Rogue's Weyr : "the Weyr is where the dragon is" -Brekke Rider of Gold Wirenth, Southern Weyr

Some readers have complained about my dragging these posts out at one a day. Well, remember that when the great authors like Dickens or Dumas wrote this way, you had to wait a MONTH between episodes — and a cliffhanger at the end of each part is part of the tradition.

But just one more — we find out Ellen's fate in the next episode...

Background: This story is set in the 28th century. Rejuvenation is common, and is used not only to extend life but as a punishment for criminal behavior. Melody is a fifty year old woman who was convicted of embezzlement last October. She was sentenced to three cycles from 6 to 12 years old. Like all convicted criminals, she is spending her first cycle(s) in the custody of 'spanko' parents, who are authorized, even encouraged to spank her as often as possible, AS WELL AS often as she deserves...
   — Lurking Dragon

The Choice

Mar. 30, 2749

Part 51 of Melody's Stories

Melody sat quietly while the adults milled around, discussing the problem, setting up a command post for the search.

"Just got off the phone with Bazz-p'tapt, the kid's counsellor. Says no way she's suicidal; angry, confused, and scared, yeah, but no suicide."

Whew!! That was a relief. Melody's worst fear had been that Ellie had gone off deliberately to die. But Rigellians didn't make mistakes about that sort of thing...

"Damn!! with the cloud cover last night these sat photos are useless. I thought maybe the IR would help, but there just ain't much — wait a minute!! Here's an IR source through a hole in the cover. Looks like grid 34-16-7. Oh, shit!! that's right outside the fence to the Old Atlanta Quarantine Area!! You don't think the kid might've gone in THERE??!!!"

Another man replied: "No way, Jose!!" (OK, sorry, but I'm trying to translate 28th century Panglish idioms here!!) "The Psi-Bug said she wasn't suicidal, and there are warning signs every twenty meters. It would be suicide to go in there, and she'd know it... besides, none of the alarms or scanners went off."

"Oh, no!! No she wouldn't!! You forgot — this ain't no usual rejuve! She's a cryo from the twentieth century. SHE CAN'T READ PANGLISH!! And those scanners have never been as reliable as I like; remember that dog five years ago??"

There was a long moment of silence. Melody frowned. There was something wrong about what the man had said. Of course, Ellie couldn't read Panglish. Not even the alphabet. But...

"Charlie!! Contact the fleet. We need search teams with full enviro and decontam facilities, STAT. Janice, how many iso suits can you get for our Rescue teams?? Maybe she stuck to the outer areas we can reach..."

The frenetic activity became even more chaotic as the officials concentrated their activity on organizing a search of the dangerous ruins of old Atlanta, destroyed by a combined NBC weapon set off by Talosian terrorists a century before. Melody still thought that something was wrong.

She had it!! "Wait! Everybody! Ellie wouldn't go into Altanta!! I know she wouldn't!! She..."

Nobody was listening!! "Hey! EVERYBODY!! I said Ellie wouldn't..."

"Melody!! Stop bothering them!! They have enough on their minds!"

Melody was quickly becoming frantic. "But Mommy, NO WAY would Ellie go into Atlanta!! She'd know better, the signs..."

"Melody, you know she can't READ the signs!!" "But..." "Melody, that's enough!! If you can't behave yourself, go out back and stay out of everybody's way. NO! NOW young lady!! Move!! NOW!!"

Melody ran out into the back yard, a year and a half of strict discipline and trained obedience overcoming even her fear for Ellie for the moment. She felt sick. They were going to search all the wrong places, and the nuked city ruins would take forever!! Scanners would have a limited range, and with everybody wearing isolation or even Navy environment suits it would be even worse.

And Ellie wasn't there. She knew that for sure.

But by the time things calmed down enough for her to get one of the grown-ups to listen it would be too late.

Unless she went to look for Ellie herself!! At least ONE person would be looking in the right places...

Melody hopped off the swing and ran over to the locked gate. A quick jump, and she began to pull herself over the fence. Then cold reason overcame childish enthusiasm. She'd never be able to find Ellie by herself!! Not in all of Marietta!! And this town was NOT Penitatas rated — it wouldn't just be naughty for her to go wandering around by herself, it would be a crime. A misdemeanor, but a prosecuteable crime, nonetheless. For a hard-timer, that would mean Penitatas Court. This time as a defendant...

