Three people come together under less than normal circumstances. Follow them as they work to uncover a mystery which has the potential to destroy their very world. (I'd say more, but I risk giving away the story line. Just give it a try.)

 

Whole Burnt

By SB Zarben

Zarben314@hotmail.com

 

Disclaimers: These are my characters, my ideas, and my world. Mine, mine, MINE!!! BWAHAHAHA!!!! Ahem.

Love/Sex/Violence/Language: Familial love, yes. Friendship love, yes. Romantic love, most probably. Between two people of the same gender, most probably. Like I've said before. If that bugs ya, git yer head out of the sand and live in the now. As for the other two, yes.

My website: http://www.angelfire.com/falcon/sbzarben It has all my work to date. Feel free to check it out and drop me an e-mail, addy above. And now, on with the show!

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No one had any reason to think, when September inevitably rolled around, that this year at Lorraine High would be any different from the others. I didn't and by this year, my sixth at the same school, I felt I had a pretty good grasp of life as a teenager. Or, at the very least, life as a teenager in high school.

There'd be the people who dreaded the start of a new year but accepted the fact that, for another ten months, they'd be forcibly locked within the walls of an educational institution that was akin to Hell. The ones who were starting grade seven would likely be filled with a dread of the unknown and the fear of being lost in a sea of anynimity of gigantic proportions. Others would see it as an opportunity to goof off the entire time, not realizing the gravity of the three years spent in high school.

I'll be the first to admit that most of the stuff they make us learn is absolutely useless and we'll never need again, except maybe in the case of a first year University course. But that doesn't change the fact that post-secondary education is fully dependent on a handful of numbers earned in one year of your life.

And lastly, there'd be the group that I finally, blessedly, fell into. Students entering grade twelve, the final year of academic torture and futility. Most of us, and myself for certain, would have only one thing going through our heads. "It's almost over, it's almost over. Just one more year, nothing can be worse than this. It's almost over" I can say for sure that that's pretty much the only thing that got me through the twelfth grade.

I hated school. No, let me rephrase that. I have always hated and despised school with a fiery passion that rivals even the strongest of infernos. I'm proud to say that I'm not one of those people who thought elementary school with it's pasting and cutting and coloring was the greatest thing since... Well, something really great. I'm not one of the ones who suffered a violent, 180 degree turn of opinion somewhere around the eighth or ninth grade. From the very beginning I was against the idea of sitting in a room, surrounded by thirty or so of my peers, listening to someone drone on and on and on.

So why didn't I drop out? Well, my parents would have had a heart attack, that's for sure. By the time I was sixteen I was halfway through the eleventh grade and truthfully, after ten and a half years of hating what I had to do every day, there was no way I was going to quit when I only had a year and a half left. No way. Especially when I knew damn well that I wouldn't be doing much with my life without a high school diploma.

I was so looking forward to the end of high school that I can almost say, with a straight face and no trace of sarcasm, that I was looking forward to the start of grade twelve. Only so it would be over sooner, mind you.

Truly, whoever said that high school is "the greatest years of your life" I think must have been on crack or something.

Despite all this I can honestly say that, looking back, I am proud to have attended Lorraine High during the 04/05 school year.

 

***

"So, can anyone tell me why, of the other fifteen planets, the Founder's Group chose Lorraine for Earth's last colony?"

Robert Burke didn't even bother looking up from his comfortable sprawl at the back of the classroom when the teacher posed his question. He knew the answer, of course, just like he knew the answer to every question Mr. Thomson asked but Robert declined to answer. That was just the way he was.

He chanced a peek at his fellow history students, and cringed when he saw that no one had their hand up. That meant....

"Robert, why don't you give it a try?" Mr. Thomson asked, his eyes directed to his erstwhile student.

Robert just barely managed to keep his sigh of frustration contained while he straightened and looked at the teacher. "Unexplained and unusual electric currents that cover the planet and not any of the others."

Mr. Thomson nodded, "Right," he said, "the Founder's Group was composed of scientists and, after concluding that these electric currents wouldn't harm humans, they chose this planet in the hopes of finding the cause of these currents. It took five years..."

