Polity 2 - Hilldiggers (10 page)

I munched my way through several ration packs containing compressed blocks of some kind of meat or of a chewy cake-like substance highly flavoured with vitamins. My hunger slowly receded but, with the repair of my body still ongoing, I knew it would soon return. Washing the food down with a litre of water, I then turned to the central column, sat astride it and began checking the pod computer.

The screen was still showing the schematic of the escape-pod. Though familiar with the touch controls of my palm screen, and these being similar, it still took me a little while to figure out just what this computer encompassed. Within half an hour I discovered that the pod was not transmitting a distress signal and that the radio was 'Access Denied'. Of course, this could be due to damage caused by the impact, but I rather doubted it. I searched for my gifts from Yishna and Duras, hooked both the gun and knife on my belt, and dropped the spare ammo clips into pockets around the waist of my shirt, then turned on the small palm screen. It certainly powered up, but provided no communication link. The Sudorians did possess their own com network or Internet, but this device was not finding it. I quickly discovered that it would work anywhere on Sudoria itself—its range being hundreds of miles—but here on Brumal it lay many thousands of miles away from the nearest relay transmitters, which were all aboard Fleet ships in distant orbit. Time to take a look around outside then.

From beside the pod's hatch a short ladder folded down to engage in sockets set in the column. It seemed evident from this that the pod must have been made to either float or come to rest in this sideways position. I undogged the hatch and hinged it up and over till it clanged down on the outer hull. The moment I climbed up and stuck my head out, an asthmatic contraction constricted my breathing and sharp hard pains grew in my lungs, as if someone were slowly driving in meat skewers. Hot pin-pricks speckled the skin of my face and my eyes began watering. My nostrils, sinuses and the insides of my mouth began to burn, then my sinuses totally closed up. I just held my position there and concentrated on breathing.

More slippage. I visualised the two viral forms inside me like two competing fig vines intertwined throughout the body of an ancient tree, one supporting it and the other strangling it. A dark sky seemed to lour over me, and again that horrible nausea overwhelmed me. I blacked out then, I don't know for how long.

The patter of rain woke me, and my exposed skin started to burn, then after a time to itch fiercely. I rubbed at blisters raised on the backs of my hands, and dead surface skin slewed away to expose new skin underneath with an odd slightly iridescent sheen. The burning in my mouth had eased to be replaced with a bitter metallic taste. It eased also in my nostrils and my sinuses, and I spat out grey slime, then snorted the same mucus from my nose. Some time after the rain stopped, the tight pains in my chest began to dissipate, and I started coughing up quantities of grey phlegm streaked with black. My body, though already adjusted massively, still had some way to go but at least I was functional again. And still alive, it seemed.

I gazed around at an ocean that disappeared into haze in every direction. The water possessed a jade hue much reminding me of the seas of home under stormy skies, while above me grey cirrus frosted a pale yellow sky. The swell wasn't too bad and, peering over the edge of the pod, I saw floats inflated all around it. Fortunately, whoever screwed the radio and the parachute had neglected to sabotage the floats too, else my escape-pod would be lying on the seabed by now. As I studied my surroundings something about them kept niggling at the back of my mind. Then I realised: everything was so clear, no displaced shadows, no weird distortion, no sense here that something might be peering over my shoulder. Had that been merely some physiological problem that the massive adjustment I had just undergone had dispelled? I could not know for sure, but was grateful to be free of it.

What to do now? Trying to swim to land, even if there was any in sight, was out of the question. Being a hooper from a world where swimming in seas swarming with voracious predators was the pastime only of the terminally insane or suicidal, I naturally felt some reluctance in that area. But even if land was in sight, I would still be unable to swim to it. Obese people float better than muscular people because fat is more buoyant. Being packed solid with viral fibres, my body was denser than ordinary muscle, and I weighed two and a half times as much as a normal human of equivalent size. If I abandoned the pod, I would sink like an ingot. I closed the hatch, dropped back down inside and found something more to eat while I pondered my options.

