by Graham B.
Three men fleeing the destruction of their new home must survive the night.
| Roque watched the last of the red glow fade between spreading fingers of the trees as the boat rounded the next bend in the river. His eyes continued to burn as he turned to face the bow, glowering in the planet light. The faint blue light of Susa’s companion binary planet, Khumban, also revealed the large, modified laser drill at his feet, a grey cylindrical lump which rocked gently with the boat’s movement.
The other two men had long since stopped looking back. Gray’s eyes darted between Wilson and Roque, cataloging and assessing in his way, forcing Roque to suppress his irritation. Wilson stared into the water, ignoring the others. He occasionally dragged a finger through the inky blackness, adding to the boat’s wake as it motored silently downstream between the towering dark shapes of the trees.
“You did remember to wipe the records, didn’t you, Gray?” Roque finally spoke, startling Gray. “If you didn’t, they will be looking for three missing people.”
“Of course I did.” Gray licked his lips, his eyes darting like fish. “That was the first thing I did when it started.”
Wilson turned and stared at him, drawing no response. Turning back to the water, he spoke for the first time since their escape. “We’ll know soon enough.”
“How quickly will they be able to crack the computer?” Gray asked. “They don’t know our systems. Completely different from their own.” His eyes settled on the deck of the boat, forcing his nervous energy to his fingers, which began to twitch. They looked like squirming larva in the planetlight.
“How would you know? We don’t know what they’re capable of,” said Roque. “But if they find us, no one on Earth will learn of the treaty violation. As far as they will know, the colony never made it to Susa, and the Wrage took this planet legitimately.”
“I wiped the records!” said Gray, looking at Roque and receiving an impassive stare in return.
“I’m not sure it makes any difference,” Roque said. “Possession being nine-tenths and all of that.” He adjusted the boat’s course as the river straightened. Heads snapped up at the approaching whirr of hover drones to the south, and then relaxed as the sounds faded into the distance.
“But, why would they do it?” asked Gray. “We’re not at war! The treaty was explicit!”
“Opportunity,” said Roque. “It’s a gamble, Gray, and now it looks like it might pay off. Did you expect the Wrage to honor a treaty? To them, it’s just a piece of paper to wipe their scaly asses with.” Roque swerved the boat to avoid a rock, and the drill shifted, gently knocking against his leg. “Earth is going to write this place off. There won’t be any retribution. No justice.” His bared teeth gleamed in Khumban’s light as he brought the boat back on course.
“And your way would be what?” Wilson asked. “Another war?”
“If we don’t respond, they will think of us as pushovers! It won’t stop at Susa. They are going to keep expanding their borders and pushing us back.”
Wilson didn’t answer. He glanced up just in time to see a star awkwardly crossing the sky, moving at right angles to the alien constellations’ heavenly march. The Lewis and Clark passed onward, still in orbit where the colonists left her after she had brought them here through all of the cold, dark light-years. Was she still functional? Would she be able to receive a transmission?
The boat continued silently into the gloom.
After an hour the trees began to thin, and the mountains containing the valley the settlement had been built in rose to prominence to the north and south. In their wake lay the lush forests of the foothills, and the cooling ashes of the settlement, along with those of nearly nine hundred colonists. Downstream the mountains flattened into plains, and somewhere on those plains, the river would wind past the first landing zone, where the initial base camp was. Nothing necessary for human life was located there, but a single pre-fabricated building still stood a lonely watch over the historical site. Inside the building was equipment for communicating with the Lewis and Clark, still located where the colonists had left it before finding their new, more desirable site. It was Roque’s intent to make use of this equipment to relay a message to Earth, via the Clark. The ship was empty of crew, but the ship’s computers would relay a message automatically when received. Earth would not get the message for years, but at least they would eventually be informed of the Wrage attack.
The trees abruptly stopped, their comforting cover retreating into blue shadows, exposing them to unseen eyes above. The faint whine of searching drones occasionally reached them from distant search patterns, making the occupants of the boat strain to see into the darkness. They could not see anything, but the open sky glowed menacingly.
The river slowed as it widened, and Roque increased the throttle as much as he dared. The electric motor whined at a higher pitch, and took his anxiety up with it. He gritted his teeth and swerved the boat around a rock, whose presence was marked by a faint white wake. Whirring drones passed in the distance, muffled by intervening trees, but he fought the urge to push even faster.
“Roque!” came a strained whisper from Gray.
The whirring was getting louder, rising up from behind.
