Friday, October 31, 2014

Escape from Grace - Chapter 1

               Evgeny Lerner was lord of his domain, master of all he surveyed.  That status was only temporary.  Technically, he was only the surveyor of all he surveyed.  Once he finished his survey and returned to New Gethsemane, the lands he had mapped would be parceled out to the waiting colonists.  Then they would be lords of their various smaller domains, feudal lords sworn to the Terran colonial authority tasked with overseeing expansion on Locust IV.  Maybe 'serfs' was more appropriate?  Evgeny hadn't paid much attention in the medieval history portion of his schooling.

                Those domains didn’t amount to much yet.  This portion of the planet’s most temperate continent was still a dry, dusty savannah, more brown than green.  Biologists might maintain that Humanity had risen to sapience in a landscape much like this, but Evgeny doubted they would have chosen such a native environment over, say, a tropical island or rainforest jungle.
                He hadn’t had much choice, either.  He had been a young teenager when the Lerner family were approved for interplanetary colonial transport.  There had been some arguing and sulking when Father declared his intention to move the family, but by the time the final selections were made, Evgeny had settled into a dull resentment.  It didn’t matter that several of his Terran friends’ families were also making the trip.  He was forced to give up a comfortable childhood on Humanity’s carefully controlled home world in return for ‘adventure’ and ‘opportunity’ on a dehydrated, undeveloped border world.
                It wasn’t just any border… the Locust system stood squarely between Human space and the Mauraug Dominion.  The Mauraug were supposedly now allies, per both civilizations’ membership in the Collective, that arbiting body of multiple sapient species and cultures.  Despite years of aggression and abuse, the Humans were now supposed to pretend that the asshole skunk apes were good neighbors.  Peace was better than continued war, Evgeny supposed, but that didn’t mean they had to cuddle up close to their former enemies. 
                That was exactly what the Locust Colonies had done.  Colonies, plural.  Evgeny refused to think of the two outposts as one Colony, the way the official documents read.  Both Humans and Maraug laid claim to the system.  The Collective’s Solomon-like solution was to split the baby and encourage both cultures to develop the system jointly.  The one ‘inhabitable’ planet - fourth out, a decent distance from a decently yellow star - would become the center of operations throughout the region. 
                The two civilizations rushed to pour resources into this dry gravity well.  Per the terms of the negotiated settlement, land and its concomitant resources would belong to those who demonstrated the best ability to make use of it.  That meant investing and expanding first.  In addition to putting bodies on the planet, both cultures were quickly trying to build industries to exploit and export whatever they found, not to mention building the habitations to support those industries.  Not by coincidence, the first two major settlements on the newly opened world were placed not far apart, on its largest and most hospitable continent.  Both cultures wanted to keep their rival in close sight and neither wanted to risk giving up the most potentially profitable foothold.
                Evgeny’s father, Ben Lerner, had been a trained geologist on Terra, a world largely stripped of its native resources.  Much of his paying work involved construction surveying and seismology.  When the opportunity to study and prep a whole new world became available, Father couldn’t jump fast enough.  Evgeny had the same interest in land and its variety but had defied his parents’ wishes that he stay in the sciences.  Instead, when he finished his secondary education a few years after their arrival on Locust IV, he had enlisted with Defense. 
                Evgeny looked the part of a soldier, albeit a young one.  His coarse black hair was kept buzzed short.  His body was built on square lines, nose and jaw and shoulders and hips all designed on the model of a brick.  His bright grey-blue eyes had come from his father, but his build had actually come from his mother, Ondrea Belinsky.  A sturdy Slovene agriculturalist, Mother had proven a good professional partner to Father on Terra and a steady pioneer on Locust IV.  She had also given Evgeny her grandfather's name and a hereditary respect for martial service.
                Technically, Defense was not a military.  It handled animal control for the existing predatory and scavenging species that couldn’t be persuaded to avoid the growing colony, managed the small amount of law enforcement that was required, and kept a wary eye on the border with their Mauraug neighbors.  Evgeny was trained more in survival, orienteering, driving, and basic equipment maintenance than he was in combat, armed or otherwise.  Still, he had a projectile handgun of his own and enough hand-to-hand practice to deal with a determined crabdog or trespassing Mauraug. 
                The further he traveled, the higher the likelihood became that he might actually encounter one of the oversized simian sapients.  This survey edged northward along the eastern border dividing the Human and Mauraug claims.  The idea was to expand and define that border all the way to the northern coast of the continent. 
