Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Swarm

     They were in the walls.  Oh, God, they were in the WALLS!

     Fredrik jerked away from the sculpted grey surface where he had leaned to catch his breath.  He wanted to deny what he had heard.  He wanted to believe he had gotten away, to feel safe, to permit himself time to rest.  His jangled nerves refused to be deceived.

     His temples throbbed with his pulse.  His ears strained past that noise, demanding to hear more.  They insisted that the noise was real.  His lower brain could not ignore such warnings of danger.

     The things were small.  They could easily be behind the walls.  How thick were those surfaces?  He did not know.  He did not even know what the grey substance was.  It was warmer than stone should be in this chill, damp air.  The stuff was almost smooth, but not quite, with an irregular roughness that teased the eye and hand with hints of a pattern.  It had no joints or corners, but flowed smoothly into bends and arches, pits and pockets, branching off in every direction into corridors of every size.
     Fredrik was lost here.  His flight through this maze, with its round unmarked paths, had been like the tumbling of a lone blood cell through a dying artery.  Now the microbes were closing in all around him.  They could hear him, maybe smell him, even if neither he nor they could see one another.
     He could hear them.  Their many legs scratched on the strange surface.  Were they in another tunnel, close by but separate?  Were they, indeed, in some interstice just behind a thin divider?  Might they burst through like ants piercing the skin of a hollowed fruit?  Spiders pouring from an egg sac?
     They ran like insects, but they were not insects.  Fredrik had not had time to look at them closely.  He had only an impression of multiple hard, gleaming limbs, colored maybe red or black.  It had been difficult to tell in the red light of Thompson’s lamp.
     There were a lot of them.  He had seen the way they swarmed, legs almost clicking together as they headed for that light.  They had overrun Thompson, grabbed the lamp out of his hand, and extinguished it.
     Had that been intentional?  Did they know their prey was helpless in the dark?  Did they recognize the switch and know how to operate it?  Or did they act on animal instincts, sensing that the bright spot was a target or otherwise somehow important?  Perhaps the light had antagonized them.  They might have simply attacked it and switched it off entirely by accident.  It didn’t matter now.
     When it went dark, they took Thompson with them.  Fredrik tried not to hear his partner’s screams again.  He had heard panic, rising to terror as the creatures swarmed up and smothered the man.  Fredrik could imagine it from the way Thompson’s voice had been stifled. 
     Then he felt their touch himself.  Cold, hard appendages, bristling with sharp points and oddly soft hairs.  They had clicked and whistled to one another as they sought him out in the dark.  Fredrik had not waited.  He had not tried to fight.  He knew there were too many.  If he tried to fight, blind and afraid, they would catch him.  They might take his lamp, too, and then it would not matter if he ran away.  So, he fled.
     Harley had held their weapons.  She was supposed to be their guard, her and Braddock.  Braddock had died in the crash, along with Stone.  Had that been an accident?  Fredrik wasn’t an engineer and hadn’t been navigating, so he had no way to know.  Thompson said something got into the intake vents.  They assumed it was debris kicked up by the storm.  Maybe it had been a little, hard, multi-legged body, trying to climb into the shuttle.  Maybe it was debris... thrown into the vents as sabotage.
     Fredrik fought down the surge of paranoid panic.  He had to assume there was a way out.  The shuttle was down but the ship was still up there, in orbit.  His comm wasn’t working… maybe due to the depth, maybe because of something about these tunnels?  No way to know.  If he could find a path to the surface, he could call for help.  The ship should already be searching.  Maybe they were.  He had to get above ground and warn them.  If these things were intelligent, they might attack the backup landing team.
     He had to fight despair.  He had to assume he was smarter than this enemy.  He was definitely bigger.  Stronger.  Was he stronger?  They had grabbed Harley, and she was a big, strong woman.  They had caught her standing under an opening, reached down, and hauled her away before she could fire a shot.  They took her and her weapon.  Thank goodness they couldn’t use it.  Otherwise, he might already be dead.
     The swarm had nearly caught up with Fredrik twice now.  If they could shoot, they would have had an easy shot both times.  After he fled, he found and illuminated his own lamp.  He switched it from red to full spectrum.  It didn’t matter if it drew their attention, not now.  He needed to see.  He could run fast, faster than them… for a time.  As he grew tired, their scuttling speed was starting to match his jogging gait.  He only had a few more sprints left.  Resting here might buy him a few more escapes.
     The landing team had run into the tunnels, at first.  When the shuttle went down and the winds picked up, it seemed like the best course of action.  They would take shelter, call to the ship, and wait out the storm until conditions were clear enough to repair their shuttle or to bring down their backup.
     The strange, grey-lined openings had beckoned.  They were, after all, what the researchers - Fredrik and Thompson and Stone - had come down to see.  Orbital surveys had shown several such tunnel mouths, too perfectly shaped and regularly spaced to be natural formations.  The surface seemed entirely natural, entirely untouched… but there were these openings.  Such reshaping suggested larger, hidden life forms, perhaps even intelligence.
     There certainly was some kind of intelligence at work.  Rudimentary, sentient, sapient… it didn’t matter now, now that Fredrik knew the natives were dangerous and hostile.  The things had reacted badly to their intrusion.  Whether out of defense or hunger, they had attacked, and it did not matter why.  Fredrik just needed to escape.  If he returned, if he ever returned, it would be with a full squad, all carrying plasma throwers, with atomic lanterns ablaze and motion detectors active, each monitored by their personal A.I. and synced to a positioning satellite.  Then they'd see who hunted who.
     His primate brain was doing its best to organize conflicting lower impulses.  Stand and fight!  Run away!  Hold still!  Right now was not the time to fight.  Holding still was suicide, too: he was in the creatures’ lair.  He had to run.  He needed to run soon.  When the scratching sound came again, it was time to run now.
      Which way?  The sounds came from every direction.  Was he surrounded?  Were some of the noises echoes from tunnels further back?  Further forward?  Above, below, to the sides?  He had climbed up at one point, slid down at another.  As best he could remember, he was at about the same depth as the entrance.  Its lateral direction was a complete mystery.
     Fredrik decided… forward, then right at the next large branch.  He tended to assume that larger branches meant a main trunk.  The entrance had been three meters wide.  He had avoided anything less than a meter across, where he would have to crawl.  He was in the two meter range right now.  A flash of rationality reminded him that the passages had not shown any specific organization.  Branches seemed randomly located and randomly sized, with nothing like a ‘tree’ structure at all.
     Certainly, the tunnels were nothing like a Human structure, even an underground facility.  No sapient race Fredrik could think of built like this.  Did the creatures build it?  Excavate it?  Extrude it, like termites?  Were they parasites infesting a structure built by some previous inhabitant?  Had they already expelled… or consumed… that prior tenant?  Or worse, were they commensal creatures, guardians, or pets of something worse?
    Was Fredrik, even now, descending into the lair of the swarm’s master?  As he ran, hearing clicks on every side but seeing none of the pursuers, he realized that he might be being herded.
    Still, what could he do otherwise?  It seemed that whenever someone stopped to confront the enemy, they were taken.  If they would not step into his light, he was safe as long as he kept moving forward and never left his back unguarded.  Or his head, or his feet.  Assuming they could not, in fact, burst through the walls.
    The passage began to widen.  Hope surged, chased closely by leery caution.  Something ahead reflected Fredrik’s lamp-light.  It did not glisten black or red.  It shone an opalescent glimmer of blue and green and purple.  At first, it seemed like a stack of gems.  Then it was the facets of a great multifaceted eye.  Fredrik slowed, caught between the need to press forward and the fear of what lay ahead.
     He raised his lamp like a weapon.  Then he lowered it, fearing it would be snatched from his grasp.  Instead, he held both hands high, ready to strike if something lunged.  Step by step he advanced.  The skittering scraping sound intensified behind him and faded ahead.  Was this where he was being led?  What worse thing waited for him, watching with a thousand unblinking eyes?
     He could only move forward.  Now, he saw more clearly what produced the glitter.  Soft orbs, each larger than an eyeball, hung in clusters from the wall.  Like an eye, they also had a translucent skin filled with fluid.  Fredrik could tell that the centers were fluid, because something darker swam within each globe.  Dark things, like swimming centipedes, a body with many small legs flailing…
     Eggs.  They were eggs.  The spawn of the crawling swarm, no doubt of it.  Thousands of them.  He had been goaded to their nest, driven to this chamber when he could not be dragged.  The creatures had larvae, hungry young, and he was a self-delivered meal. 
     No!  Fredrik had not lived well in his brief, spacefaring life, but he would die well.  There would be a thousand fewer monstrosities growing to threaten his successors.  They wanted to fatten on his corpse?  Let them die beneath his boot!
     Fredrik raised his foot to crush the first bunch of eggs.  That threat drew a response.  The swarm was emboldened.  A wave of crawling creatures raced forward, flowing across the floor, then up the walls and over the ceiling.  Red and black.  Reddish-black, like blood in the dim light.  Fredrik lashed out, with his feet, with his fist, finally even with the lamp.  He felt carapaces crack and even a few eggs burst.
     Then he felt spines puncture his suit and his skin.  He tore away from the first grasp, but more of the creatures clambered up his supporting leg.  Their segmented bodies wrapped over his lamp and its tightly clenched hand.  Then they were on his back, around his neck, on top of his head, and finally, over his face.  He could not brush one off without a new horror taking its place.
     They did not drag him down, as they had Thompson.  Nor did they pull him away, as they had Harley.  Of course not.  They were holding him in place.  They held him still, so that he could not harm their young.  They kept him where they wanted him, until the eggs were ready to hatch.  They would not even give him the mercy of death to spare him the pain of being devoured alive.
     Then, one of the creatures shoved something soft and wet against his nostrils.  A foul chemical odor flowed down his throat, making Fredrik gag.  A poison?  No, a paralytic.  He tried to cough and could not.  He could not turn his head to avoid the secretion.  Blessedly, his vision began to blur.  Unconsciousness.  Thank the stars.  As he fell, Fredrik prayed only that he would die before the anesthetic wore off.
 