Gray hunkered down in the bottom of the boat, his eyes wide black pools in Khumban’s light. Wilson sat like a stone in the bow, his jaw set, his eyes bleak.
Roque took his hand from the motor and picked up the drill. He hefted it, and then pointed behind them, searching for a target. The whirring was very loud now, moving straight toward them with no deviation. For an instant he thought he saw a faint shadow, like a bird in the sky, and fired. The beam was invisible until it struck the drone, cutting it in two in a burst of blue light. The whirring stopped, followed seconds later by splashes.
Roque gunned the engine and urged the boat forward. Already the whine of drones could be heard from every direction, getting louder. He dodged drowned logs and rocks, bumping over some of them in his haste and unsettling his passengers, but continued pushing on toward their destination.
Wilson was staring into the darkness ahead, as if he could see what was coming. He suddenly stood up, his feet splayed wide as the boat rocked in mild protest to the movement. There was another glow ahead, red wavering shafts spearing through the darkness. Three grim sets of eyes were illuminated.
“Isn’t that where…” Gray began.
Wilson nodded. “Yeah. That’s the comm station. They torched it.”
Roque gradually throttled back, letting the boat drift with the current. There was now nothing but the sound of rushing water.
“So now what?” asked Wilson, watching the light from their burning salvation.
Gray was suddenly muttering to himself. “Is it possible? No…can’t be, but their tech is not that much different… same physical principles…”
“What’s wrong with you?” growled Roque. “I need your help! We need a new plan!”
Gray’s manic eyes were ablaze. “I have one! Take us back!”
“You’ve gotta be kidding…”
But Gray had a feverish look, and Wilson was now watching him. “Could you do it?” he asked.
“Do what?” Roque’s eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about?” Roque was suddenly holding Gray by his coat lapels, his eyes boring into Gray’s. “Are you telling me you can jury rig that downed drone to transmit? You’re sure?”
“No! I’m not sure! But what other choice do we have? At least let me take a look!”
Roque released Gray, who began muttering to himself about radio frequencies and data modulation.
He grabbed the throttle and whipped the boat about, heading back upstream. He fixed his eyes on Gray, who continued muttering. “You’d better have something up your sleeve”, he whispered.
As they neared tree line they had previously left, the whirring began again to the south, near the glow of the burning station. Khumban had moved in the sky a few degrees, shifting their source of light to nearly directly overhead. Roque slowed the boat as close to the location of their encounter as he could remember. Gray was anxiously peering into the water.
The light of Khumban illuminated a whitecap in the water, a wake where none had been before. A strut poking out of the water. Roque carefully approached the downed drone. Gray grasped it when he was close enough and heaved, but couldn’t budge it. Wilson leaned forward and lent his strength, and together, the two heaved the device into the boat.
The boat sat considerably lower in the water as Gray examined their catch. “I can’t see anything, I need light!”
“We can’t risk it!” said Roque, but Wilson produced a penlight from his coveralls, which he played along the drone’s composite flanks.
It was half of a small device, almost the size of a man, colored gray. The laser drill had sliced clean through the alloy of the hull, fusing electronics within. Gray leaned forward, his twitching fingers moving wires and junk apparatus aside as he searched inside. Finally he sat upright.
“It’s not in here”, he announced. “The communications package, it’s not here!”
“Don’t tell me that!” hissed Roque. His hand tightened painfully on the throttle of the motor.
“It must be in the other half. We have to keep looking.”
All three looked upstream, seeking out another piece of their salvation, but there was no telltale wake this time, no sign at all.
Wilson began unbuttoning his coveralls. “I guess I’ll have to dive down and look.”
“No!” Roque removed his shoes. “I’m the best swimmer here. Keep this boat on station.”
Before they could protest he was over the side, and the others did not see the splash.
One minute, then two and Gray began fidgeting.
“Oh God, he’s drowned! What do we do now?”
“Just hold on. He will be back.” Wilson’s voice quavered.
Water erupted behind them, and a black shape flew from the water and thudded into the bottom of the boat. An arm followed it over the side. Gray and Wilson helped Roque back into the boat.
“Took you long enough”, Wilson said.
“Sorry, stopped to admire the view”, Roque replied as he began brushing the water off. He was shivering.
Gray was already poking through the other half of the drone as Roque resumed his station and aimed the boat back into the trees ahead of the rising whine in the sky. They could not stay hidden for long, and soon enough the eyes in the sky would come with teeth as well.
The forest swallowed them once more as the boat move upstream. Gray did something with wires within the drone, muttering as he moved the penlight in and out. Roque frowned as penlight flashed, illuminating the inside of the boat, but did nothing but keep the boat in the shadows as best he could.