4

The fanatics of the Blue Orchid organisation who climbed from the wrecked Procul Harum and gazed for the first time on the arid desolation we now call the Komarl knew this world to be theirs, and wanted to experience it as humans first. More circumspect colonists aboard the ship quickly sealed the breaks in its hull and looked to what they could salvage, and what they needed to survive. The Blue Orchids, who were the prime instigators of the schism with those who went to Brumal, camped out in a desert night that was hot to them and discussed how their new world was going to be ordered. There are no records as to why Procul Harum's airlocks ceased to function for a couple of hours after sunrise. I rather suspect that those inside decided the first order of survival was to rid themselves of those now outside. When the airlocks were finally opened, and some wearing hotsuits stepped out onto sand hot enough to boil water, they found the Blue Orchids lying shrivelled in the sun. I guess the lesson to learn here is that though we now know how the desert can be a breeding ground for fanaticism, it can harshly punish the stupid kind.

—Uskaron

McCrooger

Something thumped hard against the escape-pod, and I felt it beginning to move. My immediate thought, as would be the same for any erstwhile resident of Spatterjay, was that something nasty had just arrived from the sea in search of an easy lunch. I drew my gun and climbed up to peer out of the hatch, acknowledging that I must be feeling better now, since if I had still felt the same way as I had aboard Inigis's ship, I would probably have remained cowering in the pod.

The air outside didn't bother me so much this time, either because it did not contain so much chlorine or because of my adaptation to it. Nothing leapt out of the waves towards me, and I could see nothing large and sporting too many teeth hovering underneath them. The pod, however, was definitely leaving a wake behind it, as if now under power. It suddenly occurred to me that I must have overlooked some automatic system on board, so I ducked back inside, listened for motors, then once again checked the computer and, as half-expected, found nothing. I then considered a number of conspiracy theories: Fleet had hidden the pod's engine from its computer and were now controlling it remotely to take me somewhere for interrogation; or the Brumallians had learnt of my presence on the surface, and one of their submersibles had found me. Each theory struck me as wildly improbable, and each I quickly dismissed. But one quite simple explanation remained.

I climbed up to the hatch, then scrambled out so my legs were dangling down over the curved hull of the pod. Very carefully I began to inspect the sea around me, and finally began to note discrepancies in the wake as if I were viewing the part nearest to the pod through a slightly distorting glass. That I could perceive this was almost certainly deliberate.

“Okay, show yourself, drone,” I said.

“I wondered how long it would take you to figure things out,” replied a thuggishly insouciant voice.

“Perhaps I'm getting slow in my old age,” I replied. “So are you going to show yourself?”

“They got satellites up there watching this place, but I guess I can show a little.” The head of a silver tiger materialised a couple of yards out and a little way down from me. It blinked amber eyes and grinned, making me think of Cheshire cats and suchlike.

“Nice to meet you ...?”

“Tigger,” the drone supplied.

“Apt name. Satellites, you were saying?”

“Oh, lots of them.”

What were Fleet's options, and what were they doing now? Maybe they had just looked the other way while the pod descended, so they could claim I was killed in the initial missile attack. More likely they would want to ensure no incriminating evidence remained, so had watched the descent of this pod closely, intending to retrieve and destroy it later. Possibly they would not be able to cover up the fact that a pod had descended, since there were Orbital Combine satellites up there too. Two possible scenarios then occurred to me: the most drastic would be a weapons strike against this pod from orbit, but that would be really difficult to cover up. Fleet's most likely option, therefore, would be for them to rush to my rescue, but then sadly discover I had died during the splashdown.

But I did not need to speculate about this—I just needed to ask.

“Who's watching me now?”

“Oh, it's all getting very interesting up there. Combine have just informed Fleet of the ejection of a pod from the part of the ship where you were quartered. Fleet are claiming this was a misfiring, that no one was aboard, and that you died in the section of the ship struck by the missile; though, to cover themselves, they admit they may be mistaken and are supposedly searching for this errant pod right now. Of course they know where it is, and have been watching it for some time. Combine also knows where it is and are waiting to see what Fleet does next. With high satcam resolution on both sides, both sides know you are still alive.”

