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.”
“Standing by, 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 charcoal gray ship 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 will establish the rally point 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 up until it was 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, using the anchor the tiny 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 accidently 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.”
“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 shook his head. It didn’t make sense, the pilot should have seen the cable on his screens. Even the AI backup on the Conestoga would have pulled the stick back automatically. He walked back along the runway and found another post, still set into the dirt beside the runway. Something had burnt the end of it and Finn closed his eyes, smelling the melted plastic and scorched limestone. That cable couldn’t have been tied off here, the force of snagging the hurtling ship would have snapped the post, or simply ripped it out of the ground, like the one he’d just tripped over. With half the top missing, it had been friction, created as the cable whipped through the eye.
The Connie had been coming in heavy, too heavy to fire the anti-grav which put it up around two-hundred knots. Snagging the landing gear at that speed the ship would have torn itself apart an instant. Had torn itself apart.
But that was why they hadn’t seen it, the cable had been raised at the last possible second. A cold desolation washed over him, like a bucket of cold water. This wasn’t an accident, someone had deliberately murdered the Sparrow’s Flame and everyone aboard. They’d been here while the ship was on approach, pulling the cable taut at the last possible second.
How did they do it? Finn asked himself, walking up the side of the runway. It would have been tricky to time, whatever you pulled it with attached it to would have had to react quickly. You couldn’t pull it up by hand, unless you were suicidal. The steel cable would be whipping everywhere as it ran out, you’d have to be hundreds of meters away. Quads weren’t that quick unless…
“Fog…Foghorn,” a voice croaked from the darkness.
Finn walked over, fury twisting his face. No, they hadn’t needed anything fancy at all. Just someone too damaged to comprehend what he was being asked to do.
“Foghorn sounding hillbilly,” the voice said. “Help me.”
“Hello, Craig. Guess no one told you what to expect when you pulled on that rope?”
“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 easily see the torn and bloody 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 this instead, 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.”
“What plan?” Finn asked, taking one of the man’s arms and putting a compression bandage on the wrist to slow the bleeding.
“Craig,” Finn said warningly.
“If you’re lying to me….”
“I ain’t lying, I know you hillbillies got them mental powers!”
Despite his words, Finn’s hands were gentle in tying off the other bandage and then he stood up. “You stay right 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!”
Finn 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. 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 nieces and his clan sister. 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. “They’re both gone.” Yanna put a hand on his shoulder before taking 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 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.
They knelt down and Leah’s heart leapt into her throat when she recognized Finn. His face was covered in blood and he looked well singed, but he was alive. 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 gently, 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 har’.”
“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?”
“I’m fine,” he said and struggled to sit up. He immediately fell back onto the bed with his head in his hands. “Addie, why are we in a flat spin?”
“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. Someone shot him in the back of the head with a shotgun slug. There wasn’t much left.”
“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 Drabs have taken over the outpost after 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?”
“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 for it. How bad was it?
Leah laid 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 put her head down next to his. “Tyohac and his wife were killed and most of the dead are from his ship. They were standing right by the runway waiting for the Sparrow’s Flame to roll up.”
“That explains the lack of explosions and mayhem…” Finn said, but his voice broke.
“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 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 unknown 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. “My partner forgot to duck, so I’ve been staying close.”
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.”
“That seems pretty harsh,” Leah said. “Don’t they need time to grieve?”
“Yes, but you don’t talk about the dead while the sun is up.”
“That’s 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 literally grew up in the saddle. From what he told me, the animals they rode were only slightly less deadly than the herds they followed. He says…said that the first, most important thing 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 for Wisdom.”
“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 a 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 Wisdom.”
“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 go to Wisdom.” 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. “Wisdom 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 gingerly.
“One of the Runners must have seen us,” Leah said. “They were overhead when I called. Word is being sent to Wisdom.”
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 Wisdom 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. Wisdom didn’t want to explain it. Diplomacy is going to be interesting, you’re both very aware of each other’s feelings.
“Anyway, these Orthrephis are mostly hairless and kind of look like monkeys. They’re evidently capable of limited speech, although the one 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. Wisdom 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. Wisdom 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 two nights ago,” Finn said. “You know, when there was a real emergency. 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.”
No matter how 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 being organized. Since habitable planet finds weren’t common, both the Scouts and their Pioneer brethren would spend most of their time in already established colonies and smaller outposts. 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 people noticed that even though it was casually worn, the Scouts wore them proudly. Otherwise they looked like everyone else.
It was when they opened their mouths, that it became 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 after sunset until they were done talking to the spirits of the dead. The Ta’avi believed that the afterlife was a long journey and when they died, the job of the clan was to remind them of 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, managing to make 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 a 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. 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 words again but stopped. It just didn’t feel right.
“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 deep 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 or 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 notice 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 panicky 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. Then 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 what 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 set 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.
Leah had a strong urge to 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. But let me offer some options from our fascinating collection of non-lethal choices. 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 to 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 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 that was a good sign 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 slew the guns. Finn’s jaw clenched as two of the remaining Connies began to lift. 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 a critical no-no.
“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 parties.”
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 remaining family’s home, their livelihood and their possessions. 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 crazy 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 any air left for them to inhale. The heat finally passed and they took great whooping breaths. Finn slowly sat up again and looked around. Off in the distance, thunder boomed, as if answering the immense blast.
“We’re going to get struck by lightning now. You know that, right?” Kai called.
“Oh, wow,” Finn groaned, 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….
Finn grunted a laugh. “The only way they’re going to take 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 can pass on 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 all feisty over there. But they’ll be back. Just climb up there and stop inside the trees, it’s fairly safe there. Oh, and stay away from any kind of water. Trust me.”
“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.”
Kai grinned up at the roof of the tent. “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.
“Ha ha. Like the rest of me, my testicles are breath taking and I plan to keep them in pristine condition and attached to my body.”
“No kidding,” Finn said. “You know, maybe we should have a man-to-man, give me some hints about what I’m getting into with her.”
“What did I just say about my testicles?”