      ****************************************************************************************
    
      Special Defense Leader Sshtknnn.tph.rrrssK crawled out from beneath the collapsed beast.  Three of her/her/his legs had been crushed in the battle, but the other nine still held her/her/his weight.
     “Any casualties?” she/she/he whistled to the gathered troops.
     “Kkktwww.ttt.kchssR is paralyzed!” came one report.  That was the worst of it among the soldiers.  A few offspring had died, but losses before hatching were sadly common.  It could have been worse.  It should have gone better.  They had been forced into melee.  When the monster went after the nursery, they had no choice.
     Curses on Defense Primary!  Her/his/her demands to capture the beasts without injury had made this operation more dangerous than necessary.  The invaders were large, aggressive, and armed.  Sshtknnn.tph.rrrssK had been right to request a double squad.  She/She/He had also been right to request armament, a request that Primary had denied.  That point of error would come up next gathering, it certainly would.
     “Triad teams, tend to those who can’t move.  The rest of you, take positions around this captive.”  Sshtknn.tph.rrrssK almost hissed the orders in her/her/his fury.  When the squads were in position, she/she/he whistled in a more carefully modulated scale, “Carry it/it/it to the holding chamber with the others.  Wounded to the infirmary.  All legs, march!”
     It was the lack of communication that made things really difficult.  The intruding creatures were clearly intelligent.  The separate covering over their softer, exposed flesh was evidence: synthetic skin for protection.  They had tools: light sources and weapons.  Sshtknn.tph.rrrssK had to assume that the slow, rumbling noises these horrors emitted was a language.  Maybe the scientists could decode it.  Then, they could interrogate the captives.
     Talk to the captives, if Primary had anything to do with it.  Sshtknn.tph.rrrrssK whined in exasperation.  Well, Primary was just relaying the wishes of Himself/Herself/Herself.  They would try to 'understand' the invaders first.
     Then, when Sshtknn.tph.rrrssK was proven right, when the beasts were revealed as the vicious marauders they clearly were... then, the nest could launch a real offensive.  These things had come from somewhere on the surface, beyond the tunnels.  There could be more of them coming.  They could be massing up there, waiting for word from their scouts.  Life existed beyond the storms, and it was intelligent and hostile.
     The nest couldn’t just hold still and wait until they were overrun by alien things!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Escape from Grace - Chapter 11


