REPORT A PROBLEM
The road out of Laurelton to the wilderness beyond was not well-travelled. The land itself degenerated into scrubland dotted with tumbled concrete boulders, with patches of tarmac and cement shattered by centuries of struggling vegetation. At one stage it had been a forest, which was cleared for farmland, which was replaced by a light industrial area, which was rezoned to make an airport, which evolved into a spaceport. Now the forest was patiently attempting to reclaim it. Nature’s progress was slow, however; decades of leaking oil and spilled chemicals and scorching takeoff blasts had made the soil sour and inhospitable.
Few bothered to travel in this direction, and the road was frayed at the edges. As he pulled it over, General Sierra’s staff car rolled off the narrow strip of bitumen, across an untidy verge of gravel, then into the long wild grass. He killed the engine, and sat there as the car ticked and cooled. He had a panoramic view, and in the middle of the day there was no one about to disturb it. After the controlled chaos of the Governor’s palace, the bustle of the city, and the roar of the car’s engine, the silence was strange.
In time he climbed out of the car, carefully locking it behind him, more out of habit than any fear of it being interfered with or stolen. The insignia on the bonnet declared it to be his car, and it would be sheer, suicidal madness for a passer by to disturb any vehicle belonging to him.
He walked away from the road, taking his time, strolling through knee-high grass and wildflowers. The trees soon obscured the road, but the soil was too rocky to allow them to become dense. They stayed spread out, like guests at some awkward social occasion.
They were conifers, for the most part. The conifers General Sierra had known in his youth, in cities nearer the coast, had been very tall and very straight, with evenly spaced branches, as if they’d been designed by a team of army engineers. These ones were twisted and spindly, with branches coming out at erratic intervals. The only thing they shared was their colour; a handsome shade of deep, dark green.
Every so often, however, he would come across one quite unlike the others. This species was only a little taller than him, growing in a neat, compact, conical shape.
The new growth at the top was a vivid gold. This species flowered at the end of the year, producing a smothering blanket of fluffy white blossoms that gave forth the scent of cinnamon. They were universally known as Christmas Trees.
They had long been regarded as oddities, a weak species gradually decreasing in numbers in the wild. Then, comparatively recently, science had redeveloped to the point where botanists realised that conifers shouldn’t be flowering at all, much less producing a cinnamon scent. They slowly came to recognise that Christmas Trees were in fact the product of heavy genetic manipulation.
Further research revealed that they were most likely the end result of some long-forgotten corporate marketing initiative to provide people in warm areas with ‘snow’ covered pine trees at Christmas. As soon as the general population found out, of course, the trees were suddenly in great demand, and within a few years they could be seen in almost every suburban back yard in the Dominion, a little piece of living Golden Century cache for any family to call their own.
General Sierra brushed past one, and it released an echo of cinnamon scent, its last vestiges from the previous season.
Climbing further up the hill, he passed the gnawed concrete stubs of what had once been canon placements. He was entering Kerrigan proper.
The vegetation thinned a little, as the ground had been covered with thick concrete slabs. Trees still managed to grow, often with paving rearing up beside them, riding high on their inexorable roots. The wide, flat expanse would once have been dotted with outbuildings, vehicle hangars, satellite dishes and radio towers, but they had long since been dismantled by scavengers, or just fallen apart and been absorbed into the landscape. Gradually he could discern the main buildings.
They were partially earth-covered, although the General didn’t know if this was for increased structural strength, or just following some ancient architectural fashion. There were several point of entry, but the most obvious was an dark opening large enough for half a dozen trucks to drive in simultaneously.
He stepped into the building. The temperature dropped noticeably as he crossed the sharp line between sunshine and gloom. The floor was strewn with pine needles, animal droppings, chunks of cement, and other assorted debris. To his left was an inspection pit, on which rested the skeleton of some sort of vehicle.
