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The Other Side

Part 10 - Ronin <Masterless Warriors>


"We hope.

"We hope to be better. We hope to somehow redeem ourselves. We hope to leave our violent selves behind, humbled as we are by the enormity of our crime.

"We hope. A great part of who we are is hope."

- The Restoration, by John William Lewandowski


(i)

The Noah drifted on its wide parabolic around Algol, chased by the Manu.

They had no plan, just options, none of which were very good.

But they had no choice. Too much had been lost, and too much was left to lose. Palma’s death drove them, the fire at their core, the slow burning righteous determination to hurt what had used them so cruelly.

At night, however, the clinker left from the fire was heavy in their hearts. It was hard to believe they could prevail against the odds, but they had no choice but to try…

No choice…

Daniel was very aware that he was going into a situation he had no training for. Jean-Paul helped him improve his aim, but that would not help much. It wasn’t experience, it was just a skill. Daniel’s comfort zone was far gone to the distances of time, and the mind often failed in situations it had no programmed responses for. It scared Daniel that he might freeze. It panicked him to even think of what he would have to do. To invade, and infiltrate. It was out of his experience, and forever thrumming in his heart.

If it was difficult for them to believe they would succeed, then it was also difficult to for them to believe that they would not. That would be death, unthinkable in itself, but also a likely genocide for the people of the system and perhaps mankind as well. Mother Brain was insane, and the shadow behind her was dispassionately malevolent. To fail was inconceivable, but there was also the tiny worm of doubt, that you were fooling yourself, the sickening worry that there was nothing you could do.

The paradox was sharp ice crystals riming their hearts.

Only Jean-Paul, whose territory they were approaching, slept well. To the other two, it was the night before a big public address, again, and again…

Motavia vanished into the patterning of starlight behind them, their last link, their last escape, swallowed. The night was all around them and Daniel had never felt so alone.

He also fretted over Motavia’s climate. It was taking them too long. The Noah was too far out, and sweeping away from the system. Their time limit was generous, measured in months, perhaps years, but although the climate would not be seriously affected in that time, every second of climate damage was still irreparable.

Mother Brain was their terraforming computer, and Daughter her replacement, both designed to juggle the huge quantities of chaotic data associated with climate control and terraforming operations. Seed could not take over that job, as he was designed to process genetic code, a similarly huge quantity of data but with different rules and processing requirements. Nor did they have the specialised equipment required to disconnect and transport either Seed’s or Daughter’s neural net to Nurvus, let alone into space.

But they didn’t need a terraforming computer. Motavia was already terraformed, and the Dezorans had never wanted their climate adjusted anyway. All that was required was a mobile neural net adaptable and versatile enough to regulate the weather. Most neural nets were built for specific tasks. Wrens were the only general purpose droids, intelligent and able to adapt to any task. A Wren was what they needed, two for preference - one for each planet.

After Nei’s rampage and the destruction of Palma, the only place left to find them was on the Noah. Daniel and Jean-Paul both had orders to give them, a simple text file on a data disk. The first would head to the closest satellite - Zelan - and regulate both climates from there. If they found a second, it would go to Kuran and take over Motavia’s climate.

But the Wrens would not be able to repair any degradation. They would only keep things running until a genuine terraforming computer could be brought on line, and that was by no means certain. Any damage to the climate may well be permanent, and every second counted. Not for much, but they counted.

Finding some Wrens was only the beginning, of course. They had made Mother Brain the god of the system, and the creature had subverted her to its own ends. She had to be stopped. It had to be stopped.

Daniel could imagine the Noah’s interior, dark and mechanised, patrolled by soulless droids completely under Mother Brain’s control, unquestioning of her orders. And then the beast, the corrupter, the devil, as Daniel was almost prepared to believe. None of them had any idea what it might be capable of. Destroying it was amongst their options, and one of the best for outcome, as Mother Brain would remain functional, but the risk was far too high to try.

Apart from the current shift Commander, there were eleven people on the Noah who had Mother Brain’s shutdown code. Except Simonson, none had ever been out of stasis. Convincing them would be almost as hard as convincing the Commander, and getting to them similarly problematic. However, it was another option, and Seed had instructed them on how to release them from crysostasis.

The Commander was yet another option. Daniel and Jean-Paul both had an electronic copy of the Nurvus data and Seed’s report, but the Commander may have orders for them to be shot on sight. Mother Brain could have told him anything, and Chris had, after all, been at Gaila just before it crashed. If they met a human first, it would probably be okay. They could surrender and talk. An encounter with droids would probably have Mother Brain ordering them to open fire. Even if they managed to win through, any humans they subsequently met would be more inclined to shoot first, and ask questions later.