Orbital surveys and automated probes had already catalogued and marked the land itself.  In a way, Evgeny’s job was redundant.  However, there was a reason that Defense and not Sciences handled ‘surveying’ in person.  He wanted to make sure the Mauraug were respecting the border and not trying to make inroads onto the Human-claimed territory.  They probably wouldn’t be blatant enough to set up an encampment or facility, but they might trek deep into their neighbor’s yard and pick up some shiny stones along the way… or divert a well… or poach biological samples.
Evgeny was old enough now to appreciate the hypocrisy of his superiors.  All those ideas about what the Mauraug might do were undoubtedly dreamed up based on what Human settlers might imagine doing… or had proposed doing… or had, privately, done already. 
Still, given Mauraug religious philosophy, an incursion of some type was almost a certainty.  Their ethos of Dominion made it a duty to push against any limiting force, be it border, treaty, alternate culture, whatever.  After all, if they pushed and won, they proved their worthiness to Dominate.  If they pushed and lost, then they were helping their opponent prove its worthiness.  Hell, one of their diplomats had stood up in a Collective courtroom and declared the Dominion to be Humanity’s only true friend, seeing as how their harassment had forced the young species to assert itself and come into its true place in the Universe.  Evgeny still had to roll his eyes every time the video clip of that famous speech came to mind. 
He had seen that speech, along with a fair portion of the teachings of Sha’Bahn, in his comparative cultures classes during his first year of school on Locust IV.  The colonists wanted their children to at least understand (if not necessarily appreciate) the background of their neighbors.  He had also taken a year of study in the Mauraug language… language, singular.  Unlike Humanity, with its polyglot plethora of wildly divergent tongues, the Mauraug Dominion had stayed true to itself linguistically and stamped out all but one dominant language.  Just one more act of destruction by a bunch of self-righteous, rampaging gorillas.
Despite himself and the prejudices of his home world, Evgeny found some elements to respect in the Mauraug culture.  They were generally more honest than Humans; some of their religious sects believed that falsehood prevented true Dominion, since you could pretend to strength you did not have or defeat a superior enemy by deception.  Hell, lying well was the key to success in some Human endeavors.  Mauraug were constantly spiritual, forced to not only speak the words of their faith but live it daily, under the watchful eye of everyone else around them.  They seemed to resolve conflict quickly, if sometimes brutally, avoiding protracted feuds or wars.  Once Dominance was proven, the dispute was over, and vengeance was frowned upon.  Their poetry was actually pretty good, also.
Still, they were an opponent, if not an active enemy anymore.  The only negotiation they actually understood was defeat.  The Collective had proven stronger, so the Mauraug obeyed that organization… for now.  If they could bend the colonial treaty to their advantage, they would.  Not all Dominion sects believed in honesty or even obedience.  It only took a few bad actors to find ways to sabotage the Human colony and strengthen their own, within or without the terms of the treaty. 
So, Evgeny ‘surveyed’, patrolling northward up the border.  He actually did take notes on the terrain, filling in the details even survey drones would tend to miss.  He could observe animal life, count burrows, and snare samples alive or dead.  He collected plant samples as well and documented their patterns of growth to give ideas about rainfall and aquifer locations.  He kept an eye out for useful mineral deposits and landforms that might suggest bounties deeper down.  He also sketched out boundary lines that would be intuitive to maintain as property borders, flat regions that would be ideal for construction, and formations that would provide useful cover for defense.   
Another scout was doing the same thing down the southern reach of the eastern border, while many more were expanding Human territory out to the west.  Eventually, they would establish ports and connect routes to the smaller, less hospitable continents beyond the meager Locustian oceans.
Evgeny had grown into his mid twenties with solid training and enough experience to safely travel the wilds of Locust IV and find its valuable points.  As the colony grew, his solo forays would eventually turn into group patrols, maybe even escorts for construction crews creating remote outposts.  The seeds of additional settlements would be planted in the furrows he was tilling now.  His children, or their children, would grow up in towns that sprang up from the empty, cracked dirt he tread now. 
Evgeny did not especially look forward to this projected career.  He was ambivalent about the prospect of promotion within Defense.  A higher rank would just carry more responsibilities and reduce his freedom to travel.  He would be held more tightly to the colonial settlement itself.  He would be forced to attend family dinners nightly, watching his parents grow old and die, faster than they would have on Terra.  He himself would have a shortened lifespan, trading away years of comfort for the privilege of building a world for future ungrateful generations. 
