Before we get started, let me apologize for leaving this for so long. I started a new contract and the High and Mighty have been running around like chickens with their hair on fire. Things seem to be improving and I’m hoping to get back to the two week publishing cycle. On with the show.
While Leah was jamming her legs into work pants and boots, Addie waited her turn in line. The Naavi were reacting to the crash site, getting themselves out of the way of the rescuers, and the danger. Leah pulled a t-shirt over her head and headed for the hatch.
“Addie, drop the dorsal medical pack,” she said.
“Hatch open and waiting, Captain. Attention! I do not have the required amount of fuel to act as a medical evacuation ship.”
“I know, sweetie,” Leah said, stopping to put her hand on a sensor plate. “Pop just the hatch, I’ll jump down.”
Once she was on the ground, Leah ducked under the fuselage. A large medical kit designed to be worn as a backpack was lowered and she grabbed it.
“I don’t have a fix on Captain Finn.”
“Get yourself safe and don’t worry about us, sweetie,” Leah said, slinging the pack onto her shoulders. “We’ll be in touch over comms.”
“Good luck,” Addie said. The gray shuttle joined the line of identical Scout ships taxiing away from the crash site.
Leah jogged toward the gathering area, looking around for any familiar faces in the crowd. Someone waved at her and Leah ran to Marie.
“We’re the muster,” Marie said. “Got a wand in there?”
Leah turned to pack toward Marie and she opened a pocket in the side and pulled out a heavy cylinder of metal. Leah turned around and together they pulled the ends of the cylinder apart until they had a two-and-a-half-meter marker. Marie pushed and turned the cap in her hand and pushed it up into the air. Leah put her end on the ground and braced it with her foot. Marie pushed it the rest of the way vertical and the two women looked at each other.
“Ever set one of these off on a rock?” Marie asked as Leah pressed several flush mounted buttons. “Supposed to be pretty impressive.”
Leah looked up and held Marie’s eyes as she pushed a final control button. A moment later the pole jumped in their hands and the ground jumped as a shaped charge fired the anchor into the ground between their feet.
Marie grinned at Leah. “You flinched.”
“Slanderous lies. Here’s your husband,” Leah said, pulling off the pack. “We’ll do medical here too.”
She set the pack down as Henry ran up.
“Finn is headed down the runway,” he panted. “Searching for anyone from the ship.”
“Direct hit?” Leah asked, tying her boots.
Henry nodded, opening the pack. “That great big Ta’avi guy was in front the of the group, piece bounced through them as it exploded.”
“Mercy Guide,” Leah said quietly.
One of the Ta’avi Pioneers was running in from the outpost and stopped beside the light. “Captains, orders?”
“Marie, Henry. They’re medical. Leah, ground ops. You?”
“Jak, bonding and demo,” he said. “Got stretchers?”
Marie was already rolling one out. The sheet jumped slightly as the engineered plastic “remembered” its shape.
“Bring them to the runway side, start there. Go.”
Leah grabbed the lightweight shell and nodded at Jak. They ran toward the worst of the screaming.
Finn held his hands over his face to shield it from a hunk of burning metal as he ran by. Abruptly it was dark in front of him and Finn saw the beginning of a long gouge in the plastcrete.
“First impact,” he muttered and began to jog back toward the flames. Something caught his toe in the dark and he fell flat.
Finn sat up, looking for what he’d tripped over. He jumped to his feet and lifted a piece of wire cable stretched back into the darkness.
“No, they didn’t,” he breathed and began to follow it.
After thirty meters, Finn found what he’d been dreading. At the end of the cable was a heavy plastcrete post with the cable looped through it.
Finn looked around, muttering that the pilot would have seen the obstacle on his screen. Hell, they would have noticed it from the party. Even the crappy AIs in the Conestoga should have pulled the stick back automatically.
