Higgins didnt know what he had been expecting, but somehow the phrase transportation will be provided hadnt prepared him for the sight of a Skinnie in full tribal dress holding the reigns of two Skinnie mounts. Higgins wasnt sure what the TPhetti term for the mounts was, he had never had a chance to examine one up close. To him they looked like a cross between a duck-billed dinosaur and an ostrich, and about as comfortable to ride.
It struck Higgins that a Skinnie standing outside the Fed-Net Administration building with two pack animals in broad daylight wasnt exactly inconspicuous and wondered how long the Skinnie had been standing there. But then, the Skinnies did everything in broad daylight, it wasnt like they had a choice. According to the civilian clock it was about 10:00 PM in the evening, so while there were still several Skinnies walking the streets there were few Humans in sight at this hour. Even for the Skinnies, the way the Suns cast two distinctly different shadows on the ground announced the arrival of Lesser Day and the street traffic was light.
The Skinne holding the reigns of the beasts said nothing, only held a finger to his lips, a decidedly human gesture. Then the Skinnie pointed to the camera Higgins held at his side and made a slashing motion across his throat. Higgins nodded and showed the Skinnie that the red recording mode light on his camera was off. The Skinnie nodded back and offered Higgins a hand to help him straddle the smaller of the two animals. The reigns of the smaller one were tied to the tail of the larger one, so when the Skinnie straddled his mount and took off, Higgins didnt even have to steer, he just had to hang on for dear life. Higgins had never ridden a horse, but he was pretty sure that if horse rides were as bouncy as this, the human race would never have bothered taming horses in the first place. Mercifully, the Skinnie mount ride only lasted about ten minutes or so, long enough for the two riders to reach the outskirts of the city.
The Skinnie tour-guide led the animals into the shade of an unusually large metallic awning jutting from a TPhetti structure were several SICON troop transport trucks had been parked. It looked as though most of the trucks were in various states of disrepair. The animals came to a halt beside a SICON Skimmer, or what was left of one. The Skinnie dismounted and tied the beasts to a nearby post. As Higgins dismounted, the Skinnie walked up to the Skimmer and knocked on the hull twice. The enclosed cockpit opened to reveal another Skinnie seated at the controls.
The tour-guide pointed to the TPhetti markings on the side of the craft and gestured for Higgins to climb aboard. Higgins nodded that he understood and stowed his camera in the back before sitting next to the TPhetti pilot up front. The tour-guide had wanted Higgins to know that this Skimmer had been refitted with a TPhetti atmosphere processor and that it would have been fatal if Higgins had attempted to remove the helmet of his Power Suit once they were underway.
Higgins had easily recognized the freshly painted TPhetti scrawl on the hull of the sleek hovercraft. It was the equivelant of a commercial logo for DuKra Industries. Higgins knew it well, Chief Engineer DuKra had been the centerpiece of his TPhetti Industry: Then and Now story. DuKra Industries (formerly the DuKra Transit Guild) had been the primary manufacturer of Skinnie exo-suits before SICON decided to lend a hand in mass-production. DuKra Industries had also been the first TPhetti commercial enterprise to enter into a joint venture with Terran engineers to adapt SICON vehicles and equipment to Skinnie physiology.
DuKra himself had been an extremely cooperative interview subject, if anything the TPhetti official had gone into perhaps more technical detail than was necessary. In a way, DuKra reminded Higgins of Corporal Gossard, but wasnt sure if Gossard would be flattered by the comparison.
The cockpit hissed shut as the Skimmer took off into the methane-saturated atmosphere. The front seats had been moved back to make room for the pilots long Skinnie legs. Higgins noticed that his own feet could never have reached the pedals. He felt uncomfortably like a little kid trapped in a vehicle that only grown ups could operate. He wondered briefly if this was how Skinnies felt aboard Human ships. Or did they feel like grown-ups living in ships built by an advanced race of midgets?
When he looked though the windscreen, Higgins was surprised by how fast the landscape was zipping past. The Skinnie pilot (who hadnt so much as glanced in Higgins direction) was expertly dodging sharp rock formations and flaming geysers with ease. Higgins remembered the first time he had piloted a Skimmer over the surface of Tophet and sincerely hoped this story had a much happier ending.