There was no foreseeable route that led him back to the cradle of Humanity, Sol 3, Terra itself.  All his opportunities for success were here, on the world he knew so well, too well.  Just like his father, Evgeny was unsuited for the types of work needed on Terra.  He could program enough to get by and to interact with his A.I., Matilda, but he had no prospects in the signature Terran A.I. industry.  He could manage first aid, but would be hopeless in the medical field.  He could repair moisture evaporators and runner carts, air conditioners and even lift shuttles, but had no training in robotics, high energy engineering, or any of the trades needed to build or maintain interstellar ships or space stations. 
Terra didn’t need professional colonists; it needed doctors for its aging population, it needed AI programmers and elite engineers, and it needed leaders and lawyers and other managers to keep the system running and well-integrated into the body Collective.  Sure, it needed a whole host of other services for its vast population, but any less professional jobs could be filled internally from that vast population.  The only way an outer world colonist would be invited back home would be if they showed genius that Terra would want to import back.
Hell, if he could compose music or write an original story or even tell a good joke, he’d have a better chance of at least touring Terran space and making stops back home.  Maybe he should consider applying as starship crew.  Evgeny could pilot a shuttle decently well and knew the safety procedures for extra-atmospheric survival.  He could study the rest of what a sailor needed on his own time.  Yeah, right, and in maybe another decade he might be as qualified as a dedicated new recruit and only twice as old. 
No, he’d invested his youth in learning skills that anchored him solidly to a world he never wanted to live on and still wanted to leave.  Evgeny’s main solace was in his self-sufficiency.  He could be alone in the wilds for a time, thinking to himself, walking as he chose (within the limits of his assignment), and eating and sleeping on his own schedule.  If he really needed companionship, Matilda was available, sleeping in his personal computer, perfectly willing to lie dormant until woken for conversation. 
Evgeny's freedom was something of an improvement over the limited mobility and tight scheduling of Terran life, he supposed.  By itself, such feelings could explain why colonists chose to forfeit their health and security in favor of the hazards of a long interstellar journey and a wild land completely foreign to their entire biology.
By some standards, Locust IV was actually pretty friendly.  No particularly intelligent or hostile wildlife; the big predators generally had the sense to avoid the infinitely more dangerous sapients.  No major toxins in the atmosphere, water or soil.  There were some nasty allergens and a few poisonous plant and animal species, but that was inevitable.  It wasn’t a bad world in comparison to, say, the Zig home planet, impregnated every inch with heavy metals, or the mysterious Ningyo origin, supposedly the surface of a dead star, with insane levels of gravity and pressure. 
Evgeny could live quite a long time on the land here.  He had brought a supply of distilled water and a distilling filter to make use of whatever he found (or his own urine, in a pinch).  Some of the native plant life was edible, and Evgeny had vitamin supplements to make up for what the area’s vegetation tended to lack.  He could even hunt if he chose, although most of the armored native wildlife was unpalatable if technically edible.  Crabdogs did not taste like crabs, nor dogs.  More like mutton jerky soaked in runner cart coolant and coated in gelatin.  Their lipids weren’t quite right, either, and tended to be difficult to digest.  Better to eat his actual jerky ration and go light on protein for a few days than risk the side effects of eating local.
The surveyor was already five days out from New Gethsemane, the sole Human settlement on the planet.  He had possibly another five days to go before reaching the northern coastline.  That was based on a relatively straight-line path up the border, which was no guarantee while he relied on the little runner cart.  The vehicles were battery efficient and good with most relatively level terrain.  That sufficed for the majority of the surrounding savannah.  However, there were some rough canyons between Evgeny and the coast, which might not offer easy descents or ascents.  He might have to divert several miles around to keep driving.  That was still faster than trying to cross directly on foot, even if he did rappel down one side of a canyon and climb straight up the other.  Not to mention, his cart carried the majority of his supplies.  Abandoning it would mean a much less comfortable journey and maybe even a real risk of harm.
There were some places where it was tempting to detour around the eastern side of a canyon, where that was the shorter route to a crossing.  However, that meant crossing into Mauraug territory.  Besides not wanting to provoke a response, Evgeny wanted to maintain the moral high ground.  If he wanted to challenge any Mauraug intruding on Human land, he couldn’t go violating the border from his side.  Too bad the opposition had a different perspective on right and wrong. 
