".....stop her going around. It's not right."
"We can't prevent her from doing anything, Rex. Or do you want Thomas to start spinning his grave right this second?"
"You leave him out of this. Have some respect for... Father? I wasn't expecting you to be here tonight?"
"Gentlemen. I see Tobias is up to their old tricks again."
"Just a precaution, Father. She
was in here the other day, we can't be too careful."
"I hardly think the Lieutenant would be so callous as to wire tap us, so to speak."
"I don't doubt it, but we need to be sure. Toby?"
"...Nothing. Place is clean, far as I can tell."
"Thank you. Now please, back to your post."
"You expecting trouble, Seth?" pondered the Father.
"Ask Jorge if he thinks we shouldn't."
"Ah yes, the grain theft."
"More like vandalism..." sighed the guard.
"It was only a small store, was it not? Surely it's a limited loss."
"It's the bigger picture, Father," said Seth. "A success there spells doom for the other stores."
"Was it Lieutenant Gailler's pirates?"
"No, it was Gailler herself," Rex snorted.
"It surely is an extreme measure," Seth said.
"Then you're naive to the depths they'll sink."
"Tabitha? When did you get here?"
"Since when was I barred?"
"Never barred. But Frankell told me you and he had crossed words?"
"Yes, concerning the Lieutenant in fact. Like you Father, he underestimated her zeal to persuade us. And it cost him his husband's life."
"Surely you can't
"That is a little extreme, Tabitha."
"Scoff all you want, Seth. I know I am right. And you are all fools to believe anything but."
us, Miss Wells."
"Frankell? What are you doing here?"
"I came to voice my opinion. Provide my support."
"You may be Thomas' widow, but you are not an elder."
"I was welcome when he was alive."
"That was his prerogative. Those days are past... The door is behind you..."
"...Was that wise, Tabitha? We need strength in this time. Excluding Frankell isn't a good idea."
"You think yourself already elected, don't you Seth? You're already packed and ready to move into his house."
"And you have become far colder and more cynical since he died. There was a time when that friction helped us all, kept our interests alight, made a competition worth striving for. Now it's just dividing us."
"Divide and Conquer, that is the military's moto, Seth. You should do well to remember that."
"Ladies, Gentlemen, please," interjected the Father.
"Mike-One to Command," Gailler's radio suddenly squelched, drawing her attention from the speaker. "We have Indigos in Oscar-Zulu. How should we proceed?"
"Range?" asked her staff sergeant, Hills.
"About, twenty meters."
"Can they see you?," Gailler said.
"Black as pitch out here, Ma'am. And they've got fire on sticks."
"Is that a 'no', trooper?" Hills said.
"Fire's playing hell with the night vision."
"Switch to infra-red. Stay on target. Inform us if they get any closer."
Gailler turned back to the speaker, Tabitha Wells was preaching.
"I've worked on a least one I.L.M colony. They're run on efficiency, which means they'll do everything necessary to attain success. You got a rock in the way, they'll remove. Need a mountain side base, they'll haul out the rock and settle in fast. They want you to have a defence grid, they'll make you have one."
"But murder, Tabitha?" said Seth. "I can't believe that they would do that."
"Thomas was an obstacle, Rolt. And what do you do with obstacles that can't be circumvented?"
"This doesn't help to decide what we can do," the Father said. "If we react they will surely shut us down."
"We could ask them to leave?" Jorge said, Wells strangling a derisory laugh.
"They will go once they have what they want."
"According to Malcolm," said Rex, "there are already satellites in orbit. I guess they have already built this grid."
"Then what do they need us for?"
"Insurance, Father," said Wells. "Somewhere to house control systems for the grid. If only Thomas had recognised our need to declare capital status."
"Surely we're not large enough?" Seth said.
"Doesn't matter. Even a contested claim is enough to keep foreign debris out of our skies. The I.L.M has to respect the contest until a clear winner is defined and their approval sought."
"Why didn't Thomas declare this?"
"He was afraid it would draw competition to the planet," said Rex. "I heard him talking about it once. Filing paperwork would have alerted others to this place and that usually brings competition looking for colony planting."
"If he had done it," sniffed Wells, "we wouldn't have some military patsy pestering our village. But as it stands, we're just would-be claimants. In law we have as much right to be here as the I.L.M have to set up their array."
"Then surely it's a forgone conclusion?" Seth said. "We allow them access, we control the yoke. Better to have a foot in the door and then be left outside in the cold."