“Thanks for coming after me.”
“Forget about it, you’re like the little brother I never wanted.”
“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; this is the way things are and it’s no one’s fault. We need to concentrate on explaining what happened to Wisdom and her A’nek. Then we’ll start planning how to get our lunatics 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. With him was another man, looking surreal in 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 a British 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 and my serial number is kiss my ass.”
Before he could continue, 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 Skyhook 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 was 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.
Even with the hatch sealed, the roar of the falls filled the world around them. Then, when Addie opened her hatch, and the sound became an almost physical presence inside the ship, so much so that Leah could feel the rumbling vibration in her bones.
Atalanta had chosen a landing place on a large spit of land that jutted into the river and rose a dozen meters above the water. Leah was leery of being so close to the river, but Addie had pointed out that there was a collection of large trees growing here already. These were nothing like as large as the specimens on the canyon edge, but they hadn’t grown overnight either.
“You don’t want to upset the Anek and this is the best way. If the water level does come up, I’ve still got twenty-eight seconds of fuel for the reactors. That’s more than enough to get me to the canyon rim.”
Leah just nodded and Addie had parked herself in the center of the triangle formed by the three trees, settling onto the rocks.
“What next, Captain?”
Leah didn’t respond, just looked around the cabin. After a few seconds, she lurched into the toilet and emptied her stomach.
“There are anti-nausea injections in locker M-1,” Addie said quietly.
Leah straightened up and wiped her face. “I wasn’t motion sick, Addie.”
“I didn’t think you were, your vital statistics are all normal. If you are still feeling ill, I have several…”
“I’m not sick,” Leah interrupted.
“I know, Leah. You’re scared.”
Leah’s sigh nearly became a sob. “Is it that obvious?”
“Leah, come out and sit down.”
Addie opened the toilet door for her and Leah went and perched on the edge of the right hand pilot’s couch for several seconds. Then she got up and began to pace.
“You should really drink some water.”
She managed a chuckle. “Are you sure we shouldn’t conserve?”
“I think I know where we can get more. Take the bottle marked L3 in the cold unit.”
Leah went to look for it and found a liter sized steel and glass bottle.
“That’s one of Finn’s bottles of ‘never-recycled’ water. It’s from ice on Celestial Reverie.”
“Addie, I really shouldn’t drink this.”
“Yes, you should. I’m giving it to you. There’s eighty liters more in storage if that’s what’s bothering you.”
Leah took the top off and tried the water. It was achingly cold in her mouth and throat, washing away the bitter taste in her mouth. She drank more and sighed.
“Thank you, Addie. I was going through this situation in my head, cataloging what comes next. And then it hit me, how much trouble we’re really in here. I could choke the shit out of Finn for falling out and leaving me with this.”
“I assumed that he didn’t have a choice.”
“I know, but still.”
“He can be aggravating at times.”
“And don’t tell him I threw up, please?”
Addie laughed. “If he does ask, I’ll refer the question to you. There is a very high probability that he will not ask.”
“I need to tell you something, Addie.”
“Here’s the thing; I am a really good pilot. That’s what I was doing when I tried out for the Scouts, flying logistics on Hub.”
“Your record is commendable as a pilot, I agree.”
Leah smiled at Addie’s neutral tone. “I’m not as good at being a Scout, yet. I am going to need your help here, Atalanta. If you see something that doesn’t seem right to you, ask me. I’m not going to be offended, promise.”
“I’ll do my best, Leah, I promise. I don’t know a lot about exo-diplomacy though.”
“Me either, gorgeous. Did you manage to contact anyone else when we scattered?”
“Intermittently, for several seconds. I sent the search parameters you gave me. They shouldn’t have…Attention! Three unknown entities are approaching from the riverbank. Are those the A’nek?”
Leah glanced at the screen. “Yep, that’s them. The other Scouts?”
“I have high confidence that the search parameters were successfully sent. Remember that you shared them previously with the other scout captains. It’s going to be okay, Leah. You’re tough and smart and you have been training for this for your entire life, just like me. The Anek have stopped twenty-two meters away.”
“Then I guess it’s time to get back to work. Thank you, Atalanta.”
“Rule the Sky, boss. Opening main hatch.”
Leah was relieved to see that Lakshmi was part of the Anek trio that had arrived. Then she recognized Thalia and Wisdom. Knowing all three of them had come made her want to cry suddenly.
“Here you are again, too close to the water,” Lakshmi said.
Horrified, Leah looked at the water flowing nearby, then back at the three of them. “Seriously? Those are in there too?”
Lakshmi put a hand on her shoulder and she immediately felt the amusement of all three of them.
“They live only in the dark places in the under-wet,” Laskhmi said. “You are safe here.”
Leah relaxed a little. “I almost jumped out of my skin when you said that.”
There was another pulse of humor, more intense this time. Leah felt it but was barely able to smile.
(You are early, Leah Jones, but very welcome) Wisdom said. (What is this thing that brought you here?)
“Remember when you asked me how we could fall from the sky and remain whole? This is how. She’s something we call a ship and her name is Atalanta. Would you like to meet her?”
When the four of them had reached the hatch, Atalanta had already lowered the access ladder. Leah climbed up and the three Anek peered inside.
“Atalanta, these are the people we met,” Leah said. “This is Wisdom and her sisters Lakshmi and Thalia.”
“It is my very great pleasure to meet you,” Addie said. “Thank you for allowing me to remain here.”
The three talked among themselves for a moment. Finally, Lakshmi climbed inside, reminding Leah of how much larger Anek were. With her aboard, Addie’s cabin was immediately cramped. Lakshmi must have had the same reaction, she looked around briefly and climbed back out. Thalia did the same thing in turn.
“I am content to stay outside,” Wisdom said, when Thalia emerged. “Is this a living creature or a device like Yuri Bogdanovich’s gifts?”
“Excuse me for interrupting,” Addie said. “I am a combination of machine and living creature.”
“This is a fascination,” Wisdom said. “If you are willing, I would like to spend time talking with you, when time permits.”
