While Leah was jamming her legs into work pants and boots, Addie waited her turn in the forming line of Scout ships. The Navigator Intelligence aboard each Scout automatically reacted to the disaster, first by getting themselves out of danger, and then gathering far away enough to not be in the way of rescue but still close enough to provide support.
Leah pulled a t-shirt over her head and headed for the hatch. “Addie, drop the dorsal medical pack.”
“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. “Everything is going to be fine. Don’t bother with the stairs, I’ll jump down.”
Once she was on the ground, Leah under the fuselage. A large medical kit designed as a backpack was lowered and she grabbed it.
“And I don’t have a fix on Captain Finn,” Addie said from above her.
“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 recognized Marie.
“We are forming the muster here,” the older woman said. “Are you carrying a marker wand?”
Leah turned, giving Marie access to the pack. 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.
Marie nodded and Leah triggered the anchoring charge. The pole jumped in their hands and at the same time, there was a thump felt through the soles of their boots. They let go of the marker wand and it automatically straightened itself slightly, using the anchor the shaped charge had just driven into the ground.
“That always scares me,” Marie said, helping Leah take the pack off.
“The first time I used one, I set it off a few inches over bedrock,” Leah said. “The noise was impressive. Aid station here as well?”
“I think yes, now that Henry has brought our pack as well.”
He had jogged out of the darkness, carrying the same heavy pack as Leah. They helped him take it off as Henry caught his breath.
“Finn is headed down the runway,” he panted. “Searching for anyone from the ship.”
“Direct hit?” Leah asked, kneeling to tie her boots.
Henry nodded, opening his medical pack. “That great big Ta’avi guy was in the front of the welcome party. A large piece of the ship landed directly on top of them as it exploded.”
“Mercy Guide,” Leah said quietly.
One of the Ta’avi Pioneers was running past from the direction of the outpost and he stopped beside the flashing beacon. “Can’t find my crew, you need help here?”
Marie looked up from the supplies she was unpacking. “Yes, thank you.”
“That’s Marie and Henry. I’m Leah, Fleet ops. You?”
“Jak, Flamebridge clan, I do bonding and demo,” he said. “Got stretchers ready?”
Marie was already rolling out a flexible sheet of plastic. It jumped slightly as the engineered plastic “remembered” its shape.
“Put casualties here on the runway side. 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 much darker around him. On the ground, he saw a deep gouge in the plastcrete that ran back into the darkness. Finn followed it back to where it began.
“That’s the first impact,” he muttered.
He began to jog back toward the flames but immediately he caught his toe, sending him sprawling.
Finn swore, looking for whatever he’d tripped over. He got up as he saw it, a cable snaking across the runway and disappearing into the darkness. Thirty meters later, the end of the cable was secured to a heavy plastcrete post. It been torn out of the ground.
Finn looked around, shaking his head. The pilot would have seen the cable on his screens. Even the crappy AIs the Conestogas used should have pulled the stick back automatically.
Finn walked back along the runway and found the other post, still set into the dirt beside the runway. The friction of the running cable had burnt through the hole they’d strung it through. Finn closed his eyes, smelling the hot plastic and burnt limestone. They had done on purpose, a cold-blooded murder of a ship full of innocent people. Someone had come down here while the ship was on approach. They’d come down and pulled the heavy cable taut as the Connie was just landing, too late for an AI’s intervention even. The steel cable must have wrapped around one of the landing gear struts.
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. He had seen an engine bouncing through the party, where the crowd…but he couldn’t think about that yet.
The Connie had been coming in heavy, too heavy to fire the anti-grav which meant a standard aircraft landing, probably around 200 knots. That fast, it wouldn’t matter what the cable had 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 done quickly, attached to a quad maybe. Dragging it by hand would have been suicidal. The same with being anywhere near the cable as it snagged and was yanked out by the doomed ship. They had to have…
“Fog…Foghorn,” a voice croaked from the darkness.
Finn walked over, feeling the fury building. They hadn’t needed anything fancy, just someone too damaged to comprehend what he was doing.
“Foghorn sounding hillbilly,” the man said. “Help me.”
“Craig. No one told you what would happen when you pulled that rope, did they?”
“They said it was for a funny! All Drab 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 in the light of the burning ship.
“Go get me help, Foghorn!”
Finn shook his head, hating himself a little. “First you tell me why you did this.”
“Your fault anyway, hillbilly,” Craig said. “‘puter s’posed to make this joke. But you broke it and he made me do it, called me retard. He’s the retard.”
Finn clenched his fists, holding back the growing urge to use them “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 stepped closer. Craig screamed and tried to scuttle backward. Finn wanted to throw up but gritted his teeth against it. Craig was trying to push himself with one leg. The other was bent at an odd angle.
“Looks like you broke a leg and that’s a shame,” Finn said. “Since you’re not going anywhere, let’s play ourselves a game of Slaps. You know Slaps, right? Hold out your hands, palm down.”
Craig looked at Finn’s outstretched hands with horror. He pulled his own ruined pair closer to his chest.
“You bastard,” he said in offended surprise. “That’s not right!”
Finn stepped closer. Craig kicked frantically with his unbroken leg, trying to push himself away. Finn just watched, expressionless. He wondered if he’d throw up if he had to directly hurt the man.
“This hurts, Foghorn!” Craig screamed.
“Well, all you gotta do is tell me.”
The broken leg shifted as Craig managed to move slightly. The new pain made him fall back on the ground, crying.
“It was Gavin,” he sobbed. “Shithead Gavin! He didn’t tell me it would hurt so bad!”
Finn sat down on his heels next to the man. “Stop flopping around and lay still, you’re making it worse. Why did Gavin want you to do this?”
“Him and old goat-face, they got a secret plan. Big trouble plan.”
“Craig,” Finn said warningly.
Finn stood up. “Okay, you just stay there. I’m going to go get you some help. Then you’re gonna tell Owen the same thing you told me.”
“Aww, that’s gonna be big trouble. He’s gonna lock me up.”
“You killed good people here, so I’d be happy to put a noose around your neck instead. Your choice.”
