They say that panic or other strong emotions bring forth a burst of physical strength. Lang couldn’t honestly say whether it was such a burst of strength that broke his bonds and sent him leaping out of the chair or not. He couldn’t say whether he sprang forward out of the chair several feet or if the force of the bonds breaking sent it bouncing away, like Dex did. In fact, he was only hazily aware of what happened over the next few seconds. He got out of the chair, one way or another. In the moment that was all that mattered. In the future, it was all he would recall.
Then he was grabbing Priss’s medical bag off of the cart.
Then shoving Mond out of the way as he knelt down by Priss, who had also gotten free of her restraints. Maybe that’s what she was doing when she scooted back from the argument earlier, maybe she’d benefited from hysterical strength. Again, it didn’t matter.
Priss took the medical bag from him and wordlessly motioned for him to help her turn Dex over. Gingerly holding one shoulder each they rolled him on his back to expose the wound.
It didn’t take any special equipment to tell that Dex was dead. People could rebound from some surprisingly serious wounds if they weren’t killed outright but plasma was a horrific weapon of war that burned and boiled as it destroyed and the level of havoc it had done in his chest was clearly fatal at a glance. He wasn’t breathing and there was no sign of a heartbeat – and Lang had a very clear line of sight to that organ. Lang gently laid the body back down and sat back on his heels, vaguely aware of Priss making a halfhearted pass with her medical scanner before putting it back in her bag. There was some milling about for a minute or two but Lang wasn’t really paying attention, he thought it might have been Sean walking past once or twice.
It shouldn’t have taken that long to put his thoughts in order. He’d seen people die before, lots of them sometimes. He wasn’t even particularly close friends with Dex, they’d just been assigned to the same drop pod on his transfer to the Armstrong. But that was part of the magic of the Corps – meet strangers, make friends for life, or so the theory went.
Life was shorter than you expected, sometimes.
Maybe it was just the lack of follow-up violence to keep him from focusing on how FUBAR the situation had gone. It’s not like Mond had pushed his mind to a combat headspace. Lang was suddenly on his feet, again with no clear line connecting that to where he’d been on the floor a moment ago. “Mond?” He looked around but the Terran leader was not in the room anymore. “Where did he go?”
The other three were all clustered around Dex’s body, Priss had covered it with a blanket from her medical bag, and none of them seemed to know where Mond had gone. Fortunately, they didn’t have to wait to find out.
“I thought it would be best if you were left to your own devices for the moment, so I’ve stepped out for now.” Mond’s voice was being pumped in through some kind of PA system, though Lang couldn’t see any speakers for it. “I asked Ms. Vance and Mr. Wilson to come with me but they’ve elected to remain behind.”
“I noticed,” Lang said. “They have some backbone, at least. But they’ve been pulling stunts too risky for most of you for a while, haven’t they?”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Mond replied. “You’ve introduced so many toxic elements to their environment I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to properly counteract them. I’d suggest you take a few minutes and consider the consequences of a culture as saturated with violence as yours. Any introduction of weapons to a culture is bound to result in violence. You are responsible for this.”
Lang sent one last glare up at the invisible PA in the ceiling, then let his eyes drop back down to Dex’s shrouded body on the floor. “Yes,” he murmured. “On that, we agree.”
Aubrey watched as Lang turned and stalked over to the nearest wall, turned his back to it and slumped down to the ground, staring blankly at the symbol of the Vault stenciled on the wall across from him. An unsettling pall settled around him and she decided to leave him to his thoughts. Sean had helped Priss get a blanket settled over Dex’s body and now he squatted nearby, looking deeply uncomfortable, as Priss bowed over the body and muttered something that sounded vaguely Italian. Audrey knelt by Sean and quietly asked, “What’s she doing?”
“I’m not sure,” Sean replied. “I think it’s some kind of death ritual.”
Priss heaved a sigh and stood up from the body. “It’s called the Last Rights. And it’s just what I can remember of them. I’m not a priest or lay clergy, so it’s not exactly ecclesiastically correct. But orders or not, he needed something said for him, and I’m all he’s got.”
She went over to the cart, which Mond had left behind in his hasty exit, and started pawing through what had been left behind there. Sean cast a hard to read look back at Dex’s body, then trailed along after her. “So It’s a religious thing?”
“I suppose that’s another thing sapiens have moved beyond?” Priss didn’t sound terribly impressed with the idea.
“Not exactly,” Sean said. “I’m not an anthropologist but I do know that UNIGOV spent a long time trying to figure out how religions worked to improve social cohesion and what psychological needs it fulfilled and then even longer trying to replicate those outcomes without any of the potentially detrimental effects like tribalism, pogroms or crusades. But I don’t think they ever solved it.”
“I think,” Aubrey put in, “they abandoned the idea of establishing a religion when it became clear that any religion would try and introduce conceptions of people as good or bad, where UNIGOV just wanted them to be sapiens.”
Priss threw a skeptical glance over her shoulder. “What about when sapiens stop acting like sapiens?”
“I don’t think that can happen,” Aubrey said, the words working hard to get out around the very unsapiens behavior she’d seen from Mond.
“Really?” Priss moved a few feet to one side, spreading open the gearbags on the cart to display their contents as she did so. “Because Mond made sure to walk out of here with all of our weapons. Fifteen minutes ago he was lecturing us on how very unsapiens that kind of thing would be.”
“I suppose that kind of thing can happen,” Sean conceded, earning him a surprised look from Aubrey. “But, by the same token, you and Lang chose to try and help Dex – although that was admittedly not possible – rather than retaliate against Mond. That’s a deviation for you, isn’t it?”
“From the way you expect us to act, not what we expect of ourselves. It sounds like a point for us, rather than you.” Priss sighed and went back to poking through the cart’s contents. “I know you have some very odd ideas about how the world should be. And I get that UNIGOV is kind of like a religion for you, no matter how unhealthy I may think that is, but here’s something to think about. I’m an Orthodox Catholic, and believe me, our Church has had some horrible leadership over the centuries. I’m talking about systematic murder and abuse flying right in the face of everything the Church stands for. But every time they started acting in ways that made us question them, at least a few of us stood up and held them to the standards they taught. In the long run it was good for the Church every time. And that was with ‘martians’ doing it. So how much more effective do you think it would be with sapiens trying it instead?”
Sean and Aubrey exchanged a look and, not for the first time, she wondered how the martians managed to convey whole volumes of thought through such a simple action. She knew Sean well enough to guess he was thinking about what Priss just said. But to try and guess what he was thinking cut against everything a sapiens was supposed to be – without prejudice and assumption. On the other hand, Dex’s equating that attitude to deliberate childishness still rang in her ears and a part of her wished she’d developed the skill just so she could know what it was like, and if it was really as bad as all that. She was about to ask Sean what he was thinking when Lang jumped to his feet with a thud that startled all threee of them.
His eyes were fixed on the far wall with a manic intensity and he exclaimed, “Launch Zone!”