The slavers came that afternoon in their hover shuttle. Behind them, three columns of rolling soot stabbed into the sky, the only signs that there had been three other residence compounds on this mining site. But there had been no one there. To all appearances, the entire population of Sirius-Parnassus had retreated into the alpha compound. Transport vehicles and mechanical shovels had been piled up in layers around the central buildings. The Harnachi landed just beyond the makeshift barrier not knowing what to expect.
Three days ago an attempt had been made on their lives by these miners. This morning: three empty compounds. And now this, an entrenched resistance? The Sirians had not shown this kind of aggression in decades. They couldn’t possibly believe they could fight off five battlesuits. They had gone mad!
An amplified voice in Earth Standard, devoid of the Sirian accent, cut across the barren landscape and made the men in the battlesuits pause as they disembarked. “This is Palladia Conté, Earth United Navy Command. I will destroy the package if you make any hostile move toward this compound.” They froze. Her suspicions were confirmed. They knew the value of the package. She doubted they knew what it was, but whoever hired them to retrieve it had certainly impressed upon them the need to retrieve it intact.
The leader tried to bluff, threatening to reduce the entire compound to ashes. Palladia retorted, “And how will you explain a slagged hunk of ex-Navy property to your accomplice back at Navy Central?” She played that card blindly, hoping that the God that so far had had mercy on these people, the one that heard their blessings at meals, the one that gave them hope in the middle of despair, that He would extend that favor this once to her. He did. She had guessed right. It had been an inside job; which also explained why no one had come looking for her.
The battlesuits took a few steps back and entered an intense conference among themselves. Over the next few seconds, as she breathed again, Palli mentally surveyed everything she had told Vadere and Jmin’s cousin. They had to make it off the planet, they all had to, for their own sakes and for the sake of Civ Con internal security. There was a traitor, high enough inside Navy Central to mastermind this whole thing, probably profiting over the years from a cut of the black market trade, probably waiting for such a chance as this. They had to save themselves and let somebody know. Palladia gave the sign and the people of Sirius Parnassus started their Exodus.
She had held back until the very last minute. If she had been wrong, if these were just slavers, she would have destroyed the package and turned herself over to them. They would have let the Sirians live, after all they were their source of income. Once they left again, the comm beacon would have brought the authorities down. But if she was right about a traitor, the package was the only bargaining chip she had. Furthermore, if she was right, there was no guarantee that the first response to their beacon would be a rescue mission. She had no way of knowing how deep the corruption went inside Navy Central. No, if they knew about the package, if they were after it, then there was only one way out, to take their ship. And to do that, they had to strand them here.
Predictably, the men in the battlesuits spread out from their hover shuttle, giving themselves enough separation to attempt to triangulate the source of her voice. Jmin carried the pack of supplies, and Palladia carried the entropy exchange engine. Vadere led the rest of the people into the subway. They packed in, twenty to a tram, and started on the way to the launch pad. All Palladia and Jmin had to do was to slow down the slavers long enough for his people to get into the ship. Palli’s preprogrammed exo-suit computer would be enough to commandeer the ship’s auto-pilot and take them back to Sirius Prime.
The men zeroed in on the first trap, triggering a blast of mining explosive. It was not enough to destroy a battlesuit, but enough to make a mess of its visual relays. The men converged on their fallen comrade. That gave Jmin enough time to race to the hover shuttle and stuff one of his ‘packages’ into its cabin. By the time they turned around, Palladia and Jmin were past a hydraulic shovel and disappearing into the building behind it. They gave chase.
The battlesuits’ built-in force amplifiers gave them the ability to advance in 7-meter leaps. The shock of the first of them landing by the hover shuttle set off that explosive. One shuttle’s worth of shrapnel was enough to sever that suit’s air supply pipes. The others stopped the chase and proceeded to pulverize the building with cannon fire. When the smoke and dust settled, all that remained was a hole in the pavement: an entrance into the subway. The chase was on.
In the confined loading corridors of the subway, seven-meter leaps were useless. A planned series of explosions had turned the interconnecting corridors into a maze. However, it did not take the slavers long to realize that they could pummel their way through the concrete walls. That left the armored tunnels of the trams themselves as the only logical escape route. They reached the dock as Jmin’s and Palladia’s tram made it around the first bend.