Craig looked at him, horrified. “You are so mean!”
“Stay put,” Finn said and walked back up the runway. “You want mean, I’ll show you mean,” he growled to himself.
Most of the flames had already burnt themselves out. One of the Ta’avi mechs had joined the rescue, a water cannon in each hand throwing curtains of water on anything still burning. Over the yelling, Finn heard another noise, it sounded like someone crying.
Ahead of him, one of the landing gear was upside down, resting on the chunk of wing in had torn free. The fat double tires were untouched and rotating lazily above him. Finn looked under the chunk of wing and saw that it had plowed a path across the ground and was now resting half on the pile of soil it had gouged out. Finn bent closer, trying to hear. He caught the faint sound again and dropped to his stomach, wiggling his way between the raw dirt and skin of the upper wing.
“Hello?” he yelled.
It was too dark to see very well under here but a mech’s lights swept over the area. Finn recognized the woman he’d seen at the first Sun Greeting, Elaine. She was curled up on her side, eyes shut like she was sleeping but the deformation to the back of her head told a different story. The little bundle she was curled around made a sad, pathetic noise.
“Remember me, Elaine?” Finn said quietly. “We met at morning song and you probably didn’t know but I was adopted into the Wind Folk just like you. I’m sorry you didn’t make it, but your daughter is okay. You saved her but now you’ve got the long journey to make. I’ll take Lily and find where she belongs and take her there myself.”
“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 through his chest as a mech was guided into place at the wreckage. The baby’s head emerged from a fold of cloth looking startled. Finn tried to make comforting sounds as he pulled her toward him. She looked apprehensive but didn’t cry. Moving carefully, he tucked the baby against his chest.
Finn touched Elaine’s forehead with the tips of his fingers. “I’ve got her. I’ll keep Lily safe and find her people. Remember the salt and smoke, sister. Journey well.”
“Medical in,” someone said as the tangle 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 managed to express her feelings 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 to the ramp of a Pioneer ship and people swarmed out to meet them.
“Injuries?” someone asked.
“Left her wrapped up but she’s not acting like it,” Finn replied. “Her vomit really stinks though.”
“Okay, I can take her,” a woman’s voice said.
Finn didn’t say anything, just kept Lily against his chest. The woman bent closer and he recognized Yanna, one of Tyohac’s clan. She recognized him as well.
“Olontoya. Who is this that you’re holding?”
“Her name is Lily,” he said.
“Oh, I know Lily,” Yanna said, taking the bundle gently. “Hey there little girl. Looks like you’re having quite the adventure tonight.”
Holding the baby to her shoulder, Yanna looked back at Finn, eyebrow raised.
“Elaine,” he said.
She closed her eyes for a moment. “Then they’re both gone.”
She touched his shoulder and took Lily deeper into the makeshift hospital.
“Aren’t you injured?” another medtech asked, poking at him. “We need that stretcher.”
Finn sat up and hopped off. “All yours.”
The medtech muttered something unpleasant and Finn went off to find a medkit for Craig.
There were more people now as the outpost residents flooded out to help, or just watch. Medical supplies in hand, Finn walked back down the runway to collect his witness. Most of the fire on the small pieces of ship had died out but there were still flames jetting out of the main wreckage. While he’d been finding Lily, the powered walkers from the outpost had arrived. They trailed firehoses and water nozzles had been clamped all over the frame. Spraying water everywhere, they looked like ambulatory water parks more than anything. Finn detoured around them and jogged down the runway.
As he passed what appeared to be the remains of an engine, he noticed a high-pitched whistle that seemed to be getting louder. Finn’s jog turned into a sprint as he ran away from the noise. There was a flash of white from behind him. Finn felt the palm of a giant slap him in the back and he was thrown across the runway.
Leah and Jak were just putting their sixth stretcher on a quad. It slowly began to roll toward the ramp of the Connie where they’d set up the hospital. They walked along, keeping the stretcher steady as they went.
From what she saw, it didn’t seem like an accident with a lot of critical injuries. Either you were on the periphery of the disaster or you were…just gone. The hospital people took charge of the last casualty and Leah headed back to the rally point. She was helping Marie clean up the trash when someone with a soot covered face jogged up.
“A guy got knocked down pretty good by that last explosion,” he told them. “Keeps trying to wander off on his own. I don’t have enough help to have them bring him here though.”
“We will come to him,” Marie said. She picked up one of the unopened medkits and followed the man back down the runway.
A mech and fire crew were battling an intense fire that had erupted from a twisted and blackened piece of ship. The man pointed toward a quad buggy and Leah saw a man half laying against one of the tires. One of the workers was sitting on his heels next to the man, watching him.
“We’re medical,” Leah said as they arrived.
“Good luck with this stubborn bugger then,” the man said, standing up.
Leah and Marie knelt down and he ran off to get back to work. Leah’s heart leapt into her throat when she recognized Finn. His face was covered in blood and he looked well singed. Marie called his name and he tried to focus on them.
“Don’ wan medical,” he mumbled. “Gotta get shi’head.”
“Well, you’ve ruined that shirt,” Leah said, helping Marie to lay him down.
He looked down to survey the damage and mumbled something they didn’t understand.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” Marie asked, checking Finn’s pupils.
“Blas’ I ‘hink. Bi’ hell out of my ‘ongue.”
“Double vision, or blurriness?” Marie asked as she examined him.
“Oh, uh huh,” Finn agreed. “Head hur’s, ground hard.”
“Yes, you have a large wound on your scalp,” Marie said. “Leah, we can deal with this here. I don’t see anything else urgent.”
“Sure,” Leah said. “What do I need to do?”
“Sit down and put his head on your leg so I can see better,” Marie said. “Finn. I will give you something for pain before I put staples in your head.”
He didn’t respond, just watched as she wiped his wrist clean and injected an ampoule. After a few seconds, his eyes widened.
“Ah, he is feeling it now,” Marie said, watching him.
“Thass Velve’ Hmmr,” Finn slurred. “No, gotta get shi’head.”