From the command chair on the bridge of Saving Grace, Evgeny finished viewing the key records Matilda had provided him,.  She had included a summary timeline of events from the ship’s perspective.  His gut roiled with nausea from multiple causes.  He was hungry and thirsty, but he would need some time before he could eat.  He was furiously angry, but thanks to Matilda, there was no one he could vent that anger upon.  He was devastated with grief.  Everyone was gone, everyone except himself, Mikala, Wallace, and the Mauraug.  There might be a few more scattered survivors, but the whole of New Gethsemane was deceased.
The crew of the salvager had confirmed: minimal heat signatures, no independent movement, no signs of respiration.  They had even checked the mines.  Unless Evgeny’s family had somehow transported themselves a hundred kilometers away from the settlement in the moments between their last distress hail and the landing of the Apostate bombs, they were dead.  They were dead.  He tried to let that fact sink in and deaden his nerves.
Matilda gave him as much time as they could spare to process and reconcile his troubles.  That time amounted to only a few additional minutes.  She had to interrupt to notify him that the Mauraug and Mikala – but not Wallace – were boarding the ship.  She could keep them waiting in the cargo bay, but not indefinitely.
She also advised Evgeny that she had been impersonating him and detailed the terms of ‘their’ ultimatum.  Evgeny accepted her improvisation.  His approval was unsurprising.  A well-designed A.I., having grown up with a User from childhood onward, could easily anticipate their preferences and substitute for them without presuming too much.  If anything, Matilda had handled the situation more adroitly than Evgeny might have, given the circumstances.
It did frustrate Evgeny that Wallace chose to remain planetside.  Again, no surprise in retrospect.  Everyone aboard was taking a dangerous chance.  It was entirely likely that all of them would be destroyed or captured as hijackers.  Still, taking that risk was better than trusting to the mercies of other mercenaries or the pathetic security of the absentee Collective.  Evgeny planned to take advantage of this opportunity.  He hadn’t yet decided what form his action would take, but he would act.
To achieve anything with that action, he would need help.  Matilda could operate a star ship herself, and maybe even guide him through physical operations like maintenance, but eventually, more biological crew would be necessary.  For one thing, a ship this size with only one crewman would draw unwanted attention.  For another, they might need multiple bodies for repairs, for sapient interaction, or for expertise Matilda lacked.
For example, they needed to become inconspicuous.  A salvager with a mixed Human-Mauraug crew wasn’t all that strange.  With a few modifications, they could make the brick-like hulk look like a whole different ship.  Ideally, they could borrow the clearances of the original Saving Grace, at least until it was widely reported as stolen.
Evgeny regretted that, both to be unremarkable and to retain a Mauraug crew, the ship would have to be removed from Matilda’s control.  Worse, if he was to have any hope of securing the Mauraug’s loyalties, he had to continue the fiction of his A.I.’s demise.  Matilda had already anticipated this necessity.  Within minutes, she would simultaneously unlock the cargo bay door and place herself in indefinite dormancy, passing control of ship’s functions back to the original systems.  Still, those systems were modified to respond only to Evgeny until he granted permission otherwise.  Even after he granted access to chosen individuals, he could still override them with his own superior codes.  Though Matilda could not actively assist Evgeny, she had handed him all the power she had wrested for herself.
The timing of their switch-over was not left to Evgeny’s discretion.  Matilda intercepted a message transmitted from near the ruins of New Gethsemane, addressed to a ship circling in Locust IV’s upper atmosphere.  Captain Mendoza was signaling distress to the Great Family passenger liner, Vlluti.  If Saving Grace did not depart in the next few minutes, it could be impeded or trailed by the other ship.  Worse, now that the local, private ships were alerted, military ships would accelerate efforts to reach the system in time to intercept.  They needed to leave, and before the ship left the surface, they needed a crew in place.  No more time could be spared.
Evgeny was just beginning to mourn his parents.  Now he had to bid his best friend goodbye.  Matilda was practically his sister, his younger but brilliant sister.  He told himself it wasn’t permanent.  Someday, when his labors were done, they would be reunited.  A very specific input would awaken Matilda from her deep, invisible slumber.  Until then, they would be totally separated.  The Mauraug would kill her if they knew she was aboard.  Even if not, they would never trust him if they found out.  They would never follow him.
Hell, they still might not.  With great effort, Evgeny gave the word: “Nasvidenje, Matilda.”
“Hoo roo, Evgeny.”

