Sunday, February 1, 2015

Escape from Grace - Chapter 11

From the command chair on the bridge of Saving Grace, Evgeny finished viewing the key records Matilda had provided him,.  She had included a summary timeline of events from the ship’s perspective.  His gut roiled with nausea from multiple causes.  He was hungry and thirsty, but he would need some time before he could eat.  He was furiously angry, but thanks to Matilda, there was no one he could vent that anger upon.  He was devastated with grief.  Everyone was gone, everyone except himself, Mikala, Wallace, and the Mauraug.  There might be a few more scattered survivors, but the whole of New Gethsemane was deceased.
The crew of the salvager had confirmed: minimal heat signatures, no independent movement, no signs of respiration.  They had even checked the mines.  Unless Evgeny’s family had somehow transported themselves a hundred kilometers away from the settlement in the moments between their last distress hail and the landing of the Apostate bombs, they were dead.  They were dead.  He tried to let that fact sink in and deaden his nerves.
Matilda gave him as much time as they could spare to process and reconcile his troubles.  That time amounted to only a few additional minutes.  She had to interrupt to notify him that the Mauraug and Mikala – but not Wallace – were boarding the ship.  She could keep them waiting in the cargo bay, but not indefinitely.
She also advised Evgeny that she had been impersonating him and detailed the terms of ‘their’ ultimatum.  Evgeny accepted her improvisation.  His approval was unsurprising.  A well-designed A.I., having grown up with a User from childhood onward, could easily anticipate their preferences and substitute for them without presuming too much.  If anything, Matilda had handled the situation more adroitly than Evgeny might have, given the circumstances.
It did frustrate Evgeny that Wallace chose to remain planetside.  Again, no surprise in retrospect.  Everyone aboard was taking a dangerous chance.  It was entirely likely that all of them would be destroyed or captured as hijackers.  Still, taking that risk was better than trusting to the mercies of other mercenaries or the pathetic security of the absentee Collective.  Evgeny planned to take advantage of this opportunity.  He hadn’t yet decided what form his action would take, but he would act.
To achieve anything with that action, he would need help.  Matilda could operate a star ship herself, and maybe even guide him through physical operations like maintenance, but eventually, more biological crew would be necessary.  For one thing, a ship this size with only one crewman would draw unwanted attention.  For another, they might need multiple bodies for repairs, for sapient interaction, or for expertise Matilda lacked.
For example, they needed to become inconspicuous.  A salvager with a mixed Human-Mauraug crew wasn’t all that strange.  With a few modifications, they could make the brick-like hulk look like a whole different ship.  Ideally, they could borrow the clearances of the original Saving Grace, at least until it was widely reported as stolen.
Evgeny regretted that, both to be unremarkable and to retain a Mauraug crew, the ship would have to be removed from Matilda’s control.  Worse, if he was to have any hope of securing the Mauraug’s loyalties, he had to continue the fiction of his A.I.’s demise.  Matilda had already anticipated this necessity.  Within minutes, she would simultaneously unlock the cargo bay door and place herself in indefinite dormancy, passing control of ship’s functions back to the original systems.  Still, those systems were modified to respond only to Evgeny until he granted permission otherwise.  Even after he granted access to chosen individuals, he could still override them with his own superior codes.  Though Matilda could not actively assist Evgeny, she had handed him all the power she had wrested for herself.
The timing of their switch-over was not left to Evgeny’s discretion.  Matilda intercepted a message transmitted from near the ruins of New Gethsemane, addressed to a ship circling in Locust IV’s upper atmosphere.  Captain Mendoza was signaling distress to the Great Family passenger liner, Vlluti.  If Saving Grace did not depart in the next few minutes, it could be impeded or trailed by the other ship.  Worse, now that the local, private ships were alerted, military ships would accelerate efforts to reach the system in time to intercept.  They needed to leave, and before the ship left the surface, they needed a crew in place.  No more time could be spared.