“Enjoy your nap,” he heard Marie say and then everything turned sort of a pinkish color. Finn’s head lolled and he actually giggled. Leah chuckled and held him steady as Marie got to work.
Marie clipped the hair away and clicked her tongue. “Very messy, he’ll have a scar to remember this by.”
“Chicks dig scars,” Leah said.
Marie chuckled, swabbing the area. “How will you cope with his penchant for heroism?”
“When you say ‘cope,’ do you mean this nearly overwhelming urge to jump his bones?”
Marie grinned. “As long as you have considered it. Press here and here, and I will put the first staple in…”
Finn opened his eyes. Above him was the familiar overhead he saw all the time. Then he felt the headache and groaned softly.
“Hello Captain Finn,” Addie said quietly. “Leah is coming.”
“Lock the door if she’s the one that beat me up.” Finn mumbled.
“You’d look worse,” Leah said, kneeling beside the bed. “How are you feeling?”
“Sorry, Captain. I’m static.”
“Oh crap, I forgot,” Finn said. “That Craig guy pulled a cable across the runway. I left him out there, his hands are all torn up and he broke a leg.”
“Finn, you’ve been out for almost eighteen hours,” Leah said. “They found him.”
“Then he needs to talk to Owen. Gavin Sinclair put him up to this.”
“He’s not talking to anyone, Finn. Someone shot him in the back of the head with a shotgun slug.”
“What? They killed him? Goddammit, he confessed.”
She didn’t say anything, and he opened his eyes and squinted at her.
“Addie, drop lighting to fifteen percent,” Leah said.
Finn sighed. “You don’t believe me.”
“No, I completely believe you, I saw the body. What did he say?”
“That Gavin talked him into doing this. Along with the neo-puritans and someone he called goat-face or something. There was some secret plan. Dammit, I should have recorded him.”
“I don’t think their plan is a secret anymore,” Leah said. “The neos have taken over the outpost and Gavin was named the new administrator. A recorded confession wouldn’t be a healthy thing to have right now.”
He sighed. “No, I guess not. Wait, wasn’t Owen going to wait a few days?”
Leah sighed. “Yes. But Gavin found out the mapping crew was dead the same day we met with Owen.”
“Maya. How…predictable. How are things around the outpost?”
“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 said it was just a formality. They made their move right after the ship was destroyed.”
Finn closed his eyes. “That ship didn’t have anything to do with their bullshit. They were coming to help this place and those assholes murdered them instead. How bad was it?
Leah sat down next to him. “It’s bad. No one made it out of Sparrow’s Flame. Ninety-three, all Ta’avi Pioneers. On the ground, thirty-eight more. Two Scouts, Lars and Andrea, along with Bunjil, their ship. The rest were Pioneers. Again, mostly Ta’avi.”
“Tyohac must be going apeshit right now.”
She sighed and laid down and put her head down next to his.
“Tyohac and his wife were killed and most of the dead are from his ship. They were right by the runway waiting for the Sparrow’s Flame.”
“That explains the lack of explosions and mayhem,” Finn said, voice starting to break.
“Yeah, he would’ve been epic,” she said. “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 put his arm around her.
“Lie still,” she sniffled. “You had a bad concussion, probably when you split your head got split open. You have three cracked ribs as well.”
“I’m fine, just a little sore.”
“Liar,” she said but put her head on his arm.
“Addie, I am so sorry for Bunjil,” he said. “Did you know each other?”
“We knew each other very well, we were born into the same creche,” Addie said. Her voice was sad. “Bunjil lived her life well. She was a member of the initial reconnaissance of three new systems. One of them contained a previously unknow sapient race. She was very proud of that. Bunjil was also introduced to the ambassador of a new member of the Commonwealth and took him on a short voyage. Bunjil made eighty-six gate transits, carried forty-three individuals from six different races of people. She was my first friend, and she was my last living creche-mate. Now Bunjil’s life has ended and we will all carry her memory with us.”
Finn reached out and put his other hand against the biosensor and Addie pulsed back at him. Suddenly he remembered something else.
“Wait, there was a baby.”
“Her name is Lily and she’s 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. Henry is very good with children. She’s taken care of and when things calm down, the other ships will request the records to figure out who and where the rest of her family are.”
“I’m glad. 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 that?”
Leah shrugged. “I’ve been staying close, keeping an eye on my partner.”
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 trying to get 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. Everything had moved to the end of the runway furthest from the outpost. The remaining Connies were lined up along the one edge of the runway. The Scout ships were grouped on the opposite side.
There were a few Ta’avi working around their ships. Directly across from Addie, there was an open-air classroom. 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.
“Do you want 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.”
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.”
“Oh. 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 in the saddle. 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, I think. It became more of a home than I’ve had in a while. Then, the Defense began and Tyohac told me I had to be adopted into Flame Bridge clan. There’s a journey in their afterlife and Tyohac told me 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,” Leah said. “You stay in that chair until I’m back. You need to take it easy for a while.”
“Yes, you do,” Marie said.
She fussed around with his scalp and Finn endured it without grumbling.
“”You are healing well,” Marie announced. “But you must rest more.”
Finn yawned. “You know, maybe I’ll just go back to bed.”
“Henry is coming to visit you,” Marie said. “I’ll tell him to check your bunk if you’re not out here.”
Finn’s fake yawn turned into a sigh and he nodded glumly. 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. I’ll tell Lakshmi that you wanted to said hi.”
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 A’nek descended headfirst down the rough surface of the tree. The memory of being carried like that made Leah’s stomach uneasy. The A’nek stopped a few meters above them. Her head bobbed slightly as she examined them.
“My name for your mouths is Reed,” the A’nek 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 will 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 A’nek.”
“I will go to Eldest.” Without another word, the A’nek 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 A’nek 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, you’re both very aware of each other’s feelings.
“Anyway, these Orthrephis are mostly hairless and resemble Terran 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 their idea or the A’nek’s.
“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 these Orthrephis. Eldest called it the ‘rage-sickness.’ They began attacking both the A’nek and other Othrephis with 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 slightly. “We’ve been killing each other off forever. I don’t think we can blame it on anything here.”
