11 – SLIDE DOWNHILL
We decided to head back to the surface without blowing anything up. Katja was disappointed.
Chandra tore the drives out of every TIM tablet and laptop he could find while Marco got the five Earth scientists ready to move. Fleet Intel would want every scrap of data and eyewitness they could get their hands on, particularly now that it appeared someone had hid a hunk of hyper-tech in an underground cavern a couple centuries ago. On that point, Esta stuck with Doctor Ametjan, which left me with in charge of Koresh Bozan. Katja, meanwhile, insisted on minding the Little Watchmaker.
I signaled Marco on the squad link to keep an eye on them.
Not that Katja would kill al-Asiri away when we weren’t looking; she was as professional as they come. But she’d volunteered deliberately, to get under the man’s skin. In return, the insurgent bomb maker radiated his loathing on full volume. He’d spit at her whenever she came near and flinch angrily when she touched him, all of which just made Katja chuckle louder and do it more.
Al-Asiri’s psych profile pegged him as the kind of charmer who tortured puppies or sprayed acid in the faces of girls who did blasphemous things like attend school. He was convinced his cause and his sex made him superior. The dumb bastard had no idea Katja could kill him in a blink of an eye. I wanted Marco on back up because I couldn’t have the Little Watchmaker try anything stupid and get hurt – at least until we handed him over to Fleet S2.
He saying anything? I asked Marco.
I meant al-Asiri. Marco was running Bablefish translation software for our after-action report.
Little bastard wouldn’t say shit if he had a mouth full of it, he sent back. Unless you want me to track crude anatomical references.
I gave the mental equivalent of a shake of the head. Wait ‘til Intel gets him in a cell. 500 mg of Comply and an interrogation A.I., he won’t last ten minutes.
Oooh. Can I watch? Katja interrupted. Al-Asiri was propped against one of the TIM supply crates, his wrists zip-cuffed behind him. She raised her helmet’s faceplate and smiled beatifically at him. I want to see this little fucker’s face when he realizes he just ratted out his whole organization.
I’ll see what I can do, I sent, and turned to the center of the cavern. Toward the Locus.
We decided it was better left alone.
I told myself I didn’t want to mess with unknown tech, particularly if, like the good doctor insisted, it was of alien origin. But really the image of that ice black orb hovering in the center of the platform was fresh in my mind.
Zombie Six had seen combat on five worlds across three systems, but the Locus made my skin crawl. Looking at that orb was like staring into the Big Empty of deep, uncharted space; it was remote, cold, and deeply inhospitable. Something in my bones didn’t want to go anywhere near the thing.
I told the rest of Z6 what I’d seen and of course they all switched to thermal vision, partly to confirm but mostly out of morbid curiosity. It took all of thirty seconds for them to agree the Locus was extraordinary but creepy as hell. Still, Fleet would want hard data, so Chandra sent one of the Gun Monkeys in as close as he dared. He had it record as much as its limited sensors would allow. I had him copy the files to a separate nano-glass stick which he tucked in a pocket behind his chest plate. I wagered the fiendish R & D lads back at CRISIS HQ would find them interesting.
Forty minutes later we were headed back up the tube tunnel.
The power was still out so it was still pitch black, but we’d scrounged four, high-power halogen lights from the TIM stash and they stabbed through the stygian darkness like solar flares. With extra batteries and a bit of luck, we should be fine all the way back up.
Chandra put our last two drones on point. Katja hustled Ahmed al-Asiri to the head of our little single-file column. “Front of the line, shit bird,” she said. “It’s a long walk and you’re gonna hoof every inch of it with those little legs of yours.”
The bomb maker seethed and spat out a couple nasty suggestions in Turkic.
“He gonna do that the whole way?” Chandra asked. “It’ll be very long walk if he does.”
“Yeah, are we there yet?” Esta mock whined.
Katja gazed down at the insurgent and grinned. “He better not or I’ll drag his ass like a sack of dirty laundry.”
Marco jumped in. “Quicker if you carried him. Besides, a little snuggle time would help you two bond. You could gain his trust, get him to open up.”
“You’re hilarious,” Katja replied dryly and prodded al-Asisri with her shotgun.
It had taken us the better part of two days to fight our way down here. Going back up would be faster – just as long as the main tunnels were clear and no one shot at us. Zombie Six was due for a bit of luck: Go-Pills, protein bars, and adrenaline had kept us on our feet, but I was starting to feel the ragged chemical crash coming. Even enhanced, our bodies couldn’t go on like this indefinitely. The walls were pressing in, piling on top of combat, stress, fatigue, darkness, and now ancient alien weirdness. It was all a bit much for my brain to buffer. Best thing for us would be to get back to Fleet and dump this mess in someone else’s lap.
It was slow going at first, particularly with a dwarf in the lead and five frightened Chinese scientists bringing up the rear, but we made it to the repair depot where we’d found the secret passage.
The lights were out here as well, and worse, the bodies of the TIM fighters were starting to stink. I ordered the miner’s lamps shut off so the Earth scientists couldn’t see the destruction, and Zombie Six switched to thermal vision to guide everyone through the ruined machinery.