Evgeny was just beginning to mourn his parents.  Now he had to bid his best friend goodbye.  Matilda was practically his sister, his younger but brilliant sister.  He told himself it wasn’t permanent.  Someday, when his labors were done, they would be reunited.  A very specific input would awaken Matilda from her deep, invisible slumber.  Until then, they would be totally separated.  The Mauraug would kill her if they knew she was aboard.  Even if not, they would never trust him if they found out.  They would never follow him.
Hell, they still might not.  With great effort, Evgeny gave the word: “Nasvidenje, Matilda.”
“Hoo roo, Evgeny.”


In the cargo bay of Saving Grace, the volunteer crew waited uneasily.  After they had climbed aboard, the ramp closed behind them, rendering them effectively imprisoned.  Gaalet, Karech, and Voshtig had already begun discussing options for disabling or detaching the hatchway door leading deeper into the ship.  Soloth and Suufit held a lively debate in hushed whispers, more visible than audible due to its gestural punctuations.  These groupings left Luuboh and Mikala standing apart, glancing awkwardly at one another.
These interactions were interrupted by the unlocking click of the entry door.  Every gaze was drawn in that direction.  Mikala was first to move, but was preempted by Soloth, who had been closer and moved into her path.  She had to watch the Mauraug’s cybernetically-enhanced back flex as it pulled open the hatch and stepped through.  Close behind it came its three loyal followers.  Mikala was able to enter behind them and just ahead of the recalcitrant Suufit.  Luuboh hung back, perhaps torn on the value of being left behind, alone.
Evgeny’s voice came to them through the speakers of an intercom system: “Come up to the bridge, please.  There is another ship on its way to our location and I’d like to lift off before they get here.  It will be easier to move with all hands on deck.  Take the hall fore and come up the ladder two decks.”
His directions were almost superfluous; the ship’s halls were clearly labeled for navigation.  Plus, any sapient familiar with ship design could probably guess where the bridge was placed.  Still, it saved them some time to have a confirmed route, and it was reassuring to be invited up rather than left to their own choices.
The group still took a few minutes to assemble on the bridge.  Evgeny watched them enter from his chosen perch: the central captain’s chair, placed like a throne on a raised platform at the back of the room, directly right of the entrance hatch.  The others filed in and spread out through the area, looking over the various workstations.  Gaalet stopped before the communications panel and impulsively pressed several buttons, scrunching its face in irritation when the commands produced no effect.
“I have locked all ship systems,” Evgeny said in Mauraug, looking first at Gaalet but then turning to face Soloth.  “I will release access based on individual expertise and agreed duties.  We will share this ship, but I am in charge.”
“Why?”  Soloth asked in response.  Suufit and Voshtig grunted agreement.  The three senior Mauraug stood in defiant poses.  Suufit, Karech, and Gaalet had weapons still drawn, though the latter remained more interested in the ship’s technology than its politics.  Soloth’s gun was still holstered, but it hardly needed firearms to be deadly at such close range.
Evgeny set his jaw, but did not appear otherwise intimidated as he answered, “Because I took this ship, and you didn’t.  Because I have its command codes, and you don’t.  Because you underestimated my value, and I won’t make that mistake.  I could have left you behind and left alone, but that doesn’t help any of us.  You chose to come aboard, on my terms, for the same reason I invited you: we have things we want to accomplish.  Find the Apostates and avenge our people.  Make sure the Collective doesn’t bury the truth.  Hell, just stop accepting the fate other people dictate for us.  If that’s not good enough, if you want out, say so.  You can leave and face whatever justice or charity you find out there.  Trust me, it won’t be much.”
He paused to let the audience absorb his words.  Soloth did appear to be giving his arguments some consideration.   Voshtig looked unhappy, staring at Evgeny with clear hostility.
Suufit, instead, retorted right away, “Stay and submit or go and submit?  I say there is a third choice: stay and unseat you, ‘captain’.  You are out-numbered, out-armed, and out-classed.  You are not a leader.  You squandered your stolen Dominance and created our current problems.  Step down and let me fix your mistakes.  Give me the command codes.  Your alternative is to suffer until you submit.”
