More to assuage his instincts than for any practical camouflage, he drove under cover as much as possible. The edges of stony ridges, the branches of titanic scrub brush, and sometimes just the shadows cast by rolling folds in the landscape provided sporadic relief from the feeling of watching eyes above. In truth, should an Apostate ship choose to pass overhead and scan this region, the anomalous signature of his runner cart would give him away even if he hid successfully from naked eyes or computerized optics.
As it happened, this caution did hide him from one set of eyes. Their owner was trying to avoid notice just as much as Evgeny. She was on foot, on a path not quite intersecting Evgeny’s route, but on an opposite trajectory. That is, this traveler was coming from the southeast, moving back west, across the border between the Mauraug and Human territories.
She was Human; Evgeny could spot that immediately from her height, coloration, gait, and dress. She was shorter than a Mauraug and distinctly not furred. She wore camouflage, an outfit dyed to match the dominant colors and shapes of the savannah surrounding them, along with slightly darker headgear, gloves, and boots. Further details, including gender at first, were difficult to make out at a great distance.
She was in a hurry, traveling faster than was safe in this terrain. Evgeny spotted her well before she noticed him, in part because she was paying as much attention to the area behind her as the reaches ahead. She acted like she was being pursued, but Evgeny could see nothing beyond her from his vantage.
Where she was running to was equally unclear. Her current path would place her far to the south of New Gethsemane. If she was rushing back to the colony, she should be turning north. For that matter, she should be further east anyway. Her position, her behavior, and her light gear summed to one likely conclusion: espionage.
She was the counterpart to the hypothetical Mauraug Evgeny had watched for for on his surveys. Her mission might have been something as innocent as recon, observing the opposition from deeper within their own territory. It was still illegal per the terms of the Collective treaty establishing the Locust colony, but relatively mild. There were worse possibilities, though, including sabotage and assassination. Evgeny had no illusions about the tactics his own government might authorize to gain an advantage here.
Should he make contact? He had three choices: freeze, approach, or drive away. He could easily hold still under shade and let her pass by. If he moved, the woman would inevitably take notice of him. At this distance, wind and other noises had obscured the hum of the relatively quiet runner cart, but eventually she would detect the regular crunch of tires on stone. His swift, regular movement might also catch her attention. So even if he approached, she might try to avoid him. In that case, it was uncertain if he could successfully pursue her. He had the advantage of speed, but only as long as she stayed on level land. If she climbed up a cliff or dropped down a canyon, he might fall behind far enough to lose her track.
If he was noticed and wanted to avoid her, though, he could choose the terrain and easily outpace her. Avoidance was easier and almost preferable. It wasn’t that Evgeny would make an issue of her illicit employment. He couldn’t afford to turn away a potential ally right now, especially not one with suspected covert ops training. True, the dishonest actions of his superiors troubled him personally, but it wasn’t his disapproval that made this person troublesome. It was the possibility that any Mauraug he encountered might recognize her person or profession, especially out here. The last thing he needed was for former enemies, jumpy from an attack, to identify trespassing Humans as a threat.
The problem was that all these considerations were hypothetical. At this place and moment, they were just two separate people on an empty world that had become abruptly emptier. Imaginary Mauraug opponents weighed far below a real, present ally.
Evgeny wasted no more time, emerging from cover on a course intersecting with the jogging woman. He kept his speed casual, trying not to give the impression he was charging at her. He was spotted after two seconds and saw that her first reaction was to seek an escape route. Still, she stood her ground and waited for him to approach. She was armed with a projectile weapon similar to Evgeny’s and kept her hand near its grip. Her stance suggested readiness to respond to any detected threat.
She took the offensive quickly, as well. As Evgeny closed to audible range, she shouted out, “What are you doing out here?”
Evgeny slowed the cart but continued forward, calling out, “That’s my question. We’re both on the wrong side of the border, but you’re coming back.”
