That first night, when they successfully hid her, the public beatings were half-hearted and the interrogations cut short. Everyone could tell that the Harnachi had to go somewhere else, that they stopped on the planet only because they had detected her ship in orbit. Her suit had no weapons but while the slavers were tending to the unloading of waste bins she could have slipped into their ship and sabotaged it. They didn’t bother to leave a guard on their ship, they thought they were dealing with ignorant miners.
“Look, Ehon, I don’t see any other option!” She had stopped tempering the volume of her voice. “There’s enough firepower in those battlesuits they are wearing to level a small town. If I just take off in their ship, and manage to dip behind the horizon before they shoot me down, what do you think they’ll do? They’ll get rid of all the evidence. There won’t be a man, woman, or child left to tell what happened in this colony.” She spun to face his yellow-green eyes squarely. “There is no scenario in which I can leave one of them down here with you while I go get help. The only way is to destroy the ship on take-off, with all of them in it.”
“We will not murder another human being.”
“They gave up the right to be called human long ago! I saw what they did this afternoon. I talked to Vadere. I know what they are capable of.”
“We will not murder.”
He would not. They had no compunction against it.
It was a strange résistance that caused no direct pain, inflicted no direct casualties on the enemy but still it accomplished a purpose. Ehon, Vadere, her brother Jmin, and a handful of others had been subtly working to shorten their oppressors’ visits as much as possible, while at the same time scavenging enough equipment from the slavers’ discards to build a high-power radio transceiver. If the Harnachi radar could penetrate the ionosphere so should their signal. The night Palladia arrived had been the night they had scheduled to make their first long distance transmission test, bouncing a signal off one of the dead orbiting satellites.
As always, they first trained the transceiver, in receiving mode, on the night sky and listened for the Harnachi ship, even though they did not expect them to be back for at least a week. Their bi-weekly incursions had been stretched out to monthly stopovers for the last one hundred days. They were not supposed to be there that night, but they were. Somewhere below the horizon, their landing radar had already been trained on their planet.
And then a deafening burst of suit-to-ship telemetry screeched into the night, heterodyning through their transceiver’s audio-relays, turning the Sirians’ disappointment into panic. They followed the interference racket up the hill, not knowing what to expect — certainly not one of them. But that’s what she had looked like, in full exo-suit.
The sheer terror at being discovered, after being so close, was what sent Vadere into hysterics. She had rushed at the mechanical monster, trying to draw all attention to herself, instinctively shielding her beloveds, hoping that her brother and her husband would run off into the darkness undetected. Jmin was the first to realize the difference in the suit. But it was little consolation. Even if they had not been discovered yet, they would be if they stayed there. One look at the instrument Ehon was carrying confirmed it. The Harnachi ship was out there, its thrusters were firing, and it was headed their way. Even if they had not heard Palladia’s transmission, they surely had seen her ship in orbit.
Palladia joined their résistance that day. Melanin enhancers quickly darkened her ivory skin to the deep mahogany typical of Sirio-Parnassians. Vadere made her a Hypermalon body suit. One of the optical engineers fashioned her a pair of non-refracting whole-eye contact lenses as an additional safeguard behind the shielding goggles she wore any time she stepped outside the subway tunnels. Their conventional miner’s face mask provided sufficient Radon filtering, as long as she kept up with her daily radiation-blocker dose. The drug, formulated for Sirians, seemed to be working adequately for her. Her Navy training and her undergraduate avocation of electrophysics proved a boon to their radio project. Parts they had never thought of stealing and parts cannibalized from her exo-suit soon gave their transceiver military comm band capabilities.
And then they found it.
“Palli, we found the parcel.” Ehon ushered a cousin of Vadere and Jmin to the meeting table. “Viviana told Anachelle who passed it on to Motad. He verified it while refurbishing their filters. It’s in their ‘planning room’ in the temporary quarters they use during ship decontamination. Viviana heard them talking in Earth Standard over their comm link. She says they were able to open the outer casing but the package inside is sealed. They are afraid of taking it inside their ship, something about self-destructing Navy property.”
Palli managed a smile at that. It had been two months since she had landed. The slavers had picked up the screaming parcel that first night, but no one had heard of it or seen it since then. But after a week, they never left their camp unmanned. One of them remained behind, every time the ship left. Since then a rolling uneasiness, beyond the obvious threat to her life, had kept Palli’s nights short and her sleep light.
If the parcel contained classified data, to whom would they sell it? Civ Con had enemies. How much damage could it do? And how much of it would she be responsible for?
If she had only reported the misplaced buoy instead of trying to repair it… If she had relayed her findings up the chain of command rather than chasing the parcel here on her own… someone else would have come for it, with a real ship and real weapons. But then again, the Navy may have just given the parcel the self-destruct command, and no one would have ever known about Sirius-Parnassus or its indomitable people, with eyes of deep purple and blazing golden-green, able to survive the most brutal environment ever seen by man or ever made by man.