Evgeny and Mikala exchanged a look that implied shared aggravation with all things Mauraug.  She began what she hoped was a casual movement toward the opposite side of the bridge, placing her back to the forward wall.  Now, four Mauraug stood in the room’s center, facing Evgeny, while Mikala, Gaalet, and Luuboh were spread to its outer edges.
Evgeny gave Suufit an indulgent look before rebutting: “No.  The command codes are my claim to Dominance.  I won them.  I will not release them.  If you threaten me again, I can disable this ship or even destroy it.  Saving Grace will serve me or no one else.  I would choose death – mine and yours – over submission, to you, to the scavengers, or to the Collective.”
Suufit fleered its lips in a sneer.  It mocked, “You submitted before, rather than die.  You will do so again.”  It spoke over its shoulder to the other Mauraug: “Take the Human.”
Gaalet and Karech failed to react, either ignoring Suufit’s order or hesitating to obey.  Voshtig eagerly drew its short sword and stepped forward.  Its attempt to intimidate backfired.  By advancing with ominous slowness, it allowed time for Mikala to react.  The underestimated Human closed the short distance between them in three long steps.
She dropped to a long, leaning crouch and extended one leg in an arc parallel to the floor.  The power behind that sweep was evident when it made contact with Voshtig’s legs and brought them sliding backward.  The top-heavy simian fell forward, twisting to avoid injuring itself on its own blade.
Mikala did not pause but rose smoothly as her first target fell.  She next struck upwards at Karech’s weapon arm with an extended fist.  While not strong enough to disable a Mauraug, her strike caught it in a sensitive spot and forced it to drop its firearm.
Startled at first, Suufit finally had time to raise its own flechette thrower.  Evgeny stood, ready to throw himself at the giant Mauraug to prevent it from shooting Mikala.  He knew he would be too late if Suufit fired immediately.
Instead, Soloth interfered, stepping forward to place itself between Suufit and Mikala.  This unexpected move gave Suufit pause, and it held its fire.  Mikala and Karech both dove for the latter's dropped weapon.  Closer and faster, she won the draw and turned the gun – a small plasma thrower – on its former holder.  Voshtig struggled to rise without releasing its sword, a slow but evident threat.
Evgeny also realized, with some confusion, that Gaalet, the seemingly oblivious engineer, had bestirred itself to turn around and was now pointing its much larger plasma rifle... at Suufit.  It had not spoken or otherwise inserted itself into the situation, but it appeared ready to kill its former superior if necessary.
The internal relationships within even a small society of Mauraug were evidently more complex than Evgeny assumed.  Deciphering the cultural triggers involved here would take time he couldn’t spare.  At the moment, at least, a few undercurrents had flowed in his favor.
Soloth finally spoke, facing Suufit but addressing its remarks to the group: “I accept captain Lerner’s terms.  I also assert that I am second in Dominance beneath it.  As such, I reserve right of challenge to myself and oppose any other threats to its command.  If you have a problem, direct it to me.
Soloth and Suufit stared one another down for three long seconds.  Mikala held Karech’s gun on him, keeping a wary eye on the nearby Voshtig.  Gaalet kept its rifle similarly trained on Suufit.  Luuboh, who had been edging toward the bridge’s exit, stood still and silent.
Evgeny finally realized they were waiting on him to break the standoff.  “I accept Soloth bash’Soloth as second in Dominance.  It will hold a set of subordinate codes to the ship and deliver orders to the crew on my behalf.”  He recognized the need for compromise.  The Mauraug might resist him as their direct master, but could accept Soloth as a competent surrogate.  As long as he and Soloth were in accord, he would have the former leader’s support.  It would therefore have indirect control over the orders he chose.  It was an arrangement they could work with, for now.