"But Thomas never wanted that! He never wished us to be part of that thing
"Rex, Thomas wanted us to be free. Surely this ensures that freedom?"
"From what?" snapped Wells. "Certainly not the military. We agree to this they'll be here for decades and we won't ever be free again. First it's control systems, then a staff for maintenance. Then a base to keep them safe followed by a ship to keep it safe. And then constant resupply. In the end they are the power, with the capital. And we are the lambs who willingly gave themselves to the slaughter."
"Then what about these pirates? What happens when they show up?"
"You mean 'if'. Don't be mutton, Rolt. There are no pirates. It is just them
trying to scare us."
"By killing our leaders?"
"It is all tactics, and little more. There is no pirate threat, just a military one. And if you buy into it, you'll be guilty of killing the dream we set out here to create."
Gailler turned from the speaker to Hillls, "Well, they are certainly divided."
"But is it enough to gain traction?"
"Depends. We need proof. Anything on your front?"
"Potentially. It might not be much however."
"Anything is better than nothing. Just the concept might frighten them."
"What about something more potent. An attack for instance."
"With a terrible death toll? We are trying to persuade, not depopulate. This could go either way. We need just enough to push them into Rolt's camp. But too much and it'll be Wells who wins and then we'll never see cooperation. At least not until it is too late."
"There's always plan B..."
"I'll voice that at sit-rep tomorrow. See what command thinks," she looked over to the burbling speaker, the actors within championing and dismissing their ideas oblivious to their presence. "Wrap it up, I've heard all I can."
"Mike-Alpha-One," Hills said into his radio. "Withdraw from Oscar-Zulu and extract to command."
His radio squelched as the surveillance team acknowledged and stowed the directional-mic, the speaker fading into nonchalant static a moment later.
Commander Dross made a face and turned to his second, Lt. Rebecca Chort. "Options?"
Their image flickered as the officer brushed invisible dust from their uniform. "Considering the impact so far, I agree with Lieutenant Gailler's assement. We just need one good push and we'll have their support."
"Status of the array?" Gailler said.
"About ninety percent complete," Dross informed. "We can see most of the skies but naturally that effect will end once we leave. Should we get clearance, how fast can we install."
"We'll be setup inside of a day," Gailler nodded with assurance. "We just need a place to plug it."
"Power?" said Chort.
"On-site batteries. In time that could be updated to either solar or Are-Tee-Dee-Compacts."
"Presuming you win access for those."
"That may happen in time," Dross said. "But on the short term, batteries are best. We'll need to visit occasionally to smooth out any interface issues. How effective would an on-site staff be?"
"There is some fear against that, for it implies additional interference."
"What do they think we are?" frowned Chort. "Colonisers?"
"Conquistadors, of course."
"I... don't get the reference."
"I feel that this attitude would fail should the staff 'muck in', get involved with the crops and become part of the community rather than remain outside of it."
"Then we will need specialist staff for this gig?"
"Seems like. It would keep more vocal assets subdued."
"Miss Wells?" Dross said.
"And should the worst come to pass? I assume you have an alternative?"
"Yes, Sir. There is a mine to the east which they have begun excavating for base metals."
"Anything of note?"
"We found a vein of silver and deeper still, possibly diamond."
"That would give them some bartering power," Chort said looking to Dross' hologram.
"But they wouldn't use it. Their goal is to maintain this... perfect existence and keep certain amenities to a minimum. Precious minerals for instance. Besides, some would say that food and water are of greater value."
"Agreed. So this mine would be a good location?"
"We could blow the entrance to the inner caves. We have already found a few entrances that the locals are unaware of. Control infrastructure could be built in more or less the same amount of time as the village build."
"Issue would be maintenance," Chort said. "If we were to keep it a secret."
"Fallout if we didn't?" Dross said.
"Limited," said Gailler. "But all it would take is a lucky hit to cripple our network."
"Best they don't know. What of the Hills' package?"
"And ready for deployment?"
"Yes, Sir. Though where to release, is something we are debating."
"Near the population centre," Chort said. "They've felt the pinch on their crops and stores. If one death is not enough then perhaps the threat of more than one will tip the balance."
"But for whom, Sir? Wells or Rolt."
"Mutton, or lamb... Target the children. Adults are expected to hold their own. But children are always seen as innocents. And danger to them will always dictate where one's loyalties lie."
"And what of the package?"
"We'll leave its disposal to your discretion," Dross nodded. "Keep us informed. Report complete. Command out."
