Rhysling's Rue - Part 16

Previously…

Sleep was not welcome, however much she needed it. It always came with phantasms, images of Marta and their children as the bolide which destroyed Hale City stripped their flesh from their bones before their very bones crumbled and all that was left were the ghosts, begging her to tell them why she left them to die.

And Now

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Carolina curled into herself while she tried to stifle the sobbing. She had witnessed many horrible events in her time hiding in the crawlspaces and ventilation shafts of this hell that called itself a flagship but the gang rape and killing of a young male rating right there in the mess hall with cheering onlookers shouting suggestions had almost been enough to overcome her sense of self preservation and draw her out to try making a difference. In the end, as it always did, fear won out and she cowered in place, unable to even move from her vantage point for the hours it had taken.

Afterward she crawled to one of her hiding places in the ventilation system before the paralysis of fear overtook her again and cried for what seemed like days. She liked… had liked Alvin. He was one of the ones who left food and other things for her and he had kept her existence to himself until he gurgled out his last breath through a crushed throat.

In the past months she had seen her share of horrors, after all her own rape and attempted imprisonment had been the impetus for her to fake her own death by ejecting the body of a dead crewman from an airlock with smears of her own blood all around the inner side of the lock hatch. For some reason though, this one shook her especially hard. Alvin had been in what turned out to be the last graduating class of the Academy, one year before her. Tears turned to memories of her time in the Academy and she wondered just what sort of luck had drawn this particular ship for her middie cruise.

On the one hand, she had seen and experienced things that no one should have to and was not at all certain that she would see the end of any given day. On the other hand, had she been assigned to any but one of these 12 or the Hermes she wouldn’t be alive to worry about it. In another few months it might not matter anyway. Still, she could plan and do little things that might help tip the balance when the time came even if she wasn’t still alive to act.

With that thought she went back to her latest project, patiently tapping the control runs from the bridge and from engineering and putting her own cutovers in place. She was careful to monitor her perimeter to avoid being surprised and to conceal her alterations in ways that would ensure they remained undetected unless someone physically followed a control run completely from end to end… a job that would almost never be even attempted outside of a dock during refit. Even then it might go unrecognized, so nearly invisible were her alterations. She might have been going through the Academy and entering the ranks of officers but her parents had both been yard dogs and she knew tricks borne of their combined decades of experience.

One way or another, the madman who had styled himself an “Admiral” and instituted the reign of terror that resulted in her current predicament would die with the madness he helped generate. She would make sure of that.

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Ravi had always thought of his small size as a disadvantage but the past few months had taught him other truths. Had he been any larger he wouldn’t be curled up in this comfortable little nest behind a false bulkhead in the ventilation system, as safe as he could manage to make it. He wondered about the compartment’s other occupant as she slept, for they always slept in shifts and monitored their surroundings, one ready to wake the other for a fast escape if needed. Their lives were not comfortable by any means but at least they weren’t being brutalized and enslaved like the majority of the lower ranking personnel aboard ship… those that were still alive anyway.

Siobhan seemed to have resented him bitterly in the beginning, afraid that he would inadvertently reveal her presence and get them both caught to suffer an all too imaginable fate. Ravi thought he understood her fear and for the first 3 months they had studiously avoided the other until she finally admitted that she needed help when he found her injured in a ventilation crawlway. Fortunately it had only been a severe sprain and a little tape and TLC sufficed to treat it but for several days she relied on him for most things and her antipathy began to ease. It had taken time and cooperation to buff off some of the rough edges and she could still flay him verbally for the simplest things but they had come to depend on each other.

If he were charitably inclined Ravi might be tempted to think of it as some bizarre version of friendship but the truth was that he didn’t like her very much either. They tolerated the other’s presence, even needed it in many ways but he knew as little about her as she did about him on a personal level. That was just… out of bounds. He knew it was a defensive mechanism on both their parts but her defenses were barbed and vicious where his were more passive and hidden beneath a layer of calm fearlessness he’d learned to assume when he was young. Beneath of course, he was anything but calm or fearless. He didn’t remember a moment since the whole thing began that he hadn’t been either terrified half out of his mind or on the ragged edge of bursting into tears. He didn’t like what he thought that said about him and the sort of man he was, though an observer might have disagreed with his opinions.