“They are negotiating with someone to take a look at the crypto-lock,” the young man went on.
That was bad news. They had to do something, quickly. “They’ll have to bring whoever it is here themselves, probably blindfolded. They are not about to give out this little secret to anyone. That means there will only be one of them down here for the next couple of days, guarding it as usual.” Palladia paced the floor as her plan fell into place. The active mode of the communications beacon package in the parcel’s case had more than enough range to reach the nearest Civ Con outpost. That meant they could risk sacrificing their present radio transmitter for it.
She reviewed once again the wall map of the original colony. Three mining sites had been set up at the corners of an equilateral triangle 200 km on the side, each one originally intended to support ten residential compounds. The northern two mining sites had been abandoned long ago and the population moved to four residential compounds in the southern site. The slavers had taken over the landing pad at the center of the triangle. There they set up camp, collected their deliverables, and handed out the supplies that kept their ‘workforce’ alive. “They don’t know that the subway trams are functional, do they?” She addressed both Ehon and Vadere.
“We have not used them in over twenty years. They consume too much power.”
“But they are so conveniently arranged. What is their top speed?”
“Eighty kph, but they are forced to stop at every station between centers.”
“Still, we could use the landing pad track to slip under their camp undetected. With only one of them here, and careful coordination, we should be able to hide your radio unit and other equipment in this alcove adjacent to their planning room. We’ll place the lookout in this building across the road facing the room. Then we wait for their return. When they open the external casing’s crypto-lock, they will have less than three minutes to open the inner one before the parcel goes into self-destruct mode. However, we can reset the clock.” Ehon’s reaction made her pause. “No, I am not going to blow them up.
“Listen. An exposed inner casing has minimal shielding from electromagnetic interference. They were never designed to be opened in this kind of atmosphere. In less than fifteen seconds the constant bombardment of ionizing radiation will have created enough microplasma inside the casing to turn the whole thing into one continuous antenna. A single high-power noise burst from your radio, and every exposed card connector will arc, making the parcel think it is being torched open. It will switch immediately to self-destruct mode, sound the seal-breached klaxon, flood the area with a noxious warning gas, and start a 30 second countdown to detonation. That will give them enough time to get out of there.
“While they are high-tailing it, I go in, use my Navy ID strip to stop the countdown, and sequester the package and case. In twenty seconds we are back in the subway tunnel and you detonate a dig-explosive in the adjacent room.” There was a minute of silence. Palladia stepped away from the table. All acknowledged the risk, but no one could find a flaw in the plan. “They’ll think it was an accident. Then, next time they leave we use the package’s beacon to contact the Navy… and the nightmare is over.”
The plan worked.
The radio burst triggered the parcel’s self-destruct mode. Three of the men in battlesuits were out of the building in an instant. The other two had to drag the shocked Buden-Ami crypto-hacker out of the room by the frame of his environmental suit. Ensign Palladia Conté raced into a rapidly darkening room. Within three paces the table had disappeared. She stumbled into it, fumbled for the parcel and felt its klaxon shrieking through her bones. The next second she realized what was happening.
The warning gas was attacking the surface of her goggles, pitting them into opacity. She snapped them off and with them the miner’s mask. She had twelve seconds of visibility before her contacts suffered the same fate. Her Navy strip did the job, she managed to unlatch the parcel and almost make it out of the room, out the wrong door.
She ran into the side of one of the slavers, coming back with a blast confinement crate. He almost saw her, but Ehon was there, with a mining torch. With one sweep he cut clean through the battlesuit’s air supply pipes. The man’s survival instincts took over and he blasted his way out of the building. Ehon had enough time to shove Palladia into the subway tunnel and seal the floor. He set off his own explosive just as a second armored man rammed through the wall into him.
“Palli, Palli, wake up.”
She did, in mid scream. Instantly self-conscious she wiped away the sweat at her brow and the tears in her eyes. The first flickers of dawn were shining through the Himalon curtain. If she concentrated she could still make out the color. She sat up and forced composure onto every part of her body.
Steady! She ordered herself. But the vestiges of the nightmares refused to let go of her consciousness. Both nightmares had ganged up on her that night. The first one had come to her many times since she had joined these people. It was built on the memories of her night of arrival. It ended the same way every time: They dropped the pod. They ran. They made it to the outermost house of the compound and then the shrill whine of a particle beam sliced across their backs and ended it all.
She did not need a Psych-Counselor to interpret that dream for her. She’d rather be dead than face this, than being responsible for all their lives. The second recurring nightmare was only two days old. It always followed the first in the penumbra of half-wakefulness, when her mind realized that she did not really die that first night. It came in a train of sickening jerks, the way her dazed mind had recorded it.
