Gentle Reminders Serialisation Chapter 18
Legacy Universe: Gentle Reminders (Book One in The Rosewell Sequence)
Gentle Reminders is being serialised right here on SFBook with a new chapter published each week.
Previously in Gentle Reminders:
The planet which Beta Crew and the Jump Cannon find themselves on has been revealed to be hostile, an away team uncovering titanic monsters that have Thom, Kerra and Charles pinned down. Maur remains aboard the ship and may be their best chance of survival.
You can visit the Legacy Universe website for more information.
Maur was in the maintenance bay, an electronics board strewn out in front of him, disassembled and ready to be put back together as soon as he could coax the burnt out parts back to life. He had been working on it for the past hour and was more than frustrated with the lack of progress. The entire thing had already been put back together and taken apart more times than he could count on one hand - still it didn’t want to fire up upon command. It seemed as though it would never be fixed, but then there were plenty of things on Maur’s mind to distract him away from giving the project his full attention. No less the stack of twenty more that stood in the corner of the room.
He was extremely displeased that Champion had left him here.
Logic told him that it made sense for a man with skills such as his to stay with the ship, but logic isn’t always a convincing argument in itself. Instead, Maur was listening to his heart, and his heart told him that he ought to be out in the field with the rest of Beta Crew, hunting and tracking. One of the training sims that he and Charles had laboured on most involved the pursuit of a heavily-furred, bat-like creature. Although it was much larger than a bat, roughly as tall as a horse and built far stockier, he had taken it down numerous times. It might have been a native creature of Lunarkan. He was sure that this planet offered nothing more threatening.
Another attempt, another misfire. The unfortunate consequence this time was that he actually set progress back, another component burning out in the process of trying to coerce the other into operation.
He cursed, slamming his fists down on the workbench and muttering up into the sky. Maintenance was empty except for him, the other crew members choosing to try and complete their repairs closer to the source.
Maur had locked himself away in here, not wanting to talk to anybody that might have heard of his embarrassing lock-and-load moment on the command deck. He should have known better than to assume Champion’s orders. Beginning to feel truly useless, the futility of his task being exaggerated by his own emotions, Maur made a decision to do something.
Feeling as though he had to be more commanding of his destiny, and still racked with guilt about the Nation, he began to march out of the maintenance bay. The electrical board and tools were still in his hands, his actions being very much on the spur of the moment. He made the short walk to the male quarters, where the Nation saboteur was being kept.
The cabin wasn’t sealed, instead one of the better welders aboard had fashioned a make-shift iron gate. Annie lacked a brig, Champion more than capable of disciplining his crew without the need for confinement. However, the Captain had not wanted the prisoner to be out of sight in his own comfy room. Everything had been pulled out, the space lacking even a lumpy cot, and the water had been cut off to everything but the toilet.
Maur stared through the bars, the gaps between them uneven thanks to the hasty job that had been completed. The man who claimed to be part of a free nation was now anything but at liberty, and yet he did not seem perturbed in the slightest. Cross-legged, with his hands resting on his knees, the prisoner’s eyes were shut. His face had the calm of meditation within it, lips sealed and expressionless. The floor beneath had not been disabled, so a circle of red rug was surrounding him. His mood dictated low lighting, albeit bright at the same time. It was as if he was sat out on a spring day. Champion having the room’s heating disabled certainly helped this idea, creating a cold chill even as Maur stood in the hall.
Attempting to rouse the man, Maur coughed politely. It received no response. Remembering his place as a captive, the second attempt was much more brash, Maur banging the hard forearms of his armour against the jail bars with a clang. It took several bashes before the saboteur felt inclined to open an eye in Maur’s direction. It was done rhetorically, the lid raising slowly in obvious response to the bullish attempts to wake him. He did it through choice, not because it had been forced upon him by this jailer.
"I have nothing more to tell you," he said. "I have fully explained the strategy behind my attack. Everything."
"No, you have not told me everything," Maur replied, gritting his voice with menace to reinforce his position as the dominant man in this conversation. "To start with, we do not know your name..."
“That is of very little use surely? I can see no reason why you would wish to know the name of a man that attempted to blow you out of the sky. Why do you all keep pressing for this information?”
"You didn’t attempt to blow us out of the sky, you’ve already said that, you intended to disable us and leave us as easy pickings for the Nation. To make me an easy target. I think I deserve to know the name of the guy who believes I deserve to be exploited. Or are you Nation freaks too good to tell us scum your names?" Maur questioned.
