There were no windows on Beredul. Especially not in the deep bunker-like depths of the long-abandoned fadohl depot facility now called Grand Central, where the Earth-humans and their Wiyert allies had set up the command post for planetary operations. So it was hard to know if it was really morning or not, but it certainly felt like one. Tired and cranky.
Joey Ramirez checked that his sidearm was firmly seated in the leg holster, tucked a handful of energy bars in a side pocket, swallowed the last precious dark drop of coffee in his mug, and glanced about to see if he’d forgotten anything before heading out. He’d noticed a certain reluctance lately to leaving the area the Earth team had repurposed as living and working quarters. Even though he was the only one there now, the familiar ammo cans, gear, and personal stuff the others had left behind gave it a homey, lived-in feel. He hoped they were doing OK. He hoped they would come back soon.
Not that he disliked the Wiyert. Tough characters, in a real bad situation. He was glad to help. Thing was, though, they never shut down. They were always in hard combat mode. Never laughed. He’d seen a kinda sorta smile on a couple, the ones they’d rescued from the planet they’d been stranded on, but they’d been hanging around Earth-humans for longer. Thing he really missed was somebody to joke around with.
Didn’t matter. He had a job to do, and he couldn’t do it here in what they called the Unready Room. It was more of a wide corridor, really. The main opening led, through a few doors and passageways, to the immense underground open space that had previously stored several hundred ancient robotic devices and now contained a giant Wiyert refugee camp. A small US flag was pinned to the wall facing the open area with the hastily scrawled text “You Are Now Entering the American Sector” underneath. Not that any of the Wiyert could read it—yet—but it served as fair warning that their usual rules didn’t apply past that point.
He sighed and walked out into the open area, nodding to the Wiyert he recognized. All of them stocky and heavy-featured, maybe not as caveman-like as the museum exhibits usually showed Neanderthals but close enough you could see the connection. As he went he reviewed the tasks of the day and who he’d have to deal with to get them done.
It hurt to admit it, but Ramirez knew he’d kinda gotten himself in this mess.They had to go back to Earth, both to take the first load of refugees and to get help evacuating the rest of the planet. Even thought it was an AI in a moon-sized spaceship Argo didn’t like going anywhere without Lea, and Ivars would literally die without her. But, they also still needed to keep training the Wiyert for the upcoming fight. Ivars had wanted to bring him and North and their Wiyert training groups along too, thus getting some ship-board time. Wasn’t like Argo didn’t have the space, right?
But then he’d had to open his big mouth and point out having all the Earth-humans run off at the same time didn’t look good to the always-suspicious Wiyert. So not only had he just volunteered to be a don’t-call-it-hostage, he had to deal with Wiyert politics all by himself.
They were putting up a good front but he was seeing signs of strain. Arguments and fights. Not surprising—they had pretty much put everything they were used to in a blender, and now the Wiyert were sending their kids off with the weird Earth people they only just met.
The Wiyert were accustomed to lots of rules, six-foot-thick stone walls, and a well-founded belief that everything on the planet of Beredul was out to kill them. Now they were being told they had to leave their nice safe bunkers, hang out in the abandoned base of their former alien masters, and, oh yes, transportation would be facilitated by the same critters that had been, until very recently, trying to eat them alive.
And it was all the Earth-humans’ fault. Well, almost all of it. The fadohl coming back to Beredul…no, according to Argo they might be responsible for that, too. Something about blowing up the nexus, one of the fadohl’s remote stations.
So it was really all Argo’s fault, when you got right down to it. Lurking around the Solar system for hundreds of thousands of years, pretending to be Pluto, and then running off on automatic pilot to the nexus when the Earth-humans investigated what the device they found on their moon was transmitting to. Because Lea had accidentally woken Argo up… And now that I know Lea, it’s exactly the kind of thing she’d do.
How would he feel if it was his kids getting shipped off to strangers? Besides, if the fadohl came while Argo was gone somebody needed to be here able to come up with a plan of attack. The Wiyert were learning fast but they weren’t there yet.
Ramirez saw a familiar massive figure coming his way across the depot floor. Rey’wiros was one of the few who did understand and wanted it to go faster. And since he was the big boss man of one of the damah, the fort cities, he wasn’t used to hearing the word “no.”
“More asuhan are needed. To bring the people of Vartai here, and to carry the parts to make weapons.”