Robert slouched again and continued doodling, his head firmly planted on his right fist, studiously ignoring his classmates.

Finally, the bell rang and all the students were in motion. It was lunch time. Robert scooped up his books and headed down the hall at a fast walk, wanting to make it to his locker before everyone filed out of their classrooms and the inevitable bottleneck formed.

He made it to their usual place in the hallway with his lunch tucked under his arm and waited. JP Tupo rounded the corner, her face breaking into a smile upon seeing him waiting for her. "Hey," she said.

"Hey back. How was math?"

"Ugh, why we have to learn this junk is beyond me. It's terrible."

Robert looked at her sideways while munching on his sandwich, "You like math."

She mock glared at him, "Nooo, my dear friend, I hate math. I just happen to be good at it. There's a difference." She elbowed him and grinned.

"Fine, whatever. About our camping trip tomorrow-"

"Ohh, I can't wait! We don't have much time left until the weather turns bad."

Robert shifted and tugged a list out of his bag. "I spoke to Sonya. She's got dinner and snacks covered, along with accessories. I've got the tents and gear, that leaves breakfast and lunch for you." He handed her the list which JP took and read over.

"Our usual stuff, then?"

"Yep."

"No problem."

They sat in silence then, eating their lunch and watching the ebb and flow of other students who were wandering the halls. Soon enough the warning bell rang and they were off once again for another two hours of class. And then, blessed freedom would be theirs.

***

Friday afternoon was pleasantly warm with a clear blue sky and not a single cloud in sight. Perfect for hiking. JP arrived at their usual meeting place promptly at 3:30, followed by Sonya and finally Robert. They each carried large hiking bags loaded down with equipment from basic tents to emergency gear.

Their usual campsite was a leisurely four hour walk outside of the city which would leave them just enough time to secure their site and pitch their tents before darkness, and all its inherent dangers, fell upon the forest.

The people of the city had gotten used to the group of crazy kids that went out into the forest as often as possible and, after three years, they managed to get away with a minimum of reminders.

Remember to use the perimeter beacons.

Don't leave the campsite at night.

Be careful.

Don't be afraid to use the satellite phone if there's trouble.

Listen to Robert.

That last one always miffed JP and Sonya. So he was twenty years old, only two years their senior. So he knew the area better than they did; likely even better than he knew the back of his own hand. That didn't make them any less capable, considering they were hardly amateurs.

But whatever.

Adults worried, that's just the way it was.

"Hey JP!" Sonya called and broke into a jog to catch up to her swiftly walking friend on the path. "Where's the fire?"

JP smiled and shrugged, "Sorry, I was just thinking."

Sonya settled in beside her friend, flicked her long hair behind her head, and nodded. "I feel like I haven't seen you in forever."

"I know. It sucks that we don't have any classes together. Hey, how's your biology class going?"

"Ugh," Sonya shook her entire body in disgust. "Ms. Preston has to be the boringest teacher ever. She has absolutely no personality. I almost fell asleep in her class yesterday!"

"Boringest?" JP teased.

Sonya scowled, "So English isn't my thing. You know that. But seriously, if Lorraine had a competition for the person with a cardboard personality, she'd win."

"What does that even mean, a cardboard personality?"

"I don't have anything against the woman as a person," Sonya continued, "she just doesn't interest me..."

"Cardboard was primarily used as a packing material. Or to carry stuff around in. So what does it really mean to say someone is like cardboard? They hold a lot of stuff?" JP's brow scrunched in thought as they continued walking on autopilot.

"Are you listening to me?!" They both said at the same time, sending accusing looks at one another. The friends grinned and laughed then continued on with Robert taking up the rear.

The hike seemed relatively short to them, they'd walked it so many times, so when they arrived at the site they fell into their usual routines. Robert cleared the area and pitched the tent. JP collected firewood and made sure the surrounding area was free of anything suspicious. Like carcasses. Sonya laid out the perimeter beacons, testing each individual unit and then the system as a whole.

