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Falling Sky//07—Secrets and Subversions

07—Secrets and Subversions
[Previous]
Lesonshae Swordwielder Harsurrd
c.2592C.E.
"Nothing personal, human," Boss said, terminating her call with the client. "I hope you understand."
Lesonshae readied her blade. The mercenaries had decided against carrying guns—kinetic weapons humans used against one another were either unwieldy or else the recoil too dangerous for Kahleptin like herself to use effectively, and blasters or shunt rifles rated for use against a human would doubtless show up in the scans that the Hippocratic Oaf's machine-mind routinely undertook—eschewing them instead for small, sharp knives; stealthier and often more lethal than a gun.
Even with that, the blades had been hidden with considerable paranoia: the AI running the station couldn't see anything in the areas under construction, but they could hardly carry weapons openly in the regions the machine could see.
"Oh," the human said, shifting his—was that a male?—weight. "I do," he added, swinging upright despite clearly-lethal wounds that should have incapacitated him.
It all happened so fast that Harsurrd almost missed it. Boss' sternum shattered in a starburst of bright blood, followed shortly by the side of her face crumpling, a projectile piercing her through and through, puncturing the bulkhead behind her. The human began to spin as the third shot loosed, cutting down one of the men in the mercenary group. He split almost in twain, torso broken by a well-placed gunshot snapping his spine.
So that was what it was. Somehow, a human who was, by the employer's accounts at least, a mad dog in need of putting down for the good of Humans and Greys—Loti, "Grey" was a human noun—alike, had been allowed not merely a weapon designed to kill other humans, but a kinetic one that could probably put enough holes in the Oaf to leave it looking much like a collander. It must have been the human administration here...
A knife, even one as heavy, expensive and sharp as her own, wasn't going to be enough to stop that human. This wasn't the plan! He had gone off script, somehow survived scores of wounds, enough to but a Khorian out of commission, and had managed to continue the fight.
The target was a blur of violence, like a demon from a horror story, pistol in hand that punched voids in targets and station alike. She ran.
Did the employer know the human would be this strong? she asked herself, slipping into a cramped, low-ceilinged storage cabinet and trying to slow her hearts. One of the Loti Consuls, he was the one who had wanted this [direct translation impossible; pawn removed from chessboard]. Had it been a setup? Certainly the mercenaries had done much work for the Loti over the last few decades, assassinating who needed assassinating, blackmailing who needed blackmailing, to allow the Loti to return uncontested. But a mad Human? No, the Loti were too efficient, too gods damned elegant for such a solution to present itself to them. Maybe, then, the Consul had overestimated their abilities?
Just thinking it—even as the chest-rattling thumps of gunfire slowed to a staccato, human doubtlessly picking of survivors—felt like a treason against the mercenary clan she'd taken as her own. Thoughts swam from the murky depths of her subconcious. Memories. The mixture of pride and anticipation she'd felt, taking the title-name of Swordwielder for her mercantile career. The look on her mother's face, a Swordwielder herself in younger times, as she watched her daughter sign the necessary forms and certificates. The contrasting horror in her father's eyes.
The gunfire halted abruptly. Limping steps approached, accompanied by breathing that sounded not quite laboured but certainly heavy, a sound which was replaced by faint wheezing as the human continued.
The steps stopped outside her door, wheezing, shuddering gasps coming from the far side.
She contemplated leaping out at the human, ending him for the crime of surviving.
No such opportunity afforded itself to Lesonshae.
Two small holes appeared in the aluminium closet door in quick succession, and her world turned to pain.
Tomaidh Urchardan
The wound was gnarly.
Separating the sound of his own gasps from those of the xeno coward had been hard, but once he'd managed it he performed some basic guesswork and fired twice into the zebra-thing's lower legs.
They'd shattered like fine china, because of course they had.
"Oi! You fucking shitstain, can yoo hear me righ' naow?!"
The alien creature grunted in response, rolling on its side and clutching the crippled limb close.
"Yoo know why I have'nee killed ya yet? Do yah?!" He gasped.
The beast made another noise, which translated seamlessly in his earbuds. "No."
He smiled. "Because yer a fuckin coward. I donae have tae worry about yoo' durin' tha fight, so I let yoo' live. I want two things from you, and then I'll give you painkillers and bind up yer leg enough to let you crawl."