Melody's tearing eyes fell on one of the emergency response vehicles parked out by the curb. The compartments along the sides had all been opened up to allow the searchers access to the equipment they'd need. Melody noted a rack of standard life form scanners in the truck. And had an Idea.

With one of those scanners, Impossible changed to Just Barely Maybe Possible. It would extend her range, allow her to cover maybe two or three blocks at a time.

But she'd never get permission to join the search, much less take an expensive piece of equipment like a scanner. She was just a little girl, and a Penitatas, to boot.

Nobody was in the yard. She could just go take a scanner. Nobody could stop her. But that would be...

Stealing, she thought. Stealing a very, very expensive piece of equipment, one desperately needed for the searchers. Even if, by some miracle she FOUND Ellie, that would mean Penitatas Court for sure.

Penitatas Court. Judge Marilyn Jones. Janie over the judges lap, the way she howled as her bare bottom was paddled into a mass of firey blisters. Ellie. Administrative rejuvenation, into a FOUR year old!! Janie, howling over her parent's laps twice a day as her blisters were soundly spanked. Turned into an even littler, more helpless child than she was. Being blistered in court, right in front of everybody — a worse spanking than any she'd gotten so far. Her friend. An extra three YEARS of good, hard spankings all the time. Probably even harder than now!! Ellie, crying, sobbing, all alone. Hurting. Confused. Dying.

No damn choice at all.

Melody skinned over the fence like a trained gymnast, yanked a scanner off of the truck, and was back over the fence before you could say 'scat'. Then she was over the back fence, and the gate of the house behind the Miller's, and on her way to the fence marking off the quarantined area where Atlanta used to be.

* * *

Melody reached the tall chain link fence, and tried to think which direction Ellie would've gone. The sign had confirmed her belief that there was NO WAY Ellie would have gone into the contaminated area.

Not that she could've read the warnings. They were written in Panglish. Using the Drakonian alphabet humanity had adopted over four centuries ago, that Ellen wouldn't be able to understand at all.

Melody thought briefly about the alphabet. It was certainly more rational than the old Latin one she'd learned when she studied English. The sixty symbols that made up the Drakonian alphabet each represented one and only one sound, with a one to one correspondence. Also, the symbology was broken into groups of six or twelve related symbols (like the english p and q, or b and d are related). These symbols represented related sounds, making the entire system far more rational.

And the same sixty symbols, with the numeric dot added, became the digits 0 through 59 of the base 60 numbering system used here-and-now. Melody giggled, remembering how shocked Ellen had been when her parents had started to teach her her numbers (appropriate learning for any three year old). They'd even used an ancient 20th century board game called Hi Ho Cherry-O or something. How shocked Ellie had been when she realized all the symbols were different, and she'd have to learn even her numbers from scratch!!

She'd been very put out at having to learn sixty symbols for digits, instead of only ten. Even if they doubled as the alphabet!! But Melody had pointed out the advantages. Sixty is a much more useful base than ten. Ten can be split into two or five parts.

Twelve, which some people had long proposed for a base, had more factors, 2, 3, 4, and 6.

But sixty could be factored by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, and 30!!

And it was semi-factorable by 8 and 9!!, Eight went into sixty eight-and-one-half times, while nine went in six and two-thirds times. (Think about how useful the fact that a ten divided by four is an even fraction... 2 and a half...).

All in all, a much more useful base.

All of which explained why Ellen could never have read the warning signs.

Melody looked at the large symbols ABOVE the Panglish writing. The symbols that she'd been certain were there, the reason she was conviced Ellie would have turned aside at the fence.

Melody wasn't certain about the biohazard symbol — a red circle with three hornlike-things over it. But the red and yellow radiation trefoil dated back to the middle of the twentieth century!

There was no way in hell Ellen would've crossed that fence!!

Finally Melody turned downhill. She figured Ellen would probably have been tired by the time she reached the fence, and would've gone in the easier direction. She began to jog that way, pulling the scanner in front of her as she headed over to the nearest street of houses, and activating it.

The Miller's had checked on Ellen at one A.M., so she'd been at home then. The grown-ups thought she must've left soon after that—but the satellite photo showed the hot spot at the fence at five A.M., so Melody bet that Ellie had left much later.

Which meant somebody might have seen her.