“Uhm, what 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 sighed. “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.”
“They came back again later,” Marie said. “They said it was to escort the workers to the outpost.”
“One wonders if the workers will be allowed to return home at the end of the day,” Henry said quietly. “Perhaps it is now our turn to be press-ganged.”
The four of them were silent as the group got closer and stopped a few meters away from the ship. There were five of them, three carrying the long metal poles. For some reason, there were strips of gauzy material at one end, and a round steel ball at the other.
“Blessed Afternoon, brothers and sisters,” one of them said, coming over to where the group was sitting.
“If you say so,” Leah said, voice neutral.
The young man mopped his face with a piece of cloth. “It’s a warm day, isn’t it? When we saw you four sitting idle, we thought you might be waiting for your escort to the day’s work.”
“Which is what?” another one that wasn’t carrying a a stave asked.
He was dressed in the same black and gray as the others, but his collar was tightly fastened despite the heat. Looking at him, the first thing to cross Finn’s mind was “Political Officer.”
“Why is our day, or our work, 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.”
“I didn’t see any of you here two nights ago,” Finn said. “You know, when there was a real emergency here. 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. “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 slowly, looking worried. “More evidence that an insurrection has begun here. Henry, we need to spread the word 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 they looked like everyone else.
But when they opened their mouths, it was obvious. If they weren’t careful, Scouts could get far too intense for most people. They always seemed to be talking about some new discovery and had a constant puppy-like curiosity about everything as well. Their attitude made most people think they were related to the Boy Scouts, not scouts in the older sense of the word.
What none of the Scouts ever mentioned was that they specialized in three fields, not two. Their third specialization was combat related and never openly discussed. The causes of conflict in the colonies was judged to be 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 candidate sleepless nights, including Finn.
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.
Addie woke Finn up a half hour before sundown. He slowly sat up and tried to keep the groan to a minimum. He’d already explained to Leah that he shouldn’t talk until they were done talking to the spirits of the dead. The Ta’avi believed that the afterlife was a long journey. When they died, the clan would all tell them the direction to travel in.
When he was on his feet, Finn saw that Leah had gotten up as well. Wordlessly, she helped him shower and then get into clean clothes. She helped him to the door and then gently put her forehead against his. Finn cupped her face for a moment and then worked his way down to the ground.
Walking across the runway, Finn did his best to stand up straight. He managed it without too much pain but had to walk much slower than normal. He edged carefully past a cargo container that had been pressed into service as a wall between the front of one Conestoga and the back of another. Three more had been arranged to create the ritual space that the Ta’avi called the Paddock. There were four torches in the corners that casting a dim light over the area. Despite the lack of light, Yanna and her sister Bethel immediately noticed him and came to meet him.
“Salt and smoke, Olontoya, newest brother,” Yanna whispered. “The sun is gone and now we will mourn our loss.”
“Salt and smoke, wiser sisters,” Finn replied. “This is the true way of the Folk.”
The greeting ritual completed, Yanna and Bethel stood on either side of him wrapping their arms around his waist.
“You should not have tried to walk on your own,” Bethel whisper-scolded.
“But you should have come to the hospital last night,” Yanna added, somehow making her whisper acerbic. “That is something we will discuss later. For now, we have a place where you can sit and we will take you there.”
“Thank you, but I’m okay,” Finn said quietly. “I want to stand with everyone else.”
Yanna glared at him. “Want? Babies want. You will sit where I put you to sit.”
Finn was at least five years older than either woman, but when it came to his Ta’avi clan, both women were far senior to him. More than that, he recognized the dangerous glint in Yanna’s eye and didn’t say anything else.
They put him on a tall bench and Yanna stood next to him. She frowned when Finn managed to half lean and half stand, but she didn’t say anything. No one else seemed to notice the bench, or they were too polite to admit it. He saw the other walking wounded people propped up, so he didn’t feel too conspicuous.
The Ta’avi arranged themselves in a semi-circle around a platform where the dead rested. There were several bodies wrapped in yellow cloth, some of them heartbreakingly small with the children from the Sparrow’s Flame. Others were even smaller, containing whatever pieces that had been large enough to identify.
A low drone began as people went to the platform. The Ta’avi created it by using their back-voice, the sound was meant to hold them close together and Finn hummed along as best he could. He had never attended a farewell gathering but Yanna stepped closer to him and put her mouth near his ear.
“They are taking the chance to touch their kin one last time, to whisper advice, and to say goodbye,” Yanna whispered. “When you are ready, nod. I will help you to walk.”
Finn took several deep breaths and finally nodded. He tensed for the jostling of the crowd but as Yanna guided his steps, a path opened in front of them. Yanna took him to a corner of the platform with dozens of tiny yellow bags. These were the death bundles for the bodies that had been completely lost. Two of them were labeled with the names of Tyohac and his wife Jehha. Yanna moved them closer to the edge where Finn could reach them without stretching.
“We took the little bit of hair we could find in their room,” she whispered. “There was nothing else. This was Jehha.”
He nodded, not able to speak at first. He touched the yellow cloth gently.
“I am too new to know the path ahead, listen closely to my elders,” he whispered to Jehha. “May your hair long carry the scent of salt and smoke. Journey well, first-sister.”
Yanna nodded, pleased that he knew the right words. She moved Tyohac’s remains under his hand. Finn started to recite the prayer again but stopped. It just didn’t feel right. He tried again.
“I knew you’d forget to duck, you crazy giant bastard,” he whispered, ignoring Yanna’s arm tightening in warning around his waist. “Save me a spot and don’t drink everything before I get there. Salt and smoke, first-brother.”
“Journey well,” Yanna prompted in a whisper.
“Tyohac always journeyed well, he doesn’t need me to remind him,” Finn whispered back.
There were a few quiet chuckles around them. Even Yanna smiled slightly as she led him back to his bench.
