Many thanks to Bataav for his valuable input and written contributions to the Holoreel RP.
An ebook of all seven parts of this ficlet can be found here.
The late hour conspired against them: all the shops they passed were closed.
“I suppose this is what we get for wandering around town in the middle of the night,” Sakaane said. “I thought these ‘Icelanders’ were known for staying up late to party?”
“It’s the middle of the week.” Bataav shrugged. “What now?”
She turned on the spot, looking up and down the very empty streets. The city was eerily quiet; no people or vehicles about, no sirens in the distance. Not at all what she expected from the island’s largest metropolitan area. “What time is it?”
“About…0315 local.” At her expression, he grinned. “What? Mine was the late flight.”
She laughed. “I knew I shouldn’t have taken that nap earlier. It’ll take some doing to get used to the time difference between station and here. Right. We’re closer to my hotel now than yours, and the tour leaves from mine in about five hours. Maybe we’ll get lucky and the lounge there will still be open.”
They set off again, shortly arriving in the Nordica’s lobby and the VOX bar, but there, too, things were closed for the night.
“Perhaps room service?” Bataav suggested. “If you don’t mind. I’m starving.”
Thankfully, the hotel had a late-night menu available and delivered their meals to Sakaane’s room. They spent the next five hours getting to know each other better, finding as they had in months past that they never ran out of topics to discuss and laugh about. Privately, Sakaane was relieved and felt her earlier anxiety melt away. The Pasha was no different in person and they got along well. They barely noticed when the sun crept up out her window over Mount Esja. Grey-white clouds hugged the mountaintop.
At 0830 it was time for the tour. They would be heading out into the Icelandic wilderness in a specially-modified vehicle affectionately termed “SuperJeep” by the tour company. Sakaane swept her hair up and pinned it into the twist she often wore, and grabbed gloves and scarf for warmth.
The driver, Omar, met them and the other tour attendees in the hotel lobby with a warm greeting, and off they went, following a highway east out of the city between a mountain range and the southern coast.
“I have just decided,” Omar said suddenly, his accent thick but pleasant on their ears, “to take us somewhere you may not have another chance to see.” The jeep’s engine roared as he powered it down to turn off the highway onto a snow-covered lane leading past a small dairy farm. “This river, to the left, is Þjórsá, which is our longest river at over two hundred kilometers. It comes from the glacier Hofsjökull. And on it is the Urriðafoss, a waterfall. You may not think it very impressive because it is small. We will see much bigger waterfalls later. But Urriðafoss is good, because it flows with the highest volume of water of all our waterfalls.”
The jeep rounded a corner and parked near the edge of the river. Before they got out, Omar explained, “You may not see this waterfall again because they want to build a power station here. They tried to do this once before, and obviously”—he gestured out the windshield to the fast-moving water—”this never happened. But now they talk about it again, so we will see.”
They climbed out of the jeep, Sakaane having to hop down due to the height of the vehicle, and approached the water’s edge. Though the river flowed clear, the falls were choked with thick ice, with the water rumbling by beneath.
They stood for several minutes watching the water. Sakaane then glanced behind to see the SuperJeep and couldn’t help but measure it against her 5’7” frame. The upper edge of the 46” tires reached to her waist. And Omar called these “small”?
They drove on, eventually coming nearer to the coast. In the distance to the southeast were what looked to be several dark mountains rising from the horizon against dark clouds.
“Those are Vestmannaeyjar, the Westman Islands,” Omar explained. “There is one village there. The people are very strong and loyal to their community. One time many years ago, the volcano there erupted and the lava threatened the harbor. Instead of running, the people got together to defend their community. The ash and lava was everywhere, swallowing homes and destroying things… But the harbor was most important. This was their livelihood. So they put up barricades and walls to keep the lava away, and called in the navy to help. And in the end the harbor was saved, and no one was killed, so even though they had to rebuild their homes and everything, that day man triumphed against the volcano.”
They drove on and Omar continued to tell tales of historical significance of the area while they watched the passing landscape out the windows. The sun dipped lower, nearly riding the horizon formed by jagged mountains which seemed to crop up from anywhere.
Finally, the jeep turned off the highway onto a snow-packed track leading into a vast lavafield, and Omar said, “Soon we will stop for lunch. But first we will finish our journey to Eyjafjallajökull.”
“Isn’t that the volcano which erupted last year?” Sakaane asked.
