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.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Update - Something Old, Something New

Oh no, an update that's not a story.  Those usually mean a pause.

You are correct, but don't forget that site updates often include commitments and a teaser.

In this case, I can promise that Escape from Grace will be completed before I take a full break.  It's stretched to 11 chapters, but that's it.  Done.  All outlined, drafted, and just waiting on the edits.  Probably all posted by February.  There's even a nice little wrapup hinting at the next story...

But before my beloved mutinies against me, I should also mention that I'll be on an enforced break at least until after our nuptials in April.  It's actually necessary, not only for the wedding preparations but also to clear time for other sorts of writing. 

And here's the teaser: Somewhere between the end of Escape and the start of my next full Empyrean Dreams tale, I'll post at least one very short, one-chapter story that I already have written.  Maybe two, but that's the limit. 

So we won't be entirely separated.  I just think it might be good if we saw other people.  Or rather, that my future wife sees more of me. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Escape from Grace - Chapter 9

            KoShunTi scanned over the field of rubble a second time, huffing in frustration.  This colonial settlement hadn’t just been leveled, it had been collapsed, tumbled into its own basements and tunnels.  Why had they dug in so deep?  Some of these buildings had two or three sublevels.

Normally, underground construction was smart.  Zig urban spaces, like Ti’s home city, often had as many sublevels as upper stories.  Building outward wasn’t an option.  Building upward required more additional resources.  Excavation created instant space plus a small output of materials.  Most Zig didn’t mind tight quarters or artificial lighting, anyway.
Such extensive undermining was less necessary for a small settlement on an empty world.  Metals were abundant, limited only by speed of extraction.  There were no limits on construction size.  Building underground was especially strange for a Terran settlement.  Humans, as KoShunTi understood them, preferred more open and well-lit habitation.  They should have spread outward, not downward. 
It was almost as if they were avoiding horizontal expansion, keeping the footprint of their settlement small.  Were they hiding its actual size?  She vaguely remembered some arrangement here between the Terrans and Mauraug.  Something like a competition to develop the planet?  Maybe the Humans had been playing a gambit with their construction choices.
It did appear that they had shored and supported their underground adequately.  They just hadn’t reinforced it enough to withstand aerial bombardment.  No surprise there; why would they expect such an attack?  Why would anyone expect such a brutal, horrible, irrational act?  The Collective hadn’t.  Or more precisely, the Collective hadn’t given much credence to the suggestion that such an attack was possible. 
KoShunTi was hardly privy to the internal debates of the Collective.  She knew only what media reports summarized, plus what she could deduce from her own knowledge, reports from other starfarers, and the evidence of Collective activities at her various ports of call.  All that data, taken together, told her that Locust IV had been a low priority for Collective military protection.  Therefore, the probability of threat had been estimated low.
Why else were the first responders to the crisis here the few vessels that happened to be in the right system: a salvager, a miner, a freight hauler, and a passenger liner?  The lingering distress calls from the two dying settlements were passed along to Terra and the Dominion, but only requests for assistance came back.  Any willing ship was asked to respond on their behalf.  It would be days yet before any official presence arrived in the Locust system.  It was like the governments’ faces were turned away from this planet. 
Ti's employer, captain Carlos Medrano, Human, had opined that the two cultural governments discouraged Collective attention to the Locust colony.  Its joint development had been negotiated against either Human or Mauraug wishes.  No doubt, each culture wanted a freer hand to abuse the terms of that negotiation, without Collective oversight.  If Carlos was right, that policy had cost them both and cost them dearly.
There might not be any survivors of this massacre.  There certainly were no ‘settlements’ remaining on Locust IV.  New Gethsemane was a landfill of smashed concrete, shattered glass, splintered ceramics, and shredded metal.  The word on comms said Gorash’Bond looked much the same.  The Mauraug settlement had been more widespread and less dug in, but had also been bombarded more thoroughly. 
