“Of course they have fucking boats here,” Lang muttered, panting as he slowed to a stop on the docks attached to the plant’s secondary warehouse. Unlike the quaint, deliberately retro docks where they’d hijacked the Armstrong, this anchorage didn’t have painted faux wood piers or heavy ropes to tie up the ships. It was a heavy, concrete and plastic affair with automated docking arms to hold the boats in place.
There were slots for four ships about half the size of the yacht they’d brought with them, only two of which were present. A third was headed out into the bay and open water. Lang cursed more under his breath as he tried to rally his faculties. Harry slid to a stop beside him, not even winded. “You gotta get more time in an exo, Sarge. You keep fighting the mechanized parts of the suit and that’s why you’re so tired, you gotta practice more if you ever want to break that habit.”
“Lang is allergic to anything that doesn’t involve his flying boxes,” Priss said, bringing up the rear and not looking any more winded than Harry. “Did that Vesper guy take of on the boat out there?”
“Probably,” Lang said, no longer gasping like a drowning man. “We’re gonna check the other two just to be on the safe side.”
“Do we steal one if he’s not here?”
“Cross that bridge when we come to it, Priss.”
They got to the bridge ninety seconds later, when the resident boats proved entirely empty. Lang stood on the gunwale of the boat he’d just confirmed was empty and looked out in the bay at the departing ship. “In my expert opinion, whoever’s on that boat is a terrible pilot.”
“Two days is enough to make you an expert, huh?” Priss asked from her spot by the boat’s engine.
“The standard issue Earthling isn’t the type to travel by boat,” he replied, “and that’s exactly the kind of assessment we’re here to make.”
“These boats don’t look nearly as derelict as the ones in the marina where we got the Armstrong,” Harry pointed out. “Could be they brought these people in by water.”
“We just need to find Vesper,” Lang muttered.
“Why do you think he’s so important?” Priss asked.
“Because he’s the first one to show any sign of fighting back against us and he’s supposedly part of their only active weapons program.” He shot her a sideways glance. “Do you really think we can come out on top of this if someone on Earth grows a backbone and weaponizes any of the crazy advanced nanotech we’ve seen around here?”
“It’s hard to gauge how big the tech advantages are,” she said. “We’ve developed in very different ways over the last two hundred years.”
Harry cleared his throat. “Yeah, but our estimate of the planetary population is still in the hundreds of millions and that’s before they bring anyone out of Shutdown. The fleet’s not even fifty thousand people. And Mars can’t add that many people to the count, can they?”
“Maybe a thousand fighting age adults, unless they can sort out their population in Shutdown,” Priss admitted.
“So we have to try and nip this in the bud,” Lang said. “If they get any momentum behind them then we’re not going to have a snowball’s chance in hell of stopping them. Just have to get past this fucking water.”
“Well, I’ve got a copy of the code cracking program that got us into the Armstrong,” Priss said. “Let me see if I can get this thing running.”
Lang licked his lips. “Sure. Let me know if you need any help. Harry, keep watch. I’ll call it in to the captain and keep an eye on Vesper’s boat in case he tries anything fancy.”
Updating the captain on his plans took about three seconds and consisted of his recording a verbal report in her AI’s memory system. While he was at it he updated his log recorder. That left him watching Vesper’s boat through his binoculars. The absolute last thing he wanted was an Earthling with initiative. It was true that he’d found UNIGOV’s so-called sapiens policies draconian, destructive and antihuman. However just as quickly he’d come to rely on the predictability that they inflicted on the population. He could see why Mond wanted to keep things as is. The power a Vault Director like him had would quickly get chipped away if every person on the planet had their own ideas about how things were supposed to work.
By the same token, the ability of the spacer fleet to run roughshod over the planet would be seriously impacted if the people on it had their own ideas about fighting back. The similarities between his motivations and Mond’s were unsettling. He wished Dex were there to give him shit about it.
The sun was fully risen and yet the ocean beneath Vesper’s boat still seethed with shadows, the glimmers of light that reflected off the surface seeming to mock him with their empty illusion of illumination. He didn’t know the first thing about sailing. Jokes about his expertise aside, the only thing he knew about travel by sea was that it remained the most dangerous form of travel in human history, even with early space disasters factored in. He wanted to just leave Vesper to the sea. Odds were, the Earthling wasn’t going to survive out there any better than a spacer would.