Their holograms flickered from view and the comm. line closed. Gailler tapped at her Feed interface and cancelled the eye-bot's overlay, the stark environs of her command tent brightening as the filters fell away from the natural sunlight that was pushing in through the canopy's transparent roof.
Her orders were clear. The end was finally in sight. But she had one last voice to probe before the end, just to be sure.
"And what can I do for you, my child."
"Your openness is astounding!"
"Why?" said the Father within the environs of his open-air church, its boundary denoted by pillars of rock and slabs of stone for the parishioners to sit upon. "Because I am not filled with wariness for your agenda."
"You don't fear it? That I might ruin this place?"
"In what way? Our cynicism is more of a hindrance then anything you can do."
"Tabitha calls that blind optimism."
"We must forgive her, she is concerned that Thomas' memory will be tarnished by changes he never sanctioned. Of course he often changed his mind. Thus, I feel he may have come round to another way of thinking."
"So, I will have your blessing?"
"Contrary to popular belief, I am not some simpleton who fails to grasp the notion of military duplicity. Before I was a chaplain here I too served with the Inter-League Military, as Tabitha once did. However, whereas she was their guest for one project, I was on tour multiple times, giving peace and benefit to the many within our house. I helped all creeds as best I could, to come to terms with the isolation they felt out there. In the Big Black. So I know
. And whilst I understand that there are certain pressures, I will not bow to the possibilities presented."
"Like Rex does."
"Mister Shart is a reactionary, for obvious reasons. His loyalties lie with the one who knows their own mind the most. The one who acts, much as Miss Wells is prone to do."
"She blames me, y'know? For Thomas..."
"I do. But you are not to blame. These things happen. They are tragic..."
"And through tragedy one can garner support. Hence Tabitha's caution."
"That is true. But to assume one transgression simply for another's gain... defeats the purpose of this colony. It is an insult to Thomas to assume such."
"Then you feel the colony would back me."
"Some would. But perhaps another misfortune would cement the doubters."
misfortune? What precisely are you saying?"
The Father shrugs and looks to the hills. "It is a simple matter of fact. We do need protection, much as Miss Wells would like to assume we need anything but. Even the implication of threat is enough to drive need. And I have seen what such callous wisdom can lead to. I have walked through what remains. It is not pretty, nor can one bring back the dead. Counselling the survivors is an unenviable job, one that is made all the worse by raw recrimination, especially should the naysayers be amongst those that made it through. I have seen it, I know it to be true. Thus, whilst the drive for change is strong, it needs to be strengthened."
"How? More store break-ins? Fire? Death...?"
"Whatever the requirements might be, I think you already know what is needed."
"... May God have mercy on my soul..."
"The benefits for us all, outweigh the cons."
"But the price..."
"Is worth it. And we will cherish the memory in the only way possible. By surviving."
Hill's package was a sorry looking wretch, a glim looking waif that he had apprehended upon the outskirts of the colony. They looked through the bars with such smudged dirty features, almost too thin to be healthy... or real.
"Fatten him up."
"In a day?" Hills frowned.
Gailler looked between the waif and the staff sergeant. "I can hardly sell the threat if it looks like this. A pirate should at least look like they could pose a threat, not collapse at a slight gust of wind."
The young creature looked back, eyes near sunken, cheeks hollow and skin ghost white and cracked dry.
"We think their ship is some miles distant."
"Did they come here just to break locks?"
"And start fires."
"Their attacks are small but I reckon they will gain strength once we leave."
"The array will track them one way or another."
"Then we owe it to these people to find their ship and shut it down before we go."
"I agree. Any hints from this one?"
Hills shook his head, "none. I feel he doesn't know. Sometimes they put out strays just to scout. Reward is survival and... loot."
"Food, water. Riches."
"So there could be others."
"And the threat they pose?"
"We have them locked up. I'll deploy as you see fit."
"Lieutenant Gailler?" said a voice from the door.
"What is it Corporal?" Hill's called.
"Messenger from the town. They want to see you."
"Who does?" Gailler said turning from the prisoner.
"Someone called, Wells?"
She sighed. "Keep monitoring the situation. I'll return presently."
The Rover pulled up at the central house and Gailler disembarked. More villagers appeared to be armed and others had assembled packs of dogs, often used for hunting. She could feel an atmosphere of tension creeping into the daily lives of these people though she wasn't sure why.
She knocked on the door but the person who opened it was not Tabitha.
"Hello again, my child."
"Where is Tabitha. She... summoned me."
"Fret not what the Lord asks of those he calls upon."
"Is that some Bible speak or something?"
"Only an assurance that we can but do our best. Tabitha was here but she left to be with her flock."