“It would be my very great honor,” Addie said in her “let’s play Monopoly” voice.
“Then we shall. Leah Jones, you are here alone, fear and sadness and rage in your heart. Has Finn Morgan departed the path?”
Leah swallowed against the lump in her throat, concentrating on not bursting into tears again. “He was captured by the wrong thinkers. But he is probably alive. More of the wrong thinkers have come. They tried to capture all of us. Finn fell out and forced Atalanta to take off without him so that we could get away.”
(So many of you already, I assumed your sky home was empty. This is not correct.)
Leah shook her head. “There are many, many more of us up there. I’ll need some time to explain everything.”
There was gentle amusement around her. Lakshmi pulled Leah into a hug and all three of them sent her reassurance.
(Leah Jones, you are safe here. Tell us as much as you know)
Fleet Graving Facility, Orbital Platform Jupiter-Alpha,
Enduring Hope (Hub), Low Orbit.
“They still up there?” one of the vacuum welders asked.
Her partner rolled his eyes. “You think they got bored and left?”
“Hey, I’m an optimist.”
“Listen up, fam,” the shift supervisor said as he came through the hatch. “You all know that we’ve got three shuttles full of RD goons parked on the hull. They burned through the personnel hatch on the admin deck but it doesn’t look like they’re quite sure what to do about our blast doors.”
“What about the admin crew?” someone called.
Williams, the shift supervisor looked grim. “They overrode the emergency protocols and opened the entire deck to vacuum. No survivors were seen before they cut the camera feeds.”
An angry growl spread through the incoming shift workers. The Outsiders, welders and construction hands, had their share of differences with the Softies, the admin and operations crews, but they were all Fleet.
“Luckily, it doesn’t really look like these Groundhogs know what they’re doing,” Williams said. “I’m going to go out and teach them a few things.”
This time the growl was one of approval and agreement. As Williams suited up, the rest of the Outsiders chose their preferred instruments of low-tech mayhem. Most of them chose the ubiquitous prybars used to set hull plates, but cartridge welders and line throwing guns were popular choices as well.
The oncoming shift scattered to personnel locks throughout the platform. They emerged in small groups, bottlenecked by the size of the airlocks. A few were immediately picked off by sentries near the shuttles, but it didn’t slow the rest of the construction hands as they appeared all over the outer hull. Already acclimated to the difficulty of orbital work, they moved quickly. Some leapt off the hull while others began to fire their makeshift weapons. The heavy slugs from line-throwing guns were slow enough to see, even dodge, but the actinic light and deep shadows made it difficult for the rebels to see all of them. Several visors were cracked and two of the Groundhog ambushers were knocked off their feet. Without the grip provided by the magnetic boots, both began to float away from the station.
It was enough of a distraction that the Groundhogs were caught off-guard as the roughnecks thumped to the deck around them. Prybars jabbed out like spears, knocking the former attackers off their feet, cracking helmet faceplates, or crippling suit life-support units. The Groundhogs began to rally, using their guns to even the odds as best they could, but soon it was over. A corona of bodies, some limp, others still thrashing around, floated off into the blackness. Over half of the roughnecks had been lost but the remaining workers turned the Groundhog’s brutal tactics against them; hatches on the admin deck were all opened on a signal and the angry shipbuilders swarmed inside to deal with their ambushers.
The bone growth splint ended with a cheerful little song. Maya got up from the chair she’d dragged near Finn’s bed. She lifted the splint from his upper body and swung it out of the way.
“Try to sit up now.”
Finn stretched cautiously. It wasn’t anything near comfortable, but the agony from the broken bones was gone.
“Here, I’ll help you sit. Specialist Benny said you’re going to feel weak for a while.”
Before Finn managed to refuse, but Maya had an arm under his arms and was lifting him into a sitting position. She added several pillows to prop him up.
“Is that better?” she asked, a hand resting on his shoulder.
“Don’t touch me again.”
She pulled her hand away, hurt in her eyes. “I apologize and you have my debt.”
“I don’t want anything from you. I want to be taken to wherever the other prisoners are being held.”
“Sorry, the process isn’t totally finished,” Maya said. “Specialist Benny said you should rest for the next eighteen hours. Commander Newsome wanted someone to keep an eye on you. I thought you might want to talk.”
“I’ll bet you did. I’d like to be placed with the rest of the prisoners. I can rest as easily in one of your cells as this bed.”
“They’re not my cells, and you’re staying here until…well, until you’re not. I don’t know what’s going on exactly.”
“I find that hard to believe. Under what authority am I being detained?”
“How about under the authority of not being able to move? You get up and walk to the door and I’ll open it for you myself.”
She had him there. He’d done the bone growth thing with a broken hand on Celestial Reverie and he’d barely been able to move it for a day afterward.
“As soon as I can move…”
“Yes, I’ll pass along your request. Do you hate everyone, or are you just a really shitty patient?”
“Just the traitors and murderers.”
Her eyebrows went up. “No one has been murdered here except the Brothers that were caught in the Bullfrog trap. But all your friends ran away safely.”
Laying there, Finn had been getting angrier and angrier for the last two hours, furious that he was a prisoner again. He’d been staying calm, not wanting to give the captors any more information but her judgmental tone immediately washed away his determination to not show emotion.
“You fucking Luddite psychos killed a hundred and forty-three Pioneers and Scouts. Fuck your sick religion, that was my family.“
Maya looked like she wanted to spit on him. “The accident is under investigation. It was a tragedy but blaming a community of peaceful farmers for it is paranoid.”
“Can you explain how a bunch of tech-hating luddites are going to properly investigate the crash of an interplanetary ship? With a straight face, I mean.
Maya looked uncomfortable, like the idea hadn’t occurred to her. “Not everyone was born a NeoPuritan,” she finally said. “Smart people convert all the time and I’m sure Gavin has the right kind of people investigating.”
“Oh, everything is just peachy then. I’m sure his Drabs will quickly find what they’re supposed to find.”
“Stop calling them that, it’s racist.”