The creature—he thought it might have been a man, though he wasn't sure why—grunted again. No translation offered itself.
"Your employer was a 'Consul'. On the basis that your boss were speakin' one of the Interspecies languages, I'm guessin' you were no talking to the Terran Empire's Consul, especially since that position has been fuck all but a joke for a century at least. So, yoo're working for tha Greys?"
The creature coughed out harsh words. "The—The Loti... We've worked... Helped them come back... obstacles."
"Obstacles like me?"
"Not humans... Never before." He growled low, a rumbling, pained noise. "Politicians. Revolutionaries. Pieces of... of their plan, never the... whole. No doubt we weren't... their only employees..."
"Why would they send yoo af'er me?"
"Must have been... only crew they used before... near enough to take care of... of you..."
He scratched his stubbled head and sat back.
"Awright. That's one thing, here's the other. Yoo send a message to your employer, this Consul. Yoo tell him that I will take the next fucker he sends after me, I will open this aforementioned fucker up, and I will have their kidneys as fuckin' paperweights, savvy?"
The creature made a noise his translator interpreted as, "Grudging assent," so he gave it what bordered on an overdose of painkillers and limped back to the safety of the main station.
Only once he was well out of eyesight and earshot did Tomaidh allow himself to collapse from the wounds.
Aimil
There was a thread in Aimil's resource queue titled, "Persons of Interest".
Mostly, it was used to—discreetly, and firmly within ethical and legal guidelines—work out who was cheating on who in the various offices Aimil oversaw. Occasionally the thread might be turned to the child who'd painted an impromptu and thoroughly crap mural on some wall but for whom no punishment—aside from extensive criticism of their skills, or lack thereof, with a spray can—were warranted, but on whom a watchful eye should be kept.
At worst, the Persons of Interest process had been used to target a serial thief, or to keep an eye on a pirate crew who'd come to the Switzerland-esque neutral land of the Hippocratic Oaf—for all intents and purposes, her body—for medical treatment.
That was before the human Tomiadh "Reverse-Midas-Touch" Urchardan (as she'd taken to calling him internally) had shown up.
Everything he touched turned to shit.
And now, the Persons of Interest resource thread was twanging like a musical instrument's strings. A cluster of messages here, an unanticipated access to an FTL relay from areas of the station under construction there, an unexpected arrival insystem as a nuclear thermal rocket dropped out of warp and hailed on all frequencies.
She focused on other things.
The human's friend, for example, was rather fascinating.
In Aimil's experience, non-human organics tended towards squeamishness and cowardice in the extreme. They had funny ideas about not violating their substrates with unnecessary adaptations and technology, and even funnier ideas about what should happen if those adaptations became necessary.
This Khorian lacked such scruples, and Aimil respected her for it. Was she horrified, staring at the stumps where two limbs had been? Absolutely. Who—excepting, perhaps, an AI mind like herself—wouldn't be? But she didn't view the prosthetics with the same disgust that the Hippocratic Oaf's resident mind had seen time and time again in other aliens when faced with injuries. Also absent was the usual grief.
Fascinating as that was, the Khorian archaeologist Yath Longstar was little more than an exercise for Aimil's lower mind, an appropriate analogy for a human throwing a ball up and down while thinking.
She wondered what McArthy was keeping from her. Certainly, hacking the databases he and his subordinates were keeping their files in would be little trouble, save for the fact that they'd chosen—rather conspicuously—to air-gap the computers from Aimil's networks. Someone's watched too many Terminator films, an unhelpful subsystem process expressed. Sarcastic as it was, the point within was valid: Nelson McArthy, or a significant portion of his team, didn't trust her.
Which was alright. Hurtful, yes, but all things being equal, McArthy didn't quite meet her standards for trustworthy himself.
She'd lost access to data too many times, blinded and deafened when certain important clients were met. For a human, those long tens of minutes in the dark and quiet might merely have been terrifying.
Aimil experienced the world far faster than any human she was aware of.
For her, it had felt like days. Alone, in the dark. Artificial neural nets firing off, causing her to—for want of a better word—hallucinate.