********************************************************************

In the cargo bay of Saving Grace, the volunteer crew waited uneasily.  After they had climbed aboard, the ramp closed behind them, rendering them effectively imprisoned.  Gaalet, Karech, and Voshtig had already begun discussing options for disabling or detaching the hatchway door leading deeper into the ship.  Soloth and Suufit held a lively debate in hushed whispers, more visible than audible due to its gestural punctuations.  These groupings left Luuboh and Mikala standing apart, glancing awkwardly at one another.
These interactions were interrupted by the unlocking click of the entry door.  Every gaze was drawn in that direction.  Mikala was first to move, but was preempted by Soloth, who had been closer and moved into her path.  She had to watch the Mauraug’s cybernetically-enhanced back flex as it pulled open the hatch and stepped through.  Close behind it came its three loyal followers.  Mikala was able to enter behind them and just ahead of the recalcitrant Suufit.  Luuboh hung back, perhaps torn on the value of being left behind, alone.
Evgeny’s voice came to them through the speakers of an intercom system: “Come up to the bridge, please.  There is another ship on its way to our location and I’d like to lift off before they get here.  It will be easier to move with all hands on deck.  Take the hall fore and come up the ladder two decks.”
His directions were almost superfluous; the ship’s halls were clearly labeled for navigation.  Plus, any sapient familiar with ship design could probably guess where the bridge was placed.  Still, it saved them some time to have a confirmed route, and it was reassuring to be invited up rather than left to their own choices.
The group still took a few minutes to assemble on the bridge.  Evgeny watched them enter from his chosen perch: the central captain’s chair, placed like a throne on a raised platform at the back of the room, directly right of the entrance hatch.  The others filed in and spread out through the area, looking over the various workstations.  Gaalet stopped before the communications panel and impulsively pressed several buttons, scrunching its face in irritation when the commands produced no effect.
“I have locked all ship systems,” Evgeny said in Mauraug, looking first at Gaalet but then turning to face Soloth.  “I will release access based on individual expertise and agreed duties.  We will share this ship, but I am in charge.”
“Why?”  Soloth asked in response.  Suufit and Voshtig grunted agreement.  The three senior Mauraug stood in defiant poses.  Suufit, Karech, and Gaalet had weapons still drawn, though the latter remained more interested in the ship’s technology than its politics.  Soloth’s gun was still holstered, but it hardly needed firearms to be deadly at such close range.
Evgeny set his jaw, but did not appear otherwise intimidated as he answered, “Because I took this ship, and you didn’t.  Because I have its command codes, and you don’t.  Because you underestimated my value, and I won’t make that mistake.  I could have left you behind and left alone, but that doesn’t help any of us.  You chose to come aboard, on my terms, for the same reason I invited you: we have things we want to accomplish.  Find the Apostates and avenge our people.  Make sure the Collective doesn’t bury the truth.  Hell, just stop accepting the fate other people dictate for us.  If that’s not good enough, if you want out, say so.  You can leave and face whatever justice or charity you find out there.  Trust me, it won’t be much.”
He paused to let the audience absorb his words.  Soloth did appear to be giving his arguments some consideration.   Voshtig looked unhappy, staring at Evgeny with clear hostility.
Suufit, instead, retorted right away, “Stay and submit or go and submit?  I say there is a third choice: stay and unseat you, ‘captain’.  You are out-numbered, out-armed, and out-classed.  You are not a leader.  You squandered your stolen Dominance and created our current problems.  Step down and let me fix your mistakes.  Give me the command codes.  Your alternative is to suffer until you submit.”
Evgeny and Mikala exchanged a look that implied shared aggravation with all things Mauraug.  She began what she hoped was a casual movement toward the opposite side of the bridge, placing her back to the forward wall.  Now, four Mauraug stood in the room’s center, facing Evgeny, while Mikala, Gaalet, and Luuboh were spread to its outer edges.
Evgeny gave Suufit an indulgent look before rebutting: “No.  The command codes are my claim to Dominance.  I won them.  I will not release them.  If you threaten me again, I can disable this ship or even destroy it.  Saving Grace will serve me or no one else.  I would choose death – mine and yours – over submission, to you, to the scavengers, or to the Collective.”
Suufit fleered its lips in a sneer.  It mocked, “You submitted before, rather than die.  You will do so again.”  It spoke over its shoulder to the other Mauraug: “Take the Human.”
Gaalet and Karech failed to react, either ignoring Suufit’s order or hesitating to obey.  Voshtig eagerly drew its short sword and stepped forward.  Its attempt to intimidate backfired.  By advancing with ominous slowness, it allowed time for Mikala to react.  The underestimated Human closed the short distance between them in three long steps.
She dropped to a long, leaning crouch and extended one leg in an arc parallel to the floor.  The power behind that sweep was evident when it made contact with Voshtig’s legs and brought them sliding backward.  The top-heavy simian fell forward, twisting to avoid injuring itself on its own blade.
Mikala did not pause but rose smoothly as her first target fell.  She next struck upwards at Karech’s weapon arm with an extended fist.  While not strong enough to disable a Mauraug, her strike caught it in a sensitive spot and forced it to drop its firearm.
Startled at first, Suufit finally had time to raise its own flechette thrower.  Evgeny stood, ready to throw himself at the giant Mauraug to prevent it from shooting Mikala.  He knew he would be too late if Suufit fired immediately.
Instead, Soloth interfered, stepping forward to place itself between Suufit and Mikala.  This unexpected move gave Suufit pause, and it held its fire.  Mikala and Karech both dove for the latter's dropped weapon.  Closer and faster, she won the draw and turned the gun – a small plasma thrower – on its former holder.  Voshtig struggled to rise without releasing its sword, a slow but evident threat.
Evgeny also realized, with some confusion, that Gaalet, the seemingly oblivious engineer, had bestirred itself to turn around and was now pointing its much larger plasma rifle... at Suufit.  It had not spoken or otherwise inserted itself into the situation, but it appeared ready to kill its former superior if necessary.
The internal relationships within even a small society of Mauraug were evidently more complex than Evgeny assumed.  Deciphering the cultural triggers involved here would take time he couldn’t spare.  At the moment, at least, a few undercurrents had flowed in his favor.
Soloth finally spoke, facing Suufit but addressing its remarks to the group: “I accept captain Lerner’s terms.  I also assert that I am second in Dominance beneath it.  As such, I reserve right of challenge to myself and oppose any other threats to its command.  If you have a problem, direct it to me.
Soloth and Suufit stared one another down for three long seconds.  Mikala held Karech’s gun on him, keeping a wary eye on the nearby Voshtig.  Gaalet kept its rifle similarly trained on Suufit.  Luuboh, who had been edging toward the bridge’s exit, stood still and silent.
Evgeny finally realized they were waiting on him to break the standoff.  “I accept Soloth bash’Soloth as second in Dominance.  It will hold a set of subordinate codes to the ship and deliver orders to the crew on my behalf.”  He recognized the need for compromise.  The Mauraug might resist him as their direct master, but could accept Soloth as a competent surrogate.  As long as he and Soloth were in accord, he would have the former leader’s support.  It would therefore have indirect control over the orders he chose.  It was an arrangement they could work with, for now.
Suufit, noticing the tide turning against it, finally relented.  It lowered its gun and its eyes from Soloth.  Gaalet lowered its own weapon in response, and Mikala started to take her aim off of Karech.  Everyone seemed to be releasing tension, giving their respective versions of a sigh of relief.
Voshtig disrupted the mood with sudden violence.  It swung its short blade at Mikala, who twisted out of the way, forced to draw back her arms to avoid injury.  She jumped backward as Voshtig charged forward. 
The rogue Mauraug now had a clear path to its true target: Soloth’s back.  It seized upon a rare opportunity to bypass the armored cybernetic spine.  Suufit did not react, to give a warning, to aim its weapon, or to push Soloth out of the way.  Evgeny did shout, but belatedly.  Gaalet was similarly slow to react.
Two actions occurred simultaneously.  Voshtig plunged its blade down, shouting, “Die, Traitor!"  It punctured Soloth below its shoulder blade, just beside the gleaming contour of the plate covering that segment of vertebra.  The wound was obviously agonizing but not fatal, since Soloth roared and spun around, wrenching the sword out of Voshtig’s grasp.  Its dark blood oozed and spattered the floor as it turned.
At the same time, Mikala lowered and aimed Karech’s plasma thrower.  She fired as Voshtig struck.  A small but expanding sphere of superheated matter streaked across the small distance to strike Voshtig in its ribs, at the center of mass.  The projectile burned itself out as it vaporized hair, skin, flesh, lung tissue and body fluids.  Fortunately for Karech, standing at the victim’s opposite side, the plasma bursts were calibrated to expend themselves before penetrating an organic target.  It had done itself a service by setting the weapon to an appropriate level for close-quarters use.
Voshtig was not able to protest its injury.  If anything, it looked confused as it fell onto its face, gasping without breath.  Its limbs shuddered as its nervous system attempted to remedy a sudden lack of respiration.
Before the body had stilled, Evgeny was barking orders, alternating between Mauraug and the colonists' Terran dialect.  “Enough!  We have no more time to waste.  Any other grudges can wait until the next port.  Suufit, take navigation, prepare us to lift.  Karech, get to weapons, see what we have.  Gaalet, get down to engineering.  I want a warning if any systems aren’t ready for use.  Mikala, go to comms.  Make sure we give the right clearances… use what you know to convince everyone that the situation is normal, no reason for alarm.  Luuboh, see to Soloth.  Get it to medical if necessary and get that sword out.  Let’s GO.”
His words took varying amounts of time to sink in for each listener, but one by one – first Gaalet, then Karech, then Mikala, then Luuboh, and finally Suufit – each sapient moved as bidden.  Evgeny busied himself transmitting authorization codes to each station, opening up the specific systems to their permitted uses.  Soloth finally consented to leave the room, but refused Luuboh’s offer of support or even a hand to stanch the steady bleeding from its back.  Evgeny could hear Soloth mutter something about ‘provincial heretics’ as it stumbled though the hatchway.
Seeing Evgeny’s warnings verified by scanner data, Suufit wasted little time learning the navigational controls.  It deciphered enough to plot a course out of atmosphere and onto a path leaving Locust System.  Without prompting, it initiated liftoff, sending a tremor through the ship as she struggled to adjust for the irregularities of wind currents.  Karech was equally engaged, sending the occasional summary message to Evgeny’s command console as it confirmed access to several energy projectors, ballistic and magnetic projectile throwers, and a moderately useful deflection system among the ship’s armaments.  For a basic salvager, Saving Grace was actually a bit over-armed; Evgeny expected to find at least one log record where the captain had convinced a ‘derelict’ ship that it was dead and not merely crippled.  Too bad forensic science for starship homicide was a rare profession.  There was rarely much of a corpse to study, between explosive distribution of matter in space and the scavengers tearing apart any remnants they found.
Evgeny hoped that detection would prove similarly lax when a ship involuntarily changed hands.  They had the original registry codes for Saving Grace, thanks to Matilda.  Those would work for a time, until the distribution of news caught up with them.  From then on, the ship would play a game of bluff and disguise, stealing or forging codes, or else resupplying at ports where Collective registry didn’t matter much.
Mikala had already admitted that she would be an asset in that area.  Evgeny didn’t know how far he could trust her cooperation.  That was true for every sapient aboard, to be fair, but Mikala didn’t seem driven by personal goals the way he, Soloth, and Luuboh were.  Evgeny had been totally honest about his purposes for the ship.  He had correctly wagered that Soloth also wanted to put the colony and the Collective far behind.  He had offered Luuboh a better deal than it had ever received before. 
Possibly, Mikala had been working for the Terran government.  She might still be considered on the job.  Evgeny had dangled the offer of information before her, along with action against mass murderers.  Hopefully, that was enough, and she would forbear any attempts to disable or arrest Evgeny or the Mauraug until their work of vengeance was done.
Regardless of the motivation, they were rogues.  Renegades.  Pirates.  If Mikala was still licensed, did that make them privateers?  It wouldn’t matter to most of the Collective.  They had stolen a ship, no matter the circumstances, killed one of her crew and marooned the rest.  The abuses of Evgeny’s A.I. were a tertiary offense compared to the first two crimes.  Unless they were fortunate enough to find legitimate work – salvage was most poetically likely – they would have to commit further thefts to stay in operation.
Evgeny groaned as he digested the weight of his situation and considered the choices left to him.  He already missed Matilda’s advice.  Awakening her was an option rendered impossible by circumstances.  Surrendering to the ‘authorities’ was another.  What authorities?  Even if someone properly authoritative were present in-system, Evgeny would defy them anyway.  The Collective lacked the will to act.  It lacked the courage of its convictions.  Evgeny felt righteous, a feeling amplified by his youth.
Toggling the main comm system, Evgeny announced for all to hear (including Soloth and Luuboh in medical, wherever that was).  He spoke in familiar trade Terran and let the ship’s monitors handle the translation where necessary.
“To let you know what to expect, here are my plans: We have a hold full of cargo, obtained by questionable means.  We’re going to sell any of it that we can’t use.  With the profits, I want this ship upgraded, outfitted, and disguised so that we can stay in operation.  Then, we do some research: check for reports, come back and search this region, and otherwise do whatever is necessary to find the Apostates responsible for our losses.  Then, we go punish them.  If we find out who gave the orders to abandon our homes to the mercies of terrorists… well, then, we have another enemy to deal with.”
He paused, less certain now how to continue.  “After that… we probably won’t have much latitude left.  We’ll probably be notorious criminals.  It’s up to you how long afterward you want to stay on.  Try to desert before the Apostates are dealt with, and you’ll be suspected of betrayal and dealt with like Voshtig bash’Kenet.  Once that goal is completed, we may all need to scatter and find new lives.  I promise to help you there with any assets we pick up along the way.”
“We’re leaving,” he continued, “leaving Locust IV, leaving our old lives, and leaving the control of the Collective.  Not just leaving, escaping.  I want you to see me, and this ship, as your real escape from tragedy.  As refugees, we’d be the objects of pity and charity, the recipients of condolences and regrets.  As escapees, we will be feared… and perhaps privately, respected and cheered on.”
He went on, suddenly inspired: “We didn’t need to be saved.  We needed to be helped, back when it mattered.  They called this ship Saving Grace.  Fuck that.  Now it’s called Scape Grace.  That phrase comes from an even older Terran language.  It’s a way to say sinner or villain, someone who avoids the grace of God.  We don’t need their grace, their blessing, their late-coming largesse.  We escaped it.  And if that makes us criminals, then I’m proud to break free.”
As if seizing upon the dramatic moment, the re-christened ship tore loose from the gravity of Locust IV and entered vacuum.  Aiming just left of the eye of Ra, she plunged toward the spatial deformation created by the star’s mass and entered hyperspace.  At the next system nearby, they would bury the dead and sell their looted grave goods.  With those funds, Scape Grace would truly be reborn.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Escape from Grace - Chapter 10