“Yes. We will be visiting the base.”
The jeep left the road behind and bounded directly into the lavafield, cutting its way through snow and over rocks, chewing effortlessly through several streams and small rivers. Despite careful navigation and his best attempt to provide a smooth ride, the passengers bounced around, and enjoyed every minute of it.
“Now we know why the tires are so big!” Bataav laughed.
Their path followed the length of the volcano’s range. The valley was gradually narrowing; at the end they could see another range looping around and seemingly cutting them off.
Finally, Omar pointed out the window to the right. “There, you can see the summit of Eyjafjallajökull. We are close now!”
Soon enough he’d parked the vehicle and they got out.
“Take your time,” Omar said, handing out sandwiches. “We are in no rush to leave.”
Sakaane chewed her lunch slowly, staring in awe at the great mountain before her, with its glacier, Gígjökull, spilling down into the now-empty lagoon basin. The travel brochures she’d seen prior to booking the tour had shown a great lake at this location. Last year’s eruption had washed it all away.
Bataav stood beside her, sandwich in hand, and gestured. “Impressive, isn’t it?”
She shivered, staring at the ice and the far-off summit. Two great caverns stared back, rent into the rock at some point by the glacier, or the volcano, or both. The blue color of the ice was striking.
“Yes,” she whispered, finishing her sandwich. The shiver crawling up her spine hadn’t gone away; now it spread over her whole body, but not from the slight chill in the air.
To one side of the parking area a steep lump of a hill protruded from the ground. Eyeing it, Sakaane took off in an attempt to climb it, struggling through the snow drifts which were suddenly thigh-deep. Bataav watched her with amusement and then climbed after her, following the path she forged.
Out of breath and covered in snow, Sakaane finally reached the top of the hill. The valley stretched away before her, with the volcano towering over from behind.
A moment later Bataav joined her. For many minutes they stood in silence, simply taking in the land.
She tried to shake the shiver but couldn’t. There was something in the air here, an energy, though not one of excitement or anticipation. She hesitated to call it magical, though that seemed as good a term as any. A deep breath brought clean, crisp air into her lungs and, seemingly without cause, tears flooded her eyes.
Bataav saw the emotion in her face and touched her shoulder gently. “Are you all right?”
Sakaane nodded and, after several moments more, spoke quietly. “When I was a girl, while my brothers were still toddling about, my father would take me out into the forest. We would spend weekends exploring the mountains together, fishing the streams and camping. He would show me places off the beaten path where no one else went, places he’d discovered over the years on his own excursions. And always he would talk of our duty to nature, and of Ida. He was a passionate follower.”
She squinted slightly and Bataav thought she was no longer looking at the wide landscape, but rather into distant memory. “If I concentrate hard enough, I can almost hear him speak. Almost.” She sighed. “I was most at peace then, out in the forest.” Coming back to the present, she gestured to the white valley before them. “What we see here is hardly the same and yet it feels no different to me. It should seem bleak and desolate and yet it’s not. It’s cold, and yet there is warmth all around us. I feel…” She took another breath, holding it in before letting it out. “For the first time in a long, long time I feel at peace, like I did when I was a girl, out in the forest. It’s wonderful.”
“Where is your father now?”
The answer was a moment in coming. “He died, eight years ago. Serpentis, in Agoze.” She blinked and the tears spilled down her cheeks. “I can’t remember his words anymore. The lessons, they’re gone. I wish I could remember…”
Below, a door on the jeep slammed shut as Omar finished packing up remnants of the lunch and Sakaane flinched, snapped out of her reverie. Embarrassed, she quickly turned from Bataav so he wouldn’t see her wiping the tears away. “We should head back.”
They worked their way carefully down the hill and then piled back into the jeep with the other passengers.
“We go to Seljalandsfoss next, one of our most famous waterfalls,” Omar said, taking the jeep slowly back down through the valley toward the highway. “Another short break there so you can walk behind it.”
It took them nearly half an hour to emerge from the valley, bouncing through streams and over large piles of lavarock, before they reached the falls. They had to turn up their collars against the brisk wind.
Following the trail behind the falls, Bataav pointed. “Look at this.” He noted the cliff curved overhead and was generally ice-free in this area, yet in front of them was a two-foot high ice formation seemingly formed from nothing.
“It’s…not an icicle,” Sakaane said, trying to approach it over the ice. The trail sloped uphill and was very slippery.