Finn walked back across the runway and found the other post, top burned through. He could smell the melting plastic and burnt limestone. Finn closed his eyes for a moment, seeing it happen. Someone had come down here while the ship was on approach. They’d come down and pulled the heavy cable up, it would have caught one of the landing gear.
He walked away from the slightly smoldering post. If it had been the front gear, the front of it would have slammed in nose first and he remembered an engine bouncing through… Anyway, they’d been heavy, too heavy to fire the anti-grav. That meant they were landing under power, less than 200 knots. That fast, it wouldn’t matter what snagged, the ship would have torn itself apart. Had torn itself apart.
How did they do it? Finn asked himself, walking up the side of the runway. It would have to have been fast, a quad maybe. You couldn’t just stand there and pull it….
“Fog…Foghorn,” a voice said from the dark.
Finn walked over, feeling the darkness and rage behind his eyes. “Who’s that? Craig?”
“Foghorn sounding hillbilly,” the man said.
“Get a little surprise when you pulled that cable up?”
“Drab-ass lies and liars, all them bearded fucks. I’m gonna make me some big trouble.”
“Who told you to do this?”
The man glared at him. “Fuh…fuh…fuck you cowboy. Look what that thang did to me! Gonna be big trouble now.”
Finn stayed well away but as Craig lifted his arms, he could see the ripped and bleeding hands.
“I need help, Foghorn!”
Finn shook his head, hating himself a little. “Who told you to do this?”
“All your fault, hillbilly,” Craig said. “‘puter s’posed to do this job. He made me do it, called me retard. He’s the retard.”
“Who did, Craig? You tell me right now or I’m going to swing you around by those hands, I swear to God.”
“Ain’t talking,” the man spat.
Finn walked over and slapped one of hands Craig was holding in front of him. The other man screamed and tried to scuttle backward. Finn wanted to throw up but gritted his teeth.
“Looks like you broke a leg too? That’s a shame. Well, since you’re not going anywhere, let’s play ourselves a game of Slaps. You know Slaps, right?”
Craig looked at Finn’s outstretched hands with horror. He pulled his ruined hands closer to his chest.
“You bastard,” he said in offended surprise. “That’s not fair!”
Finn stepped closer. Craig kicked with his unbroken leg, trying to push himself away.
“Gavin,” he screamed.
Finn stepped out of range of his kicking and sat down on his heels opposite the man. “All you had to say. Why?”
“Him and old goat-face, they got a secret plan. Big trouble plan.”
“What is it?”
“Craig,” Finn said warningly.
Finn stood up. “I’m going to get help and find Owen. You’re gonna tell him the same thing you told me.”
“Gonna be big trouble. Gonna get locked up.”
Finn looked down at the man. “I’d be happy to put a rope around your neck instead.”
Craig looked horrified again. “You are so mean!”
“I’ll come back and show you mean,” Finn growled to himself, walking back up the runway.
The flames were already beginning to die out. The outpost’s mechs were in use, water cannons in each hand throwing curtains of water. Then Finn heard another noise, higher pitched. He listened for another second and ran across the runway when he heard it again.
Something near him flashed white and a shockwave knocked Finn down. Feeling oddly detached, he watched something large and covered in flame tumble past overhead. He staggered to where the sound seemed to be coming from. One of the landing gear pylons had tumbled to a rest here, pieces of shredded wing marking its path. The fat double tire still spun lazily, upside down but otherwise untouched. Finn stopped listening hard. Then he heard it again, a voice. He began peering around the shredded wreckage, trying to locate it. He heard yelling, someone yelled his name but he ignored it, straining to hear. The other voice was closer but far weaker. Finn had began to work his way under the stub of the wing. There was barely enough light to see but as a spotlight moved over the wreckage, Finn realized he was nearly face to face with the woman he’d met the first day here, Elaine.
She looked like she’d been running and then hit by something. Her eyes were shut like she was sleeping but the deformation in the back of her head was obvious, even in the poor light. Elaine was lying half on her side, protectively curled around a small bundle of blankets. Then the bundle made the sad, pathetic noise again.