The remaining options were methods of destroying Mother Brain. Physical destruction would be nearly impossible. Her cores were defended with internal weapons, thanks to the paranoia over the Esper invasion.

Cutting her power, too, was nearly impossible, as it came straight from the main engines. If they were disabled, the main batteries would kick in. If they were shut down also, it would murder every one of the frozen colonists, and Mother Brain would still function on her own battery backup for up to an hour, theoretically to manage an evacuation.

She could do a great deal in an hour.

The final option was to shut down her coolant and let her neural net overheat. It, too, would be a slow death, and Mother Brain would sink further into insanity as her neural net degraded in the heat of its functioning. Theoretically, she should shut herself down in that circumstance, but it was a choice on her part, not an automatic system. If it was deliberate sabotage, she could still evacuate the ship, or give final orders to the droids to hunt down the saboteurs, or…

…or cut the power to every cyro chamber, or accelerate the Noah past human tolerances, or detonate the engines, or fling the ship at speeds faster than light into Motavia…

Mother Brain was too fast and too powerful for any form of slow death. Her override code was the only good option and the Commander was their primary target.

Jean-Paul was, of them all, unconcerned with the plan. It was an ancient military truism that no plan ever survived the first encounter with the enemy. He cycled through alternate options and scenarios, not really expecting any of them to occur.

The Manu surged towards the Noah, catching it slowly.

*     *     *     *     *

(ii)

"The time is now," Jean-Paul had said to him as he woke. An odd turn of phrase.

Daniel stripped off his jacket, pulling the arms inside out, and then his jeans, letting them fall in a heedless heap. Beside him lay a pile of something like dark silk, but thicker, tougher, artificial, and padded.

Body armour.

It had been a long night, restless. Part of Daniel had wanted it like that, to drag out the hours, perhaps enough so that the morning would never come. Sleep had taken him, though, disturbed and fitful, and now it was morning, and it was time.

Daniel pulled on the trousers, somewhat loose and baggy, and then pulled the straps tight, tightening it around his upper leg, shin and ankle. Then he shrugged into the jacket-like top, pulling the zip closed. Then the vest, the traditional piece of body armour, fastened at the sides, a helmet, which felt rigid and uncomfortable, even gloves, which provided no armour, but covered the hands in the same dark grey metal colour as the rest of him.

Then knee-high boots, and the belt. Then his equipment: pushing flares into a pouch, hooking the water bottle from his belt, a torch, map. He paused at the headset, and decided to hang it from his belt. They would not be able to use them without Mother Brain listening, so there was no point wearing it until either she was gone or back on their side.

Jean-Paul had finished a while before. He had a black ceramic shell over his torso, an added layer of protection giving him the appearance of having a heavier build, more military. It would be too restrictive for Daniel, and too tiring to carry the extra weight. Now, Jean-Paul was checking his gun, glancing over to Daniel occasionally to see how he was doing.

Jean-Paul’s gauss rifle was a strange weapon. Its barrel was wide and flat, with just a tiny hole in the centre for the exiting bullet. Daniel knew that the design was to accommodate the electro-magnets, arranged either side of the barrel, which accelerated the solid metal slugs down its length. They gave precise control over the speed of the slug and its firing rate. At low levels, it gave you a nasty bruise and sometimes broke bones. At its highest level, it launched slugs at three-quarters the speed of light, granting them enough kinetic energy to explode like dynamite on impact.

No gun was more versatile, but the gauss gun had its disadvantages. It required ammo, like all mass-driver weapons, but also a power pack, like energy weapons. The worst of both worlds, it was called. But it was completely computer controlled. Add to that its versatility and allow a cyborg to interface with it directly, and you have a gun which can change firing rates and bullet speed to suit the owners whim.

Daniel picked up his own weapon, a more mundane semi-automatic rifle, currently loaded with mag-pulse armour piercing shells, designed to punch into droids and then scramble nearby circuitry.

So, it comes to this, Daniel thought, hefting the unfamiliar weight. Men with guns. For all our promises, and our lessons, for all our hope of redemption, once again we are reduced to the tool-using savage.

The peace of the gun.

He slung it over his shoulder, moving on automatic, numb to the thought that he - a technician - was preparing for battle. It was too absurd to consider, too far outside his experience to think about. He wasn’t preparing for battle, just putting on this armour, picking up this gun, taking spare clips of ammo.

The shuttle rocked as Chris applied the manoeuvring jets. A minute later, he appeared at the top of the stairs.