No surprise there.  If rumor was right, the hostiles responsible for this atrocity were Mauraug separatists… wait, no, religious schismatics.  It amounted to the same thing, really.  KoShunTi genuinely struggled to comprehend how disagreements in belief could turn into mass murder.
She wasn’t being particularly noble or na├»ve.  Zig culture had all sorts of schisms – religious, political, technical – some of them with deep roots and bitter fruit.  Yes, the occasional death resulted when tempers flared or a particularly intransigent partisan impeded the proper progress of ideas.  However, Zig ‘heretics’ rarely needed to fear reprisal for their ideas.  A principled opposition was considered healthy, a sign that the current standard was robust enough to withstand challenges.  Sometimes, the revolutionaries were even granted the chance to test their ideas.  At the worst, they reaped the painful but self-chosen consequences of their errors.  At best, their faith, their policy, or their theories proved a viable alternative… rarely, even better than the norm
Suppressing and punishing dissent was the sign of a flawed culture.  The Mauraug would eventually learn and adapt, or they would continue to fall behind the rest of the Collective, possibly all the way to extinction.  In the meantime, other sapients would suffer from the shrapnel of their cultural explosions. 
In this case, approximately 850 Humans had been killed, along with an estimated 815 Mauraug.  Those numbers were tentative, based on data provided by the Collective, as relayed by the individual cultural governments, supposedly based on census reports from the colonial administrations.  Any part of that chain might have introduced bias or error.
The estimated death toll also assumed that all recorded colonists were dead.  There might have been survivors… assuming they were well away from the settlements.  So far, KoShunTi and her comrades had found no signs of life within the ruins.  They had found plenty of corpses, but no live Humans.  No signals, distress or otherwise, were detected from this region.  No anomalous heat or chemical signatures indicated the presence of an uncommunicative living creature, whether trapped, wounded, or just hiding.  
That survey only accounted for this region, over the last dozen hours since their landing.  Saving Grace had volunteered to sift through the remains of New Gethsemane.  They had to deal with more… biological… salvage, but also had first shot at recovery on any materials or technology left within the settlement.  A passenger ship, the Great Family liner Vlluti, was scanning the continent sector by sector, searching for any outlying habitations or scattered inhabitants.  The Zig miner VasKoTaCho was working in tandem with the Mauraug freighter Shomuth at Gorash’Bond, digging up the corpses and possessions of the Mauraug colonists.
Another group of private craft were waiting in the wings, but first arrivals had first rights of salvage.  They also had the responsibility of seeking and tending to survivors.  It was starting to look like those duties might be minimal or even null. 
“’Ti, look east-southeast, about a klick off,” instructed a voice from the mini-comm clipped at her belt.  That would be the captain, comfortably aboard ‘Grace, watching the cameras and directing his crew as they did the actual dirty work. 
KoShunTi turned around and looked as bid.  There, hiking steadily toward her – or rather, the ship beside her – were an unfamiliar Human and three Mauraug.  Wait, no, two Humans; one more brought up the rear of their train.  She couldn’t make out all the details at this range, but the size, coloration, and gait of the organisms told her their general species. 
“I see them, captain,” she signaled back, “Should I go to greet them?”
“No.  Let them come to us.  Stay under cover of the ship.  Until we know who these people are, we can’t assume they’re friendly.”  Carlos sounded uncertain.  That made two of them, but unlike her, the captain was supposed to at least pretend confidence. 
They had no information about what, exactly, had happened here.  The destruction could have been triggered by inside agencies.  The Mauraug Apostates could have had agents on the ground, who would be most likely to know when to leave and where to go to survive an aerial attack.  These might be crew from an Apostate ship, left behind to cause further mischief. 
Whoever they were, colonists or terrorists, they would be taken into ‘protective custody’ and sent aloft.  Let the Collective investigators sort it out.  Hopefully, the stragglers would leave quietly.  Hopefully, they were surviving colonists.  Hopefully, they would be grateful for rescue.  Even if they were victims and not criminals, that didn’t guarantee that this meeting would be peaceful. 
KoShunTi could see a lot of reasons why survivors of a terrorist slaughter might retain some anger.  Some of that aggression might be directed not only at their attackers, but also at their belated rescuers.