Someone, at some time, had taken off its body panels, but he knew from experience that the frame was likely to be extruded diarbon, impervious to any cutting technology short of molecular effectors. He noticed that, ironically enough, only the low-tech parts of the vehicle had been stolen; the windows, the seats, the storage lockers. Its ceramic-based engines were physically intact, as were its anti-gravity lifters, its on-board computer and its interface plates. But as far as any looter was concerned, these were just odd blocks of arcane substances, of no use to the current culture except as door stops.
To his left, high on the walls, were large flat video screens mounted on rotating brackets, which had no doubt once fed information to people working below. There was something about them that troubled Sierra, and it took him a few moments to realise what it was. It was, in short, their very presence. They were large, rigid, flat, strong sheets of plastic ply, useful for a hundred or more low-tech purposes. They could have been turned into roofing, or table tops, or sleds, or shields, or doors. And yet, for perhaps half a millennia, they had been left alone.
It was true that they would not be at all easy to get down. They were almost at ceiling level, above the height of most ladders, and too large for one person to carry. It would be a time-consuming process for two or more people, but, given the myriad uses and durability of the screens, it would be worth it. So why, he wondered, were they still there?
He decided to explore further into the building. Beyond the back of the vehicle workshop, there was a series of storerooms, some sort of base command centre, and a humanalogue down room.
The storerooms had been partially looted, but a number of useful items still lay on the shelves under a thick coat of dust. The command centre had lost a couple of pieces of furniture, but otherwise seemed intact. The humanalogue down room contained half a dozen padded pods in which humanalogues could power down and run their diagnostic routines, and a larger bed where technicians could perform light repairs. It was overhung with long, corroded stalactites of advanced engineering equipment; jointed metal arms and projectors that allowed the base’s APIs to assist in operations. Nothing here seemed to be missing.
Sierra found a small cupboard that someone had made a feeble attempt to crack open. He jerked at the handle, hard, and managed to snap the rusty lock. Inside were racks of surgical instruments; dull scalpels, syringes, applicators, trimmers and a few electric tools ruined by leaking batteries. A century or so earlier, before precision tooling was common, they would have been worth at least a day’s effort to retrieve.
The deeper he got into the building, the fewer signs he saw that anyone had gone before him. Precious treasures of the Golden Century had simply been left to rot.
There was furniture that, although now ruined by damp and rats, would once have been perfectly serviceable, and a lot more comfortable than the frontier efforts of, say, the Valley Wars days. In a break room he found a recycling bin half full of aluminium cans, worth a small fortune in earlier years. There were large glass panels in the walls of offices, stronger and clearer than anything even the Red Hill Dominion could produce, left alone and intact, except in places where the foundations of the building had shifted and they had popped out of their frames and shattered.
At length, he came to a dead end. He was in a corridor that had become a mezzanine, as one wall had crumbled, probably due to age, and collapsed into a larger room beyond. As it had fallen, it had sheared a metal staircase away from the adjacent wall. The floor of the larger room was hidden under broken masonry and twisted metal. There was no obvious way down, and he was about to give up and explore in another direction, when something amongst the rubble caught his eye.
It was too dark and too far away to be sure.
He backtracked until he found another stairwell, went down, and made his way back to the large room. He walked carefully through the wreckage, mindful of the slabs of concrete still precariously balanced overhead. It took him a few moments, but he found the particular object that had caught his eye. It was a sizable piece of reinforced concrete, exactly like all the others, except on one side. There it was evident that someone had been chipping at it with a small metal tool. By the placement of the gouges, he could tell that they had occurred after the collapse.
He investigated the area around the concrete boulder, and eventually found the tool that had been used to chip it. It was a section of steel reinforcing rod, dulled and dusty on both ends where it had been ground against the concrete. He could see that it would have taken someone considerable time to make the gouges in the slab with such a puny piece of metal.
He was beginning to get a picture of what had happened. He made one more search of the area, getting down on his hands and knees and running his fingers over the rubble.
Near the lower edge of the slab, his fingers came upon something sticky on a loose fragment of masonry. He picked it up and peered at it. He could just make out a couple of drops of a pale, oily, half-dried substance.