"The children. She teaches them after all."
"The school house is over there."
Nodding to the driver, signalling him to wait, she made her way to the squat building up a rise. It was the only building equipped with a small tower and a bell and clock within, which rung at the start and end of the day's lessons. It had been an impressive sight until Renk-Tollen had showed the inner workings and she realised the clock was but a facsimile for the real thing, the time changed manually, the bell rung by hand. 'A work in progress' he had described it.
The whole colony was a work-in-progress as far as Gailler was concerned. And in this moment of crisis it was starting to show the loose threads at its seams.
She found the kids gathered within, Wells at the front drawing diagrams on the chalk-board. "Finally!" Tabitha pouted and opened a door at the back, proffering it towards the lieutenant.
Once within she closed and locked
the door. Gailler looked between her and the door. "You try anything, I am trained in close-quarters-combat techniques."
"I'm sure you are. I'm sure every member of your camp is a trained killer."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"You weren't satisfied with our caution, so now you've taken to kidnapping our youngest, our frailest."
"To what are we referring, Miss Wells?"
"Don't play coy with me."
"Then I really must demand you come clean."
"Toby Rolt, our youngest child did not come to school today."
"And this has what
to do with me?"
"He was last seen playing near your camp with two of his brothers."
"Then hadn't you best ask them?"
"They are here and they say that Toby was particularly unwell this morning. I called round to see his Mother, but she asserts he left this morning."
"So he is playing truant. This is unusual for you?"
"Of course not!" Tabitha shook. "But it is for Toby. He has always been sickly, the runt of the litter if you will."
"If you must..."
"Last winter he almost didn't survive. Despite swearing off of such things, Renk-Tollen was forced to deploy a medical rig to keep him from death's door."
"Surely that is what such things were designed for?"
"To plug drugs and artificial nanites into a young body? That is precisely the reason many of us came here, to escape such false lives, our mortality propped up by fake medicines."
"Then why bring such systems with you? Surely the alternative is to allow him to... go. As nature demands it."
"That is unacceptable, and you know it."
"Then why decry the situation?"
Tabitha shuddered out a breath. "It made us question where we stood in regard to our principles. Some thought we had betrayed them by giving in to modern medicine. By taking the easy way out."
"As opposed to what? I'm sorry, Miss Wells, but you're preaching to the wrong person. I would have done what was necessary and not regretted it. If it is what was needed..."
"What about the next winter or the one after. What if that wretched rig is needed every time someone falls ill?"
"The rig is but one issue, surely?"
"Well what about a premature birth; a complication in the womb; a genetic aberration causing issue for both mother and child; a chronic affliction that will get progressively worse? If this is your worse fears then I feel that Toby will be the tip of the iceberg. And if natural remedies are insufficient then surely only advanced medicine can help any of these problems. And if that marks a betrayal of your ethics or whatever, then you have to be able to live with the pain and the hurt that all these issues may lead to. But whatever course of action you choose, it really has nothing to do with us."
"Really?" Tabitha made a face. "When I worked for the I.L.M, I saw something that shook me to my core."
"And what was that?"
"A dying soldier. They'd plugged every kind of drug into them but it wasn't enough. Still they died. And was that the end of it? No. They decided to extract what nanites they could so that they could use them again, on some other patient."
"Yes, the nanites will live on in a dead body long after death. If the body is to be buried then one will need to remove the nanites so that they don't infect the ground-soil or leak into the water-table. It's all ecologically motivated."
"And they are precious are they not?"
"They can be difficult to manufacture, I believe... wait. Are you suggesting that we tried to remove said nanites from Toby Rolt?"
"The thought did cross my mind."
"What a barbaric thing to do!"
"But it would be something you could do?"
"Not without killing the poor child. Is the animosity for us such that you would think us monsters?"
Tabitha shrugged, "It is probably no secret that we blame you for Renk-Tollen's death. For the farm fire. For the storehouse breakage."
"At least you do."
The older woman nodded.
"But to kidnap a young child and... rob him of the nanites that sustain. It would take a desperate individual to do that to anyone. Plus, this is the first I knew that anyone in the colony had nanites in them. Who else has such benefits, just in case they disappear as well...?"
"Only him. He was the exception to our rules."
"I can but look for him. But I swear that I had nothing to do with his truancy." Tabitha nodded dumbly, eyes watching something outside the room. "Now, the key if you please. So that I can go arrange a search party, if nothing else."