"Hah, I do not consider you scum. You have a very distinct purpose in the plans of the Nation, that much has been made clear to me, and as such a certain degree of respect is implicit. You are human after all, and should your purpose be to the benefit of my cause then I can only be pleased that you stand here before me. If anything I should be appreciative, perhaps even grateful, that I have been allowed to live long enough to talk to you."
"If you are so pleased to meet me, then at least have the good manners to introduce yourself properly."
"Very well, if I must. My name is Peter Langthorn, and I was born on Earth," he replied to Maur, who was beginning to pick up the edges of an accent in among the miscellaneous sound of his voice. The man, or Peter as he now knew him, had obviously lived far and wide, picking up bits and pieces of local dialect while never entirely losing the twangs of his homeland.
"A start. So Langthorn, tell me about yourself..."
"What do you want to know?"
"Well, where are you from to start with? I can hear an accent but can’t make it out," Maur said.
"I’m from Earth, what other locality could be of any importance?"
"Answer the question," Maur barked, slapping his arm into the bars yet again, creating melodrama well above what was required for this polite exchange.
"Fine. I am originally from Europe, quadrant B2, or the Albion Republic, as those who live their affectionately call it."
"The AR huh? We’re getting somewhere now. I can imagine that an Albionite might easily be drawn towards an extremist group like the Free Man Nation. You have always had a tendency toward rash solutions for imaginary problems."
"That is a little rich coming from somebody from the Unified North, don’t you think?" Langthorn mocked. "Were it not that I consider the fact that you believe those from AR to be aligned with the Free Man cause a compliment, I might begin to take offence at your comments."
"I did not say that, even Albionite’s are sensible enough not to believe in this shit."
"You’re contradicting yourself," Langthorn said. "Is there a point to this exchange?"
Maur paused, unable to respond with anything useful. He had intended to visit the man and press him for some useful information. Maur intended to use whatever he gained to prove to the Captain he should be moved off of repair duties, and back into a position where he might actually redeem himself for the calamity his mere presence was bringing down upon the Jump Cannon. Now that he was engaged with the saboteur, he could think of no more important questions beyond his name. Langthorn was right, that had very little consequence.
"I see you're having some technical problems," he said, pointing out a finger at the electrical board in Maur’s hand. "Why not allow me to try?"
"Hah, you think I’m going to give a prisoner the means to escape? Fuck you man."
"I hardly think that an electrical board, which from here looks as though it has something to do with the life-support systems, is going to enable me to break free of these iron bars. Had you just left me with bio-locks to contend with then you might have good reason to worry, but old fashioned iron does not care if I can create a localised EMP blast from that thing. I’m actually pleased to see a ship so obviously ridden with alien influence to employ such a human solution to imprisonment."
"If I were you," Maur said, "I wouldn’t take it as any sign of sympathy. It was the quickest option, and we would have picked puran, korakian, lunark or any other species’ technology had it been the easiest way to lock you up and get to work on the ship you have almost ruined."
With that he threw the board into the cell, and after a prompt from a waving hand, sent in the heat-less soldering tool after it. The man caught both with ease, cradling the board in his hands and scanning his eyes over it before setting to work. The tool clinked and clanked against the board, moving rapidly back and forth between different circuits while they were being rapidly tested by the saboteur.
"I guess you’re in maintenance too then?" Maur asked, reassured that Langthorn had set to work on the problem at hand rather than attempting escape with the solderer.
"No, I’m an engineer," came the smug response. "Before joining the Free Man Nation I worked in the Shiplands. It has made me more than familiar with trifling technical problems such as this."
With that he pressed the test button on the board, and the resulting green light from the circuit demonstrated his successful repair. He lay both the board and the tool out in front of himself carefully, well out of Maur’s reach, and put his palms back against his crossed knees. He looked at Maur, a smile beginning to show.
"No need for exaggeration, it wasn’t a 'trifling' problem at all," Maur said, his pride damaged yet again.
"Whatever you say," came Langthorn’s reply.
Maur stared back at him, angry but also warming to the man somewhat. He knew this was wrong, his intentions to see him as a mindless puppet of the bizarre extremist group, but there was something infectious about this character now that the furore of the bombing had calmed down. It was a sentiment that Maur tried to shake off as he tapped his chest to connect his armour’s audio systems with the command deck.