One the plateau overlooking the runway, a group of people silently gathered, a few from each farm compound. Most of them carried some sort of brush hook, although there were machetes and improvised clubs as well. They began to move down the slope toward the runway. The only sound was breathing and the scuff of boots on the ground.
Hidden in the deeper shadows, a night vision scope watched their progress.
“Movement,” the Scout sniper whispered into a radio mike.
Leah was standing with Marie and Kai, among the remaining Scouts. The people familiar with the Scouts rarely saw them in uniform like this. The casual clothing had disappeared and each of them wore the full Scout uniform; a dark khaki tunic over the same color of field pants topped by a black patrol cap with the Scout emblem in silver. Over that was a harness for their field gear and weapons. Shotguns and pistols were common enough around the outposts and colonies, especially in places with obstreperous fauna and flora. Automatic rifles and submachine guns on the other hand, were rarely seen.
When the Scouts heard the spotter’s report on their earbuds, they silently spread out to positions they’d picked earlier. Leah and Kai had been chosen to do the talking and they waited on the runway.
“We’ve got to keep them from charging,” Kai said quietly. “Did you noticed that the Connies are all wearing their door-guns? If these morons go in swinging, it’ll be an instant bloodbath.”
“Right, we’re supposed to stay neutral,” Leah said. “No matter how tempting the alternative is. I’m getting locked and loaded though.”
They both quietly loaded the rifles and chambered the first round.
“I was hoping you’d say that,” Kai said. “Ready?”
She nodded and when the spotter reported that the neo-puritans had reached the runway, they began walking out to meet them.
“What’s your plan?” Kai asked.
Leah gave him a sideways look. “To back whatever move you make.”
Kai grinned, his white teeth gleaming in the low light. “I was afraid of that. Maybe a very stern lecture will suffice.”
“You’re thinking of the Mormons.”
They both chuckled and waited for the spotter’s call that they were close.
Gavin Sinclair made sure he was at the head of the other Believers. Not only did it show the other Believers who led here, the video they were capturing from on top of the hill would show everyone on Hub who led here as well. They would know, when he showed them their faith in him was well placed. They’d chosen the right man to lead this place.
There was a whisper in Leah’s ear; “Twenty meters, stand by.”
Leah suddenly had a thought; whatever she was about to yell, their cameras would record it. And it would be reviewed and dissected, second by second by a Fleet Ops review board. And then Mercy knew how many more. Everyone would see this moment and she suddenly had no idea what to say. That meant she would sound like a complete tool and that she would never, ever, hear the end of it. She’d end up being Captain Everybody Freeze, or Reach-for-the-Sky Jones. She grinned. Captain Freeze-Motherfuckers had a certain to ring to it.
“Ten meters, pop ’em,” the spotter whispered.
Gavin was working out what he’d yell to bring the Froggies out of their powwow when bright lights hit them in the face. He shaded his eyes trying to see who was in front of them. The lights began to move closer and he squinted into them, finally making out a shape behind each.
“Sorry gentlemen, private party this evening,” Kai said cheerfully before Leah could open her mouth. She wasn’t sure whether she wanted to kiss him or beat him senseless.
“Stand down, citizens,” she said firmly, walking forward.
The smart lights on her harness were mostly in floodlight mode. Only two were focused into spots that stayed directly on Gavin’s face as she moved.
The harness responded to a tap by dimming the intensity of the lights shining in Gavin’s face and adjusting the rest of the tiny lights to illuminate Leah instead.
“What’s your business here, Administrator?”
“None of yours” Gavin snarled. “Get out of our way.”
“Administrator, do me a favor and take a moment to realize that we’re no longer in ‘asking politely’ mode,” Leah said.
Gavin glared at her and realized that she didn’t look like the goofy kid playing spaceman-scientist. The uniform made them both look a lot more serious. The oddly shaped projectile weapons clipped to their harnesses made their own statement about how serious they were.
“See what I mean?” Leah asked, watching his face. “So, let’s chat for a moment. And we’ll keep our voices down. Our friends are saying goodbye to their dead back there and your little mob is not going to interfere with that.”
“I don’t give a single shit about no Froggie funeral,” one of the men spat. “So you listen here, little girl. Ain’t a single thing stoppin’ us from taking those fancy guns away from you and your purty boyfriend here.”
There was a growl of agreement from the crowd and Leah could see their hands beginning to flex.
“He said I’m purty,” Kai said happily and Leah had the urge to go slap him in the back of the head.
Instead, she subvocalized a command. Each one of the 18 miniature lights focused on a single eyeball with the harness maintaining coordinates for each individual’s other eye as well. When the men began to step forward, randomized ultrabright flickers of light hit them first in one eye and then the other, flipping back and forth rapidly. Leah raised her eyebrows at the swearing from the men. Gavin hadn’t been targeted. He just stood and glared at her.
“I’m shocked at your language, gentlemen,” she said. “One last point. Purty-boy and I are not out here by ourselves.”
Around the crowd, more of the ultra-bright pinpricks appeared out of the darkness. The angry energy of the mob began to drain away, and Gavin felt them slipping out of his fingers.
“You won’t murder citizens,” he sneered. “You snowflakes won’t pull the trigger. We’re just out for a walk carrying some tools. Go ahead, start shooting at us and see how many more join our cause.”
Leah sighed. “Administrator, you’re right, I won’t murder anyone. In fact, we’re not even carrying lethal rounds. Let me explain some options from our fascinating collection of non-lethal options and I can tell you from experience that every one of them sucks. And please note, instead of just using them on you, which we’re perfectly completely justified in doing, I am giving all of you a chance to just walk away. We’ll consider this as a really bad idea that almost got out of hand. No harm, no foul.”
Gavin looked back at his supporters, laughing. “Friends, I think we’re going to be pepper sprayed. Everyone ready?”
“Just to let you know, you’ll be crawling away,” she said. “While you vomit uncontrollably and shit your pants. Oh, and you might find your bladders have some issues with spontaneously spasming for the next few months. It’s a minor side-effect, but only with some people. Adult diapers work just fine to control it.”
There was some muttering from behind Gavin and he knew then he’d lost this one.