Ramirez nodded, remembering just in time not to make too much eye contact in his effort to appear attentive. “Right, you search the old buildings to make your energy guns.” Now that the asuhan were no longer ravening monsters, a lot more salvage could take place. Then he realized what Rey’wiros hadn’t said. “Only Vartai? Did not the other damah agree to leave too?” Such a pain having to speak Wiyert all by himself. The portable translators, really voice dictionaries, helped a lot but it was still a hassle compared to Argo’s simultaneous translations.
Rey’wiros bared his teeth, making him look even more scary. “They think they may wait until the fadohl appear to leave, saying now is too soon. I will see my people safe—but I must have more asuhan! I cannot wait for Lea to return!”
Oh boy. “Lea is the only one who can make them obey our words. I cannot.” And that was just making him more angry. Then Ramirez got a bright idea, which would also help his problem. “It also takes time to find the big…the uh-asuhan and bring them here. If you have your people do this now, there will be many when Lea returns and they will be made ready quickly.”
Not a complete solution, but he’d at least shown he was working the problem, right?
“It is so.”
Quickly, before more objections were raised, Ramirez made his play. “I can find some from the air and then let your people know where to go.” Which was also true, but not what he was actually going to do and if Rey’wiros knew he’d get stopped. But as soon as the least sign of approval appeared Ramirez was already heading off for the flyer. As soon as he was inside the cockpit and in the air he sighed and slouched as best he could in the uncomfortable jury-rigged seat.
This command was for the Argo-clone, a sort of mini-AI left on Beredul to help with this kind of thing.
“They have not yet returned, Ramirez.” Matrix had a different way of speaking than Argo, but it was getting closer to sounding human anyway.
“Yeah, I know. Can you do a scan for me and find, oh, ten big asuhan close to Grand Central? And keep tracking them?”
“I will do this.”
“OK, update me just before I land there again.” Strategic misdirection. Rey’wiros would not have been happy with him leaving if he knew his true destination, but this way everybody got what they wanted. Mostly.
Ramirez banked the flyer just a tad to admire the scenery below and check his position. It might not be much of a vacation spot, but now that nothing was actively trying to kill him he was finding little things that were actually kinda pretty. The flying asuhan, for one thing. They liked playing around in the air, like dolphins. They’d even played with him, until he couldn’t keep up with their acrobatics. He wanted more flying time but he was slammed even before the others left on Argo—and now he was beyond busy.
The little Argo copy that Lea had left could run the flyer so he could sleep on the way back if he wanted. Total win. But for now he was in control, and what he wanted to know was how fast he could go in this thing.
By the time he reached his destination his best guess at max speed was “really damn fast.” He didn’t have a speed indicator anywhere, and with Lea off-planet he couldn’t get the Argo-copy to make him one. Something for the wish list, then.
The impoundment location had been picked for inconvenience. It was far from the two working portal connections, and since it was an island in the middle of a large lake, hopefully too difficult for the vazan prisoners to escape from—and too difficult for random angry Wiyert to get in. It wasn’t ideal. They’d had to leave some food and gear for the prisoners to survive, and he had a bad feeling a motivated individual could find a way to use that stuff to escape. Then the Wiyert had absolutely no concept of prisoners and wanted to just off the whole lot anyway. If they had been fadohl, Ramirez doubted they would be alive at all.
Nope, the vazan were just some weird-looking “servant species”, which was pretty much just “slave” when you got down to it. They had bony plates at vulnerable points, two sets of arms at the upper-chest level and two sets of legs, and a long, flat head. Coloration varied from dull red with purple edges to light blue, and they wore a sort of waffle-weave poncho with various belts.
Argo had set them down here using the ship they were captured on, and had also rummaged around the ship brain to get a basic vocabulary to communicate with. They’d had to use a device anyway, since humans couldn’t make all the sounds they used. The ship also had the right kind of supplies the prisoners needed. They could drink water, and the food wasn’t that much different. And how likely was that? Maybe the fadohl only stole lifeforms that needed the same kind of atmosphere and nutrients as they did, or they fixed them until they fit. Sort of thing they’d do, from what he’d seen. Gave him the creeps. Made him wonder how much the human and Wiyert genome had been messed with—but maybe he didn’t want to know that.