By sunset the camp was in order and the trio was sprawled across a collection of rocks at the edge of their camp which sat on the top of the ridge. They had a grand view of the valley below and watched as the two suns slowly dipped behind the horizon, the first setting half an hour ahead of the second. It made for an amazing light show.

Dinner was a collection of packets that they simply had to heat over their fire and then tear open. While the contents looked disgusting, they were actually quite appetizing. Robert meticulously oversaw the cleaning up and then activated the perimeter beacons, encasing the entire area in a rich yellow glow. They were asleep the moment their heads hit the pillows, pleasantly tired from the long hike.

***

JP stuck her head out of the tent and smacked her lips, noting that the suns had already made significant progress into the sky. Robert was hunched on a rock with his sketch book on his lap, taking advantage of the light. She reached back inside and pulled out a small package, dumped the contents into a cup, and filled it with water heating at the fire. The rich aroma rose to her nose and JP inhaled deeply as she perched on a log.

"Mmmmm... Coffee."

"Hey sleepyhead." Sonya said as she settled next to her rumpled friend. "I was thinking we could go check out that cave we found the last time. You know, it's just around the cut and faces into the valley?"

JP nodded, "I remember. It was all sparkly inside." She took a large gulp and sighed in pleasure, "Just let me finish this and get my day-pack together."

"Sure. I'll go check in with the marshal." Sonya grinned and made her way over to Robert.

He was sketching the valley at sunrise and was busy trying to get the shading right on the clouds. Sonya waited until he looked up and raised his eyebrows.

"JP and I are going to that cave around the cut. We should be back in time for lunch."

Robert nodded, "Okay. Be careful, though. Just because there wasn't any neti activity last night doesn't mean there aren't packs of them around here."

"I know. We'll call if there's a problem."

JP was standing at the edge of the camp with a far smaller bag slung across one shoulder with Sonya's resting at her feet. They hiked with far more care, not as familiar with this path or area of the forest. It was a nice day, warm but not hot with a pleasant breeze that just managed to ruffle the bangs on JP's forehead.

After a half hour Sonya pointed to a copse of trees through which JP could just make out the sparkling of the cave walls. "I can't wait to collect some rocks."

Sonya scoffed at that and muttered, "You have the most bizarre hobbies."

JP took the lead, stepping carefully and holding onto tree trunks. The path was extremely narrow and ran along the outer edge of the ridge that descended into the valley below. The ground was rough as it was passed the cut, the stretch of land that had been terra-formed by the city-planners before the netis had been discovered.

Thankfully, there was a small clearing before the cave entrance which contained only a small number of boulders and fairly flat ground. They set their packs on a large, flat rock and pulled out flashlights. They spent an hour in the cave, JP collecting rocks and marveling at the different hues while Sonya snapped off a couple photos and drew a rough approximation of the inside of the cave.

They emerged happy and satisfied with their latest discovery, eager to tell Robert about it. Ever since they had started camping the trio had made it their personal mission to map out as much of the forest area as possible. City-planners had never taken the time to do so, reasoning that most people had no desire the leave the confines of Lorraine. There were, however, plenty of people like them who enjoyed to take short trips just for the thrill. They figured the maps would be helpful in the event that someone got lost, or a child simply wandered off into the wilds.

Some people thought they were nuts.

Others, like Robert's parents, wholly supported the kids for providing a service the Council thought unnecessary.

Sonya settled herself on the ground with her water bottle and wiped some rock dust off her forehead. "Rest here before heading back? We have time."

JP nodded, "Yeah, it's really beautiful here." She took a deep breath, reveling in the clean tree smell that permeated the atmosphere. She headed out closer to the embankment and looked out over the valley where two birds were swooping around in circles, putting on an impressive show of acrobatics.

Sonya closed her eyes and leaned her head back, allowing herself to simply drift in the peace and quiet of the area. She heard JP's continuing deep breaths and sounds of satisfaction, once again amazed that her friend could find so much joy in something so simple.