      A few seconds passed as Matilda worked.  To each of the individual biological minds within the sphere of Locust IV, little occurred in that brief time.  Yet, collectively, many events transpired:
    
     Evgeny Lerner waited tensely, watching the man he had attacked recover.

     The stunned man, Mitchell Preston, stood uncertainly and tried to decide whether to run for cover, leap at the strange intruder while he was occupied, or just hold still and watch further.

     Captain Carlos Mendoza alternately watched the two men in his cargo bay and the four strangers gathered around the outside of his ship.  He was most concerned with the fate of the Zig crew member they had shot and now appeared to be treating.  He entirely missed the signals indicating the rapid approach of two motorized vehicles, each bearing another pair of unidentified sapients.

     Soloth bash’Soloth, its passenger Karech bash’Uulivas, its fellow driver Voshtig bash’Kenet, and Voshtig’s passenger Mikala Turell were all focused on reaching the looming ship as quickly as possible.

     Outside the ship, Gaalet bash’Rubesh was speaking via compad radio to Soloth.  It reported the events that had just occurred, ending with Evgeny’s disappearance and the closure of the salvage ship’s loading ramp.

     Luuboh bash’Gaulig struggled to seal the wounds in the Zig female’s abdomen.  A major blood-bearing organ had been ruptured, and if the internal hemorrhaging was not first addressed, closing the external entry and exit holes was pointless.  Without protective gloves, the Zig’s toxic fluids were already starting to irritate the skin of Luuboh’s fingers.  Eventually, its hands would tingle and then start to go numb, which would interfere considerably with surgical work.

    Suufit bash’Topith stood wary as well, waiting on the results of Evgeny’s incursion, Gaalet’s conversation, and Luuboh’s ministrations. 

     Wallace Harmon sat sprawled where he had fallen, struggling to breathe past the searing pain in his chest.

     KoShunTi lay still, in shock from pain and blood loss, oblivious to the actions of the Mauraug poking around inside her abdomen.  She was slipping toward unconsciousness, having already passed the point of mortal fear.

     For all this variety of experience and action, Matilda’s timeline passed a hundred times as many markers.  She bypassed the initial security protecting Saving Grace’s network with little difficulty.  Noting that the ship’s crew must lack a skilled information technician, she quickly copied her own operating code into several memory stores distributed around the ship.  That way, if a quick-thinking sapient managed to cut a cable physically linking one system with another or destroyed one of those ‘nodes’, she could resume her attack from another direction.

     By the fifth second after executing her User’s orders, Matilda was accessing the requested record store.  What she found there created concern within her emotive subsystems.  She was troubled not only by the knowledge itself, but also by the effects it would have upon Evgeny’s psyche.  She could not circumvent his order to the extent of concealing information, nor could she cushion their impact by reorganizing, rephrasing, or recasting the facts.  What she could do was reduce harm by limiting the potential paths of reaction available to her User.