He did a slow pass around the island. The prisoners stood out, due to their color, so it was easy to do a nose-equivalent count. All forty-eight present and as far as he could tell, healthy enough to be functional. The large containers of supplies hadn’t been moved. Nothing else on the island had been moved either. It had been over eight days and they hadn’t even tried to build a shelter?
Hands-free flying also meant he could have a pistol in hand when he talked to the prisoners. The flyer hovered just out of their jumping range, which was impressive, and his amplified voice echoed over the island.
“Come and speak.” Courtesies had no effect, pro or con. The translation had lots of clicks and whistles, and a frequency component that gave him a headache if he heard it for too long.
The light-blue one came forward, like usual. They were all grimy but uninjured. The Earth-humans had cleared the island of asuhan before placing the prisoners there, but you never knew if something wanted to swim over for a snack.
“There are no instructions,” the translator said after whistles and clicks. All of the vazan just looked at Ramirez like that was his fault.
“Why haven’t you built yourself a shelter?”
The long heads swung back and forth at each other. “No instructions,” the leader repeated.
This made no sense. They would just stand in the rain and the mud when they could make a thatch hut from vegetation, or a fairly nice shelter from one of the containers, because nobody told them to do it?
“Build a shelter.”
More head swinging. “No shelter components.”
In the end he had to give them step-by-step instructions, clearly indicating the different parts and the process of construction. They obeyed instantly and correctly, but never once did they act on their own initiative. Nor did they ever ask questions, or make substitutions. Yet they could use complex technology and could read the fadohl-tech displays.
Ramirez tried to ask about the fadohl, but the vazan just stared at him as if the question had no meaning. They displayed no aggression towards him, or resentment that their former masters had been killed. They didn’t seem to care that they were prisoners, either. He was just another thing that gave them orders, like the previous things.
So much for interrogation. They were essentially biological robots, only Argo was much more alive than they were. Argo came up with ideas on its own all the time. These things…he had the feeling that they’d starve to death if they hadn’t been told to eat the supplies earlier.
Which made him think of something. “You.” He pointed. “Analyze plants on the island that are edible. When the supplies are used up, eat those plants.” There was the chance, if things got messy, that no one would come back for them. Or remember they were out here. At least this way they wouldn’t die immediately.
No imagination, no initiative, no ambition. No drive. The vazan really creeped him out.
“They did what?”
The signal lag from Luna Base was just enough to give the tiny image of Merrilee Macrae the appearance of a bad language dub, but the seething annoyance in her eyes came through quite clearly.
Col. Gonafrio sighed. “Argo sent some kind of message drone that could connect to the alien observation device that started this whole mess. It would have been better if the Russians had not been involved so directly but since they found and kept the thing it couldn’t be avoided. Now they want to take part.”
“And how did they find out you were involved?”
He rubbed his forehead. “It appears Argo specified me as the security verification. By name. The device wouldn’t release the data without me so I had to fly there in person.” In my copious spare time.
Macrae’s scowl deepened. “Look, Sam. I love you like a brother but exactly how is this my problem? I’m still stuck on the Moon riding herd on all the Kepler academics who got the alien spaceship they’d been promised taken away and they can’t even complain to anyone because of the security restrictions. I caught two just last week trying to hack into the net to send messages. And this secure terminal room is as comfortable as a coffin even in lunar gravity, so could you skip to the part where you tell me what you want?”
“I’m passing on a warning, Mer. Argo will be in-system in approximately two weeks, possibly less. It is highly probable Lea Santorin will be on board.” He observed with satisfaction that this information had an instantly sobering effect on his irritable colleague. “I will give them credit for the early warning. Armstrong Base is on a hairtrigger as it is so knowing the friendly spaceships from the enemy is crucial.”
Macrae snorted. “Oh, they may be friendly but I don’t know as I’d call them safe, not with her aboard. Is this really a good idea? Tell them to park Santorin somewhere else before they visit.”
“If there’s a way for us to send messages with that thing we haven’t figured it out. What else can we do? The only other asset we have is Kepler and that’s sub-light. If she stays on Argo and no one with compartmentalized information goes aboard, it should be safe enough.”
She shook her head decisively. “We don’t know her range or her limits. I don’t think she knows herself. I saw her in action, Sam.” Macrae leaned closer to the video pickup. “Read the report, and think carefully about what happened.”
He had a pretty good idea what Macrae was referring to. Not that Lea Santorin had brought down a huge alien facility by hacking, but that she had stopped the timer of the nuclear bomb that eventually destroyed it. With her mind. Even on a secure line, there were some things it was unwise to talk about.