“It looks like the water came up from below,” Bataav said, edging closer. “All this ice over the trail originates from there. A small geyser that froze? How bizarre!”
They tried to investigate more closely but the ice was just too slick. As mist from the waterfall landed on them they started to feel the chill more, and headed back to the jeep.
The tour continued on through the afternoon. Omar pointed out the eastern edge of the caldera of Eyjafjallajökull as well as the ongoing ash cleanup from last year’s eruption.
“Our last stop is Skógafoss,” Omar said eventually, “a very special waterfall, because there is treasure there. No, really! Real treasure. One year I took a family out and we stopped here. The son was a teenager and was bothering his mother, so she took a diamond ring off her finger and gave it to him. I could see him playing with it in his fingers.” He parked the jeep and, as he’d done many times that day, pointed out the windshield at the scene before them. “So then we arrived here, and they all got out. The father and the son climbed the trail to the top of the falls, while the mother stayed with me. And, as fathers and sons do, there was some horsing around going on on the trail.
“And suddenly,” Omar said with a grin, “everything stopped dead. The son’s face went white as the snow. His face, you should have seen it. He knew his life was about to end. Because? He still had the ring and now he and the father were searching for it up there along the trail, because in all the horsing around, the son had dropped it.”
“Did they find it?” Bataav asked.
Omar shook his head. “No. And believe me, the son and the father heard all about it from the mother all the way back to Reykjavik! So. Climb up there and look for the ring. And if you find it”—he grinned a wide grin—”be sure to give it to me!”
Sakaane and Bataav hung back together, deciding to take in the view of the falls from a bench, and marveled at the thick layer of bronze moss clinging to the bluff under the snow. They sat in a comfortable silence. The other passengers approached the falls and dodged seabirds diving from nests set into the craggy rock. A few took on the climb to the top of the waterfall and made a show of casting about for the ring.
“Dinner tonight?” Bataav asked quietly.
A smile immediately sprang to Sakaane’s lips. “Certainly. We should check in as well, see if Sanya and Creetalor have docked yet.” Then she stretched and yawned, just starting to feel the effects of a day out in the cold combined with having stayed up all night. The tour was almost done though; the other passengers were coming back.
“Did anyone find the ring? No? Ah, well.” Omar swung up into the jeep with ease and set off again for the highway. “Back to town now. I will give your ears a break so you can just look out the windows and enjoy the countryside.”
“Hang on,” Bataav said, suddenly remembering something Sakaane had told him hours before. “Sakaane has never seen the ocean. Is it far?”
Omar glanced at them in the rearview mirror. “Not at all.” With a jerk of the wheel, the jeep cut directly across the highway and into the ditch, then up to plow through the ash field. The tires spit clods of sand past the windows.
After only a few minutes, they went down another embankment. Waves crashed onto the black beach, which stretched away for miles in either direction, and seagulls wheeled overhead.
“This was not here before,” Omar said. “Everything you see is ash from the volcano, as far as the eye can see. It will be many days yet before anything living returns to the ground here.” He looked at Sakaane. “What do you think?”
“It’s fantastic.” She popped the door and jumped out, hurrying through the ash to the water’s edge. The wind off the ocean was strong, whipping up enormous swells and white-capped waves, which curled over themselves almost at her feet. Impulsively she crouched down and stuck her hands in the water, pulling them back almost at once. The ocean was so cold it nearly burned.
Bataav had to help her back into the jeep. “Fingers a little numb?” he teased, shifting over to make room.
She smiled and rubbed her hands together. “But worth it. Thank you.” A shiver—a real one this time—ran through her and her teeth started to chatter. “Not used to this cold at all.”
They drove back to the city in relative silence, all of them happily worn out after the day’s adventure. Slowly, Sakaane began to feel her eyelids drooping; she’d been awake now for over a day straight and it was catching up to her. Plus, she could feel Bataav’s warmth through his jacket… She glanced at him shyly. He’d left his arm draped over the back of the seat behind her, and as she nodded off to sleep she couldn’t help but end up against his shoulder.
Sakaane settled in and huddled close for warmth; Bataav tightened his arm around her shoulders to draw her closer. She glanced at him as she leant against him, unsure whether she should be snuggling with one of ILF’s ranking Pashas. Bataav smiled reassuringly and said quietly, “This is much better.”