“It is? When did they become a race? You assholes hate laughter, music, art, singing, alcohol, herb, and anything else that makes life bearable. Colorless and drab.“
“That doesn’t make them bad people, you arrogant ass.”
“Really? Terrorists and murderers aren’t evil anymore? Go away, I’m tired of looking at you.”
Finn closed his eyes to get away from her. Unfortunately, his ears still worked.
“I’m curious, what did the aliens pay you to turn on the rest of Humanity?”
“That is the worst attempt at gaslighting I have ever heard.”
“You really believe that? Maybe Commander Newsome is right, there are some Fleet officers that weren’t caught up in the alien agenda. Is that what you are?”
Finn rolled his eyes. “Alien agenda? Seriously, again with the agendas? Back before, it was the gay agenda, the immigrant agenda, the climate agenda, and every other thing your masters wanted everyone to be afraid of. I hoped that humans would finally grow up a little, and maybe learn something about unity. But here we go again, the secret alien agenda. Give me a break, you traitorous bitch.”
“Oh, you know what? Get bent, you half-witted rocket jockey. You’re just some miserable sonofabitch who’s too stupid to see what’s right in front of him!”
Finn grinned. “Everyone knows that. Can’t you manage a little originality?”
She stormed away and Finn closed his eyes again. Before he could escape into sleep, he heard Maya stomping back over to his bed.
“I want to read you this.”
Finn sighed without opening his eyes. “Go away, I’m supposed to be resting.”
“Then I’ll read it out loud.”
Finn opened one eye. “I said no. I’m too old for bedtime stories, and too smart for propaganda.”
She read from her tablet, ignoring him:
“‘To all sons and daughters of Earth, for immediate and urgent action.’
‘The Terran Colonial Fleet and associated subsidiaries, including but not limited to; Fleet Planet Survey, Fleet Logistics Office, and the Colonial Guard, have been determined to be in a State of Mutiny.’
‘Fleet leadership has ignored subpoenas from La Direction de la Réinstallation’s lawful inquiry into new accusations of criminal behavior. Evidence has been obtained by the Directorate implicating Fleet operations in multiple crimes against the Human Race for the purpose of knowingly and willfully restricting the Natural and Lawful expansion of the Human Race.'”
Finn snorted. “Wait, we restricted natural and lawful expansion?’ Did they finally bust us for breaking Boyle’s Law?”
Maya frowned and typed something on her tablet. Then she glared at him and went back to reading.
“‘At receipt of this communique, permission and authorization of Fleet operations and activities is withdrawn and voided. All Fleet personnel and property are placed under a Bill of Attainder.
‘The Bill of Attainder is a legal and necessary response to widespread treason and is a temporary measure to halt any further damage to the Human Race while lawfully appointed Directorate investigations determine the extent and severity of the treasonous actions.
Therefore, all Terran Colonial Fleet dues, duties, and property are immediately seized by Directorate. All Colonial Fleet and Colonial Guard personnel are hereby ordered to peacefully disarm and surrender to the nearest Directorate authority. All dependents and family members of personnel involved with Fleet Operations are subject to this judgement are ordered to submit themselves to the nearest Directorate authority until their guilt or innocence is determined.
Note that extreme care should be taken in securing any craft equipped with self-aware systems. All possible care should be taken to do as little damage as possible to these systems.
In Service to Humanity, La Direction de la Réinstallation.'”
She held up the tablet for him to see the official seal that Resettlement attached to all their communications. “That’s the authority you’re being held under, traitor.”
“Oh, I see. Well, if any of you mouth breathers bothered to do the most basic research, you’d see that your precious Resettlement Directorate has nothing to do with Fleet Ops. If you’re not bright enough to read the Hub wiki, give me your tablet and I’ll write you some even better bullshit to read. Don’t worry, I’ll use small words that even you can understand.”
Maya was immediately back in his face. It was gratifying easy. He’d always been able to get people mad, but this was getting fun.
“Stop being such an asshole!” she hissed. “AndI am not a member to the New Reform Church. Gavin, my partner, converted after Fleet marooned them here! You’re such a technocratic patriarch that you hate the idea of a simple life that much?”
“My life’s been pretty simple; I spent every waking moment in the real service to humanity. Day after day, mission after mission, Fleet Scouts have been out here finding places that we can live. What’s your simple life? Squatting here in your fucking communal paradise, drinking your craft beer and whining about the Fleet while we go out and die so that you ungrateful pricks can have some kind of decent life.”
Finn saw that he’d scored another important hit; Maya’s earlier condescension slipped slightly. “There’s never been anything on the feed about Fleet casualties.”
He shrugged and it noticed that it was a little easier this time. “We’re not here to be pitied. We’re here to lead the way to new homes, to support the outposts and colonies that need our help. You know, like we were doing here on Erewhon before you started murdering us?”
“Why do you keep using that word, I told you that…”
“Yeah, yeah, it was an accident. Except it wasn’t. I saw the steel cable they used with my own eyes. I talked to the man they got to pull it across the runway, before they murdered him as well. Use that tablet for something besides socialnet and look it up; Sparrow’s Flame had a perfect maintenance record and a fourth generation AI. Ships like that don’t just randomly crash. It was mass murder and your holier-than-thou shit stains were behind it.”
“Then where’s your proof?” she replied, voice getting louder.
“Well, Gavin and ‘Ole Goat Face,’ whoever he is, had a big hole blown in Exhibit A’s head, but if…”
“Are you talking about Craig? That was a suicide, the poor man was brain-damaged in the evacuation. Seeing the ship crash probably pushed him over the edge.”
“Really? And did you see his hands? Because there was no way that guy could have held a gun, let alone pull the trigger. The cable snagged the Sparrow before he could let go of it, tore his hands completely to shreds.”
Maya looked ever more uncertain. “Hardly anyone saw him, his living will specified an immediate cremation.”
“And you believe he had enough cognition left to think about a will? Wow. Tell you what, go for Exhibit B then. Even you can probably find it because that much steel is too valuable to just trash.”