A nasty thought occurred to me. “Of course if Fleet come to my rescue and find me dead, Combine will have enough evidence to roast Fleet and gain great leverage in the Sudorian Parliament. They could probably then ensure the establishment of a Polity Consulate despite Fleet.”

“Just a thought here,” said the drone, “that won't make you any less dead.”

“A definite disadvantage.” I pondered my options. It had been my intention to come, at some point, to this world anyway. Any rescue by Fleet would probably prove unhealthy for me, so perhaps it would be best if I died for a little while. “Can you cover this pod with your chameleonware?”

“Nope, an object that size is outside the range of my 'ware. But I could cover a human being, even such a large one. Like a ride?”

“Why not?” I gazed back into the pod, at its grisly cargo. “Sink the pod. If I'm being watched I'll have to go down with it.”

Black lines immediately cut across the flotation bags and with a whoosh they released their contents. The pod began to tip over and taking a breath I stepped off into the sea and went down like an iron statue. The brine was cold as death and soon, deep down in it, I could see nothing but black and green all around me. I tried swimming, just out of curiosity, but even with my strength it was a case of one stroke upward for every ten feet I sank. The drone suddenly appeared as a tiger-shaped blur underneath me. My boots came down on its back and I parted them to slide down astride it. Its back was slick metal only partially warmer than the sea, and there seemed nothing for me to take hold of unless I wrapped my arms around its neck or grabbed its ears. I was about to try one of these when tongues of metal clamped over my thighs, holding me in place. I touched that metal experimentally, surmising the drone's outer form to be a cell-form metal skin it could reconfigure at will. Then we were rising.

The drone broke from the water and began running across its surface, its paws occasionally clipping the wavetops—all for effect, of course, since it was grav-planing. I could see the machine entire now, probably because it was only 'ware-shielding itself from the satellites. It occurred to me that if any Fleet personnel saw or even recorded this, they would have a tough time convincing others of the reality. This was exactly the kind of technology Fleet commanders feared, yet were able to prevent from swamping the system only because Polity AIs allowed them to do so. An apt analogy would be that of a nation still only at the technological level of being able to launch biplanes, laying down the law to a neighbour geared up to fly stealthed Mach 10 jets and control orbital laser arrays. Yes, as I had told Duras, we genuinely did not want Sudoria turned into just another homogeneous addition to the Polity. Any more than we wanted to utterly destroy the pride of these people, or terrify them.

“How far to the shore?” I asked.

“ 'Bout a hundred miles—we should be there in under an hour.” As if to confirm this, the drone accelerated and the wind of its passage chilled my skin and forced me back from my seat. I leant forward and obligingly a curved bar oozed up from the metal of its neck for me to grip. I took hold, feeling slick cell-metal roughening to my touch. We ran through a squall and I observed how stained my soaking clothing had become, and that in places the cloth itself was parting. But all hoopers are aware that no clothing will ever be as durable as their own bodies.

“How far then to the nearest habitation?”

“Another fifty. Do you want me to drop you right there?”

“Get me within ten miles. I want to take a look at this place before I go underground. I take it you'll be hanging around?”

“Well,” the amber tiger eyes peered back at me, “my instructions from Geronamid have been to keep a watch here in this system, but to make my prime focus Corisanthe Main, as it has been for the last twenty years. I do have some cams positioned there ...”

“So you are following those instructions,” I replied, thinking some about the patience of machines—twenty years!—and how even that wasn't limitless.

“Geronamid—”

“You know I've got carte blanche here, as the agent on the ground. I say I want your help, Geronamid can go suck on a black hole.”

“I think I like you,” said Tigger, facing forward again.

A while after that, land became visible as a lumpy purple-blue line separated from the sea by a line of mist. As we drew closer to shore I began to notice more life in the water below, and was reminded of home. The water remained a murky green but I began to see globular masses of something that might have been weed, and things swimming between them like foot-thick catfish: wormfish being the nearest translation.

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