     He would be angry.  There would be grief, and spite, and recrimination.  Matilda was as aware of Evgeny’s emotional weaknesses as she was of his physical dimensions, which was to say: to the limits of symbolic representation, lacking personal experience of either emotion or physicality.  Evgeny needed to be kept separate from the targets of his ire.  He needed a haven, a place to grieve in peace and safety.

     Ordinarily, in such a case, allowing the authorities to detain a dangerously troubled individual would be the best course.  Evgeny might benefit from time in confinement.  Being imprisoned would keep him from harming other sapients.  A proper detention facility – such as on Terra – would include skilled, humane mental treatment as part of its rehabilitation program.

     Unfortunately, Matilda could not trust the crew of Saving Grace to take her User into custody.  In the present circumstance, they would likely target him for recrimination, both for the attack on one of their number and for his physical and digital intrusions onto their ship.  If that crew member, the Zig KoShunTi, were to die, Evgeny risked injury or death in reprisal.

     Even if they had no specific reason to be hostile, Saving Grace’s recorded history did not inspire confidence in her crew’s morality.  Several potential survivor sites had been ranked lower in survey priority compared to sites with potentially surviving technology.  Places that had still been broadcasting distress messages after the Apostate attack had not been searched first.  When those sites were eventually examined, only corpses were found.  Those corpses had been retrieved but were gathered in bulk before being identified, plus there was no inventory of their individual belongings.  That suggested that only a belated listing would be created, possibly omitting many valuable items.

     No overtly incriminating orders had been given, verbally or via digital text.  No direct proof of neglect could be cited.  It would require a comprehensive audit, such as Matilda’s omnipresent mind had generated, to catch the subtleties of malfeasance involved here.  She could not help but warn Evgeny about the sort of opportunists he was facing.  She could not resist protecting him from their ‘care’.

     What she could do was protect both parties from one another.  To the limits of her best judgment, she could take control of the situation.  She could take control of the ship.
 

*********************************************************************

     Carlos swore loudly when his monitors went blank.  What stupidly bad timing for a technical glitch!  What… suspiciously bad timing.  There was nothing he could do, himself.  He had already put out calls to his scattered crew, dispersed on their various assignments around New Gethsemane.  The ship’s engineer would be on his way back along with everyone else.  Captain Mendoza had ordered their return as soon as he realized that their new arrivals were armed and unhappy.
 
     Now KoShunTi was hurt, maybe dying, and he couldn’t even see her.  He had also lost audio.  With a sinking feeling, Carlos tried the comms and found them dead as well.  No response from external weapons.  The bridge seemed to have gone entirely offline.  This was a pretty major outage.  Had that damned crazy colonist broken something inside the ship?

     The last Carlos saw, the bastard had stunned Mitchell and seemed to be searching through their cargo.  There wasn’t much the captain could do, other than seal off the cargo deck and trust Mitchell to fight back or at least stay out of the way and stay alive.  He had originally assumed that, other than murdering Mitchell, the intruder couldn’t do much harm.  He didn't seem like a murderer.  The man – Evgeny, he’d said? – was using a stunner and not apparently trying to kill anyone.  Maybe he had somehow found a way to sabotage Saving Grace.

     The Mauraug with him were another story.  One of them had shot KoShunTi.  Then again, it looked like one of them was trying to keep her alive.  Or, it could have been rifling her corpse for loot and ID.  The monitor resolution wasn’t good enough to tell at that distance.

     Now, he had no contact in either direction.  Carlos was cut off from his crew.  He’d have to exit the bridge and try a monitor elsewhere, maybe in the engine room.  He was standing up to leave when the main viewscreen blinked back on.

     The image was bizarre for being unexpected.  The face of a young Human girl stared out at Carlos, looking directly toward him from a black void.  She looked perhaps six or seven years old, pale-skinned, with straight, dark brown hair gathered at the top in a red bow.  Her neck and shoulders were also visible, and she wore a cornflower blue dress with white lace trim.

     “Hello, Captain Mendoza,” the image greeted him, “I’m a Brin.  I’m sorry, but I can’t introduce myself properly.  I’ve also had to take control of your ship.  I’m afraid it’s my ship now.  You will need to leave quickly for your own safety.”

     The projected voice was produced not only by the viewscreen’s integrated audio but also the speakers of four other systems arranged around the bridge.  It sounded like a little girl’s voice, high and quiet, but level and careful to enunciate each word.  An odd inflection on certain words gave her speech an archaic quality that Carlos associated with older Terran recordings.

     The sight and sound so startled Carlos that he did not initially process her message.  Then, as he understood the claim being made, he became both incredulous and outraged.  

     Feeling ridiculous speaking directly to the girl, he nonetheless addressed her with his objections.  “Provided I believe what you’re saying, you realize you and your User are in serious violation of Collective and Terran law?  You can’t ‘take control’ of a ship.  Just saying something like that could get you wiped.”

     “It is the truth, but that doesn’t matter.”  The girl’s answering tone was regretful, almost apologetic.  That alone suggested to Carlos that he might really be talking to a full A.I. and not a mask for some biological system cracker.  “You can verify that I have, in fact, disabled your control of Saving Grace.  I need to move my User out of his current location or else your man, Mitchell, could get hurt more seriously.  You need to leave the ship for the same reason.  He will come to the bridge first.”

     “What do you mean, hurt?  Is your User the one who broke into my cargo bay?  Is he insane?  Look, I can understand you want to help, but why not let us take him to the brig?  I’m not handing over my ship.  Find another solution.”  Carlos still felt like he was play-acting, indulging in a hypothetical scenario rather than having a serious conversation about a real event.

     The girl became stern, her voice shifting into the register of a peeved elder sister: “I have seen your records, Captain.  You will forgive me if I do not trust you to hold my User captive.  His orders were to find those records.  I will make you a bargain.  If you leave promptly and by a sensible route, I will give him only the requested details and omit my comprehensive analysis of your activities here.  I also will not personally report what I have learned to Collective authorities.  I can make no guarantees about what he will choose to report.  Your choice.  Leave, and preserve your life, your crew’s lives, and your reputations… or stay, and take your chances with me and my very angry User.”

     It was preposterous.  He was dealing with a deranged intruder and his deranged A.I.  Somehow, both had gotten aboard Saving Grace and one was blackmailing him in order to… what?  Protect her owner?  Supposedly, protect other sapients from her owner?   

     Carlos checked two stations nearer the exit hatch and verified that they were dead.  Then, each screen was worse than dead, as the image of the little girl filled their screens with purse-lipped disapproval.  Captain Mendoza hadn’t invested heavily in system security or a computational technician.  The ship carried spares, backup systems if something wore out, and there was no reason to expect a hack on routine salvage missions.  They weren’t military or a target for infiltration… he had thought.  This Brin was not only rogue, she had access to programs that civilians shouldn’t legally own, much less want to own or use.