The first man reached for the door of the next tram. “Don’t touch that tra—” The leader’s cry did not stop the man in time. The tram door exploded into the chest of the slaver. But the battlesuit held. “They are all booby trapped, you idiot. We don’t need them. These tunnels are wide enough for us.”
The men reached the first stopping station as the docking hatch was bolted from the other side. The leader walked up to it. His sensors measured the metal as a third of a meter thick. He charged his cannon. “Boss, the booby traps.”
“Keep your body shields forward. The shields in these battlesuits can take the blast of any mining explosive.”
“I wouldn’t try that.” The Terran’s voice cut into their comm link. Before he could say anything, she finished, “check the particle count.” There were a pair of simultaneous expletives and all four slavers stepped back, away from the hatch.
Their suit sensors calculated the yield based on the radiation coming through the door seams. “How the — Fifty kilotons!”
“Are you sure your battlesuit can survive that?” The tram took off for its next destination.
“How did you do that to their sensors?” Jmin turned momentarily from the tram’s control console. “That was barely over a gram of wax-load.”
Palladia was working on the floor of the tram, fully clad in a Hypermalon mining suit and face shield, sawing apart the remaining wax-load rod into seven more pellets. She pushed one of the pellets away from the rest, brought the tip of the entropy exchanger within an inch of it and slid the side lever to the maximum positive position. The air suddenly burst into life, blue streaks demarcated the boundary of the bubble, barely twice as large as the pellet, and the tram’s internal alarm sounded a train of radiation-limit warning beeps. “Time-forward,” she said, shrugging her shoulders in satisfaction. “I have just reduced the half-life of the material by 95%. If you didn’t know, and all you could measure was the particle flux, you’d think I had a hundred times the amount of material. I think we can proceed with our plan.”
“How long does it last?”
“Undisturbed, about half an hour, maybe one. But it’s weakly bound.” She touched the boundary of the bubble with the tip of the saw, and it vanished instantly. The tram responded with sudden silence.
The slavers bypassed the dock. They followed the maintenance tunnels away from the tram trackway, found a second parallel trackway, and returned by a secondary access tunnel three kilometers upstream. By the time they entered the dock through the back door the tram was long gone, as well as all trace of the nuclear device. “Where did they get it, how did they build it?”
“They mine the stuff boss.”
“Yes, and you are supposed to keep track of it all.” The leader took a threatening step towards the other man, his suit’s built-in weapons responding instinctively by targeting his head.
“I swear I did!”
The battlesuit spun in the air with a suddenness that matched the broiling temper of the man within it. “Where are they going? How many trackways are there like this?”
“I got it. A map of the subway.” The third man piped the images from the computer terminal on the wall to his comrades. And they saw where the tracks led.
Jmin finally succeeded in overriding the tram’s stopover program. They covered as much ground as they dared before stopping again. The dock at the foot of the mountain, 40 kilometers south of the landing pad, brought the six other trackways together. It was intended to be a redistribution point, a natural bottleneck. If they blocked all six trackways there, there was no way to bypass the main one. Each dock hatch was bolted and fitted with one of the wax-load pellets. On the outside of each hatch, Palladia spray-painted a simple message in Harnachi, “Back Off”.
“No! Not again! That’s impossible!” Each man reported the same thing, all doors were barred and booby trapped with medium yield nuclear tacticals. The leader paced back and forth across the trackway tunnel in furious impotence.
“What?” Palladia fought to regain her composure at the news from Jmin. “They haven’t taken off?”
“Vadere says everyone that can fit is on board now. It took a lot longer to dump their load and equipment than we thought. Some stuff they just couldn’t move out. A few families volunteered to stay and they are continuing north in the tram.”
“All right. One more stop.”
Jmin obeyed and docked the tram at the repair port right under the mountain. They were less than 25 kilometers from the landing pad. “Tell her to proceed with the countdown as soon as everyone is secured in impact cushions.” Palladia rolled the remaining pellet in her glove debating this last desperate move. “If those slavers get past us they’ll come out on the pad in time to see the takeoff. They won’t hesitate to shoot their own ship down. Let me have the lancet. And the heat-shrink foil.”