“Hello, Elaine,” Finn said quietly. “Lily made it through. I’m going to take her now”
“Hey, get that walker over here,” someone yelled from behind him. “I got survivors in the wreckage!”
He gently pulled the baby toward him and out of the shelter of Elaine’s body. Finn heard more shouting and felt the heavy thuds in his chest as mech was guided into place at the wreckage. Startled, the baby looked at him. She looked apprehensive but didn’t cry. Moving carefully, he tucked the baby against his chest.
Then, after kissing the tips of his fingers, Finn put them on Elaine’s forehead. “I’ve got her. I’ll keep Lily safe and find her people. Salt and smoke, sister. Journey well.”
“Medical in,” someone said as the strut was lifted away from them.
Finn was half lifted, half rolled onto a stretcher, keeping Lily against his chest. She still didn’t cry but made her feelings known by throwing up all over him. The stretcher was lifted onto the back of a quad and it began to move. The stretcher people jogged alongside it, holding them in place. Soon, they rolled up the ramp of a Pioneer ship
People were suddenly swarming around them.
“Injuries?” someone asked.
“Left her wrapped up, not acting like it,” Finn mumbled. “Her vomit really stinks though.”
“Okay, I can take her,” a woman said.
Finn didn’t let go. He looked for the voice and saw Yanna, one of Tyohac’s cousins. She was a medtech and recognized him after a second.
“Olontoya. Who is that?”
“Her name is Lily,” he said.
“I know Lily,” Yanna said, picking her up gently. “Hey girl. Looks like you’ve had an adventure.”
Yanna looked back at Finn, eyebrow raised.
“Elaine,” he said.
She closed her eyes for a moment and nodded before taking the baby somewhere.
The outpost had all but emptied as the colonists came down to help. Leah and Jak were just putting their sixth stretcher on a quad that would ferry it up the ramp to the hospital they’d set up in one of the Conestogas. From what she had seen, it didn’t seem like there were many people critically wounded. There were some serious cases, but they’d all gone in first. Their last passenger had been one of the Scouts with a dislocated shoulder and hip. Agonizing, but he’d make it.
Another quad pulled up and stopped. The knot in Leah’s chest loosened when she recognized Finn in the passenger seat. His face was covered in ash and blisters with blood all over his face. He looked at her vacantly.
“Probably need medical,” he mumbled.
Leah yelled for Marie. “What happened?” Leah asked. “You’re covered in blood.”
“Don’t think any of it is mine,” Finn mumbled. “Something blew up close, maybe concussion.”
The other woman came over and helped Leah get Finn out of the seat. His legs wobbled and they had to help him sit down.
“What got you?” Marie asked, checking Finn’s pupils.
“Blast wave,” he mumbled. “Bit the hell out of my tongue.”
“Double vision, or blurriness?”
“Oh yeah,” Finn agreed. “Head hurts like a bitch, hit ground hard. Lily okay?”
“She’s in medical,” Leah reminded him.
“Promised to get her to family,” he slurred.
“You don’t have to do every single thing yourself,” Leah said. “She’s in good hands.”
“You’ve got a nice gouge in your scalp, Finn. I’m going to give you a dose of happy fun-time and get your head stapled shut.”
He nodded, watching as she wiped his wrist and injected an ampoule. After a few seconds, his eyes widened.
“There we go,” Marie said, watching him.
“Giggle-shits. Thass Velve’ Hmmr,” Finn slurred. “No, gotta get shithead.”
“Enjoy the ride,” he heard Marie say and then everything turned sort of a pinkish color. Finn giggled and sagged back. Leah put a rolled up jacket under his head.
“Who’s Lily?” Marie asked.
“He was holding a baby when he came in, I think that’s her name.”
Marie looked at Finn’s scalp and clicked her tongue. “Must have been a piece of debris going by, looks almost burned. Are you going to be able to deal with his penchant for heroic behavior?”