Problem was, spacers had already proven they could survive one short trip.
Lang checked his comm, hoping the captain had heard his message and sent him new orders. No such luck. Priss and Harry were going to hijack the boat, barring the unforeseen, and then he’d have to decide whether they were all going to risk their necks on some moronic scheme to run down a stranger they’d never heard just to make sure he was good and dead. Or at least in a brig somewhere.
No wonder the people of Earth preferred to leave decisions to UNIGOV. No wander their Directors desperately wanted to quell as much conflict as possible, to the point they would rewrite their own history to accomplish it. This was bullshit. He couldn’t even keep a braindead moron like Dex from walking himself into a plasma blast, how was he supposed to make these calls? People like him were a dime a dozen. There had to be hundreds of them in LA alone, giving the local UNIGOV Director fits day in and day out. Lang knew if he had that kind of problem to deal with he’d want to put most of them in permanent hibernation, too.
Priss was smarter than Dex, of course, probably smarter than he was himself, at least in terms of managing people. But that kind of thing could almost get her in more trouble rather than keep her out of it. In the Nevada Vault he’d left her alone for an hour and she’d nearly gotten her brain sucked into the crystal palace where they kept people’s memories from Shutdown.
At least, he guessed that was how those places worked.
He didn’t know Harry, which was even worse. A complete unknown was someone who’s foibles and weaknesses he couldn’t mitigate at all, someone dragged along in his wake strictly by merit of the stripes on his sleeve. For the first time he understood why Mond and the others looked at him like a monster whenever the command structure came up. He could walk people right into their deaths and call it a moral good. Acceptable losses. Following orders.
Dex’s face swam before his eyes for a moment, ranting at Mond and all the stupid, petty hypocrisies that had driven him nearly mad with indignation. That kind of unproductive, self sabotaging rage was the essence of the martian that UNIGOV objected to. He could understand why. Since Dex’s death, he’d come to share all those same objections in spades.
He would much rather hide from the responsibility of dealing with the Dexs of the world rather than try and mitigate them, reshape them or shut them down. Martin Langley was more an Aubrey Vance than a Stephen Mond. Yet at the end of the day, he realized that Mond was not any better at solving these problems than he was. He was probably a lot worse.
If sapiens could really handle conflict so much better than spacers Dex would still be alive, after all. That meant he couldn’t hide. Hiding made more bodies than taking action did and responsibility would probably fall on him either way.
“Hey.” Lang jumped so hard he nearly fell of the pier into the ocean. Priss suppressed a snort.
“What is it?” He asked, ignoring her laughter.
“Are you up for this?” She asked. “I know you haven’t been at the top of your game lately, it’s only been a couple of weeks since we were drugged POWs in UNIGOV’s hands. Then you got a promotion and redeployed in a specialty you aren’t trained for. It’s a lot.”
“I’ll take your word for it. You are better at managing people than me.”
“Thanks?” She sat down beside him and looped an arm through his, pulling his binoculars down. “Do you want to call the captain and ask for reinforcements?”
Lang looked at the ocean for a long time. Anything could happen out there. Vesper could have any kind of nasty surprise waiting for them once they caught up to his boat. There was no guarantee their weapons and exos were up to the task of bringing him in. Anything could go wrong.
The only thing that had to go right was getting Vesper. Lang shook off Priss’ arm, clambered to his feet and stowed his binoculars, saying, “I’ve already informed her of our plans. Right now, time is critical. I take it you’re here because you unlocked the controls of one of the boats?”
“We did.” She shook her head ruefully. “I gave it a quick lookover and these systems seem a lot less sophisticated than the ones on the yacht. Maybe that’s not surprising. It doesn’t look like its intended for long range or bad weather. Still, it’s not going to be as safe as the Armstrong was even if we did have time to make modifications to it.”
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “That is a risk we are just going to have to take.”
Priss looked at him for a long moment and then grinned. “You’re sounding like yourself again, flyboy.”
“Never. Now shut up and get on the boat.”
They shut up and got. Two minutes later they had the craft untied, the motor running and the wind at their backs. Lang took them out after Vesper across the blue waters of the bay.