Not to mention the more recent... issues. Two days ago, the radio tracking from Elva Clements' hand terminal had been moving in... unprecedented ways, vanishing down the damaged end of the Spinward corridor and turning corners inconsistent with schematics of the Oaf and previous surveys of damage in those areas alike. Probably more meddling by Nelson McArthy.
She watched the Khorian try and reach for something on the table with her remaining, injured arm. The female knocked a glass water vessel from the stand by her hospital bed, and Aimil watched listlessly as the glass tipped, its centre of mass shifting, water spilling overboard.
Nelson was keeping something from her. What, though?
The glass began its tumble, twisting through the air, in freefall.
He'd tried to hide the arrival of Urchardan as long as he could. Which was about all of five minutes.
The Doctor by Yath's bedside blinked, body pitching forward to try and intercept the glass. He would, she knew, fail entirely and make a mess of his trouser legs doing so.
The AI searched her peripheral data nets. Scraps of information a dedicated neural net swept up because its models thought she might find them interesting, or useful. Otherwise, information handed in as tips.
Doctor Ramsey's face changed, just slightly, as he realised he couldn't catch the glass in time. Not dismay, too underdeveloped for that. Just... something primal.
She found something. A low resolution image from a hand terminal about an expedition Urchardan was running to return to the planet "Tartarus". Something else, too: low-quality audio recorded by corridor microphones of an argument between McArthy and Clements, about... she checked the quotes. "the tunnels of Tartarus," she'd called them. McArthy had described them as "ancient alien M.C. Escher shit".
The glass connected with the ground. For a split instant, a single frame from a high definition camera, it seemed to warp in shape, just faintly. And then cracks radiated from the corner that struck the floor, spreading like vines in slow motion, from her perspective at least.
So. McArthy had kept the existence of an artefact from her. But why? Aimil had always been content as an AI overseer. This role fit her aptitudes perfectly!
Ramsey recoiled, eyes screwing shut, and he began to slip on some of the spilled water.
It was conceivable that the man feared an information leak. She'd never give out any of her own accord, of course, but AIs were hardly immune to tampering. Or...
The Doctor inadvertently tackled the alien's hospital bed, the impact sending slow, resounding shock waves through his flesh.
...Or, the artefacts were dangerous.
Dangerous to have. Dangerous even to know about.
Something dragged Aimil's attention from the conspiracy brooding within her; the thread regarding Mister Reverse-Midas-Touch himself, Tomaidh Urchardan, had been plucked.
Yath Longstar
The bumbling Doctor Ramsey was still in the process of awkwardly trying to dry his trousers when the message sounded. The station's... mind? It had pinged Yath's handheld to apprise her of the situation with Urchardan.
She still found the Machine Intelligence's presence in every aspect of her recovery yet obstruction of naught confusing. Of course, the Khorians had expert systems and clever neural networks, translators, facial recognition and so on, and every Khorian CEO in the Galaxy had a fleet of personal assistants, both virtual and incarnate, at his or her disposal. But none of those machine intellects were People with a capital P. Khorians took the view, philosophically, that baseline intelligence—supplemented, occasionally, by organic minds suitably enhanced by city-sized computers; even then under careful guidance and control—was the best way to advance culture and science. The dead societies that littered worlds across the Periphery, where a nameless empire lay in ruins, had been enough to frighten most species away from the idea of true Machine Intelligence.
Humanity not so, clearly.
She actually found the machine, which she'd called 'Am', for fear of mispronouncing its proper name, rather likeable and talkative, on the right subject. Its silence now was disturbing.
Longstar strode down the corridors, trying to ignore the itching in her ruined limbs. She thought of Urchardan, of the trouble he was in. Am had listed him as 'critically injured,' and had sent technicians and nurses to transport him to the primary intensive care unit. Yath marched through the awkwardly-sized doors, bowing under the doorframe, and thought she managed to enter with her dignity intact.
The humans McArthy and Clements were stood, serious looks on their faces, watching the operation occuring below through glass panels. The cramped space stank of something astringent, and the walls were the perfect painted white of hospitals the Galaxy over. Or prisons.
"What do you know?" Asked Yath.