“When you say ‘deal with,’ do you mean the nearly overwhelming urge to jump his bones?”
“Henry is going to be so jealous,” Marie laughed. “Let’s grab a quad and make another sweep down the far side of the runway.”
Finn opened his eyes and groaned softly.
“Good morning,” Addie said quietly. “Leah is coming.”
“Lock the door if she’s the one that beat me up.” Finn mumbled.
“You wouldn’t look this good,” Leah said, kneeling beside the bed. “Let’s see your head. Good. You’re doing a lot better.”
He struggled to sit up but immediately fell on his side. “Addie, why are we in a flat spin?”
“Sorry, Captain. I’m static.”
“That Craig whacko, he did this,” Finn said, holding his head. “I left him beside the runway. Hands are tore up.”
“You were asleep for almost eighteen hours,” Leah said. “We found him.”
“Owen needs to have a long talk with him.”
Leah rested her hand on his chest. “He’s not talking to anyone, Finn. Someone shot him in the head.”
“Dammit. He did this, pulled a cable up when the Conestoga was approach.”
She didn’t say anything, and he opened his eyes and squinted at her.
“Addie, drop lighting to fifteen percent,” Leah said.
“You don’t believe me?”
Leah looked into his eyes. “No, I believe you. The state of his body made that pretty clear.”
“He said Gavin ordered it but there were more Drabs involved. Dammit, I didn’t record it.”
Leah rested her hand on his chest. “That doesn’t surprise me. But Gavin is the new administrator, so I’m glad you didn’t get a record. Might not be so healthy right now.”
“Shit. What happened to waiting until Friday?”
Leah sighed. “Somehow Gavin found out the mapping crew was officially dead just a couple of hours after we met Owen.”
“How…predictable. How are things?”
“Quiet. He’s being held up as a compromise between the two groups. No one has seen Owen yet. Supposedly he’s been drunk in his house since the coup.”
“Well, they didn’t bother to vote,” Leah said. “Since the Drabs outnumbered everyone else, they didn’t think they needed to bother with the formality. They started last night, right about the time of the crash.”
“Just a coincidence, I’m sure,” Finn growled. “Casualties?”
Leah took a deep breath. “They were heavy. No one made it out of the incoming ship. It was named Sparrow’s Flame and carried ninety-three Pioneers. On the ground, thirty-eight more were killed. That includes Lars and Andrea and their Navvi. Her name was Bunjil.”
She laid down next to him and put her head down next to his.
“Finn, Tyohac and his wife were killed as well. Along with two of his lieutenants and their wives.”
“I wondered why I wasn’t hearing explosions and mayhem,” Finn said, voice starting to break.
“Yeah, he would’ve been epic right now,” she said, starting to cry. “I’m so, so, sorry.”
He didn’t say anything else, just closed his eyes and let the tears run down his cheeks. Leah cried silently next to him and Finn carefully put his arm around her.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” she sniffled.
“I’m just a little sore.”
“Liar,” she said but put her head on his arm.
“Addie, I am sad about Bunjil,” Finn said. “Did you know each other?”
“We were creche-mates,” Addie said, her voice sad but calm. “Bunjil was a member of the discovery surveys for three new habitable systems. One of those contained a new sapient race. She was most proud of that part, one of the new Others was introduced to her. Bunjil made eighty-six gate transits, carried forty-three individuals from six races of people. Bunjil was my first friend and she was my last living creche-mate. Bunjil’s service life has ended. She has triumphed and we all carry her with us.”
Finn reached out and put his other hand against the biosensor and Addie pulsed back at him. Suddenly he remembered.
“Wait, what about that baby?”
“Shh. Lily is fine. Between her mom and you, she didn’t have a scratch. She’s staying with Henry and Marie while the Ta’avi sort themselves out.”
“Anyone know who her father was?”