“I understand. Look, they said they are sending us the first group of refugees. Who will also need security quarantine until we figure out how to handle public notification. There are plans to set up an isolated facility at Hanford to hold them, and we could use some help. Think your academics would be willing to be sequestered on Earth for a change?”
“Hanford—you mean in Eastern Washington? What, for the empty space?”
He grimaced. “No, because it has an experimental nuclear facility there. Turns out we are going to need a lot of power.”
“If I ask why, will I regret it?”
Probably, but why should I be the only one who can’t sleep at night? “Argo is building us a portal for docking.”
Isboryi swung the maul, which landed with a satisfactory crack on the metal wedge. Not enough to split the log, however, so he swung again, harder. This time the log fell as it should, in two pieces.
“That one’s got a ginormous knot,” Jason said, looking up from his pile of kindling. The boy picked up his hatchet and got back to work.
His sister grabbed two more of the split logs from the pile and darted in front of the stack, chewing thoughtfully on her lip before placing them. It was important, Isboryi had been told, that all fit tightly with little space visible between the logs. Why this was important he had not yet discovered, but Emily performed this task very intently.
Jason looked up again. “What do you want to watch tonight, Mr. Boris? Mom got more cartoons from the library, and some episodes of that nature show.”
“Cartoons of the Acme Coyote?” Isboryi asked, before swinging the maul again. Goober helpfully brought him one of the kindling sticks, but Isboryi had already figured out he would tire of throwing it long before the dog did.
“It’s Wily Coyote.”
“Oh. Yes, I am hoping next time he will catch that du-asuhan.” He winced. “Sorry. You say, bird. How hungry he must be after all that running and falling down cliffs! I am sad for him. He could die!”
Loud peals of laughter from the children. “NOOooo!”
“It’s just a cartoon, Mr. Boris.” Jason looked very solemn. “Don’t worry. It isn’t real.”
“Don’t tell me you broke another handle,” Olsen said, coming out of the house door. “You don’t know your own strength.”
Isboryi smiled. “If yes, we go to the hardware again?”
“That’s hardware store, and I’m going to town anyway. Thought you could use a break. Who wants to come along?”
It appeared that everyone, including the dog, wished to go on this journey. This was done using the machine called truck, which was not as terrifying as the helicopter since it remained at all times on the ground. Still, it had taken Isboryi some time to get used to it. When he had first met the Frost People their machines had seemed complex and mysterious, and they also made use of the stolen fadohl mainship with an AI mind. This truck was a simple thing, only used to move from one place to another. When he heard a voice coming from it he had responded, only to learn that the voice came from a device called radio that only spoke and did not hear, and the truck was not even as smart as Goober.
They left the large shelter where Olsen and his chosen Maryanne lived. Isboryi could not think of it even as a du-damah—the walls were made of wood, and the only stones it had were used for the place where the logs were burned. And this house was far from others, built in the same strange way. They descended the tall hill to the town, where many Frost People lived together. That also was not anything like a damah. The people could come and go as they pleased, travel to even larger towns further away. Isboryi had seen the images of these places. He had also gone on trips to a base, which was more like a damah in that there was discipline, a place of warriors.
But even there, there were no walls. He had not realized how much he needed walls until he lived with the Frost People. Even when they did build walls, they were very thin and had openings for light and air that would not stop so much as a dying du-asuhan.
“Are you well?” Olsen asked in Wiyert. Isboryi realized he had not spoken for some time, while the children were chattering happily. His first trip to town had been…overwhelming. Olsen might think Isboryi was worried.
“I think this is better than walking,” Isboryi replied, and Olsen grinned.
“Especially the uphill part.”
Isboryi nodded, remembering to smile to show he had not taken offense. The Frost People would sometimes tease those they held in affection; he had seen this many times with the family. But in this Olsen seemed to be saying he too did not like walking uphill even though he could, much faster than any Wiyert, not just Isboryi.
Isboryi had always been in the lower ranks of the warriors on Beredul. He was not as strong or as big as the rest. Only his gift for technology had won him a place in the expedition sent by Rey’wiros of Vartai. Isboryi was glad to go, even though death seemed certain. To disobey the buj-lagar was unthinkable, but if he survived this might earn him status, prove that he had some worth as a warrior.