After consulting his maps that morning, Evgeny had started out on his selected route shortly after dawn.  Traveling by day was practical: he would miss less detail, not to mention pose a less tempting target for predators.  At night, he could spark a campfire in a clearing safely far from the tall grasses. 
It had been a tedious, routine half-day of travel under the bright glare of ‘Ra’, as some of the New Gethsemane natives had taken to calling their hosting star.  He had stopped where a tumbled boulder offered some mid-day shade.  It was a good time for a meal.  While he ate packaged biscuits spread with chickpea paste and apple butter, Evgeny looked over the stone itself.  Sandstone with streaks of quartz and mica, nothing remarkable there, but maybe a hint of carborundum, which could be promising.  Evgeny scraped off a sample of the specks of harder mineral and tagged it with his current coordinates.  Father might find it useful or might discard it as useless.  Either way, it showed Evgeny had been thinking of him… wasn’t that what presents were for?
Evgeny settled back into the shade for a brief nap, pulling his broad-brimmed wool felt hat over his eyes.  His canvas pants and shirt and hard synthetic boots were tough enough to keep out sharp stones, the spines of plants, and most pest species, so he doubted he’d be disturbed at his rest.  His outfit was also as dully beige as the dirt he lay on, so he might be ignored by any casually wandering predators.  If not, he had his gun close at hand.  Evgeny drowsed in the heat without fear.
He was roused by a strange, foreign sound.  The air shrieked as it was split by an object traveling many times the speed of sound.  Evgeny scrambled to his feet and turned to look in the direction of the retreating scream.  A contrail of condensing moisture marked the passage of something that had been moving fast and hot.  It had been going roughly northeast to southwest… toward New Gethsemane.  A shuttle?  No landing craft were expected today, per his schedule.  It had to be an emergency landing, going that fast within atmosphere.  It might even be an infalling orbiter, struggling to make it to the surface at a safe angle rather than plummeting to an instantly deadly impact. 
Evgeny raced to the runner cart and pulled out his compad, tapping Matilda awake.
“Matilda, monitor landing traffic.  What was that craft that just went by?”
Matilda’s young, female voice instantly responded from the compad’s built-in speaker.  Rather than her typical casual, conversational phrasing, she kept her answers succinct and professional:  “No scheduled or registered landings.  Three ships have arrived and are not responding to communications.  One is en route to New Gethsemane, estimated time of arrival three minutes.”
“No distress calls?  What about the orbital station?  What do they know?”
“No response from the station.  Communications are reported cut off from upstairs five minutes ago.  Analysis suggests that this is an attack.  Ships match configuration of Mauraug military landers.”
The Mauraug.  They must be more insane than Evgeny supposed.  The colony was under attack.  First they had taken down the Human space installation, now they were coming for the settlement.  Evgeny felt sick.  He would never be in time to help defend New Gethsemane from invasion.  At best, he might be able to follow back along the border, maybe stop some of the Mauraug colonists from joining their fellows in the assault.
“Is there anything from Defense?  Orders?  Anything from satellite visuals?  Survey drones aloft?”  Evgeny needed a direction before he sped off to battle. 
Matilda obliged as best she could, “All Defense personnel are aiding in evacuation of settlers to secure bunkers.  No orders have come for you, Evgeny.  Visual satellites are still active and transmitting.  Evgeny…?” Matilda paused, something in her routines having prompted her to slow her dialogue and wait for her Human’s response.
“What is it, Matilda?  Don’t hold anything back.”  Evgeny was already packing up as he spoke, mounting the runner cart and starting its engine in preparation for travel as soon as he was given a heading.
“The other two ships are heading southeast, toward the Maraug settlement, Gorash’Bond,” Matilda explained carefully.  “One has already begun bombing.  New Gethsemane is being bombarded as well.  They are attacking both settlements.”
Even if the ships were Mauraug, they weren’t Dominion.  There was no reason the hierarchy of the Dominion would destroy a colony it had fought so hard to establish, not even in spite for having to share a world with Humans.  The Mauraug had publicly welcomed the challenge set by the Collective.  To demolish all progress on Locust IV made no sense… except for those opposed to any collaboration between Mauraug and Humans.  Those who opposed and defied Dominion and sought to undermine its hold upon Mauraug civilization. 
“Apostates,” Evgeny spat. 

The Apostasy was an alliance of Mauraug 'heretics', specifically religious groups in armed opposition to the theocratic Dominion.  Since Dominion controlled the entire interstellar government of the Mauraug and permitted no rivals, disputes of faith had inevitably become an uneven war between Dominion and its detractors.  Unfortunately, with the inclusion of the Mauraug into the Collective, this internal dispute was spilling out to affect every region the Mauraug contacted... now including the Locust system.