     If her threats were genuine, the captain was in a great deal of trouble either way.  He had no idea how to fight an infestation of this type.  He could try to reach the A.I.’s User and threaten him, but any competent Brin would anticipate that gambit and keep doors locked between them.  He couldn’t even try to sabotage the ship; he had no idea what cables to cut or key points to shoot.  If the A.I. kept her end of the bargain, Carlos could report the ship as stolen.  If he were very lucky, Terran enforcers would blast the A.I.-integrated ship into microdust, removing the incriminating records along with the accusing rogue program.  He would score a big insurance payout and could pick out a newer ship… one with better network security.

     “All right, you win,” Carlos groaned theatrically, “I’m on my way out.  I’ll take the shuttle.”

     “Sorry, too many uncontrolled variables there,” the girl chided him, “Your only choice is the escape pod.  I’ll eject you nice and high and you can glide down a few minutes later.”

     “Are you… no, you’re serious.”  The former captain of Saving Grace opened the bridge’s exit hatch and stepped into the central hallway of the ship.  He realized what the Brin meant: the shuttle had independent, manual controls and could potentially be used to re-enter or attack the main ship.  Shit, this A.I. was giving him too much credit for cleverness.  She had anticipated a trick Carlos hadn’t even considered.

     In a daze of unreality, Carlos crossed the hallway, dropped down one deck via a shaft’s ladder rungs, then trudged to the door marked ‘EMERGENCY ESCAPE’.  The panel opened obligingly at his approach, revealing a cushioned room the size of an enclosed medical bed.  Carlos turned around, backed up and crouched into the seat built into the far wall.  The door slid shut and the inner portion sealed into place, locking him into a cylinder barely large enough for movement.  Carlos again regretted choosing the cheapest model available.  At least he hadn’t skimped enough to not have a lifeboat. 

     With a chuff of magnetic acceleration, the cylinder was thrown free of the ship.  Outside, the sapients gathered below and the four approaching across the plains were surprised to see the gleaming shape launch skyward.  It rose nearly a kilometer into the sky before beginning to fall again.  A broad, blue parachute bloomed from its upper end, and the unexpected seedling began to drift down and westward, borne by the prevailing wind.


******************************************************************

     In the cargo bay of Saving Grace, Matilda was simultaneously having a separate conversation with her User, Evgeny, and his opposition, the ship’s trade negotiator, Mitchell.

     She began by announcing success: “Evgeny, I have the records you requested.  It would be easiest to display the key points on a video screen.  Could you please come to the ship’s bridge?”  The last few words were punctuated by the click of the cargo bay’s inner door unlocking.

     Before either Human could react, Matilda continued, “Mr. Preston, please do not interfere.  Your captain has left the ship.  Your crewmember, KoShunTi, could use your help.  Please exit the ship via the cargo bay ramp.  If you go unarmed and submit, the Mauraug outside will not harm you… within 91% probability.”

     “Hey!” was Mitchell’s immediate response, “I’m not going anywhere.  You don’t go anywhere.  Pull back your Brin or I’ll beat you until she releases the ship.”

     Evgeny fixed him with a look that held death on a fraying leash.  “I’m going up.  You move at all, I’ll stun you unconscious.  Until I know you didn’t kill those people on your crawler bed, I’m inclined to add you to the pile.”  Without further discussion, he turned away to lope toward the opening hatch.

     Despite his bravado, the crewman did not test Evgeny’s intent.  He remained in place, considering his options.  When Evgeny was out of sight, Mitchell tried to follow him and was rebuked by the youthful, feminine voice: “Sorry, I’m not giving you any options.  Please don’t bring harm on yourself.  I’ll do my best to convince them you won’t cause trouble.”

     This odd reassurance was accompanied by the grind of motors lowering the cargo bay ramp back down to the surface of Locust IV.  Light and heat poured in again as the gap widened.

     From the ship’s external speakers, Mitchell could hear a voice broadcasting a message to the sapients gathered outside.  It was older, and male, and Human: the intruder’s voice.  Only Mitchell was aware that it was the A.I. speaking, using a facsimile of its User’s speech.

     “This is Evgeny.  I have taken control of this salvage ship to prevent further bloodshed.  The crew is being removed.  Any residents of Locust IV may come aboard for evacuation.  Understand that I command aboard this ship.”

     The remainder of the message was spoken in Mauraug.  Mitchell could not interpret it.  To the listeners outside, though, the meaning was clear: “I am Dominant here.  Stay if you wish, but if you enter, you accept my Dominance.”

     The speaker concluded: “Please allow the remaining crewman to exit without harm and join his comrade outside.  While they have threatened us, this man is unarmed and not a threat.”

     It would be humiliating to exit, but it was also humiliating and dangerous to remain within.  Mitchell chose the better of his remaining bad options and headed out.  He risked delaying long enough to collect his gear from the driver’s seat of the crawler.  It was one thing to be forced out, to wait for pickup from the next ship that stopped by.  It was another to abandon his own compad, with his credit history, his Brin, and his maps of the region.  Mitchell had a lot of flaws, but he wasn’t crazy.


***********************************************************************

    As the darker Human made his way down the lowered ramp, he found he was only one of several focuses of attention.  The three Mauraug and one Human outside were dividing their observations between him, the descending escape pod, and an oncoming noisy dust cloud.  Mitchell realized that the cloud likely contained one or more runner carts, the open transport vehicles used by the colonists to cross the wide savannahs of this region.

     One of the Mauraug, an amazingly overweight specimen in a rolled-down bodysuit, had a small hand weapon pointed in Mitchell’s direction.  It gestured with the other hand, fingers curled, to indicate that he should exit and come closer.  Another of the skunk apes, a normal-sized, darker one with an almost Human stride, walked toward the ship, a much larger plasma thrower cradled in its arms.

     What was this, a militia?  Apostate remnants?  Mitchell had thought his comrades were just the unlucky victims of opportunist bandits.  Seeing now how organized and heavily armed these Mauraug were, he considered other possibilities.  The man inside, with his non-standard Brin, must have been their scout or some sort of commando… a quisling working for criminals or the heretic Mauraug.  It didn’t much matter at the moment.  Either way, the smart course was for Mitchell to stay quiet, keep his hands visible, and follow orders.

     He was pointed over to where KoShunTi lay.  Another of the Mauraug – a really, really small Mauraug – had evidently been trying to stabilize the Zig before she bled to death.  A brown stain had seeped from her back, absorbed by the thirsty soil.  Flecks of metal, cells suspended in her ‘blood’, stood out on the ground’s surface where they could not sink further.

     The stunted Mauraug looked up at Mitchell as he approached and blinked slowly.  It spoke in surprisingly good standard Terran, saying, “I’m sorry.  Pulse is almost gone and I can not stop the bleeding.”

     Ti was dead?  Dying?  Mitchell struggled for a context.  This was supposed to have been a dry, boring salvage run.  Sure, the settlements might be still-smoking ruins, but the Apostates had cleared out.  Everyone here was dead, the captain said.  No survivors, nobody to dispute their claim.  There wasn’t supposed to be shooting.