"Maur, what is it?" replied Champion’s voice. "I’m busy."
"I know Captain, sorry. I’m down with the prisoner..."
"What? Why? You had plenty of assignments to complete, I don’t need you killing, nor releasing that individual currently supposed to be in confinement", Champion interrupted.
"The ‘individual supposed to be in confinement’," Maur started, slightly mocking Champion’s bizarre refusal to call a prisoner a prisoner, "may be able to earn his keep. He is an engineer. I want to take him to maintenance and put him to work..."
There was a long pause as Champion mulled this over at his side of the audio connection. The suggestion might initially seem reckless, but they needed all the help they could find.
"Fine, but it was more than I intended for him – hygiene duties will have to be his back shift. Set up one of the maintenance drones as a guard, set it to attack if he breaches the limits of the maintenance bay.”
"Roger that Captain," Maur said with a little glee, he liked the idea of his drones cutting this fuck in half. "I’ll kill him myself if he tries to escape."
"Quite. Just make sure a robot is ready to correct any mistake you might make, I’ll send somebody around to open the cell," Champion said as the audio connection clicked out.
After being freed from his box, Langthorn remained calm. He walked obediently in front of Maur with his hands on his head until they reached the maintenance bay. The doors locked behind them as they entered, although as Langthorn had already pointed out, he was more than capable of breaking through the bio-locks if he decided to. The maintenance robots were still lined up much as they had been when the refit of Annie had first been finished. Maur had been given no reason to use them up until now.
He attempted to bring them into life, instructions input into the panels that sat on the top of their heads. They were mostly functional looking, with very little covering the wiring and metal structure that formed their construction. Two arms were equipped with interchangeable tools. A single camera protruded forward from the crescent spine, capped with a curve of white armouring material that the control panel was inset in.
Two legs also protruded, but they were included primarily to facilitate landing away from the recharge pods. Propulsion units lined both of these limbs, and where the chest cavity might be considered to be, a white cylinder was attached to the spine on its thin side. The cylinder’s length was roughly fifty centimetres, but its diameter was far smaller. Inside of it lived the robot’s controlling systems, none of which seemed to want to respond to Maur’s command.
"It looks like these are broken too," said Langthorn, the smugness continued. "Allow me to enable my babysitter for you."
Langthorn went to the side of the line of recharge stations and opened a hatch that gave access to its inner workings. Maur’s leaning towards liking this man was worn away by this, he didn’t like being shown up even in an empty room. It spurned harsh words from his throat.
"Make sure to electrocute yourself," he said. "It'd be the highlight of my day."
"I’m not entirely sure you can do without me right now," replied Langthorn, and with that the robots whirred into life, propelling themselves upwards above their heads.
“Bring them down here, I need to set one to watch you,” Maur said with urgency and impatience.
"I can’t, they’ve received other instructions from outside the ship. I’m not in control of them."
Those words had barely been spoken before the full set of robots flew straight through the maintenance doors, breaching them and leaving holes in their wake, before zipping out of the open hangar door.
Well away from Annie within seconds they were bursting across the sky as fast as their propulsion systems could carry them. Maur, abandoned back on the ship, had nothing to do with their trajectory, but then neither had Langthorn. It was not an attempt by the Nation man to free himself from capture, but instead an attempt by Charles to rescue the three hunters from the mouths of death.
Kerra’s suggestion to stay still did not had the desired result, and the three beasts were looming down upon them in cold, calculated movements. They were completely trapped at the centre of a lethal dance between man and creature. As the massive monsters came closer and closer, the triangle of Beta Crew members began to move in a clockwise motion. Back to back, it was only Charles that didn’t clutch his rifle in abject terror. Instead he had put out a call to the maintenance bay, but the expected response was coming much slower than he had hoped.
It was then that the drones broke through the cloud cover and hurtled towards the creatures with lasers firing. Charles emptied his lungs and shouted for the team to scatter into the jungle while the robots went to work. From under trunks and shrubs each of them watched as the precision equipment made tiny incisions through the flesh of the creatures. Far more powerful than individual rounds fired from a rifle, a few lucky shots even resulted in the loss of appendages. However, the creatures were still not beaten.
Charles tapped commands against his chest plate. Under his instruction, the robots broke away from a flight pattern designed to encourage disarray. Instead they began to loop around in attempts to shepherd the creatures into the central clearing; where he and the team had stood mere minutes before. The plan was successful until an enraged creature swung down a hand that, while lacking two fingers, managed to collide with two of the coordinating machines, smashing them into flaming pieces.