With his free hand he slowly removed her hair pin as it poked his neck, passing it to her as they relaxed. He brushed her loose hair back from her face before leaning his cheek on the top of her head. The cold outside was soon forgotten as they sat close together, her sleeping as he watched the scenery pass by.
Bataav continued to smile as he thought about how well he and Sakaane seemed to be getting along. Although a friendship had formed while flying together on active operations in the Intaki system, it couldn’t have translated any better face to face. He’d missed her during her sabbatical from the corp a few months earlier and decided she was definitely someone he wanted to keep hold of.
Soon enough they arrived back at Sakaane’s hotel and Bataav woke her gently, grinning as she blushed at how she’d slept against him.
“Are you still okay for dinner tonight?” he asked. “The scenery earlier was amazing but a sandwich hardly did the day justice.”
Sakaane breathed a discreet sigh of relief when he didn’t comment on their closeness in the jeep, and silently cursed the heat in her face. “Of course. But I need to check for messages from Sanya and Creetalor, and we’re back on the station tonight. The shuttle leaves in about an hour I think.”
“I’ll head back to my hotel to change. It’d be a shame not to use the room at all seeing as I paid for it,” he teased, smiling again as her cheeks reddened more. Then he bid her farewell for the time being and started his walk through the city back to his own hotel.
Two hours later they were back in orbit chatting in the arrivals zone of the Federation Navy Assembly Plant station when a man approached.
“Excuse me, Mr…?”
Bataav turned and, after a barely perceptible moment of recognition, answered, “en Gravonere…these days.”
The man nodded and offered to take their bags. Bataav passed them along, then handed over a data chip detailing the location of their quarters. The stranger walked away, leaving a bewildered Sakaane staring curiously after him.
“Who was that? You just…” She gestured somewhat helplessly at her luggage as it disappeared into the crowd.
Bataav was reassuring. “I enjoy some small influence beyond the borders of Placid from my days before ILF. It’s nothing,” he added, smiling at how she clearly wasn’t satisfied with his answer. Changing the subject he asked, “Now, where shall we eat?”
Briefly tempted to press him further, she thought better of it and teased instead. “All right, have your secrets.” Then she glanced around. “There’s a great place close by called Deck 17. I know the owner. We should go there.”
“That’s settled then. Lead the way.”
The crowd exiting the arrivals area parted briefly and he caught sight of the man maneuvering his way ahead with their luggage in hand. A brief glance back and their eyes met, they shared a mutual nod and then the man was gone.
Sakaane led him to an Intaki establishment and was warmly welcomed by the proprietor. Looking to Bataav she introduced him.
“Bataav, this is an old friend, Njal. Njal, Bataav is with ILF.”
Njal inclined his head in greeting and showed them in, leading the way through the partially full tables. Along the way he pulled Sakaane ahead to say something quiet in her ear. She swatted the elder man playfully but, after a quick glance back at Bataav, nodded in agreement.
Finally turning to them both, Njal said, “For you, the best table in the house. Quiet, and has a great view of the moon. You can watch the ships coming and going just there.” He gestured out the viewport briefly before pulling Sakaane’s chair back and leaning in to whisper, rather loudly, “Though with such company who’ll be looking?”
Bataav smiled as he overheard. He liked the man already. Njal reminded him of his uncle, Teutonii, and he imagined the two would get on great.
As Njal left them to browse the menu Bataav said, “I see I’m not the only one with contacts in Dodixie. He seems nice.”
“An old friend from my days in Duripant. I used to come here…I mean there…all the time. He moved the bar after I graduated from the academy.”
Bataav smiled and looked around, taking in the atmosphere.
It wasn’t long before they were deep in conversation, enjoying their meal and each other’s company. Njal as the perfect host regularly topped up their drinks. Time passed; slowly the restaurant emptied out while the bar area filled. Njal told them they could stay at the table and he’d continue to bring drinks.
The conversation turned to their trip to Dodixie and the next few days.
“What do you think the conference will be like?” Bataav asked. “I’ve been looking forward to it for months.”
“Me too. I guess this is the seventh one they’ve held? I’ve never attended before but many of the pilots I’ve spoken to say it’s a grand time, one big party. I think I’m mostly looking forward to meeting everyone, like you face to face. Sanya as well,” she added.