"We’re here," he called, starting down. "Steady at five kilometres from the Noah. No communication yet."

"Don’t try any," said Jean-Paul.

"Yeah, I know."

If no communications had been attempted, then Mother Brain could not have told the Commander they were there. Any attempt of theirs to communicate would just be blocked, or else Mother Brain would have to explain why she hadn’t told the Commander when she had first detected them.

Chris stepped off the stairs on to the carpeted deck, and walked over to Daniel, slapping him on the back.

"You okay, Danny?"

Daniel turned to face him, his expression taut and nervous.

"No," he said honestly.

"Sorry, Daniel. I wish I could come with you." Chris thought about that. "Well, sort of. Part of me does. Hey!" he hit Daniel’s back again. "Don’t worry! You’ll do fine."

"Thanks Chris." He smiled wryly. "Sort of."

"Hah!"

It was the one thing which Daniel hated most of all of this. It would only be two of them. Chris was staying behind.

He had argued the toss, knowing full well that Chris was right and that he shouldn’t be offering ill-informed judgements on someone else’s field of expertise, but Daniel had rather assumed he would be along. Three against the Noah was bad enough odds. Two was hard to accept as even being an option.

And, good as Jean-Paul may be, Daniel would have preferred his friend by his side.

But Chris had to stay with the shuttle. As he had said, you can’t just ‘park’ in space, and Mother Brain would almost certainly not let them dock. The shuttle needed a pilot, if only to keep it steady as they went EVA. Daniel tried very hard not to think about that part of their mission. The Noah was bad enough.

But Chris had to stay behind.

But they would have some Browrens from the lab with them. Daniel had pulled out their transceivers so Mother Brain could not change their orders. They were mainly there for peace of mind. Basically it came down to either encountering a human first, in which case they could parley, or a droid, in which case it would be war. Win or lose, completely in the hands of fate.

Daniel noticed his knee was jiggling, and locked it down mentally. His spit was sour in his mouth, and his eyes hot. The last time he had felt this sort of uncontrollable nerves was…

God knows.

His mind went to the cross beneath his armour at that thought. He could begin to see why religion was so popular.

Hey, God.

Daniel looked around guiltily, wondering if he had whispered it or thought it. No one was looking at him. He started again, wondering why, and unaccountably frightened of what he was doing.

Hey, God. I don’t know if you exist. I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in you. Another deathbed conversion, huh?

Jean-Paul stopped checking his gun, satisfied, and gave it to one of the Browrens to hold. You couldn’t carry something like that during a spacewalk, and certainly not with the backpack power source.

I wish you were real, I hope you are. I’m not one to ask for favours or anything, but we’re saving whole planets here. Oh, hell. I really am not one to ask for favours, but take note. I’d hate for this to go pear shaped just because you hadn’t noticed it going on. As for anything else, I guess if you are real, I can trust your judgement.

Daniel immediately wished he hadn’t used that word. Judgement day. Revelations, chapter six. Armageddon.

But, they had tried. Surely that would count for something? Surely God wouldn’t wipe them out for… destroying two planets?

Daniel wished he hadn’t put it like that, either.

Take care of Alina, huh? he finished, suddenly wanting to sign off, to ignore that he had said anything at all. It felt as if he was getting dangerously close to begging not to die.

Daniel put his head in his hands.

He would. They all would. There was no God, and too many odds against them, and anyway…

…they had already lost. The dream had told him that. It was already over, and they were just fighting to clean up the pieces before things really went bad in another thousand years time.

A memory came to Daniel, of a pre-Noah speech by one of the World leaders. He smiled at the recollection, drawing hope from the remembered fervour, the belief in the speech.

"We are stubborn bastards," the man had said. "We’re survivors. We’re fighters. And we are not going to go quietly, God willing, or not."

No way.

"You ready?"

Daniel looked up into Jean-Paul’s glittering circuit-laced eyes.

"You could come back in a year, and I’ll still not be ready." Jean-Paul smiled tightly at the humour, and Daniel gestured for him to precede him. "After you."

Daniel handed his gun to one of the Browrens and they climbed, one at a time, down the metal ladder to the lower level and the airlock. Daniel felt his stomach contract and his muscles lock as he resisted the sudden approach of shakes.

EVA - Extra Vehicular Activity, outside the shuttle, a spacewalk.

At least there is no planet. No ground to believe you’ll fall to. You’ll be fine.

Daniel stumbled as the shuttle started moving again.

"Watch it, Chris," he snapped.

"Sorry. I’ll warn you when we start braking."

Jean-Paul helped Daniel into an EVA suit, checking all of the connections, making sure he had air. Daniel wondered what he would do if something went wrong. He didn’t know the first thing about the suits.

