2950-08-02 – Tales from the Inbox: A Turncoat’s Reward
We’re getting some details about last week’s skirmish in the Håkøya outskirts. It seems to have been an aborted attempt to capture an Incarnation-controlled mining installation which Naval Intelligence thinks employs Confederated captives as forced labor. Incarnation cruisers met and repelled the force before it got there, resulting in the sharp action we reported last week. Fifth Fleet’s detachment fought well by all accounts and all its major ships returned to Maribel, but the failure of the mission to liberate our countrymen is still quite disappointing.
“Jen Daley, you are clear to begin atmospheric entry. Proceed to your landing coordinates along the provided descent course.”
The bored Cyclone groundside controller’s voice startled Ramiro out of his agitated thoughts. He’d been worried about giving the local customs agency Mr. A’s false identity imprint, but apparently his worries had been overblown. Neither the passenger’s identity nor his intended landing site raised any concerns at the planet’s single spaceport.
“Copy, control.” Ramiro transferred the course sent by the spaceport to the navigation system. “Beginning descent.”
“Do remember to wish your passenger a good stay on Cyclone.”
As the planet outside the cockpit viewpanels slowly rolled over from being nearly “above” Ramiro to being below him, he switched on the intercom. “We’re headed down. Liv, secure the lounge.”
Though the autopilot could handle most atmospheric entries on its own, Ramiro rested his hands lightly on the yoke and scanned the controls as the gravitic drive fought against orbital velocity and the ship dove belly-first into the planet’s atmosphere. Though Jen Daley reduced its velocity relative to the ground with its engines rather than via atmospheric braking, tongues of orange and yellow plasma still licked up on all sides, and the ship vibrated intensely.
Within half a minute, a low booming rocked the ship and the plasma vanished, replaced by streaming vortexes of white mist. Between these, Ramiro could see mountainous ranges of clouds far below, and between them, a graceful sweep of small islands spanned a glittering emerald sea.
On the horizon far to his left, a looming bastion of grey lit by fitful violet lightning flashes marked the edge of the Cyclone which gave its name to the world itself – a massive permanent super-storm at the south pole which regularly calved off smaller storms to rampage northward toward the equator. Mr. A. wanted to land more than two hundred kilometers from its outer rim, but for Ramiro, for whom bad-weather landings had become something of an ill omen, this was still far too close.
As the ship swooped lower and passed the billowing top of one of the cloudbanks, Ramiro checked the ship’s sensors for any indication he was being pursued. This was something he’d never before thought necessary during a landing, and after he had left Cyclone and Mr. A. behind, he hoped to ensure that it would never be necessary again.
When at last the ship circled low and passed over its landing site, a rocky outcrop on the coast of one of the islands, Ramiro breathed a sigh of relief. The island, barely four square kilometers of scrubby xenoflora and wave-crenellated rock, showed no sign of any other visitors. Mr. A. had assured Ramiro that he had made his own arrangements, and had left it at that.
The whole business left Ramiro uneasy, least of all because he was doing very illegal things. Were it not for Livia, Ramiro would have been happy to drop the man off and burn for orbit at emergency speed. Only vague suggestions by Mr. A. that the local atmosphere might be good for Livia prevented it. Surely, that had to mean something – but he didn't know quite what.
“Final landing approach.” Ramiro broadcast on the intercom “Kindly be seated.”
In the end, the warning was hardly necessary; the stiff wind blowing over the outcrop caused Jen Daley to slide laterally a little as its landing skids touched down, but otherwise the landing proved smooth and uneventful. After a routine external air-quality test came up clean, Ramiro opened the air intakes and dropped the ramp. “Welcome to a very quiet corner of Cyclone. External temperature reads as thirteen Celsius, so do bundle up if you’re going out there.”
With that, Ramiro secured the controls, idled the engines, and headed aft to lower the cargo elevator, Mr. A.’s two small crates of belongings standing forlornly in its center.
Ramiro rode the cargo elevator down to the ground, which was technically a violation of its manual of operation. He knew not to take such things seriously. The manuals, after all, were written by people in comfortable offices back in the Core Worlds with a severe allergy to the sorts of dangers to human life which actual spacers blithely tempted every day. Compared to most of those, the risk of being jostled by the cargo elevator didn’t even register.
When he stepped off, he found Mr. A. standing by the forward landing skid, and Livia hugging herself to keep warm halfway up the boarding ramp, her dark hair blown into a comet’s tail by the wind. She was wearing only her usual snug, thin shipboard fatigues, which though flattering to her figure, provided little protection against the elements.
“I told you to bundle up!” Ramiro hopped off the elevator and picked his way over the wave-dimpled stone on which he’d landed his ship.
“Thirteen C sounded quite nice until I got out here.” Livia shook her head. “Just keeping an eye on him.”
