out the sky sending the scene into darkness.

The black pillars of smoke started to sink, drowning the destruction in a thick cloud of toxic air.

“Frak the gods,” shouted Vince, as the shuttle began to shake. He was sure that he could see the screws working their way out of their fittings as the vessel stuttered and lost altitude.

Carlo slapped him across the face. “Shut the frak up,” he yelled, not wanting to test the fates.

The emergency lighting flicked on as they were surrounded by darkness. Visibility was dead on zero. The only hints at the destruction outside were the occasional rumblings of the structure or haze of orange flame flaring up.

“Wish it would stop doing that,” continued Mace, gripping onto the seat as his innards were shaken asunder.

“Engine’s clogged,” said Troy, touching the window of the shuttle where smoke swirled. The window was scorching hot. “Tell the pilot he needs to move through the cloud but head towards the ocean. This shuttle isn’t going to fly for much longer and I’d rather not crash. Better chance on the waves.”

“Wait,” Moretti turned to Troy, horrified. “We’re going to crash? Definitely?”

“Of course we’re going to crash, listen to the racket this thing’s making.”

Vince Moretti tightened his seatbelt muttering, “I hate frakkking engineers.” A second later his hands spread out in search of walls which weren’t in reach as the nose of the shuttle tipped down sending their stomaches rolling.

Their bodies lunged forward, held aloft by their belts which cut deep into their skin.

“This is not steady,” Troy observed, lowering his head to his knees. “I think we’re frakked.”

“Oh and that’s your professional opinion?” Vince glared at the man curled up over his knees. “I’ve had about enough of –”

“Shut. The. Frak. Up!” Carlo screeched. “If I’m going to die I don’t want the last thing I hear to be you two bickering!”

“If I’m going to die,” replied Vince, “then I’m going to go out kicking and screaming. The gods’ll have to drag me from this life.”

Light gushed through their windows as the shuttle broke through the canopy of smoke to be quickly replaced by a deep sapphire ocean lapping less than a dozen metres beneath them. In silence, the three of them turned their heads to the water and simply watched it approach.

The pilot pulled the shuttle level and for a while they cruised over the water, unable to see the black stain behind them. A seagull fell in line with them, sailing gracefully on a stray current of air.

Just as the thought of, we’re going to make it entered their collective minds, the base of the shuttle clipped a wave. The result was sudden and brutal.