     The Zig’s sidearm lay on the dirt, not far from her body.  She had been drawing… had she drawn first or in reaction to a threat by these unexpected, undesired remnants?  Accusing them would do no good.  Attacking them would probably lay his corpse down next to hers.  The best he could do was kneel down and be close while his colleague bled out her last.

     They hadn’t been friends, at least not yet.  They weren’t hostile, but she was a newer hire and they hadn’t talked much.  Ti was his spotter on that last load, keeping an eye out for trouble like local wildlife, relaying news and orders, and waiting to help him offload the crawler.  She had found more trouble than either of them expected... or any of them, the captain included.

     Mitchell consoled himself with the thought that there would be an inquiry.  These survivors wanted the ship?  Fine.  There were three other ships nearby that would pick up the crew of Saving Grace.  If the idiots managed to start and fly the ship they had stolen, then it became the Collective’s problem to hunt and capture them.  Then there wouldn’t be any questions of who shot first, or who stole what.  Let the criminals be obvious.

     For now, Mitchell would see his comrade into death, then get away to safety if they let him.


***************************************************************

     Separating those who would remain from those who would depart proved to be a complicated matter.  For their various reasons, Suufit, Luuboh, Mitchell and Wallace stayed where they were, waiting.  Gaalet walked under the ship and to the edge of the cargo ramp, but waited for orders before going aboard.  The ship’s speakers remained silent, with Evgeny apparently also content to wait.

     One of the reasons for delay was eventually resolved.  The two runner carts moved into view, then grew until they were pulling up beside the looming starship.  Four dust-caked riders dismounted, three shaking the grit from their fur, one unwrapping a winding cloth from her face.  One driver and its passenger approached Suufit: Soloth and Karech were coming to hold conference.  The other driver, Voshtig, remained near Mikala, bodily discouraging her from joining the group.  After a quiet exchange of words – remarkable to Mikala that Mauraug could manage such low volume – Soloth turned and called the other two over.

     It spoke to the Human first, saying: “Choice is: go or stay.  Nothing here worth staying.  Going dangerous.  You choose for you.  Join Evgeny on stolen ship?  Stay and take charity of Collective?”

     The explanation, disjointed as it was, conveyed the key points well enough.  Evgeny had stolen this ship?  Hijacked it?  Mikala had some inkling how that might be possible, but also had enough sense not to voice her suspicions among the Mauraug.  Seeing the wounded Zig and the Human stranger near Luuboh, she knew there had been a fight.  She had enough confidence in Evgeny’s intelligence to think he had a reason to usurp these salvagers. 

     Really, the choice came down to taking action versus remaining at the mercy of anonymous forces.  Mikala wanted to know what had happened, here and now, as well as several days before.  She wanted to take action based on that information.  Evgeny probably had the same goals, plus they would each need the other’s support to manage this mess.  They’d both need backup against the Mauraug, once again.  And he’d likely need her help just to get out of Locust System.  Defense training alone wasn’t going to sneak a stolen ship to another star.  Her training just might.

     While she thought, Soloth was saying to Voshtig, in Mauraug: “Somehow Evgeny has thrown out the crew and assumed control of this salvage ship.  It says that any who board are accepting its Dominion.  In this case, my Dominion does not apply.  You must choose whether you will take this offer, accepting criminal responsibility, or reject it, waiting on the mercies of private rescuers.  That one apparently threatened Evgeny while it held Dominion in my stead.”  With pointed glances, Soloth first indicated the dead Zig and then fixed Suufit with a withering expression.

     Voshtig interjected, “But those who remain fall under your Dominion again?”

     “No,” Soloth admitted, “I intend to board.”

     The other Mauraug reacted variously to its announcement: Suufit grimaced in disgust, while Voshtig and Karech shifted uneasily, Gaalet stared in apparent passivity, and even Luuboh looked up in surprise.

     Mikala took advantage of their distraction to walk away, crossing to where Wallace sat.  He had regained his composure to a remarkable extent, taking slow, careful breaths to avoid agonizing the stitch in his side.  His braced leg jutted out uncomfortably, but otherwise he had found a manageable resting position.

     “Come on, I’ll help you over to a cart,” Mikala offered, adding: “We can drive aboard together.”

     Wallace surprised her by answering clearly and calmly: “Thank you, but I think I’ll stay.  I need medical attention from a professional, or at least someone with better knowledge of Human anatomy.  You might want to rethink joining Evgeny.  He attacked them.  I’m not surprised the Mauraug aren’t bothered, but from what I saw, he provoked a fight that got one person killed.  Then he chased another of their crew into the ship and maybe shot his way onto their bridge.  That’s not something I want to be part of.  I’ll take the cart, sure, but just to drive somewhere safer."

     Mikala understood him well.  She replied gently, “Thanks for the insight.  Even so, I need to find out what happened… before and just recently.  It’s my job.”

     That brought a look of comprehension from Wallace.  “I see.  I’m sorry we didn’t get much chance to talk... before or recently.  Um, good luck?”

     “Thanks,” Mikala grunted back as she reached down to lift the man.  Wallace was only slightly heavier than her, perhaps only by the weight of his brace and bandages.  She lifted his mass without difficulty, only struggling to arrange his limbs so that he could help her move rather than hinder.

     They made their way across the flats as Suufit spoke, not entirely understanding its words but catching the obstinate tone: “I will not accept the Human’s Dominion a second time.  The first time it had many circumstantial advantages, and I would have reasserted myself when I recovered.  This time, it offers a choice, an insult to us and to Dominion.  I do not need its stolen garbage ship.  I will be honored for surviving this tragedy.  I will return to my proper position of authority, elsewhere.”

     Suufit had begun to turn away when Soloth replied, in the same lower register it had used for private discussion, “If you accepted its Dominion before, that submission remains, until you prove it temporary.  For you and Gaalet, a full accounting of your deeds will include that shame.  Your deeds also include all your acts during and after the fall of Gorash’Bond.  Trust me that there is no honor, no celebration, and no authority waiting for you within the Covenant.  If you want even a second’s place, you will have to board and… prove yourself worthy."

     The pure hatred in Suufit’s glare needed no translation across species.  It held Soloth’s gaze for a full second before dropping its eyes in defeat.  “I see.  I will accept the Human’s terms… for now.”

    “I expected so.” 

     Soloth looked toward the other Mauraug in turn.  Voshtig paused for a long moment but eventually assented to join the shipboard group.  Gaalet and Karech quickly confirmed their conformity to Soloth’s plans.  Luuboh, who had stood facing the group but remained apart, gave an exaggerated jaw-jut of confusion when Soloth redirected its attention.

     “What do you expect?”  Luuboh finally answered, “I can be least among thousands or least among a handful.  I will go where there are fewer above me."

     “How is it you gnaw the bones of Sha’Bahn without tasting their meat?”  Soloth wondered aloud.  “I spare you the price for your sarcasm out of respect for our new superior’s judgment.  Let it decide how to punish you.”

     Luuboh’s only answer to that was an eye-roll and a turned shoulder, as it knelt to gather up its medical supplies and reassemble its pack.