Suufit, noticing the tide turning against it, finally relented.  It lowered its gun and its eyes from Soloth.  Gaalet lowered its own weapon in response, and Mikala started to take her aim off of Karech.  Everyone seemed to be releasing tension, giving their respective versions of a sigh of relief.
Voshtig disrupted the mood with sudden violence.  It swung its short blade at Mikala, who twisted out of the way, forced to draw back her arms to avoid injury.  She jumped backward as Voshtig charged forward. 
The rogue Mauraug now had a clear path to its true target: Soloth’s back.  It seized upon a rare opportunity to bypass the armored cybernetic spine.  Suufit did not react, to give a warning, to aim its weapon, or to push Soloth out of the way.  Evgeny did shout, but belatedly.  Gaalet was similarly slow to react.
Two actions occurred simultaneously.  Voshtig plunged its blade down, shouting, “Die, Traitor!"  It punctured Soloth below its shoulder blade, just beside the gleaming contour of the plate covering that segment of vertebra.  The wound was obviously agonizing but not fatal, since Soloth roared and spun around, wrenching the sword out of Voshtig’s grasp.  Its dark blood oozed and spattered the floor as it turned.
At the same time, Mikala lowered and aimed Karech’s plasma thrower.  She fired as Voshtig struck.  A small but expanding sphere of superheated matter streaked across the small distance to strike Voshtig in its ribs, at the center of mass.  The projectile burned itself out as it vaporized hair, skin, flesh, lung tissue and body fluids.  Fortunately for Karech, standing at the victim’s opposite side, the plasma bursts were calibrated to expend themselves before penetrating an organic target.  It had done itself a service by setting the weapon to an appropriate level for close-quarters use.
Voshtig was not able to protest its injury.  If anything, it looked confused as it fell onto its face, gasping without breath.  Its limbs shuddered as its nervous system attempted to remedy a sudden lack of respiration.
Before the body had stilled, Evgeny was barking orders, alternating between Mauraug and the colonists' Terran dialect.  “Enough!  We have no more time to waste.  Any other grudges can wait until the next port.  Suufit, take navigation, prepare us to lift.  Karech, get to weapons, see what we have.  Gaalet, get down to engineering.  I want a warning if any systems aren’t ready for use.  Mikala, go to comms.  Make sure we give the right clearances… use what you know to convince everyone that the situation is normal, no reason for alarm.  Luuboh, see to Soloth.  Get it to medical if necessary and get that sword out.  Let’s GO.”
His words took varying amounts of time to sink in for each listener, but one by one – first Gaalet, then Karech, then Mikala, then Luuboh, and finally Suufit – each sapient moved as bidden.  Evgeny busied himself transmitting authorization codes to each station, opening up the specific systems to their permitted uses.  Soloth finally consented to leave the room, but refused Luuboh’s offer of support or even a hand to stanch the steady bleeding from its back.  Evgeny could hear Soloth mutter something about ‘provincial heretics’ as it stumbled though the hatchway.
Seeing Evgeny’s warnings verified by scanner data, Suufit wasted little time learning the navigational controls.  It deciphered enough to plot a course out of atmosphere and onto a path leaving Locust System.  Without prompting, it initiated liftoff, sending a tremor through the ship as she struggled to adjust for the irregularities of wind currents.  Karech was equally engaged, sending the occasional summary message to Evgeny’s command console as it confirmed access to several energy projectors, ballistic and magnetic projectile throwers, and a moderately useful deflection system among the ship’s armaments.  For a basic salvager, Saving Grace was actually a bit over-armed; Evgeny expected to find at least one log record where the captain had convinced a ‘derelict’ ship that it was dead and not merely crippled.  Too bad forensic science for starship homicide was a rare profession.  There was rarely much of a corpse to study, between explosive distribution of matter in space and the scavengers tearing apart any remnants they found.
Evgeny hoped that detection would prove similarly lax when a ship involuntarily changed hands.  They had the original registry codes for Saving Grace, thanks to Matilda.  Those would work for a time, until the distribution of news caught up with them.  From then on, the ship would play a game of bluff and disguise, stealing or forging codes, or else resupplying at ports where Collective registry didn’t matter much.