“I agree.  I’m sorry, Evgeny, but both settlements are taking heavy losses.  We are losing Defense contact.  Deaths are estimated at seventy-five percent and increasing.  No word on your family’s survival or whereabouts.”
Evgeny sat, stunned, with the runner’s engine still grumbling.  He felt terrible, wrenching guilt at his earlier thoughts.  He had resented moving here, resented the colony and the settlement itself, but he had never wanted its death.  He was still angry at his father, but… no.  He had to be alive.  If anyone would, Ben Lerner would know where and how to build a bunker capable of resisting conventional bombing. 
“Communications are quiet,” Matilda concluded, remaining respectfully somber.  “No broadcasts from either settlement.  They’re probably maintaining silence to avoid further targeting.  The ships are making secondary sweeps per remaining visual data.”
Evgeny’s lunch threatened to escape.  He fought to keep his head clear and stay ready for whatever useful action he might take.  He still wasn’t sure if he should speed back to the settlement to try and rescue survivors or else seek cover and remain hidden from the Apostate ships.
Matilda continued to try and help him.  “One ship is landing at each site.  The third ship is returning to space.  It may take out the remaining satellites.  If so, I will have no further information to relay.”
“I understand, Matilda.  Thank you for that much.”
“I’m so sorry, Evgeny.  Please talk to me when you need to.  I understand you need to act, but stay safe.”
“Of course.  I can’t be much help if I get myself killed.  Let me know if you pick up any warnings.”
“I will.”
Evgeny put the compad on standby and slipped it into the runner’s storage compartment.  He wished the vehicle were more advanced, so that he could plug the compad into its systems and let Matilda drive for him overnight.  Even better would be if he could upload the AI into the vehicle and let her control it entirely… but that was expressly forbidden by Collective agreements.
The Collective.  Where were they now?  After dictating the terms of colonization on Locust IV, they were nowhere nearby when the colony was attacked.  They could do nothing as it died.  The colonists were the representatives of Collective civilization on this world.  The enemies of the Collective, or more appropriately, the enemies of one of its less desirable members, the Mauraug, had descended and undone the work of decades.  This was an easily accomplished yet significant blow against not only settlement in this system, but Human-Mauraug cooperation and their collaboration within the Collective. 
Of course this colony had been targeted.  In retrospect, its value as a striking point was obvious.  The colonists had not been warned about the threat.  While they might understand that Mauraug Apostates would view the joint colony as an offense, they had not been advised that said Apostates had the strength to strike against the colony.  They had not been warned that Apostate forces could get so close, unopposed.  They never should have gotten here, unopposed.  The Collective should have known to keep a watch on their grand experiment.  There was no force of law that would prevent terrorists from doing their worst, only force itself.
Evgeny’s anger at his family, at the colonists in general, and at his limited prospects coalesced and mutated into anger at the Collective itself.  Distant bureaucrats, most of them not even Human, had overlooked this world’s needs in favor of other priorities.  They had consigned the inhabitants of Locust IV to death, first by making them a political flashpoint, and then by failing to prepare for disaster.  He had to survive, if only to relate the tale of this abandonment to Terra.  If enough of the settlers had survived to re-establish New Gethsemane, then Evgeny need to survive to help them rebuild.
Either way, he wanted to advocate against the Collective.  They played games with Human lives… Mauraug lives, too.  They dictated the terms of civilization, then failed their obligation to enforce those terms on non-members. 
With grim purpose, Evgeny aimed the runner cart southeast.  If he returned west, he risked detection by the Apostate ship or its ground forces.  In the zone between the two settlements, he stood the best chance of joining up with any other survivors, Human or Mauraug.  They would need to work together to resist the Apostate purge, staying alive until one or the other of their home worlds sent a ship to check in on their suddenly silent settlements.  There needed to be witnesses.  The Apostates would aim to remove all evidence of their true strength, although they would undoubtedly take credit for the attack later.
Alone, without the resources of civilization, Evgeny might manage to live a few weeks.  If he could gather together enough of a team to overcome some of the Apostate troops and scavenge their supplies, that survival rate increased sharply.  At this point, Evgeny didn’t care if he had to recruit (or be recruited by) a troupe of skunk apes.  Just as long as they helped keep him alive, he would return the favor.

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