******************************************************************************************
 
Mikala Turell’s anger was currently directed toward someone absent but nearby: Evgeny, if you’re not already dead, I may kill you.  Her temper was worsening by the minute, heightened by the midday heat, the stench of Mauraug fur, and the pain in her hindquarters. All three discomforts were steadily increasing. 
She was seated behind the leather-skirted Mauraug, Voshtig bash-something, holding tight to the passenger straps of Wallace Harmon’s runner cart as it raced across the rough terrain.  Her positioning was starting to make her arms sore, but it was either that or cling tightly to the driver itself.  She preferred a workout to a face-full of itchy, sweaty, stinking back hair.  Why couldn’t it at least wear a shirt, if not a body suit like Karech bash-whatever?
She wasn’t entirely sure what was happening, but she knew Evgeny Lerner was to blame.  The scouting group was traveling north at maximum speed.  The Mauraug leader, Soloth bash’Soloth - she could remember that name easily enough – had received a call earlier in the day.  Mikala's command of the Mauraug language was limited, but she had caught Evgeny’s name and the words for star ship and going to.  Soloth responded to the message with sudden anger and ordered Voshtig to mount up with Mikala behind.  Karech had climbed behind Soloth on the other cart.  The two drivers then aimed for New Gethsemane.
Before that call, they had been loading the carts with supplies from the Terran cache site.  Finding the cache had taken most of the previous day, and Soloth had elected to sleep in the hut… leaving its three subordinates to bunk down outside.  Mikala had come out ahead the next morning, since she was the only one of them accustomed to sleeping on the ground.  She could only imagine what kinds of cramps Voshtig and Karech must have woken with.  Good.  Maybe they were suffering still, quietly.
Soloth had received another unexpected call earlier the previous day, while they searched.  It took that message more privately and had shown little outward reaction to whatever news it received.  Mikala had to assume it came from the outpost, most likely from the fat Mauraug Soloth had left in charge.  Still, for the other group of survivors to risk contact at all, there must have been some serious need. 
Putting both events together, plus the current reaction, Mikala suspected the situation on Locust IV had changed.  What Evgeny had to do with the crisis was unclear, but he really shouldn’t be mentioned if the call concerned solely Mauraug matters.  Had he perhaps called the Apostates and gotten caught?  That possibility would suggest that life with the Dominionist Mauraug had become so unbearable that it was worth risking death to escape.   No, in that case, Soloth would not be moving toward one of the Apostate landing sites. 
Had the dumb-ass Defenseman managed to hail some non-Apostate ship?  Maybe he, or both he and Wallace, had slipped out of the outpost, hoping to join up with a rescuer… or just to flee into New Gethsemane.  Neither possibility was very likely if the Apostates were still on-planet.  Evgeny would have the sense to stay quiet and hidden until the marauders were gone. 
Wallace had looked pretty beaten up when Mikala left.  Was he in any shape to run?  It was possible his injuries were less severe than they seemed.  He could be more clever than he seemed, faking lameness in order to throw off the Mauraug from his real capability.  Tricks like that were included in Mikala’s training, not usually in Defense’s curriculum.  Still, the little Mauraug, Luuboh, was supposed to be a capable medic.  A feigned injury might or might not have passed its scrutiny.
She would know the situation soon enough.  From the cache site to New Gethsemane’s south border was a fast ride by runner cart.  She just hoped that they would arrive before the heat, the smell, and the motion made her vomit up her morning rations.
 