“Tyohac’s senior lieutenant. It’s okay, Henry turns out to be very good with kids. She’s fine and Chief Indrid from Third Sparrow is going to request the records to figure out who and where the rest of her family are.”
“Has there been any kind of formal communication from the new ‘Administration?'”
“Gavin has assured the Utopians that nothing will change. He thanked the Scouts and Pioneers both for their service and asked that they continue helping the outpost.”
“Does anyone believe him?”
Leah shrugged. “Other than giving Kai a sitrep, I’ve been staying close.”
He bent his head slowly and kissed the top of her head. “Thank you.”
The next morning, Finn was able to sit up and move around. As soon as he could get washed and dressed without falling over, he was outside. Addie had come up with excuses not to open any of the hatches, stalling until Leah promised to stay with him. Looking around, he realized that he’d forgotten that the ships had relocated. Whether it was the cleanup or some other, more abstract reason, the Scout ships and Pioneer Conestogas had moved to the end of the runway furthest from the outpost. The remaining Conestogas were lined up along the one edge of the runway. The Scouts occupied the other.
There were a few Ta’avi working around their ships. Directly across from Addie, there was an open-air classroom of children up to the age of teenagers. They were much more subdued than they’d been yesterday. One maintenance crew was patching a hull, another one was repairing equipment at the end of the row. Even that sounded quieter than usual.
“Are you ready to go over?” Leah asked.
Finn shook his head. “They don’t talk about the dead until after sunset and it looks like most people are at work.”
“That seems pretty harsh,” Leah said. “Don’t they need time to grieve?”
“Of course. But you don’t talk about the dead while the sun is up.”
“That seems kind of creepy.”
“I said the same thing to Ty once. But it’s a typically pragmatic Ta’avi thing. They come from a nomadic culture, the Wind Folk. It was starting to change but lots of Ty’s family were still Wind Folk, his dad grew up that way. From what he told me, the animals they rode were only slightly less deadly than the herds they followed. One of the first, most important things they learn is to pay very close attention to their task. When the day is over, when you’re back in camp and together, that’s the time to remember the dead as they deserve to be remembered.”
“You know a lot about them,” Leah said.
“When Tyohac found out that I was on my own at Echo he bullied me into coming for dinner one weekend. He promised it was just some family. I got set up, it was most of the Flame Bridge clan.”
She smiled. “What was it like?”
“Terrifying loud and chaotic and I really enjoyed it. Pretty different than anything I was used to. I ended up renting a room from one of his cousins or something. It became home very quickly. When the Defense began, I was quickly adopted into Flame Bridge. There’s a journey to their afterlife and Tyohac told them that I was too dumb to make it on my own.”
“After dark then,” she said.
“After dark. And we should get word to Lakshmi that we’re okay. They’re probably wondering what’s going on. How do we do that?”
“We do not,” Leah said. “However, I am going to go on a hike with Marie up to the edge of the forest.”
Finn looked at her, then looked at the distant forest. “It was most of an hour by quad from the Outpost, which is hell-and-gone that way. And it’s hotter than hell in the sun.”
Leah nodded, looking over his shoulder. He turned to see who she was nodding at but there wasn’t anything there.
“Do you see that?” she asked.
Finn turned, wondering what she was talking about. There were the Connies, and a short slope up to the forest, about a quarter of a mile away. He started to turn but stopped when he realized. The forest.
“Ah. Did you know there’s forest all around us?”
Leah kissed his cheek. “I did. Your face is awfully red suddenly.”
“Must be the heat. Do you think there’s any Runners at this end?”
Leah took his arm. “If there aren’t, I’m sure they’ll be waiting when they notice the two of us moving up toward the trees. I’m starting to worry that this enforced rest will make your head explode. Did you never learn to sit still?”
“I wish I could go,” Finn said, looking at the trees again. “When are you heading out there?”
“There’s Marie, so I guess pretty much now.”
“I won’t say ‘be careful.’ How about come back to me?”