Just as Sakaane had not met Bataav in person until the day before, they were both looking forward to meeting the former ILF pilot the next day. A close ally, Sanya was now Director-General of Security for KISEC and still flew with them on occasion. She held the reputation as one of the best combat pilots ever to fly in ILF.
“There weren’t any messages from her earlier,” Sakaane said. “I can check again before the morning.”
“Everyone who’s going should have arrived by now. There’ll probably be something when you get back to your quarters.”
“True… But I’m not ready to leave just yet.” She twisted the tumbler idly between her fingers. “Did you review tomorrow’s schedule? Any panels you’re interested in attending?”
He nodded and their conversation went on. Though their primary reason for the trip was to attend the convention, they seemed just as pleased to be spending the next few days with each other. Bataav smiled and reached across the table, his fingers interlinking with hers a little. He was relieved when she didn’t move away but smiled back, entwining her fingers more tightly with his.
Behind Bataav, Njal looked across the bar at Sakaane and grinned, nodding once approvingly.
After a couple more drinks Bataav suggested they head to their quarters before the early start the next day. They paid for their meal and stopped at the bar to bid Njal goodnight.
“Before you go, a parting gift,” Njal said, reaching under the bar and producing a bottle, which he handed to Bataav. “Some of our homeland’s finest nectar. Non-alcoholic, as the lady here prefers, but still with its own unique kick.”
“Njal, we couldn’t…”
He held up a hand to silence Sakaane’s protest. “I insist. Please, you two, enjoy. Suprab nahi.”
They thanked him and left, walking along the main promenade toward the elevators that would take them to the right level.
Bataav studied the bottle’s label and whistled under his breath. “Payloqan k’Adharnam. This is expensive stuff, actually.”
“From his private stash no doubt.” Sakaane hooked her thumbs into her pockets as they walked. “I really should have kept in better touch with Njal over the years. He’s always wanted the best for me, and offered great support.” She nodded to the bottle. “And apparently he likes you!”
Bataav chuckled and recalled what Sakaane had confessed to him at the base of Eyjafjallajökull as well as Njal’s unsubtle hints at dinner. “He seems to care about you like a daughter.”
She grinned. “That he does. He’s never tried to replace my father; simply been there for me as I needed and wanted. He has no family of his own. I’m glad I was able to see him this trip.”
Bataav tucked the bottle into the crook of his arm as the elevator doors opened and a rush of people exited. “I should take this to my room straight off.” He considered the time. “It’s not too late just yet. You could see if you have any messages from Sanya using my console if you like, and I should check in with the corp. Hopefully there is a note from her so we can try to get organized tonight rather than last-minute tomorrow. And perhaps we ought to sample this fine gift?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
He led the way and once in his quarters was satisfied to discover his bags at the foot of the bed. Flicking on the console, he let Sakaane have access first.
As Bataav moved behind her he realized how tempted he was to rest a hand on her waist. She quickly accessed her mail and channel feeds and found a message from Sanya.
“It says she and Creetalor have checked in and we can meet them both tomorrow. We’ll know her in the crowds from her security pass. It’ll display her channel avatar so should be quite easy to spot.”
“Perfect. No doubt there’ll be a ton of stuff we’re given when we arrive. Free pens and badges no doubt. All as worthless as sifting through the wreckage of Serpentis wrecks in hisec probably,” replied Bataav with a smile.
Sakaane laughed and stepped to one side to let him take his turn. She was pleased when she realized how close he’d stood to her but moved to the couch to sit as he flicked from intel channel to intel channel, checked a few mail accounts and caught up with some of the public discussion forums.
He looked over and smiled as she kicked off her shoes and wiggled her toes. “Shall we have some of this?” she asked, taking the bottle in hand.
“Please.” Disconnecting, he procured a corkscrew and two glasses, then sat beside her, leaning back to relax with one arm falling naturally behind her back while she opened the bottle and poured. He accepted the glass she offered him and for a moment they shared a look, before she leant back with him.
“I’m Mr Popular it seems. Not a single message for me,” Bataav said with a mock pout.
“Poor Bataav,” joked Sakaane.
“I know. So unfair. At least you like me.”
Sakaane met his gaze. His eyes were very blue, a stark contrast to his dark hair. A smile slowly crept across her lips and she nodded. “Mhmm. I do,” she said quietly.
“Good,” he replied, leaning toward her. “I was hoping you did.”
Next in this series: Holoreel Convention – Part 3