They were delving straight into a system of canyons now. Higgins had hoped the stonily silent pilot would slow down, or at least offer some word of reassurance. Instead the Skimmer rocked and swayed under the pilots expert control to avoid the outcroppings that loomed in Higgins field of vision with alarming speed. Exactly where were they going and how long would it take them to get there?
After what seemed like hours (but had really been less than two) the Skimmer broke free of the canyon walls and headed out into open plains. At first Higgins felt relief until he saw the low-lying storm clouds up ahead. As if the seething black clouds werent ominous enough, lightning crackled overhead. Higgins wasnt sure it was a bright idea to keep heading in that direction. He was about to saying something to his partner in silence, but figured it would be best to let the pilot concentrate on what he was doing.
What the pilot was doing was driving straight into the storm. Wind buffeted the Skimmer on all sides and a black fog enveloped the ship as the Skimmer punched holes through the clouds. Higgins was sporadically blinded by lighting and bone rattled by thunder as he clenched his eyes shut and tried not to grit his teeth too hard. The journey through the storm only lasted about twenty-odd minutes, but to Higgins it seemed to last longer than the obstacle course through the canyons had.
Just as suddenly as the storm had been upon them, the fog lifted and it appeared as though twilight had settled on the rocky plains below. Rationally, Higgins knew the Suns never set on Tophet, at least not on the Day side. So the ship must have been nearing the equator, leaving the Suns to dwindle on the horizon behind them. The horizon confronting them was cut off by a huge walled structure which must have been as tall as a mountain. It filled almost half the sky and stretched off in both directions as far as the eye could see.
They must have been approaching a towering canyon wall, a cliff face taller and deeper than anything found on Terra or even Mars. But what natural structure had such perfectly smooth sides? The Suns had indeed set behind them now and the structure was hard to make out in the dim light. The very top of the wall was a soft yellowish haze that seemed to blend in with the sky. In fact, the closer the Skimmer came, the taller the wall loomed, and it became difficult to tell where the wall ended and the sky began. How far up did this wall go anyway? Thousands of feet? Miles?
Higgins was attempting to discern what the indiscernible structure was made of, also beginning to wonder why this destination wasnt mentioned in the TPhetti Bureau of Tourism brochures, when the massive surface of the unthinkably huge wall before his eyes.....undulated!!!
Higgins suppressed a yelp of panic as his mind finally managed to wrap itself around the concept of what he was looking at. He was looking straight into the heart of the Dark Zone, the permanent cold / warm pressure front circling the equator of the planet Tophet. The wall (as Higgins continued to think of it) was really a wall of air trapped behind a permanently entrenched high pressure system, keeping a smoldering bulwark of dust clouds and condensed gasses at bay.
As the Skimmer began to descend to the surface, the wall became impossibly darker, and yet, strangely more solid. The diffused sunlight bouncing off the foamy glint of dust and gas revealed a more densely packed layer of the atmosphere. Likewise, the undulations of the walls surface became more pronounced. And yet the lower the Skimmer sank, the amount of sunlight that reached the bottom of the wall became less and less. By the time the Skimmer hit the ground, Higgins was staring out at a barely distinguishable wall of nothingness, as if one could simply take a flying leap off the edge of the world, and tumble gracelessly into the blackness of deep space.
There was a six wheeled rover sitting next to where the Skimmer had landed, its tire tracks disappearing into the void that was the Dark Zone. Standing next to the rover was a Skinnie decked out in a exo-suit. Higgins figured it was the first time he had ever seen a Skinnie wearing an exo-suit in the harsh TPhetti atmosphere. They werent actually planning to go into the Dark Zone, were they? He had been told that Skinnies never went there, that the TPhetti Council of Elders didnt even consider the Dark side to be TPhetti property. What was going on here?
For the first time, the silent Skimmer pilot suddenly spoke up, causing Higgins a jolt that would have propelled him out of his seat if it hadnt been for the protective seat harness.