“I like that very much,” she said and kissed him as Marie arrived.
“You stay in that chair until I’m back,” Leah said. “You really need to rest more, you are still injured.”
Finn yawned. “You know, maybe I’ll just go back to bed.”
“Actually, Henry is coming to visit you,” Marie said.
Finn’s yawn turned into a sigh and he nodded. Leah grinned at the look on his face.
“You’re so busted. And you apologize to poor Addie,” she said. “You grouched at her all morning.”
Finn watched them jog down the runway.
“You know I wasn’t upset with you, right?” he said.
“I know,” Addie said from above him. “It’s just fun watching Leah chew you out.”
Finn chuckled but his chest moving made him wince.
“You said there’s a trick to call them?” Marie asked.
The two of them were making a long loop, the back end of which would take them to the edge of the forest.
“There’s a little plant, I’ll show you one when we’re closer. It’s got little vines and you can snap one off easily. It’s kind of oily and burns easily. Lakshmi said that the A’nek can smell it a long way off. But I’m guessing that we won’t need it. They’ve been watching the outpost, I’m sure they’re wondering what happened.”
After that, the two of them saved their breath. It was already uncomfortably warm, and the humidity made it feel like they were wearing damp blankets. They ran up the steep slope and paused at the top to catch their breath. They walked along the edge of the tree roots. The mat wasn’t as tall here as it was on the other side of the outpost. It looked like it was possible to simply jump up in several places and Marie nodded at one spot. Leah shook her head slightly and kept looking.
“Are you going somewhere specific?” Marie asked.
“That greenish moss stuff in there is insanely slippery. This looks clear, I’ll boost you up.”
The place Leah had chosen was a sort of saddle, formed by roots dipping into the ground from different directions. The lip was roughly four meters above the ground they stood on. Leah stopped and knelt as Marie paced off a distance before turning to face her. Leah glanced around and then nodded at Marie. The other woman sprinted toward her and Leah laced her fingers together into a step. Marie’s foot landed in her hands and Leah lifted hard as she stood up, propelling the other woman up into the saddle of roots.
Marie landed in a crouch and immediately dropped onto her stomach. She reached down as Leah jumped. Marie grabbed Leah’s outstretched hand and pulled her up. Both women stayed low, working their way past an immense trunk. When they reached the shade, both women straightened up.
“How beautiful,” Marie breathed, looking around her.
“I missed this,” Leah said.
She didn’t see any big difference between the place they entered and the path they’d followed into the forest on the far side of the clearing. Massive tree trunks coming out of the roots shrouded by the dim light filtering down and the constantly swirling mist. She looked up but couldn’t see if anyone was looking back.
“I am a friend to the Deep Runners through Lakshmi at the Waters Leap Meeting,” Leah said loudly. “I am here with a message to Eldest.”
“We are here,” a voice said from above them. “Lakshmi has gone. She returned to the Meeting to report the flames and loud noises in the darkness.”
Marie and Leah noticed movement as the Anek descended headfirst down the rough surface of the tree. The memory of being carried like that made Leah’s stomach uneasy. The Anek stopped a few meters above them. Her head bobbed slightly as she examined them.
“My name for your mouths is Reed,” the Anek said. “Which one are you?”
“I am Leah Jones. Beside me is Marie Lemaitre-Cassies. She is my clan sister.”
“What has become of the Finnegan Morgan?”
“He was injured during the explosions and fire last night. One of the devices we ride from the sky was interfered with as it landed. This thing destroyed it and the people it carried.”
“May the hoom guide them to peaceful path. Will the Finnegan Morgan heal?”
“He needs some rest, but he’ll recover,” Marie said.
“I rejoice at your words. What caused this event?'”
Leah had hoped she wouldn’t have to try to explain this part. “Some of the sky-people are very angry. The anger led them to cause the accident.”
The A’nek quickly retreated backwards up the trunk. “This wasteland cursed the Othrephis before. Now the sky-people have begun the rage-sickness?”