Gray’s eyes finally found Roque.
“Is it ready?” Wilson asked.
“Not yet, I need a power source! The one in the drone was fried. I think you cut it in half, Roque.”
“Sorry, I wasn’t exactly aiming to wound,” was the caustic reply. “What about that light?”
“Not enough! It won’t power a transmission to orbit. We need more!”
Wilson eyed the motor, humming gently under Roque’s guiding hand. “We have a power source. It’s right there.”
Startled, Roque looked down and saw the access panel for the outboard’s power supply. He shook his head.
“We’ll be dead in the water!”
“You have a better idea?”
A drone buzzed the river about two hundred meters upstream. It had a lower, thrumming pitch than the reconnaissance drones they encountered before. It grew steadily, deliberately louder.
“What about the drill?” asked Wilson.
“No good”, Gray replied. “Power source is incompatible. I can’t step the voltage down with what I have here.”
Roque released the throttle and the boat glided to a halt, then began drifting back downstream, turning gently in the eddies. He bent over and pried the panel loose, and saw a cylinder the size of his foot with two wires protruding.
“Do you need the wires?”
“No!” said Gray, watching greedily as Roque extricated the precious power cell from the motor. Roque handed it almost ceremonially to Gray, as if he were handing over his child. The cell disappeared into the drone.
Khumban ducked behind a cloud, and the thrumming noise rising in volume upstream prompted Roque to raise the drill. He could see the black triangular shape silhouetted like a bat against the sky and thought he could feel it staring back. He raised the drill and fired. For an instant the hunter-killer drone blazed brightly with blue incandescence, a monstrous bat-winged shape with protrusions beneath.
The drone did not fall from the sky as the last one did. Instead, Roque felt a sting in his right arm, and looked down, dumfounded by the sight of the drill, arm and hand still grasping the handle, falling into the bottom of the boat. He sat down heavily, and his wide eyes meeting those of Wilson, who was looking terrified as he saw the blood begin spurting from the stump where Roque’s right arm used to be.
“I’ve got it,” cried Gray. “I’m sending our transmission now!” Something chirped inside the jury-rigged spy drone, and Roque suddenly did not feel the wound any more. The blood flow lessened, and he felt almost euphoric, vindicated. Khumban emerged from its cloud, a blue angel complete with a halo. Roque smiled.
Before Wilson’s eyes, Roque seemed to divide in two like paper tearing, from his forehead to his left hip. Behind him, the boat’s stern separated and the inky black water rushed in, claiming Roque’s remains along with the boat’s motor.
“No!” Wilson screamed. “Let’s get out of here!”
But Gray was grinning. “I did it! The transmission is on its way! Nothing’s gonna stop…”
The top of Gray’s head from nose to crown was suddenly sliding off, backwards into the water. Gray slumped forward, his body embracing what was left of the spy drone in a gruesome act of affection. The boat was sinking rapidly, stern first.
Wilson clung to the bow, as it went down. The thrumming was very loud, and looking up he saw the shape against the sky. The frigid water rushed to his knees as he waited for the drone to deliver the final blow.
The drone’s thrumming took on a ragged tone and then the sound came to a screaming, grinding stop. Wilson saw something separate from the drone and shoot into the trees, just before it fell from the sky like a dying bird. The huge splash upset what was left of the boat, and Wilson was suddenly underwater, choking, trying to push himself to the surface and clawed his way to air. He saw the outline of the shore only a few meters away and kicked toward it, lungs burning. Seconds later he was there.
Turning, he looked back at the river but saw no sign of the boat, Roque, Gray, or their tormentors. He struggled to his feet and moved deeper into the woods. He could not be certain that the forest would hide him from the drones, but with luck, the Wrage would think he was dead with the others. As he walked, his mind’s eye saw Roque and Gray, still in the boat, trying to live a little bit longer. Wilson pondered his future. The four years for the message to reach Earth. An undetermined time for Earth to decide what to do when they received it. The Navy had faster-than-light ships, but not many. Would they use one to investigate the distress call from Susa?
Wilson heard more drones in the distance, but they were not coming his way. He moved more quickly into the woods, carefully picking his way between fallen logs, and shrubs, avoiding Khumban’s cloying blue light. His foot touched something hard and warm in the soil, and he stooped to pick it up. He quickly identified it as a ceramic-composite blade from a drone turbine, sharp enough to cut with. Wilson hefted the unexpected gift, then shook thoughts of Earth from his head and began the drudgery of survival.