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 naïve.  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.

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