Gentle Reminders Serialisation Chapter 22
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:
With repairs complete on the ship, the saboteur dead but his commanders still lingering in the shadows, the crew of the Jump Cannon escaped the uncharted jungle planet. Releasing themselves from its grips, however, has not been without its casualties. Maur Rosewell's preoccupation with his significance to the Free Man Nation is abandoned as he rushes to aid Kerra.
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Thom and Charles were the first to get to Kerra, she was still slumped against the walls even as the ship began its orbit. Where the liquid had made contact with her body there were now open wounds. Her skin had been peeled back as the liquid grazed against her, travelling at such a velocity as to attach itself and rip away a mass of individually tiny scabs. She was shivering, although not from the cold, but instead due to the panic these wounds were causing her. It was as if sandpaper had been rubbed against her skin.
The two men said nothing, instead solemnly picking up their friend and slinging one of her arms over each of their shoulders. Kerra winced despite the care they showed towards not making contact with the wounds. Through the grimace though she tried to maintain a thankful smile, although it was her carriers that ought to offer platitudes in return for halting the fuel core overheat.
"It could have been worse right?" Kerra said, turning her head to talk quietly into Charles’ ear, her volume limited by the pain. "We could have ended up as today’s weather – cloudy with a chance of limbs. Everybody is in one piece. Everybody made it."
She uttered the words at an inopportune moment, just as her low slung head came into line with Natalie’s dead body. Kerra winced again, but this time it was under the weight of guilt. In her mind, she questioned her decision to stay with Thom rather than offer to support the engineering teams in the engine rooms. These were not fair thoughts, it was not right that Kerra was blaming herself, but the mix of pain and a corpse took her to the brink of sensible thought.
Thom and Charles lifted her up over Natalie, stepping over her body as if it weren’t there. This made Kerra feel even worse, driving home that yet another crewman had been lost, that another person would eventually be forgotten in the growing swell of dead faces to remember. As the engines hummed gently in the background, she was faced with thoughts of surrender, of giving in to the tragedy they had been dealt over the past few months. These thoughts lingered until Maur came sprinting down the steps and toward her.
His face was stricken with fear, that much she saw before it blurred into hers. With Thom and Charles flanking the embrace, Maur cradled her cheeks and connected their lips together. His kiss was caring but brash, both of their faces pressed together so that they could feel the outline of each others skulls rubbing together. Kerra’s face was wet with sweat, but still she could still feel cold beads leak from his eyes onto her. It lifted her up from the doldrums of depression, it cleared away the cob-webs of Natalie’s death that still lay so fresh beside them. It told her she loved him.
"Come on dude," Thom said with sincere appreciation for the moment. “We need to get her to Beatrice. Some of these wounds are pretty bad."
"Uh, yeah, sorry," replied Maur, releasing his grip and standing aside with a sheepish look.
"It’s fine, just make sure you don’t kiss me next time I need medical attention," Thom smirked.
The bustle of the engine room above had calmed a little, and a few faces peered away from the panels and equipment to look at Kerra as she was half-dragged out into the hallways. Nobody moved to thank her, by now having worked out that Natalie, somebody that they considered a friend, would not be making her own way out. Kerra maintained a focus on Maur as he cleared the path in front of them, it stopped the guilt reoccurring as all these disappointed faces glanced at her.
Beta Crew’s limping trip around to the medical bay was unimpeded, what few crowds there might have been still entirely occupied by diagnostic checks running to ensure no damage had been suffered during lift off. Leaving her to rest, all three of the men left Kerra in the care of Dr. Beat and made sure they were well out of earshot.
"This is all my fault, everything, Kerra would never have been hurt were it not for the Free Man Nation," Maur said with stress in his voice.
"Your statement negates itself Maur," Charles replied. "Exactly as you say this is all down to the Nation, not you."
"Well I’ve certainly not helped..."
"Maur, listen to Charles," said Thom. "This isn’t your fault. We just need to make sure that we take whatever steps are necessary. Annie couldn’t afford to lose another member of her crew, and we almost lost two. We can’t keep taking this, we need to fight back!"
Charles let out a deep sigh and uncrossed his arms, the white vest he was wearing being left with wet patches of sweat. The life support systems were keeping them all breathing, but the heat aboard Annie was veering into the realm of tropical.
"While I agree Thom, there is only one fragment of the Free Man Nation within our possession at this time," he said. "I think it is quite obvious where our rage should be directed – into the face of the only enemy aboard this ship."