He was planning their next series of alterations to the control runs while she slept, waiting for her to wake so they could get to work. This work period they were to install a series of essential cutovers that would deprive anyone else of access to the ship’s control systems. He’d been raised by his family who were all yard dogs and the men of the family were uniformly rather imposing, hard men with hard lives and a hard edged view of the world. She was a genius with computers and control systems and between them they had succeeded in making alterations that were almost undetectable even with close examination.

Once they had the cutovers done they could install filters that would allow them access to the comms systems aboard ship and allow them to filter what incoming traffic was seen by the actual crew. It was their hope that at least one of the other ships had “rats in the plumbing” like them who had similar ideas and intentions and that they would be able to make contact, coordinate their activities when the time came and thereby maximize the damage they could inflict. That would require even more caution and they had time as long as they remained free but in the event they were captured today’s work would ensure that their existing plans went forward without further action required on their part.

Either way they both expected to die and oddly enough it was the one thing neither of them thought to protest, even in their own minds. They hadn’t talked about it but he had wondered just why he was so fearless in the face of the ultimate terror when he was always frightened of everything else. It didn’t make sense to his rational mind but emotionally he was quite clear about it.

Siobhan’s eyes snapped open and darted around the compartment before she moved. She always awoke that way and Ravi wondered just what sort of horror had occupied her dreams to make the normally angry and aggressive woman look just as frightened as he usually felt.

“Good morning Siobhan.” They might not have been friends but politeness was a deeply ingrained part of who he was and it had tempered her responses to a degree.

His reward was a frosty “Ravi.” before she made her way to the corner of the compartment that held their toilet arrangements and he tried not to listen to her morning eliminations. There was nothing to be done about the even more unpleasant than normal smell the food concentrate gave to their excretions though. He was glad he’d already eaten before she woke as the smell certainly would have deadened his appetite otherwise. She ate on a similar schedule for the same reason but all the shortcomings of their food were overcome by the simple fact of its existence. They eked out enough to keep them both healthy but were very careful about their pilfering, keeping it as close to random as possible to avoid detection

Once she finished she hastily sealed the waste container for later disposal and readied herself for the day’s work, joining him outside the shelter where he had retreated to wait out the siege. As was usual, she simply set off in the direction of their work without so much as a word or even a glance of recognition. Her eyes flicked past him like he was part of the bulkhead rather than another person and he carefully restrained his sigh to make it simply seem like a long exhalation before following in her wake.

They were halfway through their self-appointed tasks and making their way from one site to another when Siobhan uttered the second word of her day as she sat and pulled a ration cube from her pouch. “Lunch” she said with an air of profound disdain before nibbling at the edges of the cube in a way that reminded him of a rabid chipmunk. He followed suit and nibbled in a similar way. The nutrient cubes were dense enough to make it the only practical way to eat them short of rehydration and the taste wasn’t terrible…

It was, he mused, a good deal like Siobhan. Barely palatable but indispensable. He didn’t expect her to speak to him again unless she had a biting comment but those had eased a great deal as both of them realized how well their talents integrated into a more effective unit and they learned from each other. Ravi had always been a quiet sort even as a child but his family was garrulous and loud and he’d found a sort of comfort in that. Sometimes Siobhan’s silence felt like a living thing all its own, eating the things he might have wanted to say and leaving bitter ashes in his mouth.

Any way he felt about it, talking would only get him shut down so he had given up trying aside from bidding her good night and good morning. That at least won him a word or two each day and that simple thing… a word from another human that didn’t make him want to flee in terror… most days anyway… it helped stave off the crushing loneliness. Ravi’s musing made him smile slightly and he caught the barest eyeflick of notice from her. That was expected, Siobhan didn’t miss much if anything but neither did he and he noted the second, longer glance she took too.

Neither of them actually belonged aboard this ship, having been aboard as contractors rather than crew since the last refit had been rushed. Their lack of official presence was the only thing that enabled them to vanish into the innards of the ship in the way that both had done. Other contractors hadn’t been quite so lucky and had vanished in other, less survivable ways at the hands of the crew or in at least 2 cases he knew of at their own hand. Ravi hadn’t been any closer to any of them than work required and Siobhan and he almost never had to work together directly but he didn’t recall her having been so hostile and silent before.

‘There isn’t much point in wondering about it.’ Ravi thought. ‘Its not like she’s going to tell me anything anyway. I wish I was stronger like she is. I’m so damned lonely…’ He went back to nibbling on his ration cube, too engrossed in his own thoughts this time to notice her sidelong observation of his face and the dour expression he now wore.