*************************************************************************************
 
Evgeny was getting more and more upset, himself.  As he closed steadily upon the salvage ship, he could finally see a portion of New Gethsemane beyond its bulk.  Only a small portion was visible, but that portion was representative enough.  The tower of the southern guard station was gone.  The various dormitories that should mark the skyline from this approach… gone.  None of the taller structures further north remained, either. 
What he did see was a lone figure standing beside the ship, watching him approach.  He could also see what that sapient had been waiting on: a heavy crawler cart driving up from the northwest.  These were definitely salvagers, then.  The cart was similar to transports used to move building materials around, but wasn’t configured like the vehicles the colonists used.  It looked cleaner, newer, less worn, and definitely more the product of a fully automated factory versus a hand-assembly job. 
Where was everyone else?  Any local survivors?  An excavation crew?  Medical staff attending to the wounded, or at least identifying the dead?  The official investigators to look over the scene?
There was no one else.  Just a ship, a cart driver, and a lone… Zig, most likely… crawling over the corpse of his home, picking at it like carrion eaters. 
Evgeny covered the last quarter-klick briskly, fueled by fury, sparked by anxiety.  He could hear the Mauraug behind him doing their best to catch up.  Between his long stride, his training, and his impetus, Evgeny kept his lead all the way across the remaining stretch of dry dirt and scattered stone. 
The Zig, Copper Caste and somewhat androgynous to Human eyes, held up a hand as Evgeny reached a point about thirty meters away.  Its other hand was empty as well, but kept near a holster at its belt.  Some sort of small hand weapon hung there, ready for quick use.
It spoke using the Collective trade language variant preferred by Terrans.  Its voice did not help to reveal its gender.  “That is close enough.  Please put down any weapons and identify yourselves.  We are here to help.  This is the salvage ship Saving Grace.”  The ship’s name was given in clear Terran English. 
Evgeny ignored the first part of the instructions, but answered, “I am Evgeny Lerner, a resident of New Gethsemane.  Former resident, and Defense representative.  I am returning to search for my parents.  Stand aside.  I will decide when and where your help is needed.”
Gaalet was close enough to hear by that time but had not yet recovered enough breath to speak.  It made an irritated noise after hearing Evgeny’s response. 
“And who are these Mauraug?” the Zig demanded, “Again, put down your weapons and identify yourselves.  I cannot guarantee your safety unless I can verify that you are not threats.”
Weapons?  Evgeny thought.  True, he had the sonic stunner in his hand, but held non-threateningly downward.  Gaalet or Suufit, one or both, probably had their handguns drawn.  He didn’t feel safe turning around to look.  He hoped they weren’t pointing them at this Zig.  Or maybe he preferred that they were.
“We are not threats.  We are not making threats,” Evgeny replied, trying to keep his voice level despite his growing frustration.  The crawler was getting increasingly close.  Evgeny could see that its bed was loaded, a tarpaulin stretched over some cargo that shifted irregularly as the vehicle rolled over bumps in its path. 
What did it carry?  Wreckage being moved from pile to pile?  Equipment or resources missed by the Apostates in their looting?  Ores and metals and other resources from the mines further west?  Or was its cargo something organic, something no less valuable for sale, if one were sufficiently cynical?
“What are you collecting?” Evgeny shouted for the hearing of the Zig, the crawler driver, and those coming up behind him.  “What are you doing in my home?  Identify yourself… you’re the intruder here, not me.”  As he spoke, he raised his arm to point at the vehicle.  The sonic stunner swung in the same direction as his hand.
The Zig reacted to his tone and his movement, reaching down for the weapon at its belt.  It had the little gun raised halfway before Evgeny swung around and triggered his own weapon.  A painfully loud peal of accelerated air burst from the base of the stunner’s cone, sweeping aside loose dirt and stones as it hurtled toward the Zig.  At least, a viewer might assume that the wave occurred first, and the impact that threw the Zig’s body backwards happened second.  To a biological eye, the two events were nearly simultaneous. 
What also appeared at the same time was a spray of glittering brown circulatory fluid erupting from the victim’s lower abdomen.  Evgeny was momentarily confused.  A sonic stunner shouldn’t cause major injury like that, not even at the maximum setting and closest range.  He was meters away and using the standard biological setting.