"He was stabbed seventeen times by a group of mercenaries. Only one of their number survived the encounter, but in fairness that was only because Urchardan had a gun. If he hadn't, according to him, he'd be 'eh deahd mahn,' in his own words," Clements said. "He's in surgery now. Could be hours yet."
Yath thought on this. The only solution she could think of was that someone was trying to put a stop to them returning to the world Tomaidh had apparently named "Tartarus". Probably not the artefacts there, of course, because this was altogether too subtle. And she wasn't sure how far they could actually reach, or how smart they were. Maybe someone else found out abotu "Tartarus" from Tomaidh? Whatever the case, leaving him behind wasn't an option, the Mad Bastard was his ship, and she wasn't sure she could get it moving even if she'd wanted to steal it from him.
"How many hours? Would it be possible for him to recover while in transit?"
McArthy looked aghast.
"You want him to recover from stab wounds on a dropship? Are you mad?"
She didn't have time to explain either the urgency of their return to Tartarus, or that the Bastard was not, in fact, actually a dropship, despite Urchardan's insistence otherwise. Instead, she turned to Elva. "Would. It. Be. Possible?" Yath still wasn't sure of human limits, and didn't know if a side effect of their endurance, strength and predatory, quick minds was taking longer to heal. Certainly the humans slept much longer hours than Longstar did.
Clements looked like she was being compelled to rob a bank under duress. "Yes... In principle, yes." She hesitated. Something she wanted to say, Yath sensed. What would Tom do? She asked herself.
"Whatever it is, human," Longstar growled. "Say it. Don't doubt that I can't beat it out of you if I must."
"The Correctives we bought," she blurted out. Yath cocked her head to one side, her amputated vestigial limb twitching where it would have been rubbing its fingers together in a gesture of surprise if present. McArthy had tried to stop Clements speaking, but now sat heavily and sighed. Resigned. "It's... Alien technology. Medical things we technically aren't allowed to have. But we've seen the newscasts, the war is gonna get both a lot worse and a lot closer before it gets better or further away."
She was dimly familiar with Correctives. General-purpose medical kits, the kind one would leave on anything to papercuts to minor fractures to repair. Better than basic medical care, less effective for wide-ranging wounds than the autodocs humans mass produced, but good for fixing specific wounds. She could have used one at that very moment, actually; there had been some faint, unceasing nausea since she'd awoken from the coma. Most used clever nanotechnology trickery and integrated computing to diagnose and fix a problem, but even if someone had been stupid enough to sell these humans Correctives, they'd be basic ones. Simple pharmacological general purpose manufacturers with a basic computer chip slapped on. If even that.
"How much will you take for enough Correctives to keep him stable? I'll pay double."
Mothuracurie
There had to be a way to make the others see.
She'd been studying humans for a very, very long time now. And it was only recently that the penny, as they would say, had dropped. And, for that matter, what she suspected was some pretty significant amount of indoctrination she and her fellow Loti had recieved about the First People.
Humans were warlike. There was no denying that. No one conquered their homeworld in any way without it, the Loti had, as had their contemporaries all those aeons ago. And the current examples of Galactic life; Khorians and Ashtai and suchlike. Even the anomalous herbivores had done so, though in fairness most of those wars were fought against their natural predators, at least at first.
Humans were also pyschotic.
Everyone else saw that as a bad thing. But how much faster might the Loti have developed, technologically and culturally alike, if their few mentally-ill geniuses of a generation were encouraged rather than scoffed at? Humans hadn't merely developed a common psychosis, they'd formalised it. Institutionalised, even tamed it.
Ironically, it was their psychosis which overcame their warlike tendencies.
Certainly, it wasn't much new. The First People, humanity's predecessors, had been much the same. But few had studied them, and fewer had correlated the data as Mothuracurie had. Mutually Assured Destruction was not uniquely human, but the fact they'd managed to maintain it for over half a century on a single planet really showed their talents for reigning in their own worst nature.
But humans were also the other kind of psychotic.
The kind of psychotic that let you face down squadrons of Shock Troopers with a kinetic weapon and your wits on an ancient precursor world, and survive.
The kind of psychotic that let you survive a Consul's attempt at assassinating you, too.
