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:
Lerner waited tensely, watching the man he had attacked recover.
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.
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
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
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.
bash’Topith stood wary as well, waiting on the results of Evgeny’s incursion,
Gaalet’s conversation, and Luuboh’s ministrations.
Harmon sat sprawled where he had fallen, struggling to breathe past the searing
pain in his chest.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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.