Nodding in agreement Maur and Thom flanked Charles as they strode back through the ship. A few faces were now lining the hallways and they flicked looks of concern in their direction. The three of them were walking with intent, eyes pointed forward. Maur was ready to execute whatever plan Charles might put in motion when they reached the target, no matter how violent.
Langthorn, the saboteur, sat still on the floor of his cell. Charles' hand thudded down onto the bars and created enough of a noise to startle the man. He had spent enough time around men of ill intent to know what was about to come. The door was hauled open and the biggest of the three pounded into the cell and lifted the saboteur up by the scruff of the neck.
"You have just caused the death of yet another member of our crew," Charles spat, "and one of my very dearest friends suffered directly because of your actions."
They were face to face, Charles and Langthorn, looking into each others eyes with equal dislike. Of course, for one of these men the situation was far graver. Without weapons Langthorn was outmatched, the other two men in the room were almost irrelevant at this stage. He wriggled a little, but it was a token gesture against Charles’ steel grip.
"I do not see how I can be held responsible for the outcome of a launch..."
His sentence was barely finished before his body was thrown across the room, hitting the wall to Charles’ left side. The noise was a crumple, one of Langthorn's ribs breaking when he hit. He had been thrown so hard that there wasn’t any rigidity in his body as it flew, and he could offer no resistance to the crash.
To his surprise, which was clouded in the pain of the newly broken rib, Charles was not immediately upon him. Instead the seething brute walked calmly to his feet, and looked down on him. Langthorn dared not move, and even rising his hand to try and protect himself hurt. He was no more than a wounded animal.
"If you are to kill me, do it quickly. You owe a fellow human that much," Langthorn whimpered.
"I owe you and your bullshit beliefs nothing," Charles replied. He turned away from Langthorn, well aware that the saboteur would not risk the consequences of moving, stepping out into the hall and begin to tap at a panel. "Captain..."
"...I’m here Charles, are we ready to proceed?”
“I believe so Captain, I have Maur and the saboteur here. I might need an extra man if you need both straight away..."
"Wait, what’s going on?" Maur asked, a little panic in his voice. He was ignored.
"Understood, I’ll send somebody down."
Maur thought of moving to confront Charles out in the hall but thought better of turning his back on Langthorn. Instead he leaned his head forward in anticipation of what was yet to come. It took only a few minutes for two flanking military staff to appear, Mike Coollins and a puran called Petra Mela, both of whom Maur knew were a fair match even despite his recent training.
In his mind the whole thing started to drastically escalate. Maur considered himself central in all the troubles that they had faced recently, and in light of yet another death, he did not see it as beyond reason that his fellow crew had put him in the same category as Langthorn. Through this Thom stood like a statue, unable to calculate what was going on.
"Charles, you need to explain what’s going on here," Maur said agitatedly. "You can’t expect me to go along with a plan that you haven’t even explained to me."
Even Langthorn, with the searing pain of a broken rib to contend with, had started to question the situation that was unfolding in front of him.
"Mike, Petra, take Maur to the airlock," Charles said without a flutter in his voice. "Thom, we’ll take the prisoner."
"Charles, come on, what’s going on?" Thom said.
"Do as you are told Thom, a woman lies dead just a few hundred feet away from us, it is not the time for questions," Charles barked in reply.
"Thom, do not press me. I am operating under the orders of the Captain, as should you..."
Maur was silenced by the apparent betrayal, as Mike and Petra hitched their considerable strength under either of his arms and began to drag him forward. He offered little resistance, but instead stared into Charles’ eyes as he passed him. Whatever trouble he had brought to the Jump Cannon it had always been unintentional, he thought, and there was an expectation of better treatment than this. He was being led as a prisoner, and the implications of the silent march he was being led on began to sink in. This felt like a trip offered by an executioner. An audience had assembled when he arrived, followed shortly after by Langthorn and his escort. Champion was present, looking stressed but stalwart. Marc 14 too, although his look was more relaxed, confidently returning the fearful stare that Maur directed toward him.
Yazram, along with a few of the command deck team, had been brought for the purposes of operating the airlocks.
The airlock itself loomed in front. Cylindrical and small, it was located on the upper level of the ship, opening from above out into the void; supplies and crew required to be lowered in. Able to open independently, it could also be split into different compartments depending on the requirement. For now it had been purposed as two holding cells, equally split down the centre.
Maur’s escort separated from him once he had been placed inside. Langthorn’s group repeated the procedure before Thom and Charles moved back to stand as part of the audience. Both of them wore grave faces, but only Thom’s interpretation of the events that were unfolding gave a hint that somebody present might not be so certain that this was the right thing to do.
