![fantasy-2995326_960_720.jpg](https://cdn.steemitimages.com/DQmWxPJqXZhZxjExWaDTN4payM1pasrqjVmQMoWx6C4ZBqw/fantasy-2995326_960_720.jpg) Gusts of wind carried clouds of dust along the road, which snaked between rusty metal frames of garages and coppery looking shrubbery. Inside the garage, where Mari entered, it felt cool, even chilly - the atmosphere contrasted with the heat outside. It was that kind of heat - only perceptible under the direct sunlight - the shadows preserved clusters of cold, frigid air. The insides of the buildings - many of which had two entrances without doors, on their opposite sides - were pierced by a constant unpleasantly frosty breeze. But under the sun, it was hot - scorchingly hot. The guy was tall, skinny, with a pale freckled face. His hands gave an impression of a certain strength, as opposed to his overall appearance - he looked like a sort of an underfed musician - but his hands were tough, muscular, with thick fingers covered with calluses and small scars. The guy had blue, slightly unfocused eyes - it felt like he always thought about something different, even when he spoke. "I'm Mari-Annabelle, nice to meet you, Nick?" Mari offered her hand, smiling and trying to look friendly. "Eh, yes, I'm Nick, nice to meet you too," the guy answered, giving her a brief absent-minded glance, after which his eyes turned back to some point in space, where there was nothing in particular. He chewed a toothpick, occasionally throwing it from one corner of his mouth to another. To Mari, it looked like something symbolic, representing a lower class, lack of ambition, laziness, and her initial friendliness kept being implacably penetrated by icy tentacles of distaste. Still, she kept a friendly smile, although a bit strained at that point. "It seems like we are going to work together for a while, from now on so it would be cool if we introduce ourselves, I mean, I'll tell a bit about myself, then you tell about yourself, and so on," Mari talked a bit faster than necessary, in order to conceal her negative impression. She kept smiling, and it took effort, which made it harder for her to focus on the conversation. "Well, I've been told about you, so I kinda was expecting you," Nick said, focusing his attention on her for another brief moment, "as far as I understand, you specialize on ecological problems or something like that," "Not exactly," Mari corrected, "Anyway, it's hard to get anything clear when locals brief you," Nick finished. "Here I absolutely agree," Mari smiled, this time genuinely. "Yeah, they are sorta not entirely in this world," Nick confirmed, "I bet, they meditate all the time" Mari snorted. Nick's toothpick sprung once again in her field of vision and the ice, which was about to break, froze solid again. "Yeah," Mari said, "something like that." She paused. "Anyway, I'm not exactly an ecologist, as you said, it's more like I work in different areas," Nick's eyebrow went up slightly. Mari continued. "To put it simpler, I'm a sort of a crisis manager - I solve various problematic situations. If it's related to ecology then I can be called an ecologist, or it can be anything else." "Ok, I see," Nick said. Mari quickly thought what else she could say because pauses started getting on her nerves. She felt slightly annoyed. "Well, about me, I work with the machines here," Nick said, "so, yes," There was another pause, during which his eyes absentmindedly darted between Mari and empty space, and which made Mari feel uncomfortable again. "Anyway," Nick concluded, "nice to meet you," "Eh... Well, Ok," Mari said. Her lips involuntarily formed a puzzled one-sided smile because she clearly remembered that they already said it to each other, at the beginning. Suddenly, she felt angry that their first conversation kept being so awkward. She continued, a bit colder and more business-like. "Ok, Nick, I think we'll need to talk over various details of this mission, like, if there's something, you think, I need to know, you can tell me. Or If you can explain to me how to operate these trucks, it would also be cool. Et cetera." "Yup," Nick said, "well, there's not much to talk about, actually. At least, I don't think I know more than you. There was a briefing, we need to save the nest of baby-birds," "Yes, I know that," Mari said, "Well, that's about it," Nick said, "from the technical point of view, it doesn't seem like there's something complicated. Our task, essentially, is to get to a certain point, in one piece. What we do after, will depend on the circumstances. If there's a nest of baby-birds we save it," Mari lifted an eyebrow. A slight smile swiftly crossed Nick's face and disappeared. "What do you mean If?" Mari asked. "Well," Nick said, "like, it can be a sort of abstraction. Or it can be a literal meaning. Probably you've noticed. In their language, sometimes they have the same word for abstraction and the real thing." *** Mari-Annabelle Dear diary. This sucks. The planet is a shithole, the locals are barely adequate, and it's difficult to understand what they want. Probably they do not understand either. This assignment, the purpose of which I can barely comprehend - something related to preserving ecological balance. In short, we need to save the nest of alien birds. We - I mean, I and this pretty sketchy guy named Nick, with a glorious job description - multi-professional. This is something I'm still making attempts to understand - what does