With the group well over half way to the ranch, there’s no need to get up too early and so everyone is up at 8.00 to enjoy a hearty breakfast at the hotel. Then it’s into the air/rafts for the second leg of the journey.
It’s light now, making the journey a lot more interesting now that everyone can see the countryside below. The air/rafts are heading south-west now heading for the Lersion Range which breaks up the monotony of the empty flat plains.
By mid-morning, as the air/rafts start to ascend the incline of the range, it starts to sleet. Everyone is very glad that they invested in the cold weather gear before departure.
By 13.00, the air/rafts are descending back onto the plain again. Having made good progress, the two drivers bring the air/rafts down so that everyone can have some lunch. The rations that the party brought with them are rather bland compared to the quality of the food in Plainsville.
The party return to the air/rafts for the last leg of the journey. It really is pretty lonely out here. Around every 100km, they see a nobble ranch but, other than those, there are just endless plains on one side of them and the Lesion Range on the other.
By 16.00, the air/rafts are getting very close. They can see the Atok Swamps ahead of them. Some 20 minutes’ later and they can see the Traske Ranch come into view, located where the Lesion Range meets the Atok Swamp, the ranch occupying higher ground so as to avoid any potential problems with flooding. To the north lies the seemingly neverending expanse of the Nob Plain. The ranch is very remote – 100km away from the nearest other ranch.
The Traske Ranch has seen better days, consisting of several crumbling prefabricated concrete buildings. The ranch covers an area of around one square kilometer, much of which is covered with fields so that the ranch is nearly self-sufficient for food. There are large barns constructed from rusty corrugated irons. The main ranch house is in the centre of the grounds, with several other smaller buildings which Taeva informs the others belong to ranch hands. Last time she was here there were four other families living on the compound.
The two air/rafts land right in front of the main ranch house. Taeva’s mother sees the air/rafts returning and rushes out to meet them.
It’s such a long time ago that her mother has seen Taeva that she hardly recognizes her at first. Then she lets out a squeal and scurries over to greet her.
“Taeva!” she cries. “It’s so good to see you again after all this time.”
Taeva’s mother wraps her arms around her and sobs into her shoulder.
It’s five minutes before she’s calmed down and Taeva introduces her to the other members of the party. Taeva’s mother shakes hands with everyone. “Please, call me Shania,” she says.
Taeva learns that most of the families that were living on the ranch have moved away, meaning that there is plenty of free accommodation for everyone. Shania hands everyone keys and leaves them to get settled, telling everyone that she will start preparing a good welcome meal for everyone at 19.00.
The party members return to the ranch house and are introduced to Hyrm, the ranch manager. Taeva knows that he is his father’s best friend and has been working on the ranch since the day that Taeva’s family built it. He’s a serious looking man nearing 60, his face leathery from all the time he has spent outdoors.
Shania’s mood is different as she brings out the vast quantity of food that she has prepared for the visitors.
“Where’s Dad?” Taeva asks.
Shania’s expression changes to one of worry.
“We don’t know,” she says quietly. “I didn’t want to worry you unnecessarily but I can’t lie. We are really worried about him. He should have been back by now. He’s never gone this long. We’re starting to think that something might have happened to him.”
“We’ve tried his commo,” Hyrm adds, “But it’s offline. It’s either been turned off or broken or else the battery ran out.”
Tears start to form in Shania’s eyes. “It seems like it’s just been one thing after another recently,” she says sadly. “The ranch has been losing money for the past few years. It started with an accident which prevented the harvesting vehicles from reaching the nobble herd in time to make a harvest. As a result, we needed to make a penalty payment for failure to keep to our contract. That made us short of cash for almost a year and so we were also at a disadvantage in bidding for future contracts.”
“Your father thought that the mishap – several grav modules failing simultaneously – was a case of sabotage,” Hyrm adds. “I didn’t think so at the time – accidents do happen after all. But since then there have been a lot of other problems, so I think he might have been right all along.”
“What other problems?” Taeva asks.