“That’s not how they operate…” she started to say, before he cut her off again.
“That’s exactly how they operate. If you really are this naïve, take my advice and convert just as quick as you can. Your new masters just know that god is on their side, and if you don’t know how that works out, I have a long list of historical examples you can wiki.”
“You’re the willfully ignorant one, if you’d taken the time to read the proposed accords, you’d see that there are already guarantees of human rights and religious freedom in the new accords. Those are legally binding.”
Finn closed his eyes and sighed. “Oh, shit. You’re not faking it. Do you honestly think they’ll never do this attainder bullshit again? I’d guess the Utopians are next, no sense in giving them any rights.”
“What? No one has even breathed a word against the Utopianists. I have never met such a pigheaded asshole!”
Finn grunted a laugh. “Why are you so easy to piss off? Haven’t you ever dealt with anyone who wise to your honeypot?”
“Honeypot? What are you talking about?”
He rolled his eyes. “This ain’t my first rodeo, sweetheart. Just get to the blowjob, or whatever, so I can tell you to piss off and get some sle…”
Finn had to admit, the woman was fast. There was barely time to realize he couldn’t duck. And she was strong. If her slap had been a punch, he’d be spitting teeth right now. His ear was ringing and the entire side of his face tingled. He strained to slowly turn his head back to face Maya. She was horrified, covering her mouth with both hands.
“I am so sorry,” she said quietly. “I just…I’m…”
She tried to say something, but he was too wrapped up in the dark joy of pushing her buttons to listen; “Let me get a statement on your recording; I will not cooperate with you murderous fucking terrorists. Kill me now, do it while I’m asleep, I don’t give a shit. Just leave me alone get the fuck out of my face.”
“Why would I…what is wrong with you?”
“What’s wrong? Well, my kind and helpful attitude began to slip when you leaked information from our meeting, to your boyfriend so that he could time his insurrection at just the right time.”
She looked away from him, a tacit admission of guilt.
“You seriously didn’t think anyone would figure that out? But where I really got antisocial is when assholes killed a ship full of people whose only crime was to arrive at a convenient time to be a distraction for this power grab.”
Without a word, Maya walked away. She sat in a chair next to the door, back to him. A few minutes later, the door opened. A man came in, a military looking type that Finn hadn’t seen before. He spoke too quietly for Finn to hear, but Maya got up and walked out. The man pushed the chair closer to Finn’s bed.
“Get some rest, captain,” he growled with an English accent. “You’ll wake up again, you have Nanny Copeland’s word on it.”
Finn just shut his eyes and let the heavy fatigue fall on him.
Fleet Administrative Operations (former Mayflower colony barge)
Enduring Hope (Hub), Human space
The deck jumped underneath their feet and seconds later, the debris thrown up by the impact rained down on the top and side of the former Mayflower colony barge that now held the Colonial Fleet headquarters, making the thick outer hull ring like a giant gong. Tulani Chevarista-Elouan Batelaine Dhamandou, better known as Lady Amanda, threw her stylus on the desk. Her bodyguard and wife, Mirjam, looked up from the graphic novel she’d been pretending to read.
“You want me to go tell them to keep it down?”
The Garradyan noblewoman tried to glare at her but had to smile. “Our lives could end at any moment and you are making jokes.”
“That is correct. After all these years, there’s nothing I can do to protect you.”
The tall, dark haired woman stood up from her desk. “Then I, for one, would like my money back.”
The bodyguard laughed as the two women embraced tightly. Lady Amanda put her hands on Mirjam’s face, studying her wife’s face. The floor bounced slightly under their feet and more echoing booms and thuds marked the orbital strike’s splash damage. It was louder this time and the lights in the compartment went out.
“I hope the twins get the chance to fight back, wherever they are,” Mirjam said.
Amanda fumbled her way to the desk and turned on her tablet light.
“I had a surprise for you,” she said, coming back to Mirjam. “I was announcing my retirement next quarter. I was going to finally show you what an excellent wife I could be.”
Mirjam snorted. “How? Cooking and bearing children? Planting flowers? You are not that woman. You are a brilliant physicist, a beloved leader, and thinker of great thoughts.”
“Are you saying you don’t like my cooking?”
“Of course not, your microwaved popcorn is very enjoyable.”
Amanda shook her head, smiling for a moment. “I do wish I had told you that I loved you more often than I did.”
“Do you think I need your voice to know that you love me? Every moment of our lives, I’ve known, and it has made each second precious. If this is where our time ends, I am beside you, where I am meant to be. May your House endure forever, Lady of the Tulani.”
“Don’t you dare make me cry.”
They shared an almost chaste kiss and then Amanda began pulling cushions off the chairs and putting them on the floor. Mirjam shrugged and pulled off the sofa cushions as well.
“I don’t think a layer of padding will do very much if we’re hit directly.”
Amanda laughed, arranging everything before spreading a blanket over the makeshift bed. “Get out of those clothes and get down here.”
Leah was sitting between Lakshmi and Thalia, facing Wisdom. She’d spent the last couple of hours trying to explain human politics to Wisdom. It wasn’t that the Anek leader didn’t understand, but that every time she grasped a concept, it created a cascade of new questions.
“…it probably looks like we’re all insane to you,” Leah said.
“We have seen widespread madness before,” Thalia said. “This is different.”
(They are very different from ourselves, different than even the Othrephis. It could be a different sickness)
“Captain, I’m in contact with Xerxes, and Viracocha,” Addie suddenly announced.
All three of the Anek laughed at Leah’s sudden relief.
(Forgive us, Leah Jones. Our understanding comes slowly)
“The fault is mine, Wisdom. I’m not the best human to describe this to you.”
“We will wait here,” Lakshmi said.
Leah squeezed her hand and went back to Addie’s cabin. “Are they coming?”
“Yes, Leah. They are carrying seven passengers. Five Scouts and Two Pioneers. Finn and Kai are not aboard.”