Heavy glass doors hissed downward as the airlock sealed, the outward facing threshold locked above the heads of Maur and Langthorn. The multiple parts of the containment clanked down with an ominous shunt of movement, closing them both inside cells which offered no other escape than the vacuum of space.
Langthorn was far less animated than Maur, who had begun to pace back and forward, thumping a hand against the walls that enclosed him. Instead, the disciple of the Free Man Nation stood with his hands free, assessing the situation and staring calmly out at his attackers. “You have both been brought here for a single reason,” Champion said, moving to the fore of the small crowd. “Through varying yet equally heinous acts you have brought death and destruction to this ship. I can not allow this to continue, as you might expect, and as the authority aboard this ship, using the powers granted to me by the universal laws that as natives of Earth you are both bound by, I must seek to carry out swift, fair justice.”
He paused for a moment, assessing the slight movements of Langthorn to look for clues as to what the saboteur was inclined to think.
There was very little to go on, only a fidgeting that seemed like a nervous tick. Langthorn was rubbing his temple, using his forefinger to circle the indentation round and round. Again, Champion dismissed this, categorising it as nothing more than nervousness in the face of death. In truth, he was operating an implant that offered basic communications facilities, tapping into the Jump Cannon's own systems unbeknownst to those responsible for them.
"Maur, whatever actions have put a price on your head can only reasonably be expected to be in breach of your operating contract aboard this ship. No less, we have found evidence that you attempted to make contact with the Free Man Nation while we were grounded. Were our communications systems not disabled, I can only imagine the damage you might have done."
"What?" shouted Maur. "What are you talking about?"
"I mean what I say. We have sufficient evidence for a legal execution."
"This is bullshit Champion! He must have planted the evidence!"
Langthorn too, looked confused, although the contortion of his face lasted only a few moments.
"While it pains me to say this, you have made yourself a liability to me, my crew and my ship. I can not allow that to continue, and so I must cut out the cancer that threatens the life of so many. You are that cancer," Champion said, "and your gross misconduct leaves me only one option. You are to be released into the vacuum of space."
"Captain! Come on! You know me!" Maur shouted, launching himself against the pane of glass that separated him from the betrayers. As he did, and as the looks of all present were diverted for a few seconds, Langthorn smacked the side of his head with brutal force. There was a ringing in his ears for a few moments, and his vision became blurry, but as it cleared a wicked grin spread across his face. Maur settled again too, his fists limply slapping against the glass as the intense gazes of the onlookers bore him into submission.
"I do Maur, you have always been a valuable member of my team," Champion said, "but I can not have a man aboard who is the target of mad men, nor somebody who would attempt to court these people. I owe the others more than that."
"For you however," he continued, turning his head toward Langthorn, "I don’t believe that I need to offer much explanation. You know why..." "Captain!" The audio systems in their locality kicked into life. "I understand you are busy, but..."
He was quickly cut off, and the communications systems announced an incoming emergency broadcast from Karson. The significance of this hit Maur, he expected only one potential caller. What was to follow struck him as both timely and entirely inappropriate.
"Maurice? Maurice Rosewell? Are you there?"
It was his mother, as he had expected, and it appeared that Margaret Rosewell was ready to make a scene. He thought it fortunate that she could not see the crisis that he was at the centre of, but struggled with the sheer humiliation of his full name being spoken so close to his death.
"Ah." Champion coughed. "This is Captain Champion madam, could you please confirm who you are and how you have breached our communications systems..."
“Maurice? I want to speak to my son!”
"Our far-reach communications systems were not repaired..." Champion mused.
"Your systems seem barely functional! Now where it my son?"
"I’m here mom," Maur sighed. "People don’t call me Maurice here. This is not a good time."
"Maurice! I’m so happy to hear from you! You’ve been out of comms range for so long, and you know I get concerned when you don’t call me on a Sunday! What’s happened? Are you OK?"
"I’m fine mom," Maur replied, looking up to the roof for mercy. "We had to crash land on a planet, a lot of the systems were broken. I wasn’t aware that we had spent time repairing the far-reach communications."
"You didn’t," said Langthorn. "I did."
He was pressing his forehead against the window now, applying enough pressure to flatten the flesh and squeeze greasy residue onto the glass. There was a look of satisfaction on his face, a finger still tapping away on his temple.
"Maurice, who is that?" Margaret Rosewell questioned, speaking up in a silent audience.