The leader fired one round of his cannon at the tunnel wall. The face of the solid rock splintered. He cranked up the output and fired again. This time a cubic meter of rock and iron exploded all around them.
“We can’t dig our way out. We are at least 30 meters below ground level.”
“You’ll set off the traps!”
“Listen!” The fourth man cut in between them. “The particle count. Listen!”
It was down. It was gone. The shocks had dislodged the bubble, and the pellet had returned to normalcy.
Jmin took out the torch and lit it. Palli knew that the glow she saw was but a tenth of the reality. Her world had been reduced to black and white over an hour ago. Since then the twilight kept getting uniformly deeper. The indirect heat of the torch made the wax-load pliable in her gloved hands, enough to wrap around the naked lancet. Then they added three layers of shrink-foil. “Do you know what I am going to do?”
“The moment this torch hits the foil, the damping wax in the wax-load will liquefy. As the wrap shrinks, the net density of the coating layer will effectively quadruple right as it hits the surface of the lancet. Critical mass. It will stop them.”
“Ehon would not approve.” Palli looked down at the black object she held in her hands. “They deserve it, you know.” She felt tears rolling down her cheeks. “But we’ll give them a chance. Ensign Palladia Conté wrote one last message on the outside of the hatch and bolted it. She prepared the entropy exchanger and nodded when she felt ready. Her hands followed Jmin’s. The flame struck the lancet. A fraction of a second later so did a time-back bubble. The chain reaction was frozen in time.
Jmin led her to the tram, shut the door, and set it racing for the launch pad. “In seventeen kilometers the trackway veers East. There is a meteoritic iron lode at the north foot of the mountain that the track circles. We may survive the explosion.”
Palli held his hand. She was glad to have his voice filling the darkness.
This one is real.
Detonation is set for 18:07, by the trams’ System clock.
The leader glanced from the words scribbled on the metal to the timepiece on the wall. It read 17:53. He could not understand the witchcraft she had used to make mere pellets of wax-load look like tactical warheads, but he would not be fooled again. This time the particle count barely amounted to one ton of yield. He would enjoy tearing this human apart personally. He loaded an armor piercing missile into his shoulder launcher and blasted through the hatch.
The bubble burst.
Time unfroze and set the chain reaction free.
The tram made it around the iron lode before the shock wave ripped the trackway in two. The mountain took the brunt of the explosion. One quarter of its south side was blasted into the atmosphere. The rest of it collapsed onto the crater left below.
Palli couldn’t tell when the rumbling stopped and was replaced by silence and total blackness. She tried to feel the touch of Jmin’s hand but it wasn’t there anymore. She could not even feel her own breathing. She tried to move her arm but it was as if her body was nonexistent. There was nothing, nothing but thought. She almost panicked but then she realized, it had all ended. The slavers had tripped the nuclear device. No battlesuit could survive that. The mountain would have shielded the ship. The Sirians had enough time to get off the planet safely… they must have… they had to have. Yes, by now they were probably joining their brothers and sisters in Sirius Prime, to start a new life.
It was the end of hers. She wished she could have seen them one last time. She wondered if, maybe, somehow, on this side of Life she could get to see Ehon again. But the memory that thought brought up hurt too much to hold on to it.
How can you move your fingers when you are dead, when you have no body? Why would the voice ask her to do such a ridiculous thing? “Ensign Conté, if you can hear me, please respond by moving your fingers.” The voice came through again, but this time from the outside. She had heard it. She had ears. She was breathing.
The transition from nothingness to being took several days. By the time it was complete, she could tell again when she went to sleep and when she awoke. She could tell when she was helped onto a wheel chair and rolled out into the sunshine and when she was brought back. She could feel, hear, smell, and taste. She was still in darkness but she could speak. Right on schedule the voice came back again. That day it was again accompanied by the touch of a hand, strong and older than hers. The doctor spoke, “How are you today, Palladia?”
“I can hardly remember what it was like in the nothingness.”