It looked like the Zig had been… shot.  His memory finally sorted out an anomaly in the stunner's bark, a quieter sound that had accompanied it but originated from Evgeny’s rear and right. 
Now he did spin around.  Both Gaalet and Suufit had their weapons in hand, but Gaalet’s plasma thrower was held low.  Besides that, it would have incinerated its target, not punctured it.  Suufit was the one lowering its gun, a one-handed magnetic flechette launcher. 
Evgeny was surprised.  He hadn’t expected either of the Mauraug to come to his aid, much less the resentful Suufit.  He didn’t take time to consider the matter further.  The Zig was down and no longer an obstacle.  He hoped it – he or she? – wasn’t badly hurt, but couldn’t spare much sympathy either.  It hadn’t spared any for the survivors.
Evgeny scrambled to intercept the crawler cart.  He could see its driver, a dark-skinned male Human, through its clear plastic window panels.  He raised the sonic stunner and called out, “Stop!  What are you hauling?”
The man had definitely seen him and heard his question.  He also was ignoring Evgeny’s command.  He accelerated, turning the cart to the far side, angling it toward the waiting ramp of the salvage ship.  He wasn’t going to help his downed shipmate?  The ‘rescuers’ of Locust IV were apparently not the highest quality of sapients. 
Evgeny decided to test what weight his commands held with his own side.  “Gaalet, stop that crawler!” he called back over his shoulder.  “Take out its treads.”
A screaming energy discharge and a wave of heat were the compliant answer from behind.  A sphere of superheated matter streaked toward the crawler, catching the edge of its tread belt.  Most of the shot struck the ground, creating an explosion of gasified matter and leaving a glowing red welt.  Gaalet had aimed low to avoid damaging the vehicle, its cargo, and possibly its driver. 
Unfortunately, the blast hadn’t damaged the tread sufficiently, either.  The crawler limped onward, more slowly but still closing the gap between it and the ship.  Now it was entirely past Evgeny.  Suufit fired twice as well, but its projectiles rang uselessly off the body of the crawler. 
Evgeny decided to pursue the vehicle himself.  He spat out, “Cease fire,” hoping that the two shooters would comply rather than take advantage of his position between them and the crawler.  Then, he ran at his best available sprint toward the crawler’s cab. 
He passed the prone Zig on the way.  A voice, also male and Human, crackled from a handheld comm unit on the wounded sapient’s belt.  It struggled weakly to reach the device.  A growing rust stain covered its thin work shirt just beneath its ribs.  Evgeny turned away again in pursuit of his higher priority.  Let Luuboh stop to see to the wounded.  He was going to find out what these scavengers knew and what they were doing.
The crawler was almost aboard by the time Evgeny caught up to it.  No plasma or other projectiles hit it – or him – as he ran.  He went to the passenger side of the vehicle’s cab and tried to flag down the driver.  When that didn’t work, he brandished the sonic stunner.  The driver’s expression was set, focused and grim, almost as if to deny the existence of any threat.  No doubt he saw his only safety inside the ship and only harm in acknowledging Evgeny’s demands.
The driver continued to maneuver the crawler straight ahead and hit the ship’s ground ramp at the best speed the damaged vehicle could muster.  It groaned and shook, and the cargo in its bed shifted again.  Several items slid backward, toward the rear.  Part of one object extended out past the tarpaulin: a booted leg.  As the crawler jostled upon hitting the ramp’s center joint, the leg moved and bent in a macabre dance.
Evgeny could only gape for a moment as the vehicle drove past with its grisly cargo.  Then he raised the stunner and fired, uselessly.  He fired again, holding the trigger down, trying to rip apart the crawler, its contents, and its driver with the surrogate screams of the sonic emitter.  It vibrated and chirped, trying to warn him that such use was not recommended and would cause damage to both weapon and user.  The noise was painful, but only faded into background behind the pain of Evgeny’s loss. 
Unfortunately, the emissions also left him deafened.  The calls of the Mauraug could not reach him.  Gaalet, having heard back from Soloth, could not advise Evgeny to stand down on their superior’s orders.  It could not warn him that their leader would be arriving shortly to take command of the situation.  Gaalet and Suufit could only follow, trying to get close enough to insert themselves bodily.