Ramiro held out a hand to help Livia down off the end of the ramp. “Help me move his crates, then go back in and get a jacket.”
Their passenger stood staring over the sea while Ramiro and Livia wrestled his two parcels off the cargo elevator and set them a safe distance from the landing skids. As Livia retreated into the ship to find something warm to wear, Ramiro walked up to stand next to Mr. A. The view, he had to admit, was quite stunning – between the greenish sea flecked with creamy white foam whipped up by the wind and the fantastic shapes of the faintly rosy clouds piled high on the horizon, and the dark gray rocks far below catching the waves and throwing them into the air in glittering spray, the place seemed less than real, a master’s painting come to life.
“I have read old Earth stories of men who fell in love with the sea.” Now that he stood on solid ground, amid such desolation, Mr. A. seemed refreshed, less small, shriveled, or exhausted than he had even a few hours before. “Until now, I thought it merely poetic license. Are Earth’s oceans like this?”
“A bit.” Ramiro glanced sidelong at his passenger. “I’ve only been there once, myself. We need to-”
“The greatest heartbreak of beauty like this place,” Mr. A. turned to face Ramiro at last, a sly look glinting in his dark eyes. “Is that to possess it, a man must go the better part of the way to destroying it. He must put in a quay there,” He pointed down to a spit of land a few hundred meters along the shore. “A lighter hangar, perhaps, there.” Again, he pointed. “And into this rock he must drive the piers on which to build his home. When he is done, how much of the beauty he first found would remain?”
Ramiro hesitated. Somehow, he knew Mr. A. wasn’t just talking about the scenery. “Construction wouldn’t remove the sea, the waves, or that storm on the horizon. Speaking of that-”
“I wonder whether he would miss what the island was, before he touched it.” Mr. A. turned inland and gestured. “Come with me.”
Ramiro glanced up at the empty boarding ramp, then followed. Mr. A. picked a path down the sloping lee side of the outcrop, into the scrubby plant-growths that clung to the rest of the little island. Though they’d looked low and tough from the air, Ramiro found most of their branches arched far over his head.
Eventually, Ramiro’s limited patience won out over his waning curiosity. “Where are we going?”
“Evidently, you have arrived.”
This voice, high and reedy, came from behind Ramiro. He spun on his heel and reached for his gun, but the chubby little man standing on the path behind him held up his hands and smiled.
“My friend, I did not expect you to come in person!” Mr. A. smiled. “You need not have troubled-”
“Nonsense.” The chubby man made an expansive gesture. “They couldn’t possibly keep me away. Though I must ask, why, er...” He nodded toward Ramiro.
Mr. A. opened his mouth, but grimaced and closed it again. “Let him tell you. I will retrieve what I have brought.” With a prompting gesture, the Incarnation turncoat hurried back up toward Jen Daley.
The rotund man turned a quizzical look on Ramiro. “Yes, indeed, tell. You are not touched by our war.”
At the words “our war”, Ramiro shivered and took a step back. This, he knew now, was another Incarnation Immortal – another who had freed himself from their grasp, apparently. Squaring his shoulders, he stood his ground. “How freely can I speak?”
“Ah, you know about the override coding. You needn’t fear.” The little man tapped a sausage-like finger to his temple. “I have been quite reprogrammed.”
Somehow, this didn’t reassure Ramiro. Still, he pressed on. “My partner... The Incarnation got ahold of her. Corrupted her mind, like yours was corrupted. Can you undo what they did?”
The little man winced, though in sympathy or at the use of the word “corrupted”, Ramiro could not decide. “What the cyberneticists do cannot be undone. To disconnect or remove the implants would be fatal, but with care they can be... reprogrammed.”
“Reprogrammed? Free her from one master just to put her under another?” Ramiro shook his head. “That seems hardly better.”
“She cannot be told of the option herself, as you likely know. You must decide if we should take her with us.” The little man shrugged. “I could similarly not tell this to my friend, but I am no rogue. Those who reprogrammed me have a degree of official sanction of your government.”
Ramiro nodded and turned away. “Will she be able to live with herself after she’s been... reprogrammed?”
“That is up to her. I promise she will be no worse off, and there is hope for much improvement. Certainly, the override coding will trouble her much less.”
Ramiro balled his fists. He didn’t want to trust Livia to these rogue Immortals, whether or not they had switched sides and enjoyed Confederated Worlds backing. He remembered, however, the helpless look in her eyes when she’d run up against something she simply could not say.
Ramiro turned back to the little man. “If I find out she came to harm, no amount of official protection will save you.”
“I will take that as you intend it.” The little man smiled widely. Though he carried no obvious weapons, Ramiro became immediately certain that this was the deadliest individual he’d ever permitted within arm’s reach of himself. “As a demand that I treat your friend well, as toothless as your threat is in truth.”
Ramiro nodded. “Then I’ll go get her.”