Simple, then. He would die.

No one has had a problem EVA since the mission began. You’ll be fine.

Jean-Paul lowered the spherical helm over his head, and locked it down. Daniel had to force himself to keep breathing in the confined suit, ignoring the instinct that told him he would suffocate. The air from the tank was cool, and pleasant to breathe, but the helmet cut his vision down uncomfortably, made him feel oppressed.

Can you get claustrophobia in space? Daniel had to smile at the thought.

Jean-Paul finished with his own suit, and opened the inner door. Once they were all inside the airlock, two of the five Browrens seized Daniel on the arm and shoulder. The sudden clamp of four hands made him jump. He swallowed.

"We’re in," reported Jean-Paul. "Closing inner hatch."

There was the barest of thumps as it completed the seal.

"Hold on," said Chris. "We’re slowing now."

It was a gradual slowing, and it went on for perhaps two minutes. The airlock was silent aside from their breathing. Daniel’s muscles began to feel tired from holding back from shivering.

"Okay," said Chris, "we’re one hundred, twenty five metres out. Walk in the park. You ready?"

Nope.

"Yeah," said Daniel.

"Ready," said Jean-Paul.

Air hissed as it was sucked away, and then the door before them clunked heavily and swung open into the night.

You’ll be fine. You’ll be… oh, God…

*     *     *     *     *

(iii)

Daniel’s first view of naked space was like looking at a metal wall. The Noah was massive, impossibly so. Daniel’s senses kept trying to categorise it as an illusion. The shear scale of its functional bulk took away his breath for that first instant.

The shadows on its surface were black. Not merely dark, but bottomless black. Some distant part of Daniel knew why, that there was no atmosphere to scatter the light, but at that moment it was merely alien and disconcerting, not fitting with the rigid rules of the world his subconscious knew and trusted.

Jean-Paul drifted forward from the airlock, manoeuvring on tiny jets of gas from his EVA pack that flared like bursts of white neon mist.

And then Daniel felt a yank.

Panic surged up within him, as the Browrens bore him out. There was no floor, there was no floor! Instinct screamed warnings at him, and he struggled against the droids’ iron grips, but they moved over the threshold without care, and they drifted slowly towards the Noah.

Daniel heard a faint click behind his neck, and realised it was the air system adjusting. He was breathing too hard, hyperventilating.

He locked control over his mind, and forced himself to slow his breathing. He looked directly ahead, imagining a moving walkway beneath his feet. It was just a wall. A big wall.

His eyes moved of their own violation, tracking the length of the hull, and then out into the star sprayed expanse of space. Daniel was suddenly overwhelmed with vertigo, and squeezed his eyes shut. It was no better, though. There was nothing beneath his feet, no breeze, just a uniform warmth from his EVA suit. A void of senses, emptier than even space.

He thrust his head back to face forward and opened his eyes, keeping them locked on the surface in front, concentrating on that.

It’ll be over soon. You’ll be fine.

How long does it take to go a hundred and twenty five metres EVA anyway?

"You okay, Daniel?"

Daniel panicked for a brief instant, wondering what was going wrong that Chris should ask. Calm down, idiot. He’s just asking.

Calm down.

"Fine," he said, both surprised at the steadiness of his voice and wondering if it was as level as he thought.

"You’re doing good. Better that I did first time."

Daniel stared fixedly at the growing expanse of metal before him.

"You had Earth to look at," he said through dry lips. He licked them, coughed.

"You think? My first ‘walk was deep space. A simulated emergency shuttle repair."

"No destination," said Daniel slowly, concentrating on the words. "No gravity. No reference points. Just you and the ship in a whole heap of empty. I think this way’s better."

"Bah. You are determined to be worse than me, aren’t you?"

"I’m right, though, aren’t I?"

"Oh, yeah, but I’m not supposed to admit it."

Daniel laughed at that before catching himself. "Oh, you’re good at this."

"Certified trainer. Gave it up as boring, though. You know too much psych for your own good, Danny. I can just imagine you laughing at one of those over-the-top drill sergeants."

"Don’t try it," Jean-Paul warned, and Daniel had to laugh again.

Daniel could see the airlock now, steadily growing in size. The main ‘locks and the shuttle bays were all Mother Brain controlled, so their destination was one of the maintenance ‘locks. Daniel had only seen them from the inside, and had barely registered them. They were scattered around the sub-levels, there for external repair work. Each was an independent mechanism, and outside Mother Brain’s control, although not her surveillance…

As Daniel watched, Jean-Paul grabbed hold of one of the handrails and gestured for the Browrens to open it. Daniel’s own Browrens were slowing noticeably and, as they approached the wall, one reached out with a flat hand, and Daniel heard a thump reverberate from the impact. It was a momentary surprise in this endless silent void, and it brought Daniel back from the world of his EVA suit, driving the mission back into the forefront of his mind.