“Oh wait, I forgot to inform you; Fleet Ground Operations is now forbidden to use electrochem disabling rounds. They caused muscle spasms that ripped the muscle fibers away from the bone in a few cases. We are authorized to use a replacement device. It’s another electro-chem called Giggler. It’s pretty interesting, feels like you hit your funny-bone, except all over your body. The effect lasts from twenty-four to forty-eight hours. If anyone prefers that instead of the Puker, I’ll see what I can do.”
There was more discussion behind him and it had certain “we’re done here,” vibe to it.
“This isn’t over,” Gavin promised them softly. “Not nearly over.”
“For tonight, it is,” Kai said. “May tomorrow find you wiser than today.”
He stared at Kai for several seconds and Leah almost expected him to try the old “made you flinch” game. Instead, Gavin turned and followed his mob back up the slope.
They watched them go for a minute and then extinguished the harness lights and began to walk back toward the ships.
“I’m going to call that a win,” Kai said cheerfully.
“Are you concussed? That could’ve gone bad so fast.”
“Sorry, I meant my willpower in resisting the need to beat all their asses.”
“Kai, we’re in deep shit here,” Leah said quietly. “We can easily get back into the sky, but then what? Connies don’t have the engine to piggyback our ships through the Slingshot. Poor Addie doesn’t even have the fuel to get back into orbit. They had to burn a ton when the AI tried to spike her landing.”
“I don’t understand the big picture here,” Kai said after several steps. “Why bother with these antics? Even if there weren’t natives, Fleet wouldn’t just shrug and write the whole outpost off.”
“Yeah, even Gavin would have figured that out,” Leah said. “Which means there’s more going on here than a random insurrection. Hellooo, Mr. Joker.”
“I agree. We need a working group to start gaming this out, soonest.”
Two mornings later, Finn was in the berthing, still asleep. He’d been worn out for a couple of days but Marie said it was a good sign that he was healing.
“Good morning, daddy. Mickey’s big hand is on ‘wake the hell up.’ His little hand is on Tinker Bell’s butt. Dirty, dirty Mickey!”
Finn opened his eyes. “Huh? What the hell was that?”
“My interpretation of Marilyn Monroe with an added frisson of erotic tension and saccharine cheerfulness,” Addie said, in her normal voice. “Did it enrich your awakening experience?”
“It did something to it for sure. Please don’t ever use…wait, you’ve got to use that on Leah.”
“Sorry, we worked on that together for you. But I love you best, Finn. I’d rather help you get her.”
“Hmm, I have to wonder if you already used that line on her,” Finn said, carefully sitting up. “What’s on the rail for today’s lizard?”
“It is one standard hour before local mid-day. Leah is on her way to the ship now.”
“She did not specify. She would like you to take a shower and will join you there.”
“Okay, that sounds promising,” Finn said, sitting up.
The dizziness had passed and the ache in his muscles had faded into a sort of background annoyance. He got in the shower, but Leah still hadn’t appeared. After a quick scrub, he got dressed and went out to the main hatch to look for her.
There was a quad headed down from the outpost, but he didn’t see anything else moving in the blazing midday sun. He could hear the quad’s engine was red-lined and Finn knew it had to be driving Tyohac out of his mind. He started to laugh before he remembered the man was gone.
“Warning!” Addie suddenly announced. “A hostile incident is initiated!”
Finn looked around, bewildered. “In here? Are you sure?”
There was another quad engine, screaming like the first one. Finn frowned and caught sight of the first quad as it raced out onto the runway. His eyes widened as he saw there were too many people piled on it. He jumped out of the hatch, trying to figure out what was going on.
“Warning Red! The Resettlement Directorate has announced legislative penalties against all Colonial Fleet. All flight clearances are cancelled and there are troop carriers inbound. You, Captain Leah, and all other Fleet personnel are remanded to detention.”
“That’s nice, but we don’t work for Resettlement” he called up. “Bring the engines to hot-ready.”
“Yes, Captain. Be advised, Erewhon operations is also transmitting a take-off ban across all frequencies. Deadly force has been authorized.”
The quad slowed down enough to let people jump off at a run as it passed their ships. Hatches were slamming open. The second quad dropped Ta’avi workers along the Connies. There were a series of sonic booms overhead.
“Warning Red! First Protocol violation detected,” Addie said.
What the hell?
The First Protocol for shuttles was the anti-tamper rule. It was an ironclad understanding between the Ulthira and the Synthetic Personalities they created. The Synthetic would take all steps to avoid capture or “system intrusion.” Addie had explained that her system might be used to create helpless copies to be enslaved. Any Synthetic would suicide before they’d let their copies be harmed. Finn hadn’t really understood how the Ulthiri could make agreements with something they had created, but if the Archreylen hadn’t burned their planet to bedrock, it followed a strict code of ethics.
“That fucking AI again!” Finn suddenly yelled.
“Yes, transmission emanating from the Erewhon Operations Array. Our system modification is currently able to block incoming attacks. ”
The first quad buggy screeched to a stop next to Addie. Leah and Kai jumped out, followed by the rest of the passengers, Ta’avi that sprinted for their Conestoga’s. They were yelling and the usual collection of people working around the ships vanished into them in an instant.
“No time to talk, we gotta go!” Leah gasped.
Finn boosted her up to the open hatch as Addie began to roll and Kai jumped in after her. One of the Conestogas shot into the sky at a steep angle, gravity engines screaming. Finn gaped at it for half a second, wondering how the engine hadn’t exploded. Leah yelled and Finn jumped for the edge of the hatch but a stray current from the gravity wake yanked at him. pulled at him and there was a pop and the feeling of an icepick between Finn’s ribs. He lost his hold on the hatch seal and fell back to the ground.
Addie slammed on the brakes and Kai jumped out to help him. Over his shoulder, Finn saw a gray Colonial Guard carrier popped into existence as it abruptly decelerated over the outpost. Behind it, another one of the Conestogas was clawing its way into the air, banking hard over the trees to escape.