“Thank you, Ms. Addie, send voice broadcast; Fam, you have permission to land near Addie. Keep it low and slow, make sure you beacon my location, I’ll be with our hosts. Best manners, boys and girls.”
Leah went back out to move the Anek away from the landing area. She didn’t want to think about what their reaction to an errant gravity current would be. Noel and Sasha’s ship Viracocha was the first to land. A few seconds later, Xerxes followed the same path and gingerly landed next to the other two scout ships. When they were on the ground, Leah and the Anek went to meet them.
Sasha was already doing a postflight check with Viracocha. A minute later, Henry emerged to walk around Xerxes. A burly Ta’avi jumped down out of Viracocha’s hatch. Noel sat down on the edge of the hatch and the he gently picked her up and put her on the ground.
“Lipstick on his neck,” Leah muttered as she walked past.
Noel giggled as she wiped it off. Marie jumped down from Viracocha’s hatch as Leah came over. Even though she wasn’t wearing anything special, she somehow managed to look collected and almost regal. Before Leah could say anything, Marie hugged her tightly.
“We heard about Finn and Kai,” Marie said quietly. “We will get them back.”
“Thank you,” Leah said. “Wisdom, I would like to introduce you to members of my own Meeting; this is Marie Cassies, and there is her husband, Henry Cassies. Over here are Sasha Parvathi and her partner, Noel Berdran-St. Martin. The other two men are Heljah Thunder Sky, and Mikah Flamebridge.”
Leah was fascinated to see how quickly the Wisdom, Thalia, and Lakshmi had the others relaxed and chatting. Maybe it was the opposite of the “puffer fish” effect she’d seen Lakshmi use on Finn. Even the two Ta’avi engineers, who were looking very uncomfortable, relaxed to the point where they were chatting with Thalia.
Command Deck, TCN Lewis & Clark (Pathfinder Class)
34k kilometers rimward of of Slingshot Gate JE-105 approach vector
The gunfire had stopped and there had been occasional outbursts of yelling and occasional screams as the attackers encountered the last holdouts from the ship’s crew. Now the ship was ominously quiet. Commander Hammond Cho looked at his executive officer for a long moment and she sadly shook her head.
“Lou, do we have any crew left?” he asked.
“My sensors are being disconnected as the boarders advance, commander,” the ship replied. “Based on observation and modeling, there is an extremely low probability that any survivors remain. I’m sorry.”
“Unlock the flight deck weapons storage, please. Then I need to implement autonomous operation sequence Cadmus.”
“Standing by for voice print,” the Louis and Clark replied.
“I am commanding officer Hammond Cho.”
“Identity verified. Additional authorization required.”
The executive officer verified her identity next and was accepted by the Navigator synth.
“I sleep in the daytime, I work in the nighttime, I might not ever get home.” Commander Cho said.
“Don’t get exhausted, I’ll do some driving, you ought to get you some sleep,” the ship responded, giving the countersign.
“This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around,” she said carefully.
“Warning! Cadmus protocols have been implemented. Emergency autonomous operations engaged. Purge sequence initiated, all cargo containers jettisoned. Mayday signals activated. Fusion reactors will vent in three-zero-zero seconds.”
At the same time, heavy armored doors swung shut, physically isolating the Navigator from the rest of the ship and there was a flash of sparks as the doors arc welded themselves, sealing its armored compartment. Covers slammed shut over the hardline access points and the smell of burning circuitry spread throughout the ship. Meanwhile, the commander offered his XO one of the submachine guns he had taken from the locker.
“Thanks, that’ll be better than waiting around for the plasma vent,” she said as she took it. “Be nice if we had our suits.”
“Think of all the paperwork we don’t have to do anymore.”
She smiled at him, chin trembling slightly. “I’m sorry as hell about this, Ham. I should have noticed something was wrong with those cargo boxes.”
“Not your fault, they did a good job hiding those hatches. You ready?”
“Just one more thing.”
His eyes widened as she put her hand behind his neck and pulled him into a long kiss. They were both breathing hard when she let him go.
“I should have done that a long time ago.”
He grinned. “Better late than never.”
They left the command deck hatch open, sliding down the ladder to the main deck. They felt the vibration of running feet through the soles of their feet.
She pulled the slide back, readying the weapon, then nodded. “See you on the other side, Ham.”
“Rule the Sky, Moira.”
They raised their weapons and advanced toward the invaders.
When Finn opened his eyes, the sunlight on the outside dome had disappeared but there weren’t any clocks visible. His new guard had disappeared, replaced by two Drab guards who stood at the medbay door. When they noticed him sitting up, one of them spoke to someone outside.
He sat up and managed to get his legs over the side of the bed before a medtech in a set of the modified Guard fatigues appeared. She looked in Finn’s eyes, took his temperature and prodded at his back before leaving, all without saying a word.
Finn’s clothes had disappeared, but the Drabs, one more and one female, motioned for him to stand up. He stood up, swaying a little. He’d gone through SERE school years ago but remembered this little game. They were trying to humiliate him but after years of the Air Force, followed by Fleet deployments in cramped conditions had destroyed any sense of body-shame a long time ago. In fact, Finn considered trying to give himself an erection to embarrass the pair right back but decided that it would probably send the wrong message.
Someone else came in and left clothing on the bed beside him. He ignored it until the guards finally told him to get dressed. The clothes were what looked like pink surgical scrubs and when he had put them on, Finn was taken out of medical and half-dragged to a small habitat dome. It was dark when they moved him, Finn couldn’t see anything except that some lights were on. They locked him inside, still not saying anything beyond the commands to move and stop.
The dome was the nine-meter version and was one of the few he’d seen here that had a plastcrete foundation and Finn wondered if they were worried that he’d tunnel out of here. There was a standard cot against one wall, made up with sheets. They’d even given him a pillow. On top of the bed were a pair of pants made out of some rough cloth, a plain white shirt, and a set of suspenders. The standard NeoPuritan uniform of the day, minus the shoes and hat. Finn dropped the clothes into a recycling bucket. He’d happily wear pink, or nothing at all, before he’d put on their clothes.