He could confirm her gender now from her voice and shape. She had a Terran mutt complexion, darker than Caucasian but not quite dark enough to identify other racial origins. Her hair was covered by a grey dust cloth, as were her nose and mouth, but her eyebrows were dark. The rest of her was covered in a snug one-piece jumpsuit patchworked with storage pockets and dappled with shades of brown. This was the camouflage Evgeny had noticed. Her gloves and boots were utilitarian, durable layered plastic to protect against a variety of hazards. She was only slightly shorter than Evgeny. Given the martial skill implied by her stance, she could probably match him in a physical conflict.
Fortunately, a fight seemed unlikely. Evgeny could detect the grin in her eyes and tone as she replied, “Obviously, I’m very lost. Did they send you out as a rescue?”
Evgeny almost took offense at her light tone. Joking banter was the furthest possibility given his mood at that time. Before he retorted angrily, he realized that she was likely unaware of the recent tragedy. If she had been spending time in enemy territory, she probably had been maintaining radio silence, to avoid detection of her signals. When he was in the field, Evgeny kept Matilda continually monitoring the EM spectrum for Mauraug communications; the Mauraug likely listened the same way on their patrols (albeit without AI assistance).
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” he intoned with a clear lack of humorous intent. “If you don’t mind, let’s go somewhere under cover and talk,” Evgeny directed with a wave of his hand. “You need to be caught up on recent events.”
The grin faded from her expression and she nodded in acknowledgement. With a waved hand of her own, she indicated that Evgeny should lead. He decided the risk of being shot in the back was minimal and drove past the woman, letting her lope along behind. They stopped under a copse of native trees, each one a cluster of multiple irregular trunks, bent and twisted around one another in a writhing dance directed by the predominant winds. The tops of each trunk exploded into fractal sprays of smaller, equally contorted branches, finally culminating in bunches of dangling fronds. Different subspecies of the same plant had different leaf densities and colors, but the basic design had proven successful and was widespread throughout the region. In this spot, enough of the foliage had clumped together to provide adequate cover for a windbreak, if not a complete visual screen.
Evgeny switched off the runner cart beneath the trees and remained astride, using the seat as his throne. The cart’s tall tires meant that his eye height was about the same seated as standing. The woman was forced to either remain standing or else sacrifice the psychological advantage of height by sitting on the ground. Not surprisingly, she chose the former, coming to a stop about three meters away from Evgeny.
“First, I’m not going to play around,” he began. “You probably already know me, but I’m Evgeny Lerner, surveyor for Defense. I was on assignment about twenty klicks north-northwest of here, on our side of the border. I saw a large ship pass overhead… I expect you saw the same one?”
The woman nodded but remained quiet. Evgeny continued, “My Brin, Matilda… hold on.” He dug into the saddle bag of his cart and produced the compad containing Matilda herself. “Matilda, were you listening?”
The young, accented feminine voice replied smoothly, “Just a little. Who are you speaking with?”
Evgeny turned the compad so that its camera could take in the woman, who blinked in discomfort. She was not happy being scrutinized, especially by a more perceptive A.I..
“Oh, Mikala Turell,” Matilda stated matter-of-factly, “Engineering trainee. I recognize you from… well, let’s just say I’m very good with biometrics. Very strange of you to be out in this area, away from the mining equipment.” Her words suggested much, but her manner of delivery was impeccably innocent of accusation.
“A miner?” Evgeny supplied, unavoidably supplying innuendo himself. “Right, someone unlikely to be missed if they weren’t seen for a week or two. You’re younger than me… later class… daughter of Geminus Turell?”
The woman pulled down her dust cloth and huffed in irritation. Evgeny could recognize her easily now from her flattened nose and cheekbones and her narrow, pursed mouth. No wonder that Matilda had identified her on only a little less evidence.
“And you’re the son of Ben and Ondrea. Great. Happy to meet you. I’m still not ready to share my business until you explain yours. Did someone send you to pick me up?”
“No, and I’m getting to that. Actually, do you have your Brin with you? Let’s wrap up the introductions…” Evgeny stopped at the lowering of Mikala’s eyebrows. No. She did not have her A.I. along. Of course not. If she were caught, a spy might be ransomed back or traded for similar prisoners, but her A.I. would be summarily executed. Mauraug hated A.I.s with a religious fervor fed by historical cause. The safest place for the A.I. of an infiltrating agent was back home.