“No one has ever been kept in time-back stasis for two weeks. Now we know it can be done, and we know the disorienting effects it can lead to.”
“Glad to be of service, Sir.” She smiled.
“Your sense of humor is back. What can you remember?”
“Everything, up until the explosion. But the last few days are still blurry, it’s as if memories won’t stick.”
“Your brain has been working overtime to recover from extreme sensory deprivation. That is its first priority. Forming memories comes next.”
“Not erasing them, huh?”
“Are there some you would like erased?”
“There are some things…” she had to pause to keep her voice from breaking “…some things it would have been better not to have seen, Sir.”
“I assure you, Ensign, there are many of us veterans who understand full well the way you feel.” To her unasked question he added, “We have to go on.”
“When can I go home, Sir?”
“Following their instructions, the bandages over your eyes come off today.”
“We found you on a Harnachi ship drifting towards Sirius Prime, alone except for one young man standing guard. And he would have fought us to the death if we hadn’t been able to prove we were from the Earth United detachment. He had been there for two weeks, keeping you in a time back bubble, waiting for us to respond to the beacon. When we proved our identity to his satisfaction, he told us the full story of what happened in Sirius Parnassus and turned you over to our care with a full set of instructions from their doctors.”
“You mean, the Sirians never left? But — How are they?”
“They are all fine. They are rebuilding. What they do best.
“A CivCon shuttle runs supplies now every week between Sirius Phoenix and their colony. Some have even taken the shuttle back to meet family lines they had thought lost forever.”
Palladia smiled and felt a tear roll down the side of her cheek.
“Over all you have a clean bill of health. Your body suffered severe blast trauma — pulmonary contusion, kidney and heart damage. It was all repaired. Torn renal artery and vena cava were both replaced with internal thoracic arteries. That Deneuvian immune system of yours did the rest. There was no permanent radiation damage, except…”
“My eyes.” She finished for him. “I know. I have been thinking about it. I’d like to remain in the service. I know that synthetic vision implants are not good enough to support field service, but there’s the tactical office, and the research division.”
“Ensign, you don’t understand. Here.” He started to unwrap the bandages. As each turn came off, a whiteness that defied description started to creep into her consciousness. She flinched. He paused. When she relaxed, he went on. The whiteness had color. “They are perfectly healthy,” he continued. “They are not showing any sign of rejection.” He removed the last winding and gently lifted off the cotton pads. She kept her eyelids closed, afraid of waking up. “Go ahead, open them.”
She did. She was in a shuttered room, a hospital room. His face, like the wall, was not quite in focus. “But How? How?” Tears were piling up at her eyelids.
“As far as we can tell you were in the hands of expert transplant surgeons. There is much we could learn from their technique. Every repair was done with donated tissue.” An inexpressible warmth pressed into Palli’s chest as he went on. “Cell scan confirms it was all Sirian… including two donated eyes.” The tears crested again. “DNA shows filial match on those: brother and sister.”
Palli bowed her head to let those tears escape and somehow find her breath again. On looking up, the Doctor had a mirror before her and a fan of thin correcting lenses. “The match to the retina is very close and so is the fit within the ocular cavity. We figure this much correction,” and he held a thin lens in front of her right eye, “will be enough to restore perfect vision.”
It was. The world came into perfect beautiful focus, his face, the wall, the reflection in the mirror. And the rest of the tears finally poured out, as she saw her own eyes looking back at her, glowing in deep purple.
“A very slight reshaping of the corneas with standard photorefractive surgery will be enough to —”
“Oh, don’t.” She covered her eyes instinctively. “Please. I can wear corrective lenses, right? Sir?”
“Yes, Ensign, of course.” He stood up. She fell silent. “Let me know if you change your mind. Otherwise you can go home tomorrow and renew your tour of duty in two weeks.”
“Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir.” He didn’t let her stand and salute.
After he was gone, she had to get up, walk around that room, and verify every sight with a touch. It was all real. She could close her eyes again without fear of that nightmare ever returning. And so she did… leaning her head against the wall.
And in that brief quiet darkness, she thanked them across the distance for their gifts.