A laser-like minigun burst stabbed down from the lander and explosions from the impacts ripped apart a section of plastcrete runway. Then it just hung there, a violent underline of the no-fly order. Another blurred into place near it.
“Addie, go!” Finn yelled. “Ops over-ride! Purple Rain!”
The hatch instantly slammed shut and Finn felt his flip-flop as Addie’s gravimetric engines fired, pushing her into the air. He suddenly clutched at the runway as the gravity effects lifted him off the ground.
Trails of fire leapt from both landers, but Addie’s main thrusters were already firing. She flashed away, out over the forest and gone before they could move the guns. Finn’s jaw clenched Two of the remaining Connies began to lift and Finn gritted his teeth. They were nowhere near as fast Addie and the miniguns would tear the Conestogas apart.
Then two of the other Conestogas whipped past in close formation, barely clearing the trees. Their grav engines were howling again and Finn was bounced off the ground. He groaned clutching his chest and wondering what in the hell those two maniacs were trying to do.
Then he saw both Colonial Guard landers lift end over end, spinning and tumbling, as they were pulled along behind the two Connies like leaves behind a car. Finn half laughed, half groaned. They’d been flying on their sides, redlining the grav-lifters as they went. The interference pattern, created as the thrusters interacted with the local gravity, did all kinds of strange things.
It wasn’t a fatal effect, it only took about ten seconds until the wake had dispersed enough to allow the landers to power their way clear of the effects. But it was long enough for the last Scouts and Conestogas to lift quickly. They were nearly out of sight by the time the landers came floating over the runway. Finn watched as they touched down and then simply sat there. Finn laughed and then groaned from the pain in his chest. Then he laughed again.
“The hell is so funny over there?” Kai coughed. He’d been flung around as badly as Finn. Being anywhere near the blast of a firing gravity engine was one of first no-no’s you learned.
“Can you imagine what it’s like inside that box? I bet they’re shoveling out their pants right now. ”
“Merciful Lady, you have a deranged sense of humor. Listen, I’ve just learned one of life’s little lessons; it is far better to be inside the ship during these kinds of things.”
Down the runway, the main hatch of one lander opened. Several crew members staggered out and flopped on the ground. Another emerged and stopped to vomit copiously, splashing the others They hardly noticed, all of them looked to be liberally splashed with unpleasant things.
“Oh, look at them,” Kai said. “You know, OneDay rations are mostly soy. Can you imagine the smell?”
Finn laughed and then gasped, holding his side. “Don’t make me laugh, you bastard.”
The second lander’s hatch opened and more of them emerged. Some were obviously weeping and at least one of them was on the edge of hysteria. Finn bit his lip and turned away from the spectacle.
“Oh god, why?” one of them screamed.
Finn lost his battle, dissolving into a weird yodel, a mix of laughter and cries of pain. Kai staggered over to him and helped him up. Only a single Conestoga was left, Tyohac’s Third Sparrow. The massive ship looked lonely and Finn felt a pang of sadness. Another full buggy was pulling up to it and Drabs were getting out. Finn sighed, wishing he didn’t have to watch this. They’d murdered Tyohac and now they were taking his family’s home, their livelihood and probably most of their possessions and gear. He was too far away to do anything about it, even if he’d had any kind of workable plan.
He jumped when air vents suddenly screeched into life. The Drabs scattered at the sound, running in all directions. Finn frowned, even he’d been startled but it was a pretty common sound around most ships. Then he noticed the compressed gas looked like a light mist.
“Oh, you fuckers,” Finn said. “Kai, get down!”
They quickly, albeit gingerly, got on their stomachs.
“Keep your mouth open,” Finn said, covering his head with his arms.
“Why? What the hell is going on?” Kai asked, lifting his head to peer at the ship. A jet of plasma erupted from the left engine nacelle just as Kai caught the smell of fuel.
They were both punched down by a bright screaming wave of heat and pressure rolling overhead. Both men struggled to breathe against the pressure but for several long seconds, there wasn’t enough air left for them to inhale. The heat finally passed and they took great whooping breaths.
“A fuel-air explosion?” Kai yelled. “Really? What the hell is wrong with everyone?”
Finn slowly sat up again and looked around. Off in the distance, thunder boomed, as if answering almost answering the immense blast.
“We’re going to get struck by lightning now. You know that, right?” Kai called.
“Look at this,” Finn said, struggling to his knees.
Kai sat up and his mouth fell open at the devastation. There wasn’t a piece of vegetation left within a hundred meters of the ship. There wasn’t any sign of the Drabs, or their quad. As for the ship….
“That’s one big pile of little pieces,” Kai said.
Finn grunted half a laugh. “The only way someone is getting their hands on her is with a front-end loader and a couple dumpsters.”
“Dad used to say the same thing about my Aunt Izzy,” Kai said.
Finn laughed again and then groaned. “Stop it. Why the hell did you jump back down here?”
“Why the hell did you stop and look around in the middle of everything? Are you sure you flew a fighter? Oh, and I’ve learned another of life’s little object lessons; never piss off the Ta’avi.'”
“They can get a little touchy for sure.”
They both flinched as thunder exploded overhead.
“Seriously, Finn. With the day we’re having, let’s get under cover.”
They got underneath one of the abandoned canopies that had covered the work areas. Across the runway, Puritans began to appear at the top of the slope and stare at the devastation. Even as it began to pour, people came to stare.
Down the runway, more of the landers touched down and teams in fatigues took over the outpost. Their uniforms looked uncomfortably close to Colonial Guard fatigues. Most of the Guardsmen came from places like Echo, the training facility that had produced Leah and Kai, although they had begun to recruit from the population on Hub. All the officers and NCOs were Project trained. If that really was CG down there, they had a serious problem. Either they had somehow landed on the wrong side of this fight, or, only slightly less unlikely, the Guard had mutinied.
“You think your friends are still watching?”
“Probably not quite yet. I would guess they took off when everything got exciting down there. They’ll be back. Just climb up there and stop just past the first trees, it’s fairly safe there. Oh, and stay away from any kind of water. Seriously.”
“You’re going to stay here?”