Luuboh did, indeed, stop to tend to the fallen Zig, whom it more capably identified as female.  The blood loss was severe.  Wallace, too, needed attention.  The Human had tried to keep up with the pace of events and eventually collapsed to one knee, gasping for breath, far behind.  Yet even if Luuboh or Wallace had been able to call out, Evgeny would not have heard them.
Evgeny also could not hear the words of the crawler driver, as he shouted for help, nor could he hear captain Carlos Medrano’s response via the in-vehicle comm.  The ship’s captain tried to use general speakers within the ship's cargo bay to hail the intruder, to no effect. 
“Drop your weapons and surrender or you will be fired upon,” Carlos warned.  This was more of a threat to the Mauraug outside, where the ship’s external weapons could target.  They decided to comply, lacking Evgeny’s motivations, madness, or deafness. 
“Intruder, leave my ship now or I’ll have you before a Collective court on charges of trespass and assault,” Captain Medrano thundered in his best outraged growl.  The ultimatum would have been ineffective even if Evgeny could hear it.  “Suit yourself.  Mitchell, clear that deck.  I’m closing the ramp.”  The captain’s remarks were directed to both Evgeny and the crawler’s driver.
The driver, Mitchell, leapt out of the vehicle’s cab and ran for the nearest entry hatch.  Evgeny tracked him and fired, sending the man sprawling to the textured decking.  This time, the weapon performed its job normally, only rendering its victim concussed and confused. 
Though he couldn’t hear the motors starting, Evgeny could feel their vibrations through the cargo deck as the external ramp began to lift.  He looked back and saw the rectangle of outside light beginning to shrink from its bottom. 
They’re trapping me inside? he thought, Fine.  I’ll see what I can find from here.  Worst case, they catch and arrest me… or I join my neighbors on that death cart. 
Evgeny strode past the twitching driver and went to the hatch the man had been heading toward, himself.  When he reached it, he found the door sealed and locked tight.  Whoever was aboard could evidently ‘see’ him, either through internal camera systems or other sorts of sensors.  That was fine.  Evgeny didn’t want to get inside the ship physically, at least not yet.  He just wanted whatever it knew.
If he couldn’t get to its contents or crew, he could try to reach its mind.  Evgeny reached into his pocket and found the faceted sphere nestled securely there.  He looked around and found the other components he needed: a spare compad, secured in a recharging bracket on the wall, plus a network interface cable.
Insert the memory bead… enter the ‘wake-up’ codes… boot Matilda… now splice compad into the ship’s internal network…
Evgeny typed, Can’t hear; using manual input only, to notify Matilda about his disability.
She printed back, Understood.  What happened?
He responded less with an explanation than an order: You’re connected to a starship’s internal systems.  Get as much control as you can.  They’re enemies.  I need to know whatever they know.
Her reply was equally direct: Does the threat justify violation of Collective A.I. protocols?
She meant: Are you, personally, in danger?  As her User, Evgeny’s protection came above any other concerns, even Terran law, much less Collective law.  Collective A.I. law forbid insertion of an artificial intelligence into any computer network larger than a single personal computing unit without express permission, to meet a specific need that could not be served otherwise.  That meant that A.I.s, legally, could not inhabit anything remotely the size and complexity of a starship.  The idea would give most non-Terran sapients panic attacks.  Even most Terrans would hesitate at the thought.
Evgeny did not.  He typed, YES.
Matilda’s last response was only: I have limited access from this entry point.  I may be unavailable for several seconds while working.  Please stand by.
Then she was gone and ‘silent’.  Evgeny waited to see what she would turn up.  He waited next to the truckload of corpses, which he could now smell in the enclosed cargo deck.  He watched the driver of that vehicle struggle to pull himself together, staying at a wary distance from the madman aboard his ship.  Evgeny listened to the increasing ringing in his ears as his hearing slowly and painfully returned.  Belatedly, he wondered what the other survivors outside were doing.
He did not worry about Matilda.  Her core programming was safe inside the memory bead.  She was armed with codes and routines provided only to the Brins of Defense personnel, to aid them in their role as criminal investigators.  The only question was how far she could penetrate before the crew of Saving Grace realized they were being infiltrated and cut off access to internal memory stores.
As it happened, nobody aboard was capable of stopping her, at all.