Well, that made the rest of the story especially difficult. Evgeny pressed forward without allowing time for sympathy for her or himself.
“No, of course not. All right, anyway, Matilda gave me the broadcasts as events happened. That ship was one of three that came under atmosphere. They took out the space station first. Then one each split off and went for the settlements.”
He almost didn’t need to finish. Her expression went from disbelief to understanding to horror. Knowing it might soon cycle around to denial, Evgeny decided to add the weight of detail to his account.
“We got Defense’s reports. Casualties… were high. When the broadcasts were finally cut off, they were saying at least three quarters of New Gethsemane was gone. If there are survivors, they’re probably buried. Your father, I hope he was in the mines. Same with my family, or possibly they got to a bunker. Anyway, communications is entirely down, including the relay satellites."
“So why are you here?” Mikala shot back once again. “Why aren’t you back at Nu-Gee digging for them?” She looked ready to run off herself.
“Because the last we heard, at least one ship stayed behind. They’re Mauraug Apostates, Mikala. They’re probably looting the wreckage for whatever supplies they can salvage and maybe killing any survivors they can find. I can’t fight them off. The two of us can’t. All of the ‘surveyors’ and ‘scouts’ and ‘miners’ we have scattered out here, together, might not be enough. We can’t go back, so we have to survive until help comes, whenever that is. I thought I would see if the Mauraug had anyone out here. Maybe we can scrape together enough of a militia to hold out and maybe even raid one of the settlements for supplies of our own.”
She was silent finally, turning the news over in her mind. Evgeny realized how young she really was, possibly not even twenty, only just past adolescence. He wasn’t exactly fully mature, himself, but had at least spent a few years in the field, at work on his own.
Finally, she looked back at him, then at Matilda. “So you think we can’t fight? Fine. But I hate the idea of doing nothing. Matilda, are you listening hard?”
“Very hard,” Matilda responded somberly, “I will let you know if anyone attempts contact.”
Evgeny interjected, “They’re likely staying quiet for familiar reasons… to avoid drawing attention.”
Mikala nodded in frustrated violence. “Yes, fine, but if they chance it, we need to know… like if the Mauraug leave. How do you know they were Apostates, by the way?”
Evgeny gave her an annoyed squint, himself. “Deduction? They were Mauraug ships, they hit both colonies equally hard, and they’re sticking around longer than a purely military force would.”
“But they could still be Dominion, just attacking their own as a cover. Or they could be another group entirely, using the appearance of Apostates as cover… for simple piracy, maybe, or to damage the Collective, or the Locust agreement…” Mikala spoke quickly and trailed off, struggling to generate alternative hypotheses.
“I considered all of those thoughts,” Matilda offered, “but the likelihood of each is much less than for the Apostate explanation. Based on what we know of Dominion, the Mauraug should want to succeed outright, rather than by cheating. Their motive to kill their own people is equally as low as it would be for Humans. Raiders might use an Apostate cover, true, but the communications I heard were in the Mauraug language, using correct cultural idioms but lacking the common religious phrasing. That alone makes Apostates the most likely culprits.”
“Fine,” Mikala grudgingly agreed, “I trust a Brin to figure right.” She squinted again suddenly, and wiped at her eyes with the cloth overhanging her forehead. “I…,” she managed, before her voice broke.
Evgeny and Matilda remained respectfully silent. While Apostates might or might not allow any Human survivors to live - and the likelihood of mercy was greater than for any Dominionist Mauraug - they still shared their culture’s hatred of A.I.s. If Mikala’s companion had survived the initial bombing, it would still wiped if found by the looters. Mikala might grieve equally deeply for her A.I. as for her potentially dead father.
Evgeny put Matilda’s compad down beside him on the cart’s seat, trying to minimize her presence for the moment. He was honestly a bit jealous; he had not yet started to grieve, preferring to distract himself with action and irrational hope.