Shania sighs once more. “Next our generator failed and had to be replaced. This took up nearly all our savings. Predators from the swamp have been coming onto our land and killing the livestock.”
Hyrm shakes his head. “That doesn’t make sense at all. We’ve been here decades and they never bothered us before. So why would they start now?”
“All of the ranch hands had moved away by this time. They knew that we couldn’t afford to pay them and all these problems really started to get to them.”
“This is when I sent you the message.” Shania says.
“Just two days after that and the wooden barn burned down with all our crops in it. We just don’t have the money left now to replace it.”
“I’ve been seeing strangers in air/rafts nearly every day,” Hrym adds. “I’ve tried to get to them to ask them who they are and what they’re doing here, but they always fly off as soon as they seem me approaching.”
“You’re father has been acting very strangely,” Shania says. “He said that he was onto something and that, as soon as he had more ‘proof’, he could straighten out all the problems and everything would be all right again. He left with a grav belt and some provisions two local days ago – that’s six Terran days – and hasn’t called in since.”
Hyrm shakes his head again. “He wouldn’t be gone so long without checking in,” he says. “Something must have happened to him.”
“Did he say where he was going?” Taeva asks.
“No,” Hyrm replies with a shake of the head. “It looked like he was heading for the mountains. He had said that he would be gone for quite a while and not to worry about him. But he’s never been away this long before.”
Quietly and efficiently, Jie sets about the farm and begins to make plans. First she enlists Grim’s help to try and use the party’s gear in order to try and get advanced warning if anyone, or anything tries to get too close to the farm. From the party’s gear, only the motion sensor and bugging device are much use and, even these devices aren’t going to cover much of the 4000 metre perimeter of the ranch. They set them up anyway, with one in the direction of the swamp and the other in the direction of the mountains.
Jie then asks Arvor if he could assist her in backtracking the fathers missing Comm gear by bouncing a signal of the right frequency off of Glogh, the locked moon and seeing if a resonant ‘ping’ comes from his missing receiver. It takes them a while to set it up, but it brings no response.
“It’s not just switched off,” Arvor says. “The commo is definitely dead or broken, otherwise we would get some signal from it.”
She then asks William if he could do a little research to see if there might be any value to the land. William spends a while sifting through all of the data that he can find on the area, but shakes his head after some time:
“I can’t see why anyone could be interested in this small plot of land,” he says with a sigh. “What use is a swamp to anyone? The vast majority of this world is still there for the taking. It doesn’t make any sense that someone could go to a lot of trouble for this tiny piece of land on the edge of nowhere.”
Meanwhile, Arvor borrows Taeva’s chemsniffer to check out the barn. It takes him a while to pick up anything as the barn fire happened such a long time ago. After some effort though, he manages to find some trace elements of kerosene on the charred remains. It would appear that Taeva’s father’s theory was right – the fire was started deliberately.
“I smell a rich mega corp.” says Grim, watching as Arvor use Taeva’s Chemsniffer to look for traces of accelerants at the barn.
Jie then suggests that they get hold of the most detailed maps and satellite imagery that they have available to look for potential bases of operations close to the ranch.
“Jie’s right, we should look for a small operations staging area," agrees Grim. "We’re too far out for anyone without deep pockets to maintain a base from which to harass these good folks.”
Grim turns to Shania and asks for the most detailed maps she has available. He also uses his Tarsus GPS to access the pertinent satellite information.
“Well I can’t see that anyone would want to set up a base in the swamp,” Taeva says. “It’s full of mosquitoes and predators and so is not a pleasant place to spend any length of time. The plain is going to be too exposed – no cover and so a base would be spotted easily. So by process of elimination, the most likely place locally for a base would be in the mountains.”
“Mind you, this is assuming that anyone would need a local base,” she adds. “You’ve seen how much ground it’s possible to cover in an air/raft. In a day and a half, we’ve pretty much travelled from one side of inhabited Tarsus to another – not counting Regiment. So it means that a base would not necessarily have to be that close to here.”
Grim then heads off to set up a base station.