“Something is seriously bent in my side. I can barely raise my arm and there is no way I can even think about climbing those roots. Leaving me here puts someone on the inside and they’ll probably have ibuprofen.”
Kai laid back on the plastcrete. “Forget it.”
“Kai, go. I’ll make like Mata Hari and escape when I’m feeling better.”
“Really? Do you know anything about Mata Hari?”
“He was a ninja or a spy. Something like that.”
“You should definitely look up the story when you have a chance,” Kai said. “And I’m staying here because there is no way I’m going to tell Leah that I left you behind. Like the rest of me, my testicles are breath taking and I plan to keep them that way.”
“No kidding,” Finn said. “You know, maybe we should have a man-to-man. You could give me some hints about what I’m getting into with her.”
“What did I just say about my testicles?”
“I want to go back Captain, but I can’t,” Addie said.
It was the sixth time the ship had said that after lifting off. Leah went to put both her hands on the bio-plate.
“I’m not angry at you, promise.”
“Well, I’m angry at me. Stand by, I’ve located a large set of waterfalls.”
Leah sat down in the left-hand chair and the displays lit up with the view outside and Leah saw the immense cliffs of Water’s Leap and nodded.
“Yep, that’s where we need to go,” Leah said. “Now, before things get busy, you and I need to agree on something; we’re not going to blame ourselves. This is the way things are and we need to concentrate on explaining what happened to Eldest and her A’nek. Then we’ll start planning how to get our lunatic back.”
“Yes, Captain, I completely agree. I am completing a lidar sweep of the area to locate several temporary landing areas. Bringing up the best options for you now.”
Addie suddenly sounded much happier. Leah kissed her fingertips and pressed them to the biosensor. “That’s my girl.”
Someone did eventually send a buggy down to capture Finn and Kai. They got to their feet as some shotgun wielding Drabs arrived in a quad buggy. They were both pointed into the second row of seats. The two guards climbed into the third row and pointed the guns at the Scout’s backs. Finn considered taunting them a little, but he was too sore for the kind of fun that would start.
Bags were put over their heads and the quad began to drive up the slope. After a bumpy ride, the hoods were jerked off their heads. They were sitting in front of the shipping container Owen had used as an office. Kai and Finn looked at each other, then at the guards, who used their shotguns to gesture the men out of the buggy.
“You know we’ve seen this place before,” Kai said.
“Who cares, shut up,” one of them sneered back.
They were led over to the bicycle stand and chained to it. One of the guards went inside the metal box and the other stood at the door, talking to someone inside.
“What in the hell was with the hoods?” Kai muttered.
“They’ve seen it in movies,” Finn muttered back. “That’s what you do when you catch bad guys, put a hood on them and take them away. It’s almost cute.”
“Adorable. They’re not professionals in disguise then.”
Finn started to say something but the guards emerged from the followed by Gavin Sinclair, another guard-type in an immaculate Colonial Guard field uniform. With him was another man wearing a dark blue uniform with a white shirt and doubled-breasted jacket. On his shoulders were rank boards with lots of gold. He even had a brimmed cap with a white cover.
“Did this planet just get jacked by the Royal Navy?” Kai muttered.
“Bet you his name is Nigel.”
“Oh it’s you,” Gavin exclaimed as they came closer. “Let me take than opportunity to say, ‘I told you so.’ I decide when something is over, not some alien loving mercenary.”
Finn nodded at the man in strange uniform. “Whatever this is about, I sure hope he didn’t make you get all dressed up so he could have his little moment here.”
“Your face is very familiar,” Uniform Man in an accent that could only be described as posh. “What is your name?”
“We’re doing introductions? Okay, my name is Fionnagáin Brendanus Morgan. Before you ask, yes, I’m serious. I hold the rank of Scout Captain within Terran Fleet. My serial number is kiss my ass.”
Before he could ask the man’s name, a shotgun barrel smacked Finn in the side of the head.
“Keep your hands off my prisoners,” Uniform Man snapped. He looked back at Finn. “I know who you are now. You were previously Colonel Morgan, if I’m correct?”
Finn suddenly hated everything about the smug bastard, and let his mouth go; “Exactly right, Nigel. I used to sodomize your mother every second Tuesday. Then I wiped my ass on the curtai…”
A shotgun butt was slammed into his back and Finn felt-heard something crunch sending a bitter wave of agony over him. When he was able to think again, he found himself curled on his side and fighting to breathe.
“If you touch that man again, I will see you hang!” Uniform Man was yelling at someone. “That is Pirate Leader from the Battle of Convoy 602!”
“Oh shit, not again,” Finn groaned. “Would someone shoot me already?”
“Shoot one of humanity’s heroes?” Now Uniform Man voice sounded shocked. “Why would we do that? You and I are on the same side, captain.”
“Then definitely shoot me,” Finn tried to say but he got distracted by passing out.
He’d been hoping for a nice dreamless sleep. What he got was sort of a half-dream where people were shouting at each other. There was a gap and then he was on a stretcher and people were still shouting. After another long moment, Finn opened his eyes. A grubby, off-white ceiling extended over him. There were ceiling clips in a geodesic pattern above him. Someone had taken him to the outpost hospital.
“Welcome back,” a soft voice said from his right.
Finn turned his head slightly. There was a woman with large dark eyes and black hair sitting beside the bed. She looked familiar and after a moment he remembered her name; Maya. She’d been Owen’s assistant and, more importantly, Gavin’s spy.
“You’re in a fracture repair sling. The medtech said you were going to be thirsty. Are you ready for some water?”
She held up a cup of water with a straw in it and Finn easily drained it, as well as a second cup.
“You’re supposed to lay still for another two hours,” she said. “Orders from the medtech Commander Newsome sent over. He even donated that sling from their supplies.”
Finn wondered if he was supposed to be grateful for that. If “Commander” Newsome wasn’t supporting an insurrection, his ribs wouldn’t have gotten mangled. There would be more people still breathing, including his friend. He kept his eyes on the ceiling for the next two hours, trying to figure out where to go from here.