Gailler was en-route back to the Rover when the Gnat buzzed in hard overhead, surprising even her. It landed with a bump and she ran over to the gesticulating pilot. "What's the matter?"
"Situation back at base, Ma'am. Sergeant Hills sent me."
She stepped on board, the Gnat sailing into the air a second later. The colony buzzed away below, giving way to fields and its workers within each. The camp milled with action and the Gnat disgorged her into the base's rear access, where the brig was located.
She found Hills inside, the brig door open, the cell empty except for a small shape muffled by a tarp, and it wasn't the prisoner.
She knelt and raised the cover. "Toby Rolt..."
"Guard on duty found him like this, sans tarp," said Hills in a low tone. "That was for dignity."
Hills shrugged, "After effects of trauma I reckon."
She raised the appendage and found the dull two-pin bruise on the upper muscle. An extraction site. "I don't understand..."
"Misconception about nanite recall. Doesn't kill unless you don't administer aid afterwards. Like now."
"Couldn't have been. He didn't have any tools and we have nothing on-site."
"So someone else did this to him..."
"Seems like. Probably about twelve hours ago. Must've come here for some reason, looking for help. Found our prisoner. Let him out. Dies before we can find him."
"Probably thought the bastard would help him. Might have even been promised aid. Damn pirate wouldn't have cared one way or the other."
"I've assembled a patrol to look for them-"
"-Don't bother, they're gone," Gailler looked down over the young child's body; skin tanned by hours in the field, feet bare and dirty from living within paradise's dream, upon the bedrock's rich earth. She then let the tarp fall. "I feel he was meant to be found at home."
"Another tragedy, 'to help cement support'."
"What was that?"
"Something I heard yesterday."
"Then, we are not to blame?"
"No..." Gailler took a breath. "But neither can be accept the implication. Sergeant, gather some men and secure the body. I think it's time we arranged for another fire. This time in the north field."
The ashen faced mourners, the support of hands about the small coffin, a caress of calloused paws upon the griever's frame. All text book from last time, except in this instance Rolt stood as the chief benefactor. Even his eldest looked to him for support. His grandson had been one of the colony's first children. Yet also one of the weakest. Now they were a symbol around which the pirate threat was magnified and focused.
He looked over towards Gailler, who stood upon the far side. She could almost see the smile within his eyes if not upon the mournful pout of lip. Beyond was Tabitha, her face swollen with grief. And yet wary eyes kept flitting back to send steel daggers at the refit crew who were on-hand, ready to install the monitoring systems.
An easterly wind kept the smouldering vapours from the northern fields at bay, but still Gailler found her eyes itching. Perhaps she was finally starting to see what Well's, and Thomas', recriminations had rested upon. But it wasn't some naive idea of paradise or a frugally masochistic desire to avoid modern convenience. Perhaps it was actually the innocence that had come from not knowing what the future might hold, from what lay around the corner.
But Gailler feared that such ideas had become lost the minute a father and his priest had decided that a single life was a cost worth paying to get the support they needed for their future. She wondered again at the injuries on Renk-Tollen's body, the ones they hadn't revealed to the colony. But the Father was speaking and his words stole her desire to care, choosing instead to stalk away and down the dirt road that led back to the camp.
With a shudder and a bloom from its rear engines, the Lifter took to the skies and moved upwards towards its escape vector. The camp had been packed up and most equipment stowed aboard the various escape ships. Only one remained: a Heavy-Lifter modified for long distance travel. It would need the extra fuel in order to catch up with the fleet as they left the system and headed for their next port of call. Gailler only needed a few days, she and her squad of men. Hills cocked and rechecked his rifle, the others looking over their equipment as they prepared to deploy. Gailler stood some paces distant, upon the flattened grass that had once housed her command centre. Eye-bot active, the hologram of Commander Dross wavered within the air before her.
"And if you should fail to find the pirate ship, what will you do then?"
"Give what ammunition and weapons we have spare to the garrison here. But I'm confident we will find what we seek. With the array in full effect and primary systems interfaced we'll see anything that doesn't fit in."
"And should that not be sufficient?"
"I have confidence in our garrison, Sir."
"I'm not referring to the garrison, Lieutenant."
"I'm sure they can take care of themselves. They aren't naive innocents after all."
"I hope so, for your sake, Lieutenant," Dross said before flickering away into the ether.
"They take such admirable care of each other, after all," Gailler said to the empty air.
"Troops ready to deploy."
Gailler looked over to the colony a mile distant, and sighed.
I hope it was worth it, Rolt...
"Carry on, Sergeant. Carry on."