Leah put both her hands up. “This is not the same. These people came here with their rage-sickness hidden.”
“Or perhaps the sight of open skies affects your minds. Were many sky-people killed?”
“Yes. Those with the rage-sickness have used the fires to take control of the human meeting. This is why I must get a message to Eldest.”
“Yes, we will take your words to her immediately, as we have promised.”
“I recommend that the A’nek should stay hidden from sky-people until we know more about the new leaders. They are deeply sick, they have left the path shared by the sky-people. I do not believe they will not respect the path of the Anek.”
“I will go to Eldest.” Without another word, the Anek ran up the trunk of the tree and disappeared.
“They’re kind of literal minded,” Leah said to Marie.
“They are magnificent people,” Marie said. “When you said they spoke human languages, I had no idea they would be so fluent.”
Leah chuckled. “Eldest teased Finn about our language being so simple.”
When the women returned to the line of Scout ships, Henry, Kai, and Finn were sitting on folding chairs under Addie’s wing. Finn had Lily, who was standing on his legs. Her fists were tight in his hair. When she saw them, she gabbled happily and Finn winced as she tightened her grip, bouncing on her toes.
“That isn’t how to make them tear out their hair,” Leah laughed, taking picking her up.
The child reached back for Finn until she realized who was holding her. Then she went back to spouting delighted gibberish, waving her chubby fists.
“You found them?” Finn asked, rubbing his head.
“One of the Runners must have seen us,” Leah said. “They were overhead when I called. Word is being sent to Eldest.”
Henry pulled a couple more chairs over and the women sat down. Lily immediately stood up on Leah’s legs, using her head as handholds. Finn rolled his eyes when he saw that Lily hadn’t grabbed Leah’s hair.
“Do you know what she meant by ‘rage-sickness?'” Marie asked.
Leah nodded at Finn. “This one and Eldest were constantly talking. I was getting a little jealous.”
Finn rolled his eyes. “Marie, the Anek are symbiotes with another species they call Orthrephis. Eldest didn’t get into details about it and didn’t want to talk about it. Diplomacy is going to be interesting with them, you’re both very aware how the other person is feeling. Anyway, these Orthrephis are mostly hairless primates. They’re evidently capable of limited speech, although the individual I saw was too excited or upset to do anything except dash around on the ceiling. They wear clothes but I’m not sure if that’s them or the A’nek.
“At some point in the past, there was an event the A’nek call the ‘Screaming Sky.’ From the description, it sounds like maybe an asteroid impact. It created the open area here, that’s why they call this the Screaming Waste. For whatever reason, the impact unhinged the majority of the Orthrephis. Eldest called it the ‘rage-sickness.’ They began attacking both the A’nek and any Othrephis found near them. The A’nek abhor killing but were finally forced to wipe out or drive away the affected individuals. Eldest was very concerned that staying here will give us the rage-sickness next.”
“Perhaps it has,” Henry said.
Finn shrugged. “We’ve been killing each other off forever. I don’t think we can blame it on anything here.
“Who is this?” Leah asked, shading her eyes and looking down the runway.
There was a group of Neo-Puritans walking down the runway. A few of them were carrying what looked like long bars or staves.
“Again,” Henry said. “They first arrived before sunrise today. They vowed to end the Sunrise Greeting. But none of the Ta’avi appeared so they looked like a bunch of little shitheads. Too bad, so sad.”
“They’re in mourning,” Finn said. “There’s no Greeting until the pyres are lit.”
“Another group came later,” Marie said. “They said they had come to escort the workers to the outpost.”
“Yes. One wonders if the workers will be allowed to return home at the end of the day,” Henry said quietly. “Or perhaps we shall be press-ganged.”
The four of them were silent as the group got closer.
The group stopped a few meters from the ship. There were five of them, three carrying the long metal poles. Strangely, there were strips of gauze or something at one end, and a round steel ball at the other.