As Melody jogged down the street, she kept an eye out, not for adults, but for kids. Kids who might have been up early, have seen something. Most af the kids would be in school, of course, but there was always the chance younger ones...

Melody spotted a little girl on a swing set on the other side of a chain link fence. No, she hadn't seen a little girl walk by...

Melody kept on, determinedly searching.

Finally she found a little four-year-old kindern who remembered seeing a girl his age, through his window, "with a funny hand", who turned and headed down west. Melody followed, now running. For a minute she considered calling the Miller's. They must be frantic now, with two missing little girls. But she felt she was CLOSE!! She extended the scanner to its maximum range — and set it for human life signs AND CHITIN.

After all, Ellen still had that lobster claw replacing her left hand. That might help Melody screen out other people...

* * *

It was getting close to noon. Melody had been walking for MILES. Suddenly the scanner beeped!! A match!! Melody skidded to a stop, but the brief reading was gone. She backtracked a bit. There!! a life form reading matching the parameters she'd entered!! Over... THERE!!

Melody ran over to the culvert. Down the middle ran a tumbling stream of water. Melody was a bit surprised; the cloud cover was gone — if Ellen were in the open, satellite surveillance should have... wait a minute!! Over there, on the far side of the water—an ancient concrete storm drain!!

Ellen could be... Melody aligned the scanner with the end of the big concrete tube. Beep! Beep! Beep!

Melody turned off the scanner. And went in.

It was a good thing she wasn't a grown-up. Melody had to enter on her hands and knees. A grown up would never have fit.

And in the storm drain she found a filthy, shiverring, terrified Ellen.

"Hi Ellie." Ellen started awake.

"Huh!! MELODY??? How? How did you find me!! What are YOU doing here?!"

"I found you because I KNOW you. What are YOU doing here, Ellie?? You have half the county out looking for you. Why did you run away?? Do you want to die?? Ellie, I love you, I don't WANNA lose you..."

<sniffle> "I know! Melody I don' wanna die. But I don' wanna be a baby, either. It isn't FAIR!! Besides, I'm a lot better this morning! When I woke up I felt a whole LOT better!! Maybe they're wrong and..."

"They aren't wrong. Ellie, you FEEL better because they stopped all your medicines and treatments. Just like when you had cancer — its the medicine that makes you feel sick. But it's the sickness that will kill you. You aren't getting better. You won't. Your only chance is to come back. It'll be O.K., Ellie. But you have to come back with me right now!

<sob> "W-will you be there, Mel?? When I wake up a baby, I mean? I-I'll need you to be there. Please??"

"Of course I'll be there, Ellie." said Melody as she began to back up out of the sewer, helping to guide Ellen out. "I'll be right there when you wake up. And I'll stay with you as long as you need me to. Heck, I'll even change your diaper and wipe your snotty little nose. Just come on and follow me out of here..."

Yes, she'd stick with her friend. Her little friend. No matter what.

And Melody knew, with a sick certainty, that that 'what' would be Ellen's death. Not physically, but everything that MADE her Ellen. They'd only been able to delay the rejuvenation a couple of months. Ellie would still probably be under two. Much too young. But — any chance was better than NO chance. And at least Ellie's suffering would be over. At least, one way or another, it would all be over.

When they got out of the storm drain, Melody hit the emergency signaller on her scanner. The police and emergency crews would be there in minutes.

"Ah, Melody. A-Am I gonna be in trouble? For running away? A-Am I gonna get a spankin' for it?"

Melody had promised to always tell Ellen the truth. "Yep. But not until after your rejuvenation; you're too sick now, and there isn't time. What did you think, Ellie?? You turned the whole town on its ear. All the grown ups thought you'd gone into old Atlanta, behind the fence..."

"Huh?? Why would they think that?? I saw the signs... is it really still radioactive?? And I think that other thing was for biohazards..."

"Yep. The Talosian terrorists used a combined nuclear — and a very dirty nuke, too — biological AND chemical weapon. The nerve gasses are pretty much gone now, but the bioengineered plague is still in there, always mutating from the radiation. That's why the whole city is under strict quarantine. But they figured since you couldn't read the signs you might've gone in there anyway, at least a ways. There are a lot more fences and stuff further in. But it's really dangerous in there!! People could get hurt!! So yeah, if you, well, if you're still you after, you know, you bet you'll get a spanking. The awfullest spanking of your life. Bare bottom and everything. And Ellie, after they're done with you, first chance I get, by God I'M spanking your bare bottom myself!! I've never been so scared in all my life!!"