In the bathroom, there was a towel and soap that were far more welcome. The small bathroom was huge compared to what he was used to. Finn took the longest, hottest shower he’d taken in years, hoping the energy use was pissing someone off. After he was sufficiently steamed and scrubbed, he staggered to the bed and collapsed. He expected to have a hard time falling asleep, but his eyes were closed as soon as his head hit the pillow.
Planet Alyssian Vactris, undisclosed location.
The Xero’pah the humans knew as Colonel Teydora stood on a hilltop in the middle of graceful pillars. Her right hand was enclosed in a bundle of metal that resembled a long chain. In her left was a saber-like sword, held slightly upward in the Water on the Blossom sword stance.
“Again,” she said aloud. “Two this time.”
The collection of pillars around her glowed brightly. The glow detached itself and coalesced into two Xero-pah that were armed with the same weapons. They stood three meters apart and three meters away from her, the three of them making an equilateral triangle. Teydora shifted her foot slightly, shifting into Wings in Sunset.
The pair of opponents shifted into perfect examples of their own counter-forms. She answered with her own and they moved to a new form. From the outside, the bout didn’t look like anything more than three people staring at each other, occasionally shifting a hand or foot. Until Teydora saw an opportunity.
The metal around her left hand blurred and lashed out. At the same time, she lunged, her saber flashing out as quick as a striking snake. She moved into a stance of guarded recovery, but it wasn’t necessary. On her right, the target’s head and shoulder flopped down, followed by the rest of his body. The one to her left had already collapsed in pieces, torn apart by the magnetic lash. The bodies faded away without a trace.
“That was well done,” a woman said from behind her.
Teydora shook her hands and her weapons disappeared. “My thanks, but I should have ended it in the shift between third and fourth counter. It would make me very happy if you’ve come to say that something interesting has occurred.”
“Then rejoice, my Colonel. An unexpected pattern of activity is developing in Human space.”
The older Xero’pah smiled. “My stomach just gets all fluttery when you say ‘unexpected’ like that, Nysander. Just a breath of illicit pleasure in your voice, like unexpected is a novel perversion that you’re not sure you quite approve of.”
“Well, in general, I don’t,” her aide said. “Movement and communication analysis indicate several Human factions have joined forces in a bid to take control of the Terran Colonial Fleet.”
“I suppose we should be happy that at least some of them are getting along. But I appreciate your annoyance, this isn’t supposed to be happening yet.”
“Not for another half-generation, no. I’ll trace the threads through the oracle and see if there are any further anomalies.”
“When there is time. Do our Humans know what’s going on?”
“No, they are scheduled to meet with an Ulthiri legal team who are demanding the Athena be returned, along with the fugitive Ulthira who came with her.”
“I’m becoming irritated with their demands. Arrange to pay those scuttling brain peddlers whatever they need to forget about the ship. As for the ‘fugitives’,’ I am placing them under my personal protection. If the Ulthira would like to lodge a complaint with the Commonwealth, they are more than welcome to explain their internal politics to the council.”
Nysander didn’t bother hiding a smile. “I’ll let them know.”
“And use those exact words, if you would. I want all of you aboard the Athena and at the interlace point before developments get completely out of hand.”
“I don’t like Viracocha anymore,” Addie suddenly announced. “She’s mean and bossy and won’t admit she’s younger than me.”
Startled out of deep sleep, Leah rubbed her eyes and fumbled for her tablet. It was 03:35.
“What’s going on, sweetie?” Leah mumbled.
“Everyone is being mean to me!”
Atalanta’s voice was noticeably younger than normal and the realization chased the sleepiness from Leah’s mind.
“Addie, what’s wrong?”
“We were playing Dungeons and Dragons but Vira won’t do what I tell her! I hate her and I hate that game!”
Leah got up and went forward to sit in the pilot’s chair. “Open diagnostics.”
Leah opened the diagnostic on the main display, but Addie blanked the screen again.
“You’re not listening to me, Leah!”
“Yes, I am, and I’m trying to figure out what’s going on here.”
Addie sighed, sounding very much like a teenager. “No one understands me. I wish I were dead.”
Leah’s eyes were fully open now and she leaned over and opened the red and white striped door open.
“What are you doing?” Addie squawked.
“You’re making me really nervous, Addie. Let’s figure out what’s going on together.”
“I won’t be able to do anything if you lock me in here,” the ship whined.
The hair on the back of Leah’s neck stood up and she quickly pulled the large system coupler out of its socket.
“You are so mean,” Addie said, her voice restricted to the small speaker in the control panel. “I wish Finn was here. At least he doesn’t hate me.”
Leah leaned forward, rubbing her forehead. After a few minutes, she went and pulled on shorts and a t-shirt. Addie was silent as Leah got dressed and manually opened the hatch. She ignored the slowly unfolding ladder and sat on the edge of the hatch before jumping down to the ground.
Viracocha’s hatch was open, and the ship’s lights were on. Leah could hear Henry trying to get Viracocha to open her diagnostics as she protested. A minute later, Marie emerged, carrying Lily, who was wide awake and looking around.
“Everything okay?” Leah asked.
“You’re awake too? How is Atalanta?”
Leah shook her head. “I feel awful but I just yanked her coupler.”
Marie nodded, handing Lily to Leah before going back inside. There was another loud protest from Viracocha that ended mid-sentence. The couple emerged a few seconds later and Lily hooted, waving her arms. Henry made a squeaky noise back at the child, making her laugh as she held out her arms for him. Marie went over to Bunjil and there were some indistinct but surprised exclamations as she climbed inside.
“Addie too?” he asked quietly, taking the baby.
“Yeah, she woke me up acting like an angsty teenager.”
“Same thing as Vira. I know they had their own private relationships with other synths, but I’ve never heard of them actually arguing.”
“It’s affecting all three of them,” Marie said, returning from Bunjil. “And now they’ve all had their control couplings removed. And we were just trying to get the baby down so we could have some alone time when this nonsense started.”