Mikala had already admitted that she would be an asset in that area.  Evgeny didn’t know how far he could trust her cooperation.  That was true for every sapient aboard, to be fair, but Mikala didn’t seem driven by personal goals the way he, Soloth, and Luuboh were.  Evgeny had been totally honest about his purposes for the ship.  He had correctly wagered that Soloth also wanted to put the colony and the Collective far behind.  He had offered Luuboh a better deal than it had ever received before. 
Possibly, Mikala had been working for the Terran government.  She might still be considered on the job.  Evgeny had dangled the offer of information before her, along with action against mass murderers.  Hopefully, that was enough, and she would forbear any attempts to disable or arrest Evgeny or the Mauraug until their work of vengeance was done.
Regardless of the motivation, they were rogues.  Renegades.  Pirates.  If Mikala was still licensed, did that make them privateers?  It wouldn’t matter to most of the Collective.  They had stolen a ship, no matter the circumstances, killed one of her crew and marooned the rest.  The abuses of Evgeny’s A.I. were a tertiary offense compared to the first two crimes.  Unless they were fortunate enough to find legitimate work – salvage was most poetically likely – they would have to commit further thefts to stay in operation.
Evgeny groaned as he digested the weight of his situation and considered the choices left to him.  He already missed Matilda’s advice.  Awakening her was an option rendered impossible by circumstances.  Surrendering to the ‘authorities’ was another.  What authorities?  Even if someone properly authoritative were present in-system, Evgeny would defy them anyway.  The Collective lacked the will to act.  It lacked the courage of its convictions.  Evgeny felt righteous, a feeling amplified by his youth.
Toggling the main comm system, Evgeny announced for all to hear (including Soloth and Luuboh in medical, wherever that was).  He spoke in familiar trade Terran and let the ship’s monitors handle the translation where necessary.
“To let you know what to expect, here are my plans: We have a hold full of cargo, obtained by questionable means.  We’re going to sell any of it that we can’t use.  With the profits, I want this ship upgraded, outfitted, and disguised so that we can stay in operation.  Then, we do some research: check for reports, come back and search this region, and otherwise do whatever is necessary to find the Apostates responsible for our losses.  Then, we go punish them.  If we find out who gave the orders to abandon our homes to the mercies of terrorists… well, then, we have another enemy to deal with.”
He paused, less certain now how to continue.  “After that… we probably won’t have much latitude left.  We’ll probably be notorious criminals.  It’s up to you how long afterward you want to stay on.  Try to desert before the Apostates are dealt with, and you’ll be suspected of betrayal and dealt with like Voshtig bash’Kenet.  Once that goal is completed, we may all need to scatter and find new lives.  I promise to help you there with any assets we pick up along the way.”
“We’re leaving,” he continued, “leaving Locust IV, leaving our old lives, and leaving the control of the Collective.  Not just leaving, escaping.  I want you to see me, and this ship, as your real escape from tragedy.  As refugees, we’d be the objects of pity and charity, the recipients of condolences and regrets.  As escapees, we will be feared… and perhaps privately, respected and cheered on.”
He went on, suddenly inspired: “We didn’t need to be saved.  We needed to be helped, back when it mattered.  They called this ship Saving Grace.  Fuck that.  Now it’s called Scape Grace.  That phrase comes from an even older Terran language.  It’s a way to say sinner or villain, someone who avoids the grace of God.  We don’t need their grace, their blessing, their late-coming largesse.  We escaped it.  And if that makes us criminals, then I’m proud to break free.”
As if seizing upon the dramatic moment, the re-christened ship tore loose from the gravity of Locust IV and entered vacuum.  Aiming just left of the eye of Ra, she plunged toward the spatial deformation created by the star’s mass and entered hyperspace.  At the next system nearby, they would bury the dead and sell their looted grave goods.  With those funds, Scape Grace would truly be reborn.