it even mean, if anything, or probably my mind is just too feeble for such deep and profound things that are going on, on this planet. In any case, I wonder what this guy can actually do. I like his demeanor though, like, as if nothing can faze him - also, maybe he's not as simple as he looks. Too bad, the first impression is something that indelibly sticks in one's mind, and he gives this first impression of no impression at all. Like, I wonder why some people prefer to be so mediocre despite endless opportunities to make some mark in life? Sometimes it feels a bit depressing being among people who look and act like NPCs. But nevertheless. Even those aliens are more interesting for that matter, like, they are somewhat vague and inscrutable, and, on the one hand, it's annoying, on the other, it feels like there's some mystery hiding behind their Buddhist facial expressions, green nightgowns, and elephant ears. Some of them have elephant trunks, and I keep wondering, how did it happen? I mean, like, are there two parallel branches of human evolution here or something? Anyway, speaking of this mission. Nick is responsible for the technical aspects, and, as I understand, I'm supposed to deal with various violent encounters, which would be fine if this local council - or board of elders, or whatever - wouldn't be so vague about what exactly they mean when they talk about potential dangers. The way it is, I feel unprepared, and if something gets screwed up, I wouldn't have anyone except myself to blame. And it would be embarrassing. The situation, in general, pisses me off, and I wonder about this guy Nick, like, it doesn't seem like anything bother him at all - although he also must clearly understand how fucked up the terms of this mission are, starting with the lack of any reliable information. Still, it seems like he doesn't give a shit, which can mean two things: either he knows more than I and holding this information back (and I don't like it at all, wondering what may be the reason - I'm getting slightly paranoid here) or it's just his natural disposition, which is also worrying - like, if something goes wrong, can I rely on his assistance in any, even simplest things? Unfortunately, I don't know much about the machinery they use here - engines and all - maybe it's my fault, I could find a way to get myself more prepared or something - in any case, if I did, I could do without any assistance, and if I screwed up, it would be less humiliating, or, at least, fair. Like, it's twice more annoying to fail because somebody else has screwed up. Still, I have nobody except myself to blame. I could figure something out, and I hate myself for being so helpless when I see the internals of an engine compartment and can't understand shit. The only thing I got so far is that they use jet engines, and it's fucking weird - what are those, fucking planes? In any case, while I'm at it, I'll probably figure it out. Probably I'd have already done it if not all that hustle with procuring all the necessary items from the list the local guide has given me, without explaining what any of them is for. As I've already noted, locals are not talkative, and they are quite vague, (to say the least) and, to be honest, I cannot trust them at all. And with this list of various things, about which I have no slightest idea when and in what circumstances I'm going to use them, I feel like I'm inside a freaking computer game, where I need to guess what in my arsenal can open that mysterious door, so I can save the Princess. But I'm not a child playing a silly computer game - I'm a professional. And I'm actually good at what I'm doing, and while I'm trying my best at this godforsaken shithole it seems like everybody else has conspired to ensure that it ends up in a huge fiasco. Considering the lack of any information and all. As if they don't really care. Although maybe I'm just overthinking it, and, instead, I should just see what will transpire and act, according to the circumstances. Anyway. Among all the disappointments, there's one thing that kinda makes up for that - this enigmatic veil shrouding this little world that I'm eventually going to unveil. Like, everything seems pretty mysterious so far, but I already have a big-ass deal of confidence operating here - considering, for example, the ease and speed, with which I managed to find all those inscrutable items from the list (scurrying around non-descript stashes, holy places, "caste one only" shops, landfills, etc.) which would leave the other person mixed up forever. I already have a sort of a map in my mind, where all the nuances of this place intertwine like a convoluted web, which still doesn't baffle me at all. Yup, cuz I'm good at it - I'm a pro, and a crisis manager, and just a cool person. Hopefully, this mission won't end up as a huge embarrassment or with both of us dead or both. In the name of the beastly oak, Ayo. *** "It is becoming so unimportant," Mari-Annabelle thought. It was getting more mundane each day, without adding any clarity. Probably it was time to move on - no sense to linger at this backwater planet, where nobody understood what they wanted. "So it's like, rescuing the nest of baby aliens," Mari repeated, "Yup," Nick said nonchalantly, "Is it like, they are like birds or something?" "They are, alien birds," Nick confirmed, "Is there anything about them that makes it in any way important, like, I don't know, making it worth