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.

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