<gulp> "I-I'm sorry. But... I was just so scared and confused. Mel... do you really think it'll be O.K.?"

Melody paused for a long moment. And told the truth. "No. I'm so sorry, Ellie, but you're still just too young. Oh, your body will survive. Maybe even some memory. But you won't be you any more. I'm so sorry. But... I guess I could be wrong. I'm no expert, and I guess the people working on it are. But... I just can't make myself believe it. Maybe I'm just too tired to hope. But — miracles do happen, Ellie. And one way or another, it will be over."

"Maybe it just wasn't meant to be. I had a life, Mel. A long and good life. A husband, children. Lots of good times. Maybe it just wasn't meant to be."

And then the two children waited silently as the emergency vehicle screamed in and settled down to the pavement in front of them.

"My GOD!" cried out one of the techs. "She FOUND her!! Base, believe it or not that little penny FOUND our missing patient!! Get the ambulance over here, people, we need to get her to the hospital in Maryland right away!!"

And the adults took over, and Melody's Mommy and Daddy came out to get her. First back to the Miller's (over Melody's objections) to get her cleaned up and changed...

Somewhat to Melody's surprise, she did NOT get spanked before, during or after her bath. And when she asked, in the car on their way to Maryland...

"Yes, Melody, you are in a LOT of trouble. Way, way too much trouble for us to deal with now. Besides, with Ellen and all... we'll just have to wait until afterwards. But, when it's all over... well, as I bet you've guessed, a good, sound, bare-bottomed spanking is the least you can expect after pulling this stunt. Whatever made you think Ellie HADN'T gone into Atlanta, anyway??"

And so, as they sped through the night, Melody told her parents about why she'd been so sure Ellen would NOT have ignored the warning signs.

"Really!! I had no idea those symbols were so ancient!!"

"Yes, they date clear back to the 'Cold War' days when everybody thought we were gonna blow ourselves up."

"Well, I'm sorry Melody. We should've listened to you. Everybody was just so upset!! Still, I should have heard you out. I understand why you felt you had to go search yourself... but why didn't you at least leave a note?? Once you disappeared, we would've found it, and we would've realized we needed to search the rest of Marietta first..."

"I never thought!!! Of course!! Oh, Mama, I deserve a good spanking!! If only I'd thought... Ellie could've DIED if I hadn't found her, but all I could think about was finding her myself!! I should've left a note!! I'm sorry Mommy!!"

"Well, I guess maybe you weren't thinking too clearly, either! But, when you detected Ellen the first time — why not call in then?? We could've had a lot of searchers out there, once we had proof..."

"I planned to, if I didn't find Ellie right away. But I didn't want to risk her moving on; I didn't know about the storm drain then. And, ah, I forgot my Fairy Jenny Phone this morning, so I would've had to use the emergency signaller on the scanner, or knock on somebody's door for help."

"By the way, Melody," broke in her father, "That storm drain was a very dangerous place. I glanced in there and it did not look stable at all. You should've called for help as soon as you were sure Ellen was in there, and not gone in yourself. That was very brave, but very stupid and <ahem> naughty. So when this is all over that is another good, sound spanking you've earned for yourself, Mel. Also, while I understand why you took that scanner, that was stealing, and I can't control what happens because of it. I'm afraid you may end up being a LOT younger than you are now. With a smaller and much sorer bottom."

"I know, daddy. I knew I'd probably get a Administrative Rejuvenation and a Judicial Blistering for taking the scanner whether I found Ellen or not. I-it didn't matter. Nothing mattered but finding and saving Ellie. I'll take my medicine, and I know it'll hurt worse'n anything, and I'll HATE it!! And, and Johnny won't even look at me when I'm just a baby, and I'll have to leave school, and I know you'll have to spank me even more oftener and harder than you do now, and I'll just be a baby and the spanks'll hurt my little bummy even more than now and it just DOESN'T MATTER. As long as Ellie's OK. And she won't be. She's gonna die anyway but I had to TRY." And Melody finally broke down into sobs, crying as hard as she'd ever done under paddle, hairbrush or even switch.

And her startled Mommy reached back and pulled Melody over the back of the seat and into her lap, where she could hush and comfort her little girl as they drove on to the hospital.

To be continued.