They herded Ehon’s whole family to the platform in front of their ship. They didn’t even bother to bind his broken arm. A shipping container of warhead lancets lay open on the table. With a barrage of filthy language laced with vicious threats, the towering leader of the slavers made it clear that the only reason any Sirian was alive was to supply them with the objects of their trade. He picked up one of the lancets and with a quarter of a turn unlocked its damping sheath, drawing out the uranium core. Palli flinched as the man’s battlesuit particle counters loudly protested the radiation bombardment.
He paused to admire the smooth conical surface, a 25-centimeter radioactive spear-head perfectly shaped to fit the nose of hypervelocity projectiles. The slaver smiled a cruel smile as his glove’s mechanical fingers traced the surface down to its glistening needle-like point. Then with a savage thrust he plunged the lancet into Ehon’s chest.
Palli couldn’t shut her eyes in time. She saw the metal flash in a burst of intense light and heat as water-filled tissue and solid bone reflected back the neutron flux onto its blazing surface, flash again and again in a boiling chain reaction that consumed everything around it, flash until sinew and tendon caught on fire… and a man was reduced to a smoldering heap before her very eyes.
She was glad she was going blind. She kept telling herself that when her physical sight was gone, then too would be gone the nightmare. If she could only turn time backwards. But that’s not what the parcel could do.
The Harnachi ordered their workforce back to their compounds while they searched through the rubble. And that night Palli finally understood the stakes.
“It’s an entropy exchange engine.” The involuntary wonder in Palli’s voice drew the huddled group around the dining table even closer to the treasure from the parcel. She would have smiled, broadly, giddily, if this had been anywhere else, any other time; but the nightmare hurt too much. She started to explain. “They have been around for forty years but never this size. This — it’s the size of a palm-top comm unit. The new one built at the Navy Research Labs last year occupies a room as large as your subway docks.” She paused, not sure how to explain any more in terms of their technology. “I don’t understand the miniaturization technology. The documents call it gauge bonding. But the device works the same as the standard units: It makes time displacement fields.”
“You can tamper with time?”
“No, not time travel… bubbles of local time distortion. They attach to high density objects, like metals. A time-forward bubble accelerates local time; a time-back bubble slows it down. The medical applications alone are staggering, and they are finally possible.” She picked up her water cup and swept the tip of the machine past the spot where it had been standing. Then she turned the cup upside down. The water poured out, hit the table, and suddenly stopped, or almost seemed to. Before their eyes the liquid continued to splash upwards and outwards in slow motion. Like a crown of transparent gelatin it grew in size, splintered into spheres, and coasted off the edge into a shower of beautiful parabolic strands.
In seconds, the pieces returned to real time and plummeted to the ground. Jmin and the others had to touch those wet spots to convince their senses that this had really been water. Vadere’s purple eyes went up from her fingertips to stare off into space for a second, with the same wonder that had momentarily taken over Palli. Then reality also brought her back. “Is it a weapon?”
“It could be. Theoreticians at the De Broglie Institute believe it could be the foundation of a new kind of transluminar propulsion.”
“For this they kill…”
Memories had to yield again to the reality of the new day. Palli shook her face. To keep the nightmares away she had tried to stay awake. But sometime, in the middle of the night, her body had wrested control over her will and cruel sleep took over, until morning brought a respite. She stifled a deep sigh. She was their only hope now, she told herself; she was trained for this.
“It’s OK.” The voice’s kindness matched the glow in those purple eyes. Palli steeled herself at that meeting of eyes. She couldn’t let them see how scared she was. How could Vadere’s eyes be so steady? Her hand tightened around Palli’s momentarily, and she felt the answer. The strength within the older woman ran throughout her whole being. It was an integral part of her, of them. How else could they have survived this long? Even when the world fell apart, they stood. Even when the past was inconsolable and the future unbearable, they stood.
Tears welled up within her eyes as the mixture of fear and shame returned. She forced herself to stand up. In a controlled daze, she made her way to the breakfast table. Jmin prayed the blessing over the meager fare. Palladia Conté, counted off her options in silence with every bite of the olive flavored bread. She ran out of them and of appetite at the same time. Without a word, she stood up with her plate and walked away from the table. Stopping at the recycle bin, she found herself kissing the remainder of that slice of bread before throwing it away — like they did, like Ehon used to do.
The recycle bin vanished with those thoughts into the shadows of her peripheral vision, and she turned to the breakfast table again. “We know they have been going through the debris the past three days. It’s only a matter of hours now before they figure out that the package was not destroyed. They’ll come and they won’t stop until they find it.” A look around the table confirmed there was no last-minute change of heart.