Climb aboard that rover, and the driver will give you the inside scoop youve been looking for, the Skinnie promised as he released the latch on the cockpit.
Higgins carefully retrieved his camera and strode toward the rover. He noticed the exo-suited drivers face-plate was completely polarized, offering only a golden mirror-like reflection to prying eyes. Higgins did take note that the driver had a slight limp as he (or she) climbed into the cab of the rover and shut the door. Higgins did likewise and kept his camera in his lap, ready for action.
The gasp Higgins had been saving up escaped his lips when the rover actually penetrated the shroud of the Dark Zone. His senses told him that he was being driven off the edge of a cliff and he half-expected to feel as though he were plummeting to his death in free-fall. But all he could feel was the faint rumble of the rover engine through his seat. Looking out the window of the cab was a mistake. There was no frame of reference, just pitch blackness. Higgins checked the dashboard over the Skinnies arm to affirm that indeed the headlights were turned on. Presumably the Skinnie was using infrared or sonar in the heads-up display of his exo-suit to navigate, but this offered Higgins little comfort. He had also expected to be buffeted by wind and grit again, but apparently the wall was held in place more by atmospheric pressure than wind. The ride was eerily quiet and smooth.
Higgins tried to distract himself by double checking his camera. He had checked and rechecked his equipment before he had left the security of the Fed-Net center, but experience had taught him it never hurt to be too sure. Many a moment in history had been lost simply because the cameraman hadnt been on the bounce.
Higgins had brought the standard issue Yashica ReadyCam 3000, the sturdiest camera in Fed-Net inventory. It had minimal moving parts and about six hours of tape. Well, it had six hours of disk space in its memory bank, anyway. Journalists and amateur photographers alike still called the disk space tape, though Higgins doubted that spools of any kind had been turning in the cameras issued by Fed-Net for the past three decades.
Higgins mind had wandered so far adrift that he hadnt noticed precisely when the Dark Zone fog had thinned out to reveal the sparse and frozen landscape of the planets Night side. It reminded him of the dirty ice fields on Pluto, but the ground was somehow more yellow, and the sky was a deep, rich purple, occasionally marbled with flashes of lightning white. Unclear as to where the reflective surface light was coming from, Higgins craned his neck to take in the piece of sky directly outside the window on his side of the cab. He could make out a blurry spattering of stars and the hazy crescent of a forgotten moon shedding light on the frozen side of planet Hell. He wondered how many Skinnies had actually seen the sight he was seeing now and guessed that it was a precious few.
Who knew? Maybe he was about to be shown a lost tribe of Skinnies who had somehow managed to eke out an existence deep inside the Dark Zone. Maybe they had finally figured out a practical use for those Sparky squirrel-monkey critters. Maybe they used the sparkies as sources of electrical energy to melt the ice into a drinkable source of nutrients. Maybe the squirrel monkeys were the dominant life forms on the Dark side and were plotting a intergalactic take over.
Higgins could tell he was getting sleepy when he had to make up silly stories to keep himself awake. He was supposed to be nice and snug in a SICON billet right now, dreaming of ways to impress the alumni judiciary panel for the Albert Liverman School of Journalism, not gallavanting about in the middle of the night risking serious damage to his career if he didnt get back to base at the appointed hour.
Suddenly the rover lurched to a halt. The driver got out of the cab, pointed to Higgins camera and motioned for him to step out side. Higgins turned the camera on and followed the Skinnie to the edge of a deep ravine. There were several light sources emanating from somewhere inside the valley down below. The Skinnie pointed to where the tiny lights seemed to be the most tightly concentrated. Higgins focused his camera into the valley and played around with the zoom settings.
And then his jaw dropped. He couldnt believe it. He was standing there looking at it, watching it happen with his own eyes, and he still couldnt believe it. He wasnt sure anyone he reported this to would believe it either. He made sure the cameras compass was fully functional and displayed the compass readings on the cameras internal screen. Cameras may lie, but no one would be able to dispute the compass readings. If worst came to worst (and in this case, it almost certainly would) they could always redirect the weather satellites to confirm Higgins findings. It would be proof enough. Or at least thats the story Higgins liked to tell himself.