He gently interrupted, “Wherever you were going, it’s safer if we travel together. I was planning to search the border from this side and see who else I could find. My counterpart in the south, Wallace Harmon, should be around here somewhere, if he’s stuck to his schedule. I was also going to try to meet any Mauraug strays and see what they know.”
Mikala covered her reaction by huffing through her nose, acting as if she were in fact blowing and wiping away dust. She replied, more steadily, “You’re in luck twice over. Not only am I your best guide out east, I know exactly where we should go. The Mauraug think differently than us. They diverted resources we would have used for bigger, more comfortable housing, and built a bunker out here, away from their main settlement. They were prepared for an attack.”
“We’re prepared for an attack; we just had less reason to expect one and a different plan for response,” Evgeny shot back in defense of Defense.
Her sudden eye roll and veneer of condescension was disturbing. “With the Mauraug, we should always expect an attack. It’s practically inevitable, although the form of an attack might not be as predictable. Colonial command is less naïve than you, Lerner. I’m part of their ‘plans for response’. That’s why we know where their bunker is, how many personnel it holds, how they’re armed, and how they’re supplied. Pretty well, as it turns out. If they let us in, we’ll be in good shape… provided the Apostates don’t come by and bomb that, as well.”
“Well, great, we don’t even have a better claim on ethics, much less preparedness,” Evgeny retorted weakly.
He really shouldn’t have been disillusioned. His father was a professional planetary exploiter, trained to rip maximum profit from a world for minimum cost. His own training in Defense had included many quiet allusions to potential disaster scenarios, along with suggestions that the Terrans were prepared for the worst the Mauraug might attempt. That preparedness had to include a few dirty tricks. He knew that. Being face-to-face with one of those dirty tricks just brought his youthful disappointment back with added color.
Too bad Defense hadn't – couldn’t – prepare for extra-planetary threats. That was supposed to be the job of interplanetary enforcement: Terran, Mauraug, and Collective together. Defense hadn’t failed; the people upstairs had failed. Whether or not the Terrans had broken a few rules was entirely moot after that. Hell, Evgeny would forgive the Mauraug the same transgressions if they were willing to genuinely cooperate now. Maybe they would share his anger. Maybe they would share Mikala’s grief.
Hopefully, they would at least share their food and water.
Mikala had been saying something indistinct but rude while Evgeny considered. It was just as well to ignore her provocation along with her earlier mockery. He would spend all his forgiveness piece by piece if it bought what he needed. If he had no forgiveness left when he met the enemy – the real enemy – well, he wouldn’t regret its absence.
“Fuck it. Get on; let’s go meet the neighbors,” Evgeny ordered. Without looking at Mikala again, he picked up Matilda’s compad and stowed it in its usual pouch. Then he punched the engine start for the runner cart and swung it around, facing south-southeast.
Mikala paused, and Evgeny almost started moving before she did. She reached a decision and walked forward, albeit with deliberate slowness. Pulling the dust cloth back over her nose and tightening it over her forehead, she straddled the cart’s seat behind Evgeny. He slid forward to give her enough space to sit securely behind him. Between the awkward positioning on the cart – slightly bigger than necessary for one rider, but not quite designed for two – and their interposing gear, their contact was uncomfortable but not exactly intimate.
“About two klicks this direction, until you see a break in the grasses,” Mikala directed, pointing to correct the cart’s course as Evgeny started to accelerate. “There’s a dry streambed, very rocky, that runs past the bunker; I suspect that’s their landmark for navigation, as well. Turn left when you spot it. They’ll see us before we see them. Hopefully they’ll wait before shooting, maybe thinking we’ll drive on by.”
“I just hope they got the news – as much of it as I got, if not more – before losing contact with Gorash’Bond. I’d hate to have to tell that story again.”
“Tougher audience, too. I agree. If they think Humans were responsible for the attack…"
“Yeah,” Evgeny replied, and they left it at that. If the Mauraug remnants were fortified and armed and hostile to Humans, driving directly toward them was a terrible idea. The two travelers continued forward on the chance that any holdouts would be willing to talk. Expecting them to be friendly was just foolishly optimistic.