Koresh Bozan sniffed the air. “They were fighting for their families,” he said.
“Is this the part where you spin ‘terrorist’ into ‘freedom fighter’?” I asked tightly. “Tell me you guys were blowing up buildings and executing government officials in self-defense?”
“I’m telling you my people were forcibly removed from their homes,” Bozan replied. “Entire towns were rounded up, packed into bulk cryo-pods, and shipped five hundred light years to a barren planet where they were told they now had to work off their passage.”
It was pitch-dark but the TIM leader had turned his head toward the sound of my voice. “Add mandatory reimbursement for government-provided food, gear, and living quarters, it takes nearly ninety years for your average worker to pay that off, which meant their indenture extends to their children and grandchildren.”
He spit on the ground. “So perhaps you understand why they feel a little exploited, no?”
I understood enough to know there’s no good comeback to something like that, so I kept silent.
“I found that chamber,” he continued. “Three years ago. My excavation team was following a mineral seam back to its bed. We bored through a rock face into the tube. I went in first. We reported everything to Mine Administration and the next day KCA Security swept in and locked the entire area down. My crew was detained. Our personal effects were seized, our maps and work logs were altered, and we were taken to the Colonial Administration Headquarters.”
“I’d never seen SMC or KCA administrators in person, but there were a dozen top officials there that day. They acted like they were in charge and this was all routine, but I could tell they were nervous. That was when I met Luo Yuhan. He was their front man, speaking for them. Making promises. I remember he stank of cologne and smiled too much.”
The miner spit again, this time with more force. “Yuhan congratulated us, told us we’d made an important discovery and had been promoted. Higher wages were coming, along with better equipment, bigger living quarters, health benefits… All we had to do was sign some documents, agree to keep out mouths shut and keep digging. He even hinted that our indentures would be reduced.”
“And you believed him?”
Bozan shrugged. “They had assault rifles. Besides, it’s what we wanted to hear. Who doesn’t want better things for their family?”
Again, I had nothing so I let him continue.
Bozan let out a long, frustrated sigh. “Eighteen months we worked. Four full crews. All hand-picked and vetted by KCA,” he explained. “We had to move to separate barracks here at the mine, away from our families, monitored and under guard like prison. Our families did receive new ration cards but the bigger apartments, the reforms, the medical care never materialized.”
“And?” I asked.
“And we worked,” he said. “Round the clock shifts, seven days a week. Once a month the KCA gave out six, 24-hour passes to the men who exceeded their dig quotas. Six passes for a hundred and eighty seven men every thirty days. ‘Operational Security’ they said. As if they didn’t already warn us every day what would happen to us and our families if we told anyone what we were really doing.”
It didn’t take much imagination to guess the consequences. Most likely a bullet to the back of the head and a bill to your surviving family for the ammunition and cremation costs. I resisted the urge to spit myself.
Our footsteps echoed faintly off the surrounding rock, up and down the length of the tunnel. If half of what Koresh Bozan was saying was true, the PRC government had screwed the colonists over: exile from Earth, freeze-flown to a completely different solar system and they still end up between the sword and the cliff.
Bozan kicked the stones at his feet. “Captain, you have to understand most of the colonists on Mèng Tiān are simple people. They didn’t know what we’d discovered, and they didn’t care to know. To them, xeno-technology and extra-solar archeology might as well be sorcery. They were just trying to survive, to live their lives and serve Allah.”
“Oh yeah? And drone-borne IEDs are what, worship?”
“Eighteen months, we did what we were told,” Koresh replied testily. “Working, waiting, hoping, praying for the KCA to keep their word, but all we got were smooth lies, veiled threats, and shorter deadlines. Finally on Founding Day last year we decided to re-negotiate the terms in the only language they understood: force.”
I had to admit it sounded like the universe had served Bozan and his people a huge shit sandwich.
Right then the voice of the CRISIS team Psy-Ops instructor popped into my head: “No one is as innocent as the guy telling his side of the story.”
Listen long enough, she used to say, and a person can be convinced of almost anything. Stockholm Syndrome happens, so does its cousin, Lima Syndrome. Koresh Bozan was playing the ‘reluctant revolutionary/hard-working family man oppressed by the soulless corporation’ bit to a T.
What did he think would happen? That I’d change my mind, snip his cuffs and let him go? That I’d enlist in his cause, take up arms against this latest bout of cosmic injustice?
As if shit didn’t always slide downhill. As if the universe weren’t full of problems.
I shifted my rifle and checked my suits’ power level: 53%.
Now that was a problem – a very real, very specific, measurable, and immediate problem.
53% was just enough juice to get me and my team back to the surface, back to the Fleet, back to the Hephaestus.
Fixing the universe wasn’t my job. I’m not God. I’m not even God’s Cop. I’m a soldier – one man who can only do what’s in front of him, and right then what I had in front of me was my team, my mission, and my job. And my job was actually quite simple: to break things and kill people.
So simple in fact, you can do it with one finger.