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Siobhan awoke with her usual sudden alertness, swept the area visually to ensure there were no threats and responded to Ravi’s polite greeting with her own frosty acknowledgement before making her way to their makeshift toilet arrangements to relieve herself of the noisome remains of the hated food-cubes. She’d tried mouth breathing and even just breathing the stink in and going for olfactory fatigue but it never seemed to kick in so it was just suffer through it and close it up as quickly as possible afterward. When she emerged she discovered that Ravi had absented himself from their hiding space entirely to avoid the stench, an altogether sensible precaution.

Without thinking further of it she set off down the passage toward their first piece of work for the day and he followed. She was able to lose herself in the work once they began but during their passages from one place to another there was nothing to do except be alert and think. A part of her was perfectly happy to stick to practical matters and planning but there was another part that hated the progress she’d lost. So much time trying to overcome her social issues, learning to respond in the ways people expected and make human contact… all seemingly vanished overnight along with her world.

In some ways she was actually worse off than before because when she did venture to speak it never came out the way she meant it. The warmest tone she seemed to be able to manage was frosty and the words that came first to her tongue were at best biting, at worst abusive. She didn’t want to further alienate Ravi, he was her lifeline even if he didn’t realize it. The end result was that she said almost nothing to him and he gradually stopped trying to draw her out at all. She wanted it to be different but who would be able to understand why she was the way she was and put up with it?

Siobhan stopped and sat, breaking out a ration cube. She examined it closely as she always did with her food, making certain there were no signs of spoilage or tampering. Once assured that it was undamaged she tried to find some merit in it aside from survival value and failed as she always did. She ventured her second word of the day at that point and immediately regretted it. Had she let too much of her dissatisfaction with the fare show through in her tone? Ravi did more of the pilfering because he was simply better at it and she didn’t want him to think she was ungrateful for the food.

She tried to focus her thoughts back on the tasks ahead as she nibbled at the cube but found herself casting quick glances over at Ravi as he followed suit, looking for some sign of his disapproval. She noticed a small smile and thought how much happier he looked that way but by the time she looked over again his face had settled into a dour expression.

They sat there together yet not and Siobhan wished again that she was able to recapture some of her lost social skills. Alas, they seemed just as dead as most of humanity.

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As the Earther fleet made its way out of the Saturn system and was irrevocably committed to a course that would keep them away for quite a long while signs of activity returned to the rings and moons. Saturn was still far enough out to have attracted far less settlement activity than Jupiter and so had only a fraction of the larger planet’s habitants even though it had escaped the devastation of the war largely untouched. The 2 small shipyards hadn’t really merited any attention from the fleet since they were both in very inconvenient positions to attack and thus were unmarred and none of the settlers or miners wished to attract attention.

Activity did continue of course, it had to. Volatiles had to be extracted, foods had to be grown, air regenerated… all of the myriad things that made life in space possible. Most communications had shifted to whisker laser rather than radio when possible and radio signals were deliberately as low powered as practical. People and cargo moved about, although with much more attention paid to stealth and much longer transit times than might have been the case otherwise.

With the departure of the fleet the need for stealth had passed and activity resumed at a frenetic pace. The Saturnians hadn’t been idle while hiding, far from it. They’d spent the time stockpiling raw materials, creating components and even prefabricating portions of ships, hiding them amongst the endless clutter of the giant’s influence until the time came to assemble them. Their original plans had not included the fortuitous departure of the Earth fleet and they found themselves taking up the slack they created fairly quickly. A month after they boosted out a new shipyard began assembly of the first of a new class of ship.

The Fleet Strike Carriers of the Earth Navy were impressive ships but had their flaws, one of them being their lack of power relative to their mass. The new class was much more heavily armored and armed and hence more massive but mounted engines many times more powerful so more than made up that deficit. The craft they would carry would follow the same design principles, lessons hard won through frontier life and the lives of untold spacers slaughtered in the war. These craft would in turn have their own flaws but for now they were a vast improvement on the previous state of the art.

The initial construction estimate meant they could actually get two ships out to the Uranus system faster than the Earther fleet to lend aid to the Hermes and her crew. Activity was frantic in all quarters as along with the carriers all of their attendant craft had to be built. Once the activity was in full swing for the week a reassessment was done and it was decided that the fighters and other craft would largely be assembled en route and the resources for that diverted to carrier construction. That would allow double the fleet size although there would be a pulse effect which meant the following ships would become available at a reduced but far more sustainable rate of construction.