A yell of pure terror brought Sonya jumping to her feet in time to see JP's back as she fell down the embankment, the section of ground she had been standing on having simply crumbled beneath JP's weight.

"JP!!" Sonya slid to her knees at the edge, looking over desperately but seeing only plant life. She sat, wide-eyed and frozen, for an eternal moment before lurching into motion. She grabbed her pack and pulled out the emergency flare, cursing roundly as it fell from her shaking hands. She set it for daytime usage and then pointed it up and pulled the trigger, her ears ringing from the sound. Next she grabbed her satellite phone and switched it on, hoping to God that Robert was close enough to his to hear her.

"Robert! Robert, God damn it, answer me!!" She released the button and waited, hearing only static. She opened her mouth to yell at him again when he answered; his voice had never sounded so good.

"Sonya, what's wrong? What happened? I saw the flare-"

"JP fell down the fucking embankment, that's what happened! Oh, God... she didn't even have her pack with her. I don't-"

"Sonya, listen. I'm on my way with all the equipment we have. Just sit tight and don't do anything stupid, understand?"

"We should be calling for help, not mounting a God damn rescue mission!"

"We're too far out, Sonya, nobody in Lorraine can get our signal."

"What?! What the hell is a satellite phone good for if you can be too far out?!"

She heard Robert's sigh among noises of swift packing and felt an irrational anger rising. Why was he being so calm about this, for Christ sake? JP was gone, missing, probably dead. He shouldn't be so calm. "Robert-"

"It's nearing winter which means the magnetics of the planet are increasing which is interfering with the satellites."

"We solved that problem, God damn it! The network-"

"Is down. It has been all week. Long range communication is impossible."

Silence filled their conversation then, broken only by Robert's continued packing and then his running footsteps. Sonya blinked, nonplused, unsure what to do.

"Sonya, just sit tight. I'll be there soon. You just have to get a grip, okay?"

She nodded and closed her eyes, taking in a deep breath and exhaling. "All right, I'm okay. Just get here." She shut off the radio and sat stiffly on the ground with her hands clasped in front of her in a futile attempt to stop the shaking.

***

Bruised leaves.

It was the first thing that JP became aware of, followed by the fact that she was lying on the ground in a very awkward position.

What the hell am I doing on the ground? Her mind asked the question as her eyes finally got the signal to open. She was greeted by the sight of trees so tall she didn't think their terra-formers could make buildings that big.

"Oh." It finally registered in her brain that she was staring up the ridge of the valley. Waitasecond... Up the ridge? That meant she had to have come down...

"Oh." She said it again and sat up slowly as she recalled suddenly being airborne and hearing Sonya call her name. Then.... bruised leaves. JP gingerly checked first her head and arms, followed by her body and finally her legs. Well, nothing was broken. That was a plus. A little unbelievable, but a plus nonetheless.

Deciding that it was time to stand up, JP grabbed a convenient tree and pulled herself up, letting out a yelp as she put weight down on her right foot. Sprained ankle. JP scowled at the appendage and looked around for a decent sized stick. Finding one, she broke it off and managed a few lurching steps around her own little clearing.

"So, now what? Do I stay or do I go?" The sun was only just at its peak meaning she had several hours before dark which brought with it a whole new set or problems. What were the chances help would arrive before then? Looking up, she decided that even if Robert and Sonya stringed together all their rope they wouldn't be able to reach her.

So.

JP turned in a circled and picked a direction before heading off, swearing the entire time.

***

Sonya lunged forward and grabbed Robert's hand as it appeared over the top of the embankment, terrified that the rope and harness he'd tied around himself would break and that she'd lose another friend that day. His head appeared moments later and finally he'd pulled his entire body up onto solid ground and just laid there for a long moment staring at the sky.

"The good news," Robert's voice broke the silence finally, startling Sonya, "is that there aren't any straight drops that are very big. There are a lot of gentle slopes and at the end of the rope a little ledge that's got a lot of vegetation on it. It's soft. JP didn't fall straight down, the slopes and ledge broke her fall."

"How do you know she hit the ledge?"