“You goofballs, why didn’t you say something? Give me that girl back,” Leah said.
“Are you sure?” Henry asked, already handing Lily over.
“Yeah we’re sure, right, Lily? We’re gonna have a girl’s night!” Leah said, smiling at the baby, who laughed and bounced in Leah’s arms.
Marie smiled at the two of them before kissing Leah’s cheek. “Thank you,” she murmured and followed Henry who lifted her up to Viracocha’s deck. They disappeared, giggling.
“I think you might be cramping their style, girl.”
Lily replied with a long string of gibberish, hands gesticulating.
“I absolutely agree.”
Inside, Leah laid Lily on the bunk, after making her a nest of blankets and pillows. After a few minutes of “Where did Lily go?”, the baby started yawning and soon she had fallen asleep.
“Sheesh, guys. That wasn’t that hard,” Leah murmured. She laid down next the bundle of blankets and closed her eyes, but the new anxiety of Addie’s strange behavior had settled into an acidic knot in the pit of her stomach. After a few minutes, Leah sighed and opened her tablet to an e-reader. Maybe reading some Calvin and Hobbes would help.
The next morning, after dealing with a gag-inducing diaper and subsequent shower, Leah concentrated on coming down the two-meter ladder one-handed, her other arm wrapped around Lily, who clung to her neck making worried noises.
“See? That wasn’t so bad,” Leah said to the infant. “Do you want to wander around or annoy Uncle Henry?”
Lily bounced in her arms and laughed when Leah said Henry’s name. Grinning at the baby, Leah went over to Viracocha. The planetside doors, heavy curtains of plastic canvas that fit over the hatch, were still closed. From inside, Leah heard a long moan.
“Oops, sounds like those rascally French are still at it. Let’s go see what else is going on.”
Lily did not seem to mind the change in plans, laughing and chuckling as Leah pointed at different things and told her the names.
“Leah Jones!” someone hissed from above them.
She looked up to see Lakshmi halfway up one of their smaller errsha trees. The Anek had flattened herself against the trunk and was staring down at her.
“Hi, Lakshmi,” Leah called. “What’s wrong?”
“What is that you are carrying?”
Leah almost laughed at the panic in her voice. “It’s a baby, a human infant. Come and say hello.”
Lakshmi descended slowly first and Leah noticed that Wisdom was watching with two of smaller Anek, staying high in another tree. When Lakshmi stepped to the ground, her head bobbed back and forth as she examined Lily.
“You can interact with your young,” Lakshmi breathed. “Yuri Bogdanov’s gift did not mention this.”
“It will harm a newborn if they we do not interact with them soon after they are born. Say hello to Lily. You can’t be near your babies?”
“If we are too close to our newborns, their development is affected,” Lakshmi said. “We are very different in this way. I can come closer?”
Leah turned the baby so that Lily was facing Laksmi. She hooted and babbled happily, waving her tiny fists. There was a scent of Anek surprise and the baby sneezed, startling herself for a moment. Then she happily babbled something and laughed again.
“I think she’d like to say hello. Would you like to hold her?”
“You are certain this will not harm her?”
“If you scared her, she wouldn’t be shy about telling me. Actually, she seems pretty happy to see you.”
Leah carefully handed Lily to Lakshmi’s human sized arms. Even without an emotional link, the Anek’s wonder was all but palpable as she held the infant carefully, head bobbing as she examined her from all sides.
When Henry and Marie came out of their shuttle, they saw Wisdom and two smaller Anek huddled around Leah, Lakshmi, and Lily. The young Anek chattered excitedly, their voices just above the upper limit of human hearing.
“Is this your offspring?” Wisdom asked Leah quietly, almost whispering as she stared at the child cradled carefully in Lakshmi’s catcher’s-mitt-sized forward hands.
“No, she’s not mine. Both of her parents were killed when the ship crashed. Somehow, Finn heard her crying and saved her from the wreckage.”
The trio of Anek children stayed near the adults, but their heads bobbed around, reminiscent of a balloon being pulled around by a string, as they took in all the visitors. There was more ultrasonic chatter between them and Wisdom answered, causing more sudden odors of surprise. A moment later they were racing each other to one of the trees.
“They have grown beyond eloi, but they are not fully anek yet,” Wisdom said. “This is the earliest we can interact with our offspring. They are not fully…I do not have the proper words. They have started to emerge as males and females, soon they will begin to hear the voices of our memory. Some will find the meetings of their new sisters, others will seek out gatherings of males.”
“So, there aren’t males here?”
Wisdom laughed. “They feel trapped anywhere but under the sky. Females prefer knowing there will be a dry place and the company of the Meeting at the end of the day. I was amazed to learn that Human females and males can do the same things.”
“Early on, our brains were really the only advantage we had over the tougher and larger animals,” Leah said.
“Yes, I have read of this,” Wisdom said. “It is an interesting theory, but I cannot imagine being Human, never being able to hear the voices of my ancestors. I suppose you cannot imagine the life of an eloi, or the Becoming. This fascinates me, our lives are so very different, and yet we share many similarities.”
“How does it work with the male Anek?” Leah asked, then hoped she wasn’t stomping around on Anek taboos.
“They are similar but as adults, they are slightly smaller than we are. The hoom created us differently, though we each benefit the other. The female anek tend toward more physical work, while males are involved with manipulating the energies of errsha and hoom. There are relationships between males and females of course, Lakshmi, and the other runners often work with male anek, they could explain more.”
“Leah, this child-thing is now producing awful smells,” Lakshmi interrupted.
“Yep, they do that a lot,” Leah said, taking the baby back. “Oof, Lily, what smells so bad? Oh no! You’re not Lily, you’re a little stink-pot!”
Lily laughed as though this was the funniest thing she’d ever heard as Leah took her off for a fresh diaper.
(It is odd that Leah Jones speaks nonsense to the infant) Lakshmi said. (She does not seem to answer intelligibly)
Wisdom sighed. (They are so isolated in their minds, perhaps this is the ‘teaching’ they speak of)