He swallowed involuntarily.

A clunk shook its way through the metal, up the Browren’s arm and into Daniel’s suit, and he turned to see one of the other Browrens swinging the heavy ‘lock door open. Soft light faded into the darkness, marked only by vanishing dust dislodged when the door opened. Jean-Paul passed through the portal, and then Daniel was pushed through. A sign on the far door stole his attention. It was an arrow and three words.

‘This way up.’

Daniel barked a single laugh at it. Of course, it wasn’t saying ‘This way goes up’, it was saying ‘This way is up’, but it was still a small absurdity, completely unexpected and comical for it.

"Hey, Danny?"

"Yeah."

The last Browrens were pulling themselves in, trying to keep clear of Daniel and Jean-Paul in the confines.

"You’re a good friend, Daniel. The best yet. Don’t go dying on me, huh?"

"Last thing on my mind," Daniel lied.

"Good luck." Even over the radio, there was emotion in Chris’ voice, fear, sadness, guilt. He wishes he were here, Daniel thought. Waiting is going to be harder in some ways.

"Thanks. I’ll see you, don’t worry."

Daniel wondered if he had heard, for as he was saying it, the door thudded shut with a finality of a crypt, cutting him off. Empty static hissed like distant wind.

Long moments passed, slow and bittersweet, as new air filled the room, collapsing their EVA suits around their bodies like vacuum packs.

Then Daniel noticed he was drifting to the floor. His feet touched it and he felt a sense of strange relief. He was back in control, more or less. It was like coming home, familiar and comfortable after a strange journey.

It took a while for the gravity to build to Earth, ha, no, Motavian standard, and then the inner door clanked and swung open into a dark passage.

Daniel fell to the floor outside the ‘lock, his hands scrabbling at his helmet, suddenly desperate to get out of the confining suit. The catches sprung free, and he felt new air, with the oil and dust scent of the sub-levels. He lifted the helmet off, and let it fall, and breathed deeply. The sub-levels were silent around him, but it was the comforting silence of the southern caves, not the alien silence of space.

Daniel stripped his EVA suit off, leaving it in a pile of pipe and flexible fabric with the rigid helmet on top. Jean-Paul did the same, and then took his gun and backpack from the Browren that was carrying them. The backpack power supply was thin, only about five centimetres thick, and a uniform dull black plastic. It could have been made smaller, but for carrying in combat, it was best if the weight of it was spread evenly over the user’s back.

Jean-Paul plugged his rifle into the ‘pack and then swung it on to his shoulders. He had to reach over with his left hand to find the second cable and then fasten it with a click into a socket at the base of his skull, just behind his ear. A borg interface. The gun no longer even needed a trigger.

Daniel fished a flat screen from one of his belt pouches, and mounted it on his wrist, touching the corner to turn it on. The sub-level map sprung into green-lit relief.

Normally, he would interface it with the three transmitters that triangulated his position at all times. However, they didn’t want Mother Brain to know where they were, so Daniel would have to scroll the map manually. He looked around, finding a painted number on a wall, normally ignored and dismissed on automatic, but now vital.

"Sub-level E, section 40-11," he muttered to himself, keying in the values. Then he took his gun from the Browren who had been carrying it, and checked it over briefly, unable to fool himself into thinking it was prudence and not a delay.

"Ready?"

Daniel let out a long and nervous breath.

"Yeah, let’s go."

Daniel wasn’t familiar with this area of the sub-levels, and he had to refer to his map constantly as they walked. The Browrens were hanging behind so as not to present a threatening front to anyone they might encounter. It was prudent, but Daniel would still prefer them up front in case they encountered Mother Brain’s droids first.

Of course, if that happened, it would probably be all over anyway.

Jean-Paul walked slightly ahead of him, scanning the shadows and moving his gun back and forth carefully. Daniel found it hard to think of danger down here, to take it as seriously as Jean-Paul. This was the Noah, the sub-levels, his ground.

They found someone after just ten minutes.

Jean-Paul stopped short, and shifted his gun slightly. With that movement it went from merely carried to being ready, and Daniel looked up from his map, muttering a "Oh, god…" under his breath as he saw what he had.

"We need to re-think our plan," Jean-Paul said looking up from the desiccated body into the depths of the passage.

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