Robert pulled a small brown bag out of his pocket and showed it to Sonya. It was JP's rock collection pouch that she had just recently filled with specimens.

Sonya reached out and closed her fingers around the leather and felt tears fill her eyes. "Now what?"

He massaged the area between his eyes and blew out a breath. "By the time we get back to Lorraine they won't send anyone out because of the netis."

"But someone can go back anyway and that way a search party will be sent out first thing tomorrow morning..." Sonya trailed off as she saw Robert shaking his head. "What? Why are you shaking your head like that? What aren't you telling me?"

"No one has been in the basin for years, Sonya. Not since the original scouting parties. Anyone entering would be essentially blind to any danger and would likely get lost."

Sonya realized what he was saying with increasing horror. "You think no one will go and look for her, don't you?"

His bleak look was all the answer she needed.

"That's crazy!" She shot to her feet and started pacing with short, angry strides. "What about her folks? They'll demand a search... We can't just leave her down there to die, Robert! Your parents have pull with the Council... Or we could look ourselves..."

"Sonya!" He grabbed her shoulders and forced eye contact. "No one is expecting us back until tomorrow evening. We can look for JP without anyone stopping us right now but I don't think we have much of a chance. As soon as the Council hears, they'll forbid a search. But we don't have to tell them. My parents will help, despite knowing the Council's decision. The best thing we can do right now is try and find out if JP is still alive."

"How do we do that?" She'd given up on holding back her tears and looked up at Robert, his earnest face blurry.

"I've got an idea."

***

"Crap! That was stupid, stupid, stupid!" JP berated herself as she examined the scrape on her arm. She hadn't been paying attention and had literally walked off a small drop. The good thing was that she'd found a creek. Hobbling over, JP hesitantly smelled and then tasted the water before deciding it was safe and started drinking.

JP leaned back against a rock and blew out a breath, staring balefully at her foot. If she took her boot off to put a cold cloth on to stop the swelling she knew she'd never get her boot back on. Which sucked.

She raised her eyes to the sky and tried to rid her body of some of its built up tension. That's when she noticed something just a little bit out of place. Smoke. Not a lot, so it wasn't a forest fire. It was more on par with a campfire or something. Which didn't make any sense, since no one had been in the basin for years.

JP hauled herself to her feet again and resumed her awkward shuffle, rejuvenated by the thought that someone else might be nearby. At the very least she would be able to stay with them overnight without fear of attacking neti's and they would probably be able to direct her back to the ridge where, JP knew, Robert and Sonya were going crazy.

It wasn't long before the forest floor dipped itself down again into a slight clearing. She stopped dead in her tracks as soon as she broke through the trees and blinked, wondering absently if maybe she had hit her head and was hallucinating.

A cabin sat far back in the clearing, its walls made of a combination of wood, stone, and vegetation. It looked to be in good shape although it was obviously hand made and even had a small porch connected to its front upon which currently sat a stack of wood. The smoke she had seen was rising from a large fire pit in the center of the clearing. Scanning the area, JP could see definite paths worn into the ground and a discrete shed set adjacent to the cabin.

The idea that someone had actually been living in the basin was inconceivable. The fact that it had obviously been going on for quite a while was mind boggling to JP.

Entering further into the clearing her attention was brought to movement coming out of the woods. It was a woman with an armload of wood, her clothes old and ragged but patched and clean. JP couldn't make out any details from this distance, but the woman hadn't noticed that someone else was standing in her clearing.

"Excuse me?" JP finally found her voice and managed to force the words out of her throat. It was an absurd opening, really, but what else did one say to a woodsman...woman, whatever...when seeking help?

The stranger froze in her tracks and stood rooted to the spot, not moving a muscle. JP didn't know if it was out of shock or indignation that someone had intruded upon the woman's clearing. In fact, she could have been debating if she had enough time to grab her shotgun and shoot JP before she managed to get away.

As these thoughts took shape JP swallowed and considered that it might not have been the smartest thing to call attention to herself. Finally, the woman's head moved and she focused on JP who got the strangest impression that she was being looked through, not at. JP watched as the woman added her armful of wood to the stacked pile and then walked toward her, stopping an arms length away.