Next Arvor speaks to Shania and Hrym about the air/raft sightings. Hyrm tells him that the sightings are usually just to the west of the ranch – at the border of the swamp and the plain. Usually the air/rafts are heading north on this trajectory; sometimes they are headed south.
“Their movements should have been tracked using the planetary satellite system,” Taeva says. "That’s how we were able to track the progress of ours wheen they were en route.It might be worth contacting the TDF traffic control to get a movement pattern over this area for the last few months. First things first though, we need to find Dad.”
“It’s pretty late already, girl,” Max says. “I fink we’re all a bit shagged from the journey earlier. I reckon that we should all get a bit of shut-eye an’t then start lookin’ for ‘im at dawn when we’re all fresh.”
“No point in heading out until we know which direction he took,” Arvor says. “That will narrow down our search by 75%. So, the planetary tracking system would be a great place to check. Also, how much stuff he left with would give us an idea of how long he planned to be away – so it would restrict the radius we need to search. The results from the chemsniffer tell us that we should be looking at the possibility of foul play.”
“He was using a grav belt not an air raft,” Taeva says. "We know he went in the direction of the mountains: a manual search is the best we can do.
“He took enough food for a week,” Shania adds. “But he’s an expert at being outdoors. He could probably live off the land permanently if he needed to.”
“Even if he was kidnapped, we would at least find some clues wherever he was forced down.” Arvor continues. “If not, then Grim and Jie’s ideas about a forward base by whoever is involved would be our best bet.”
“Following the naturally suspicious course that a NavInt mind would follow, it seems that so far, everything has been done to make the ranch fail “naturally”. Perhaps your father came upon the villains, and they felt they had no choice but to take him captive, or even kill him. After all, if he has evidence, then their gig would be up.”
“I will check the computer records to see if we can find more on the sightings of the air/rafts,” William says, keying data into his handcomp.
The party continues to discuss theories and plans while waiting for the data to come back from the planetary data centre.
“Well, well, well,” says William, “Looks like we do have some interesting information to work from here. After filtering out standard patterns of traffic between cities, and between ranches, there are several traffic patterns which would bear investigation.”
“The first is between the city of Evander and the Atok Swamps. It appears that three air/rafts per local day travel from Evander to the swamps. It’s not precise enough to give the exact location, but it’s a little northwest of here – between 100km and 500km – that kind of distance.”
“They leave around dawn each day – I’m talking about the Tarsan day, not a Terran day – and then return to Evander around dusk the next local day. So in Terran terms, they are gone around 4 days each time. There are three vehicles in total which travel separately at about one hour intervals.”
“The second pattern is less conclusive. The computer indicates that there are occasional air/raft flights from Evander to Newland Down starport on an irregular basis. They have a slight, but statistically significant relationship to the air/raft flights to the Atok Swamps.”
“Well done, William!” Max says with a clap of the hands. “I always knew all that time you spent at university would come in good for something one day!”
He stifles a yawn. "I’m really knackered now and I’m sure I ain’t the only one. Let’s get some kip an’ sleep on it. Then we can decide what we want to do at breakfast.
The other party member agree and head off to their billets, their minds churning to put together all of the evidence they have obtained in the previous few hours.
Taeva looked around her old room; it didn’t seem to have changed much. She felt a pang of guilt as she realised that they’d kept it just the way it was – in preparation for her returning one day. She looked in the wardrobe – her old things were there, and in the drawers, her old possessions were all neatly arranged.
She glanced at the bookshelf – all her old books on the Darrians were still there – she’d been obsessed with finding out about them when she was younger; a promise of adventure, mystery and far off places. Taeva remembered how thrilled she’d been on her twelfth birthday when her parents had managed to get hold of a genuine Darrian bracelet – the bracelet she still wore on her left wrist.
“Still time for me to get there”, she smiled to herself.
“Funny”, she thought, “I only lived here for a few months after we moved from Carter’s Ranch and before I left, but it still seems very much like home.”
She wondered about her Father-they had hardly parted on the best of terms, and it was time to make things right. Where the Hell was he?