taking a week-long trip through this shithole of a place?" "I don't know, really," Nick said, "The locals consider it important for some reason, and I really wasn't curious enough to ask," He switched his attention to their backpacks, examining the contents of small pockets on the sides. Two automatic rifles - light and shaped in the most simple and economical way - leaned against the front wheel of the truck, like two fancy pokers. "You'll have to keep yours with you all the time, while I'll be driving," Nick said pointing at the rifle, "No safety on, it has to be ready at the moment's notice." Mari lifted an eyebrow in puzzlement "It's a safety instruction from the local guide," "Who's apparently not coming with us," Mari said matter-of-factly. Nick nodded. Mari sighed with growing irritation. "As far as I can tell," Nick said apologetically, "it's all about the wildlife. Locals want to preserve the balance of the wildlife and keep some species from extinction. That's why it may be important. Ecology." "I don't like the fact that you need to guess it," Mari said, "they hold back too much information. What are we about to find and save? Why do we need to act as we are expecting an ambush at any moment?" She paused "It makes me think what else they might not have told us that maybe actually important," Nick shrugged. "They might have their reasons not to tell," he fished out some shiny metal ball from the backpack side pocket and relocated it into the one on his sleeve, "or maybe they thought it's not important," "And you really weren't curious enough to ask," Mari confirmed sarcastically. Nick nodded continuing his examination of backpacks. Mari didn't like the impenetrable vagueness of the local alien population. Two weeks passed since she arrived at this place as a private contractor, and she still had no idea almost, well, about anything. Like, what their social organization was. Was it a sort of a remote colony under the governance of some larger entity - a state located on some different planet. Or was it a sort of a settlement of outcasts, maybe, even criminals. Who knows. The locals were as talkative as Buddhist monks in the state of meditation, in fact, they looked a bit like Buddhist monks, with their shaved heads and silky green robes. Only enormous elephant ears gave away their alien origins, plus some had elephant trunks and, according to the reverence the others expressed toward them, they represented some higher caste or something. Mari was naturally curious and tried to badger some hints from occasional encounters, regarding what this colony was all about. What she managed to learn so far was that the locals felt some religious piety toward some species of flora and fauna. Any further attempts to find out why it was so were met with shrugs and looks of incomprehension. She was glad when she met Nick - a private contractor like herself - who spent a significant amount of time at this place and could know the answers to the questions that bugged her. But her euphoria was short-lived because he didn't. He seemed not to be curious at all about anything, regarding this planet, or, for that matter, anything at all - like, cultural trends of the galaxy, for example. In other words, he was a shitty conversation partner, and Mari looked forward the time they had to spend together on this mission with dread and despondency. Not as if it would change anything for better or worse either. *** Nick It's a curious place in many ways. Aliens with big elephant ears, green robes, shaved heads, and facial expressions like they remain in a sort of meditation, most of the time. It's funny when I try to talk to them - they still stay zoned in. They answer my questions, and their answers are even relevant to the questions, but all this looks like they talk in a dream. I suspect the reality in their heads is mixed with their dreams, and they have difficulties distinguishing what is real and what is not. Like, for example, this assignment to save the nest of alien birds. While I talked about it with various council members I heard so many strange and contradicting each other things that, at some point, I started to doubt that those alien birds even existed. Anyway, I feel there's something important, only we won't know for sure what it is until we get there. So I think we'll just go, and see, and then, depending on what we find, we'll make a decision about what to do next. Essentially, what our mission is actually going to be about. We, in this case, means me, plus Mari-Annabelle - a girl who is deadly serious about everything. Maybe because she's young and ambitious. Sometimes she reminds me of a proverb about a person who doesn't see the forest behind the trees. She can see trees but she doesn't see the forest. She notes a lot of things but fails to make connections, so what she learns (which is a lot) stays as a collection of facts in her mind. In a sense, she's like an encyclopedia that could be a book. Thus, she doesn't realize, for example, an important thing about aliens with trunks. The thing is kinda on the surface but, on the other hand, it kinda not. Anyway, I know it, and maybe it'll save our lives at some point, but I'm not going to reveal it. Not anytime soon, anyway. Plus, I don't really trust anyone here, especially considering the current circumstances and the circumstances that brought me here, in the first place. I'm assigned a task of taking care of various equipment - trucks, generators, portable computers, communication devices. I wonder, do they seriously expect me to know all that? Well, something looks familiar, something doesn't. For example, I have no slightest idea about jet engines, apart from the fact that they blast a stream of heated air and thus propel the vehicle in the opposite direction. Third Newton Law. Anyway, I'll worry about it, in its own time. What concerns me more now is what's actually going on there, on the other side of the fence. Once, at night, I saw light dots moving at a distance, and nobody I know here could coherently explain it. It seems like they know about it, and they know what it is, but they cannot explain it. They refer to it as "danger," which in their language means both the concept of danger and specifically those lights. It made me think a bit and decide to arm ourselves with a couple of rifles (the ones they use here for I don't know what purposes), which added another exemplar of inscrutable mechanisms onto the list of stuff I'm supposed to understand and take care of. The intuition also tells me that it won't do any good, but at least, it would look like I took all the necessary precautions, and Mari-Annabelle won't hold any grudge against me that I didn't. I'm actually curious what all this will turn out to be, in the end. All this business about alien birds. And those weird lights at night. Speaking of my intuition, it all went haywire. Sometimes I have a distinctive feel of close danger, then it suddenly disappears. Sometimes it flashes in my mind for a split second while I walk down a street, then nothing happens. I still trust it - there's some reason - it's like something is lurking in the shadows, not hurrying to reveal itself. What remains is to stay on high alert and wait. Meanwhile, this girl is running all over the place, collecting a bunch of ritual artifacts that confirm some of my suspicions. I haven't seen the whole list, but I saw some of the items she brought, and it gave me creeps. Anyway, I also have another thing to worry about - the dust they have here that has a detrimental effect on the machines. I exchanged a couple of words with a guy who works with diesel generators and pumps, and from what he said, the dust affects mostly everything, but to lesser degree truck engines because they were modified to withstand it. So far, I spent a week installing some additional filters. Anyway, whatever we do, I'm looking forward to facing some troubles along the way. *** "I thought you were supposed to check the vehicle before we took off," Mari said casting a brief glance at the open hatch of the engine compartment, from where streamed a whiff of something chemical - like burned insulation. "Yup, I did and I hadn't noticed anything worrisome," Nick answered with a hint of confusion in his voice, "everything looked Ok. Couldn't imagine that something would break down so quick." "Can it be something related to the dust, like, It's really pervasive here compared to, well, normal dust," Mari said, recalling a brief conversation with a local Buddhist elephant-eared mechanic responsible for maintaining diesel water pumps. He complained that machinery manufactured and delivered from elsewhere tended to get clogged occasionally because air filters couldn't shield the device's internals from this dust that was really unusual here - it was extremely fine, for one thing. There were other strange qualities that could find some application in the hands of talented engineers but so far, here, on this isolated and backwater planet, it mostly created some problems, nuances, and costly repairs. So naturally, this fact immediately sprung in Mari's mind when muffled high-pitched hum indicating a normal engine operation momentarily acquired a hysterical whizzy note of a circular saw - ear-splittingly loud despite all the soundproof layers - and a puff of heat and chemical smell appeared in the cabin. Then she thought it wasn't likely that Nick didn't figure out something, regarding this problem with the dust - after all, it was a well-known problem and it would be way too stupid. Then she thought that maybe that was the case. After all, maybe, even without giving him much credit, she still overestimated his mental abilities. Who the fuck he was, after all? A multi-professional assigned by the local committee, or counsel, or whatever it was - some organ, consisting of barely sensible creatures remaining in the state of blissful nirvana, most of the time. And what this multi-professional title even meant. "Yes, it can be," Nick said, confirming Mari's worst assumptions, "It can still be the dust. The air supply system was redesigned locally - they made some improvements specifically for these conditions, but I don't know really how successful they were in this. It's just, it didn't happen before, but I've never been outside the perimeter. Although, what can be the difference? It's the same dust - just on the other side of the fence." "Indeed," Mari said absentmindedly. It occurred to her that this figuring out the cause of the malfunction was kind of a pointless mental exercise. It could be the dust, it could be anything. If they figured it out, what good would it be? Because the problem was not what caused the engine to break - the problem was what to do next. There were several courses of action, one of which was to try to somehow fix what was broken. Mari mentally corrected herself, realizing that