It would be up to Beta Crew to step into the places of missing machines. With bellowing cries, Charles ordered Kerra and Thom to start moving in, attempting to apply inadequate bandages to a wounded strategy. The remaining robots continued to circle in the sky, and for a while they preoccupied the three monsters. It was not long though before the scent of approaching meat caught in their nostrils, and the creatures heads swung low to stare at Thom, Charles and Kerra. They roared in symphony, and placed their backs to each other as their prey once had done.
"Fire now!" Charles shouted. "Concentrate your fire, keep it automatic and set your weapon to the narrowest spread possible. Pick a spot and just keep shooting!"
They followed his orders, firing from the hip and each targeting the beast closest to them. The focused, continuous rounds pierced the skin, and the still-able robots whizzing above their heads stopped creatures from returning with a coordinated attack. Instead their arms and legs began to throw out wildly, desperately trying to swipe away the rounds.
It was only as they got within spitting distance of the confused trio that Charles put into action the final part of his plan. He had diminished resources, only two maintenance robots remaining active, but their power would hopefully be sufficient to pull off the manoeuvre.
The two bots separated from their current pattern and set themselves out in opposition to each other, roughly at half the height of the creatures. Charles’ command demanded all of their power, and they both shuddered as they prepared an attack.
"Everybody! Get down now!" Charles blared.
The robots bounced their lasers into a mesh pattern, their targeting systems and limbs spinning at full speed to maintain the net. As Kerra, Charles and Thom each flattened their stomachs into the ground, throwing their hands above their heads instinctively, the laser mesh was zoomed forward across the three creatures. A quiet fell over the jungle, the only noises being the sizzling of skin and the momentary clatter of the expended maintenance robots crashing down to the ground.
Thom looked up, a confused look augmenting his face into an ugly distortion. He gazed towards the beasts, who now stood stationary and without a murmur of their anger. Time seemed to slow, a loud cry escaping Thom’s mouth in horror. Perfectly separated cuboids of meat crumbled apart, the creatures disintegrating into piles on the ground. In sequence each of the hunters got to their feet. Even Charles, despite his orchestration of the scene that lay out in front of them, turned his face at the gruesome pyramids of still searing flesh. Thom was first to speak, catching a scent.
"The cooked bits actually smell quite good," he said.
"Uh," Kerra replied, managing no more than a nondescript utterance. "I mean, it’ll be tough getting this stuff back to the ship," Thom continued, "but I actually think it’d make great stew. I’ll probably have to tenderise it a bit first."
Back in the maintenance bay of Annie, Maur hadn’t responded well to the disappearance of his equipment. Immediately he lay the blame at the feet of Langthorn, reasonable suspicion driving a decision that was completely incorrect. He had made the first strike, swinging a fist at the man’s temple and bringing him to the ground. To avoid further shame he dragged him back to the cell himself and threw Langthorn in without any concern for his safety. As he came around from the punch, the heavy cell door was secured in place once again.
"I had nothing to do with that!" Langthorn shouted, rubbing his head and getting up.
"It doesn’t matter, you’ve done enough, I should never have trusted you! Am I fucking crazy?"
In a swift motion Langthorn flung himself against the bars of his cage and grabbed Maur by the armour. He pulled him in with a loud clatter and spat into his face words of vengeance.
"No! What does not matter is what you do with me, nor what you don’t! The Free Man Nation will find this ship, and when they do you will serve your purpose. There will be no need for your colleagues or this ship and The Gentle Reminder will see that they live no longer."
Maur pushed him away, unhurt physically but more than alarmed. He moved away from the man, only dropping him from the line of sight when it was no longer possible to keep his eye on him. Back to the maintenance bay, and back to the stacks of broken electronics, unaware that Langthorn had unwarily just enabled the rescue of his friends.
* * * * *
"It is generally recommended that the maintenance of this equipment is carried out within a sterile environment and where behaviour adjustment medications are available to employees. Accidental exposure to the chemical components of this equipment may result in the following side effects: production of cataracts, serious burning, homicidal rage and/or suicidal tendencies."
A safety recommendation from the manual of an electrical board installed on the Jump Cannon.
* * * * *
Come back next week for Chapter Nineteen of Gentle Reminders (Book One in The Rosewell Sequence)