“Blessed Afternoon,” the leader said, coming over to where the group sat.
“If you say so,” Finn said, voice neutral.
The young man mopped his face with a piece of cloth. “We saw you four waiting here and thought you might require an escort to your day’s work.”
“And what is your daily work?” the other one not carrying a stave asked.
He was dressed in the same black and gray as the others but his collar was tightly fastened in spite of the heat. Looking at him, the first thing to cross Finn’s mind was “Political Officer.”
“Why is our day any of your concern?” Marie asked.
“Ah, perhaps a bit more softly, Brother Terry,” the first one said. “Friends, during the emergency, Brother Gavin has asked that all able-bodied workers lend a hand to return Zion to its former glory. I’m sure you understand.”
“Interesting,” Finn said, getting up. “Because I didn’t see any of you here two nights ago. You know, when there was a real emergency in progress. And this outpost is named Erewhon.”
“Our new Administrator will soon produce new accords,” the Political Officer said. “The first act will be to return this colony to its original and proper name. Now, I will ask you once more; what are your primary and secondary specialties?”
“You don’t have the authority to know,” Henry said, getting up as well. “It’s terribly hot in the sun, perhaps you should go elsewhere and let your brain cool down.”
The leader glanced at Political Officer. He nodded and without another word, they turned and began the long walk to the outpost.
“They want our specialties?” Marie said, once they were far enough away. “It sounds as though someone knows a little about the Scouts and is making a list. Only rarely is that a pleasant thing.”
“Since our records are in the admin computer, we know that Owen didn’t give them passwords,” Henry added. “I do not think that there has been a peaceful transition of power.”
Marie nodded, looking even more worried. “Which means there is an insurrection here. Henry, we need to speak to everyone.”
When the social engineers of the Project had modeled human society, it became clear that conflict wasn’t just a possibility, it was an inevitability. The men and women that created the Colonial Fleet had considered this while the branches were organized into being, particularly the Scouts and Pioneers as they would have more contact with colonists than the Colonial Guard or Fleet crews would.
Since habitable planet finds weren’t common, both the Scouts and their Pioneer brethren spent most of their time in already established colonies and smaller outposts. It wasn’t exactly common to see a Fleet Scout, unless you happened to be part of a project the Scouts were helping with. They could be chemists, engineers, construction managers, anything really. If there was a skill, there were Scouts that could help with it.
They didn’t stand out at first glance, very few of them wore more than an article or two of their uniform at a time. But then people noticed that even though those items were casually worn, their wearers were proud of them. Otherwise, until you talked to them, they looked like everyone else.
But when they opened their mouths, it got obvious quickly. If they weren’t careful, Scouts could get far too intense for most people. They always seemed to be talking about some facet of work and had a constant puppy-like curiosity about everything as well. Most people thought they were related to the Boy Scouts back on Earth, not scouts in the older sense of the word.
What none of the Scouts ever mentioned was that they were educated in three fields, not two. Their third specialization was never discussed with outsiders and was always combat related. In the event of conflict, which was most likely civil unrest, the Scouts were expected to assess and correct the situation. The best possible outcome was a negotiation between the factions. The worst-case scenario was their direct involvement in the conflict. Choosing the correct faction to help was left to the local commander. It had given more than one Scout sleepless nights, including Finn. One of his advanced flight students had been his instructor in applied social theory. They formed a mutual admiration society that consisted of terrorizing each other as teacher and student.
He figured this one was black and white, even if Fleet hadn’t been a target. After Marie and Henry went to spread the word, Finn went inside the ship with Leah and helped her get Addie set up for a change in mission. Or tried to. He couldn’t do much, but Leah was careful not to notice until he over-extended his reach and she heard the gasp of pain. Then he was banned from the flight deck and Addie promised to lock him in berthing if Finn tried to get out of bed. He protested but surrendered as quickly as honor would allow. He was quickly asleep.