Crewing them would be a bit more problematic but there were many refugee spacers who were more than happy to sign up for a chance to support a fight for something they actually believed in. Many of them had been adrift in important ways and they now found their moral compass pointed in directions they had been taught were soft and effete, to be scorned and hated. The hard lessons of survival taught them that a pure social Darwinist view of the world was a good way to die a rather unpleasant and lonely death and they adopted the frontier way of living with enthusiasm.

One determination common to all was that the Saturnian system never be subject to a foreign power again. Set against the might of prewar Earth it would have been laughable but now everything was different and they would be in a position of power within just a year or two. They even found themselves able to lend aid to the Uranian system in a significant way and that would help to establish 2 power centers. Beyond that the Belters would recover quickly and add to the mix but the balance of power as things stood meant that Earth was no longer in the ascendant.

No one really had a clue how many survived the last days of the war and observation from outside wasn’t practical with the entire planet wrapped in a layer of cloud laced with ash and soot that obscured the sun just as effectively as it hid the ground from their instruments. Estimates ranged from 2 billion down to a few million though the consensus was somewhere in the middle. There wasn’t a great deal that could be done to help them just yet partly due to distance and partly due to a relative ignorance of conditions or population loci. At this point drops of food and medicine with other survival gear were the sole aid that could be rendered and those were sent from all over the solar system as various populations reorganized themselves and a degree of functional society was re-established. It would be some time before they would begin to arrive but for anyone remaining alive on Earth they would be welcomed.

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Chandra made his way through the dimly lit tunnels of Low Delhi, trying his best to look unhurried and calm while his mind raced with speculation about why his mother had called him to attend her audience. The food reports were better than they had been a month ago and they were back to making some of the most basic medicines but the power project was moving more slowly than he’d hoped it would. Still, there was good news on that front as well so what could it be?

The checkpoint procedures occupied his mind for a moment, as did a bit of pleasant chat with the lovely young woman who checked his ID chit before handing it back with a smile and a sweep of her eyes down his lanky frame. Sometimes he resented those assessing looks from women and not a few men but this was definitely not one of those times. That was good since it eased his frame of mind a bit for the next checkpoint which was never any fun. Rajit would be there with his perennial glares of disapproval and a rough hand with the pat down for his “pretty boy” little brother who he considered “unmanly” for choosing the life of an academic over that of a soldier.

He was surprised when not only was Rajit not at the checkpoint but the pat down was even… well less painful than normal anyway. Still another checkpoint later and he was ushered into her office by a smiling young woman who made an effort to hide her glances at him as she ducked out and left the two of them alone in the room.

“Hello mother.” Chandra couldn’t think what else to say so he stopped there and the pause drew into a silence between them while she studied his face.

“Rajit is dead.” The words fell into the silence and were consumed by the roaring in his ears as she sat and he watched her normally stern expression soften. He didn’t realize he’d followed suit until the young woman came back in and offered both of them tea before leaving again. He couldn’t think of anything to say in return so they sat there for a time sipping rapidly cooling tea.

“He led a coup attempt against me… the last of the old guard trying to reimpose military rule. They said they couldn’t trust our nation to a woman who was voted in by the weak…” She paused long enough to make him wonder if she was going to say anything more. “I’m making you Minister of the Interior”.

That was enough to penetrate the stunned haze surrounding his thoughts. “Mother, you know I don’t like to be in a public role. Why are you doing this?”

“Chandrasekhar, you are my only surviving son. You have been project engineer for six months now and we have food enough for all, are beginning to make medicines… you know the list better than I do but I am informed you even have good news on the power project, yes?” She barely waited for his affirmative nod before plunging on. “The people trust you Chandra, more than they do me. I was simply the highest ranked official left in the chain of succession when it all came crashing down but you are the one who has been the driving force behind what we have achieved.”

“You have to get over it my son. You are beautiful, more than I ever was. Women desire you and men are jealous of you and none of them realize how much a curse you consider it. If this were a different time you would be deluged with offers to be a model or movie star or something like that but I for one am glad that your mind is even more beautiful than your appearance.”

“But…” he groped for words “ I hate being in public…”

“I know you do Chandra but this isn’t about your likes and dislikes or mine. You are the right person for the job and I am not giving you the option of turning it down. I need you looking your best for the swearing in ceremony later this afternoon but as of now you are acting Minister.” She rose and crossed over to caress the side of his face. “I love you Chandra and I would not set you a task if I did not have full faith in your ability to do it as well as it can be done. Now come and have some lunch before you go prepare and I will answer your questions as I can.”



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