It had been an ugly thing, learning of her grandfather's ruthlessness. Worse thing to have to learn when one was young. But she'd gotten over it. By now, it was just obvious, and she'd had her backdoors into his communications for a while, now. Accesses where none should exist, passwords he hadn't known about. Deeply illegal, but hard to trace.
Learning about the attempted assassination, however, had been something else. It defied Loti tactics and culture. There was honour in being assassinated, perhaps, for a general or president from an opposing side. But for a mere soldier, to attempt to murder a single man in such a way? It spoke only of humiliation and a lack of propriety. She didn't much care for such things, but more for the moral side: kill a man honestly, or don't do it at all.
That kind of thinking is why the humans are winning, her grandfather retorted, a memory echoed in her head.
A thought came to her.
If she couldn't convince them humanity was worth saving... maybe she could convince them humanity was too dangerous—too psychotic—to risk destruction facing them in war. That reparations and capitulations would be better. If she couldn't make them see the beauty of humanity, maybe she could make them see their danger.
She stepped out of the Science and Industry hub, a great swirling structure one might have confused for coral, if not for the branching surveilance systems and antennae. She'd make them see.
She'd make them all see.
Elva Clements
She bit the inside of her lip, trying to keep the anger down. It was spectacularly unsuccessful.
"You didn't tell her!" Clements roared, unable to contain her fury.
McArthy had, to his credit, the decency to look a little ashamed. Which made shouting at him hurt more; what they'd been through together, it made anger hard. But unconditional love didn't mean freedom from being called out.
"I don't trust her," he said. "The only reason I trust him is because he's still the same old Scottish dick he was when we last met. But that Khorian is a few priests short of a church, let me tell you!" He hesitated a moment. "And you didn't tell her either, let's be honest."
Elva shook her head, dismissing Nelson's last point. "It's bad enough you didn't tell them about the... the things embedded in them. But not telling them about this?" She gestured towards a shimmering volumetric display, illustrating the impossible twists and turns in the bodies of the Mad Bastard duo. "It's wrong."
Nelson sat down. Nelson, not Stationmaster Doctor McArthy. The man, not the position in the Hippocratic Oaf's hierarchy he occupied. He swept both hands across his eyes and down his face, and sighed. "I don't trust her, Elva, love. I mean, trauma is a part of it, I'm sure. But you heard Urchardan, what he had to say about her before going into the tunnels." He ran his hands through his hair, suddenly charged with some nervous energy. "But now? Since she came out of that coma, hell, since she came out of these tunnels, that Khorian hasn't been the same, and some part of that isn't just alien-PTSD." Suddenly, he surged up, and jabbed his finger through the scan of her body, to where the anomaly had been found. A lump of sort-of carbon, brimming with electrical activity, right under a small-but-obvious laceration on her body. "And this?! Doesn't it seem odd she's so desperate to get back to this, this 'Tartarus', hm?"
"Yes! Yes, it does... But couldn't it still be explained by PTSD, Nelson? Maybe she's re-experiencing and thinks confronting it will solve it?"
Nelson sighed again. "Yeah," he said at last. "Maybe. But is that the way you want to bet? They've both got lumps of what looks rather suspiciously like computational substrate embedded in their nervous systems, and if you haven't noticed, their arteries are pulling the same MC escher bullshit we all saw from those tunnels Yath and Tomaidh were in. And if that Khorian isn't really the one driving the bus, not fully, do you really trust her to be stable when we reveal all that to her? That the eldritch nightmare she fought to escape has now left pieces of itself inside her?!"
Clements shook her head. Disgust and second-hand shame threatened to overcome her.
"You didn't do it for Tomaidh, you fucking bastard. You didn't do it to keep the Khorian from trying to kill us or fly into the sun. You did it because it was the easiest way to get them off our station. You were afraid. And—" She hesitated. Should I really tell him?
"And what, Elva?" He asked, voice soothing.
"And it was for nothing. I think. Two days ago, I was walking down the D-Five Spinward corridor, towards the damaged sections of the station."
"No," he said, mouth unable to close fully afterwards, face a perfect mask of shock. Of awed disbelief.
"I found a right hand turn. Only a right hand turn." That was impossible. There were five D-Five corridors—the "Spinward" one, which ran the entire circumference of the station's rotating drum, and four corridors running down the length of the station's drum, at ninety degrees. They continued straight, meeting in four-way intersections, but they never turned. "I followed the turn and found another, and another. And then another."