He had not expected Alaghar. He had not even dreamed his skill would give him worth in her eyes. Isboryi closed his eyes briefly against a stab of longing. She had sent him here to serve, more honor. And before he had left with the ship of the Frost People, she had given him the words he thought he would never hear. Fortune he did not deserve. You are my soul.
His smaller size also served him well in the task he had been given. A normal Wiyert would not be able to hide among the Frost People so easily. He knew he appeared bigger than most here—which was a pleasing change—but not so unusual. He had learned much of their speech, but not all—and even that was not strange to them. He was called foreigner, then, and some would welcome him like a guest, not knowing it was a different planet, rather than country, that he came from.
Sometimes there were awkward questions, but Olsen always knew what to say to avoid suspicion.
They reached the town, and Isboryi felt the usual confusion. People everywhere, walking in the open. More of the machines for moving. The long open area, the street, was lined with the structures that were not used as living places, but where food and other things were available. Olsen had tried to explain how that worked, but all Isboryi understood was small, thin rectangles with colored designs and markings were used to exchange ownership of the things. There was no inner council to make or give out food and clothing; each Frost Person chose what they wished if the small rectangle was somehow worthy enough.
How could the Frost People choose from so many wonderful things? Everything had bright color, or made pleasing sounds, or was softer than a new leaf.
“First stop, hardware store!” Olsen announced. The truck stopped and Goober was removed from the open back of the truck, with a long rope attached to him. Isboryi was fascinated by the hardware store. The Frost People made everything they needed, rather than scavenging through wreckage for what the fadohl had left. Everything had a specific purpose—tools for growing things, for fixing what was broken, or simply things that gave pleasure to the eye. Olsen had come to get a substance that put a thin layer of color on a surface, called paint.
The ritual with the thin rectangle concluded, they all went back outside. The next stop was at a store with food. Goober was not allowed to go in. Isboryi could understand why, for Goober was very clever in taking food when no one was watching. “You do not have creditcard,” Isboryi told the whining dog, who was staring through the clear part of the wall to see inside. “Nothing happens for you here.”
“Right, that’s the errands done.” Olsen came outside with a bundle, which Goober clearly wished to inspect more closely. “Down, Goober. I think we’ve earned some ice-cream.”
Isboryi blinked at the boisterous reaction this caused. “What is…isecreem?”
The children gaped in shock. Olsen laughed. “Something cold to eat. Sweet. Like candy.”
Oh. The wondrous khendi of the Frost People…but cold? How could it be cold? Then Isboryi discovered that one must choose the flavor of the cold sweet thing, and he did not yet know how to read the writing here. Jason immediately volunteered to help.
“That’s chocolate, and that’s…chocolate with nuts and caramel, and that’s pineapple, which is gross…”
“Is not!” Emily said. “You’ve never had ice-cream Mr. Boris?”
Isboryi shook his head, and the two children looked at each other, frowning. “Okay—we’ll each get something different and you can have a taste of ours. Dad always gets Rocky Road. What kind of flavors do you like?”
Olsen had used the rectangle already when his communication device made its signal noise. He took it out of his pocket, and Isboryi saw his face change. It went completely still, showing nothing. He waved to them and stepped outside.
Threat. Something was wrong. Olsen still had no expression, and was looking out at the street as he spoke a few words. He held the device and touched its controls, then spoke to it again before putting it away and returning.
“Change of plans, kids. Your mother will be coming to pick you up. Boris and I have to go in to work for a while.” Olsen was making an effort to sound relaxed, but Isboryi still could see the grimness in his eyes.
“Are you…do you have to go away again?” Jason asked, sounding much more like the boy he was.
“Only for a little while, and not overseas. Just a thing that came up. Don’t worry, Mom will be here in a few minutes.”
Emily grimaced, then picked up one of the round containers that had been placed before them. “You’ll probably want your ice-cream,” she said, handing it to Isboryi. “We picked Black Forest for you. You have to eat it before it melts.”
“What is wrong?” Isboryi asked in Wiyert once they were outside.
“That was my…my lagar who called. We have to go, now.”
“There is danger?” The fadohl. They had found Earth…
One corner of Olsen’s mouth twitched. So, maybe not the fadohl.
“We got a message from our friends.”
The language of the Frost people could be very precise if they wished it so, Isboryi had learned. Our friends meant…the friends he and Olson had together. Which meant…