JP swallowed and shifted her hands nervously on her walking stick. "Um, hi. Listen, my friends and I were camping up on the east ridge and I sort of fell off the embankment. I was hoping you might be able to help me?" JP swallowed again as she noted that the woman had a disconcerting habit of flicking her eyes all around, mostly over JP's shoulder, like she was looking for something.

"You can walk?" The suddenness of the question startled JP and she took a moment before answering.

"Not very well, but..." She trailed off and tensed as the woman walked toward her and quite simply scooped JP up into her arms. "Urg, um..." She decided to simply be quiet and dropped her walking stick.

They entered the cabin and JP found herself placed in a wooden chair while the woman continued to the back and ducked behind a curtain. She emerged with a bag and set it on the table before retrieving a bark bowl filled with water.

"So," JP felt a need to fill the silence, "what's your name?"

It wasn't until her would-be savior had settled in the single other chair and was staring critically at JP's injured foot that she answered. "Ay'nin."

"That sounds like a Rotorri na..." JP trailed off when Ay'nin looked up and she finally got a good look at the woman's eyes. They were orange. Ay'nin raised a challenging eyebrow then, and JP stared in simple shock. She had never met a Human-Rotorri hybrid before. In fact, she hadn't met any hybrids before. "Oh."

Ay'nin continued then, leaning down and pulling JP's foot into her own lap. She unlaced the boot and pulled down the sock, wrapping JP's foot in the extremely cold cloth.

"Yow!!"

"Sorry. The river isn't very warm this time of year." Ay'nin looked up and flicked her eyes around the room, resting just slightly longer in one corner before she stood abruptly and started puttering around on the counter. She came back with a cup and held it out. "It'll help with the swelling and has a slight painkiller."

JP took the cup with only slight hesitation and sniffed it before swallowing. She supposed if Ay'nin wanted to kill her there were far more expedient ways than poisoning. Cradling the cup, JP allowed her eyes to follow Ay'nin around the small cabinbefore studying the cabin itself. Its furnishings were sparse but well built and cared for and as a whole the entire building was clean. A hanging blanket separated the bedroom and main room. A half constructed fireplace sat in one corner.

Ay'nin came back after a time and changed the cloth on her foot with a new one then settled once again in the other chair. "You need to tell me specifically where you were camping."

JP smiled, "You'll help me?"

Ay'nin nodded but remained silent.

"Well," JP scrunched her brow in thought, "it's on the east ridge, about a four hour walk from Lorraine. I don't really know much more than that. It's not like there are landmarks, other than rocks and trees. If there were maps..." JP stopped as Ay'nin stood and walked to a counter at the back of the room. She came back with a large rolled piece of paper and spread it out on the table.

"This is the east ridge," Ay'nin said as she pointed, "and here's Lorraine."

JP felt her eyes go wide as she leaned forward and studied the hand-drawn map. The attention to detail was amazing, it was obvious the map maker had been meticulous. "You did this?"

"Yes."

"It's...amazing. Lorraine doesn't have any maps of the area outside the city. My friends and I have been trying to map the area but...it's taking forever. How did you-"

"I've had over eight years, with nothing much to do in the winter." Ay'nin shrugged. "Your campsite?" She prodded the younger woman's attention back to the subject at hand.

"Oh! Right." JP studied the map, calculating distances and finally put her finger on a spot she thought was relatively close to their site. "Here."

Ay'nin leaned forward and frowned. "There isn't an easy way up there," she paused and flicked her eyes up and nodded, muttering, "we'll go in the morning. Your foot should feel better by then and you'll be back in plenty of time to return to Lorraine before dark." She started toward the door then and paused before stepping out, "I have work to do still. I'll have enough dinner for you and you can sleep in the bed. Change the cloth when it gets too warm, and if the water isn't cool enough just yell." With that, Ay'nin ducked out the door and JP was left to sit, alone, in a cabin that no one knew existed with a stranger she knew nothing about.

What a bizarre universe.

To be continued...

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