in this case the cause of malfunction actually mattered - it would be an important clue about how to approach the repairs. She caught herself on the fact that she way too hastily abandoned the idea that this sophisticated piece of machinery, which utilized jet propulsion to move around, could be fixed on the spot. After all, she wasn't a jet propulsion engineer or mechanic, and her first thought was something like, "Ok, now we'll have to find some different method to proceed forward," but it was also flawed reasoning, considering the distance. But repairing a jet propulsion engine in field conditions seemed as something hardly possible - in other words, her systematic mind felt helpless at that particular moment, which made her really pissed. The only remaining alternative was to request help, but it was so humiliating and would cast a shade on her reputation, and could end up on her record, which was worse. At some point, a brief hot-red burst of rage passed through Mari's mind when she thought about strangulating Nick or smashing his head into the glowing steel hull of the truck. Then she thought that it could be her own fault as well as anybody else's. Speaking of Nick, he might've had a better idea about jet propulsion - it hadn't occurred to her at first. In any case, it was time to confer and decide on the course of action. *** Nick studied once again a mysterious maze of armored hoses and valves - nothing gave the slightest clue of what could be the initial source of the problem. Nick closed his eyes - the chaotic picture remained in his mind, and at the same time, he could focus on what seemed important. His intuition started working, emphasizing with sequences of red flashes the chains of possible events, the way they might've spread throughout the system. He introspected for a bit on that - his intuitive feeling, which first revealed itself long ago when he enlisted in a special ops police regiment supposed to suppress a rebellion on one unremarkable asteroid. They actually never saw the rebels - only heard the remote sound of sniper equipment that quickly reduced their number to a half, then to a quarter, and it kept going on and on - and Nick was busy with a depressing task of burying bodies and providing first aid to unlucky "policemen" with gruesome looking wounds, who rolled their eyes and strained their vocal cords in sudden pain. It seemed to him that all that operation was a sort of a bureaucratic way of crossing out the items. Like, there was a rebellion, and there had to be somebody to deal with it. The details didn't matter for those who had to react to such things routinely, so if Nick, as an inexperienced recruit, expected to be assigned a relatively easy supportive role - hang out for a bit, and when the contract expired, vanish taking a wad of government money - he was gravely mistaken. Like maybe everyone in that regiment. Everybody thought that the main heat of that battlefield was supposed to be taken by some other special people - like, some weathered veterans and mercenaries. It turned out, there was nobody except them - inadequate run-off-the-mill "police force" - and the rebels were really good at shooting. So the regiment quickly dwindled, and Nick thought about the irony of all of that. Although thinking wasn't the best pastime in that situation because it distracted from the important things, and Nick rarely thought about anything, preferring to pay close attention to his surroundings. He noted that at certain moments he had some subtle feeling, like, that something wasn't quite right, and shortly after, there was an earsplitting sound of metal forcefully piercing into concrete, followed by the remote reverberating thunder of gunshots. Nick wondered where this his feeling might've come from. The most simple and unsatisfying explanation was that it was related to the subconscious, which was inexplicable anyway. Then he stopped thinking about it as well because the need to pay close attention to everything at all times was getting more crucial since the rebels were getting more and more active, and the frequency of ambushes increased. How did he get himself in that situation, in the first place? Well, he had to support his extended family, which except him included a lot of young girls, who according to laws weren't allowed to work, as if starvation was a more appropriate and humane outcome, and Nick as the oldest boy, (and he actually received a work permit, which forced him to do something) followed his intuition for the first fateful time and enlisted in that ill-fated regiment. There weren't many other options actually at that asteroid belt plagued by the economic depression for many centuries, but still, it felt like Nick's intuition, controlling to a high degree his subsequent life, was a fickle and crazy bitch intermittently getting him in and out of trouble. Nevertheless, Nick trusted his intuition because he didn't trust the concept of rational thinking - like, he did it occasionally but didn't trust the results because intuition told him otherwise. In any case, it turned out to be interesting in the end, and what actually helped him to get out of that sad rebel situation was another blast of subconscious insightfulness, but it's a different story. At that particular moment, Nick was preoccupied with the problem of mysterious engine malfunction, and colorful mental flashes traced the outlines of pipes and valves stored in his memory.