"My name is Peter Langthorn, I am a member of the Free Man Nation, and I am currently broadcasting the position of this ship to my superiors. Thanks to your conveniently timed call I am also broadcasting the location of whatever family the subject has, or Maurice Rosewell as you call him. I’m sure that once the Nation threatens your life that his bravado will soon disappear and he will obediently leave us to the power."
"Fuck you man!" Maur shouted around to him, slamming again into the window pane and thrashing away. "Whatever the fuck it is you want it’s going to be lost when they blast me out of this airlock with you!"
"Don’t be stupid, you were never to be executed, this crew treats you as family. This is all some ridiculous ruse, no doubt designed to scare me into divulging the secrets of the Nation in order to halt your supposed execution. Isn’t that right Champion?"
"Yes, I suppose it is," Champion said. "It doesn't matter that you've seen through this plot, the end will be the same for you regardless."
"Fortunately though, I have just identified something else for us to attack. I doubt that Maurice will hold out on us when a gun is pointed at his mother’s head,” said Langthorn.
"Fuck you! Fuck you man, I’ll kill every single one of you fucks!" Maur blared, thrashing against the compartment wall now.
"Well, you will not kill me, I have redeemed myself and will now martyr in the name of Earth. For the Nation!"
"Stop him!" Champion screamed. "He'll take Maur with him!"
"Grab something Maur!" boomed Charles.
It was too late, Langthorn swung his head hard into the airlock glass. It cracked, and his forehead began to leak blood.
"Implant command. Implant open airlock one."
The compartments inside immediately collapsed, Langthorn's control of more than just the communications systems made clear. Maur had a few moments to anchor himself, gripping tight a rail that vertically up the right hand panel built into the airlock. He breathed deeply and looked over as Langthorn rose his arms to the sky. The outside door opened, and with a violent slam the vacuum brought Langthorn to the ground and threw him up into the air-less void, pulling his feet from under him. Maur gripped as tightly as he could, but he could feel his eyes begin to bulge.
Within the safety of Annie’s sealed hull those present for the whole débâcle hastily moved to panels and tried to over-ride the unexpected emergency release. Commands and code-words were offered up as sacrifice in exchange for Maur’s safety. It was only as his lungs burned and his face began to turn purple that the outside door closed and once again the force of artificial gravity and the comfort of breathable air was returned. Champion alone moved up to the panting body that lay in the restored airlock. The vacuum had claimed Langthorn’s life long before.
"I am sorry Maur," he said while offering out a hand to help him up, "but we had to try. Yazram had been unable to discern why they wanted you, I assumed putting your life on the line might prompt him to share your significance. It appears that I have only made things worse."
Maur looked up at him in disbelief before taking the hand offered and standing face-to-face with Champion.
"He almost killed me Champion," Maur spat quietly, disrespect in every word, “and now they are going to go after my mother. How did nobody notice what he was doing with the systems? And he had a fucking implant? I strongly suggest, Captain, that you set our course for her farm, otherwise I may be inclined to throw you in a fucking airlock.”
The stand off that followed was tense, and despite the low volume of Maur’s threat, everybody present could read the body language well enough to understand the intent of the whispered words. Champion stood, staring into Maur’s eyes with anger, but ultimately he was aware of the transgression.
"This is Captain Champion to the command deck," he said, not shifting his eyes away from Maur’s. "Adjust our course to land at the origin of Ms. Rosewell’s broadcast. That is an order."
Maur broke away and headed from the crowd, brushing past Charles as he apologetically held his hands up. He strode away from them all with anger in his heart and a conviction in his mind.
"Maurice? Are you still there?" His mother’s voice asked over the audio channel.
"Yeah, I’m here," he replied, "and I’m coming to get you."
* * * * *
We have been trekking through the planet’s jungle for the past two weeks. Yunopial is an unforgiving planet, and while there is plenty of drinkable water we are struggling to find suitable sources of food. I would do anything for your apple pie.
The enemy caught sight of the ship landing, but have not been bold enough to attack it. They are a rag-tag group, but vicious and fuelled by thoughts of revenge.
At times I can understand why; we took everything they had in the name of humanity.
I think about you every minute of every day, and long to be back on the farm. Say hello to Maurice for me, tell him I am safe.
With deepest love,
A love letter sent by Maur’s father to his mother during his international service. He would return from Yunopial after the successful completion of this mission. The local forces were wiped out.
* * * * *
Come back next week for Chapter Twenty one of Gentle Reminders (Book One in The Rosewell Sequence)