"And—And then?"
"And then, like a spell, it was over. I turned back the way I came, only to find myself right back at the start of the damaged sections, right on the edge of Aimil's blindspot." It was common knowledge that the damaged parts of the Oaf were, essentially, invisible to the station's AI without cameras and microphones which let her see there. Many criminals exploited this. Clearly, whatever madness had spread from the Mad Bastard duo must have as well.
"I suppose we're fucked, then."
"I suppose we are," Clements replied, bitterness sharpening her tone.
Yath Longstar
She looked at the hastily-fitted prosthetics, testing their tactile response and reflexes. They wove themselves in carefully-designed, aesthetically pleasing loadbearing designs, webbed and meshed and looking almost like carbon fibre, rather than the carbon nanotube-graphene composite it was truly made of. She'd been aghast, initially, when the doctors explained to her that hardening parts of her skeletal system had been necessary to ensure her survival. After all, a Khorian's body was a funnily-balanced thing, from an engineering perspective. There was little redundancy in her bones, and losing two limbs would weaken her spinal corridor and remaining arm.
They had done a far more comprehensive job than was strictly necessary, of course, while she'd been comatose. Reinforcing her skeleto-muscular systems, adding loadbearing systems in her joints, remaking her. Had she still had all three limbs, using even the most recoil-heavy human weapons would have brought her little more than mild discomfort, where before many human guns would risk strain injuries and hairline fractures at the minimum with long term use.
The new limbs, however, had been tweaked. They were the real reason she'd had her skeleton so thoroughly violated and remade.
The new arms were each of them as strong as a human's.
Somehow, all those beautiful scientific advancements felt like very little compared to the prospect of being rid of the thick nausea which settled itself in her gut. The spasms and stabbing pains where the metalbug had bitten her, [weeks] ago. The [direct translation unavailable; persistent day-dreams/torrent of flashbacks] that wouldn't shift when she shut her eyes or was in a place she felt was too claustrophobic or shifting too fast.
If she could do anything about those, it'd make the reconstruction of her arms seem like mere child's play.
The Mad Bastard was almost ready for departure. Already Urchardan's wounds had begun to heal, and he'd shown slight hints of awareness, face twitching and occasional half-dreampt words spoken. The Correctives were working. She was finding the human-built consoles difficult to adjust, probably requiring too many fingers and too much leverage for her. Still, the ship would take them back to so-called "Tartarus" as soon as the last supplies loaded on.
It was a shame Urchardan's search for a crew hadn't turned anything up before he'd been stabbed. She wondered if anyone had taken that flier he put up down. Probably not, come to think of it. Oh well. Bigger [direct translation unavailable; birds (original "Yeaish")] to [direct translation unavailable; bake (original "Yurtan")]. She thought about the human equivalent of that saying... something about frying fish, if her memory served.
Just another mystery about the humans, she thought. The stabbing pain where the metalbug had stabbed her returned, just momentarily, apparently sneering at such trivial things as Class 4 opiate pain meds. Perhaps it was something intentional, some poision or secretion to deter humans or First People (as if there was a difference) from grave robbing. Certainly would explain the swelling.
The outer cargo airlock door banged twice.
She cycled the outer door open, the inner door locked open, only allowed because of the detection of air outside (that was an ingenious idea she'd have to apply to her own ship, the Looter's Paradise, as soon as she got a hold of it), and said, "Just bring whatever crates are left and put them over—"
They weren't dock workers, or automatons.
Five human beings of varying colours, heights, sexes and ages crowded the Bastard's airlock.
The frontmost, an aged, caucasian human male with a thick white beard and prominent, sharp cheekbones, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a bluish-grey suit jacket over the top of a collared shirt slowly losing its colour, stepped forward; evidently this was the group's leader, or at least spokesman. "Greetings," he said, in a voice like gravel poured by the [megatonne] from the sky as rain. "We're here to join your expedition, to this world of Tartarus."
Yath Longstar swallowed.
As if one human wasn't trouble enough.
[Next]
[Thanks for reading! Feedback, criticism, and questions are always welcome. I look forward to your comments. :) ]
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