He sniffed the residue on his fingers, and the faint smell confirmed his suspicions. He slipped the concrete fragment into his pocket.
He made his way back to the workshop through which he had entered the building. Now that he had explored a little further, he looked at the vehicle frame on the inspection pit with new understanding.
It looked to have been some sort of light troop transporter, designed to be easily dismantled for field repairs. One man with a few low-tech tools would only take a few minutes to pull off a door or lift out a seat. The flat screens overhead, on the other hand, would need a couple of men and, more importantly, a couple of hours to remove from their brackets and carry away. The time would make all the difference.
Mulling this over, General Sierra walked back out into the sunshine, which greeted him as if everything was the same as before.
As he walked back down the hill he resisted the urge to toy with the concrete fragment in his pocket. Right now it was the only proof he had, and he didn’t want to disturb the residue any more than he had to.
He saw movement near his staff car through a gap in the trees, when he was still some distance away. He silently unholstered his gun and dropped into the cover of the long grass. He hadn’t needed to use his stealth training in years, but it came back to him as if he had only practiced yesterday.
Using the grass, trees and rocky outcrops for cover, he crept toward the figure. It was making no effort to conceal itself, nor did it seem to be interfering with the car. It simply stood, staring into space.
Fortunately the General recognised the man before he revealed himself. He stood up, dusted a few stray twigs off his uniform, and reflected that it would have been more than a little embarrassing to attack one of the Governor’s own men.
‘Mr Smith,’ he said, as he stepped out of the cover of the trees, a few metres behind the other man.
A normal person might have twitched at the unexpected sound, but Mr Smith merely turned and looked at him. ‘General Sierra.’
‘What are you doing here? You know the Governor doesn’t like you to leave the palace unaccompanied.’
‘I came to see you. I thought that if something serious was going on, it might be wisest not to discuss it in the palace or over the telephone. Besides, how can one stay indoors on a beautiful day like today?’
Sierra looked around for tyre tracks. ‘How’d you get here?’
‘I left my car back at the crossroads.’
‘And your driver?’
‘He’s smart enough to not ask questions.’
‘I wasn’t aware that there were any questions to ask. Is this investigation secret?’
‘Everything is secret in our line of work, General.’
‘I meant from the Governor.’
Mr Smith chose his words carefully. ‘The Governor is an impulsive man. If he thought there was a humanalogue in Laurelton, he’d have troopers ransacking the suburb within the hour. That might be counterproductive.’
‘So did you find anything in Kerrigan?’ Mr Smith asked.
‘I found enough,’ the General replied. He took the piece of concrete from his pocket and held it up.
‘Do you know what this is?’
‘It’s obviously more than just a lump of rock, or you wouldn’t be showing it to me.’
‘Look at what’s on it,’ Sierra said.
Mr Smith did, then he sniffed at it. ‘Translation gel.’
‘I found it in a room full of rubble, under a slab of reinforced concrete. From the look of it, I’d say that a humanalogue was buried under a collapsing wall.’
‘But it’s not there now,’ Mr Smith guessed.
‘No. It was obviously there for a while, and had some degree of difficulty in getting itself out, but it succeeded.’
‘Can you tell how long ago this happened?’
‘The residue is still sticky. It was recent.’
‘Did anything tell you what sort of humanalogue it was?’
‘No… not directly. But I noticed something unusual while I was in there. The base hasn’t been looted. There’s evidence of a little scavenging around the periphery, but inside, it looks like nothing has been touched. Why do you think that would be?’
Mr Smith considered the question. ‘Because someone or something scared the scavengers off?’
The General nodded. ‘None of the defense systems are still operational. It would have to be a humanalogue.’
‘That seems fair. The question is, what sort of humanalogue?’
General Sierra smiled grimly. ‘I think we both know the answer to that question. Although Kerrigan would have had medilogs and amilogs to take care of the human personnel, neither medilogs nor amilogs would think to defend the base from looters. That leaves…’
‘A warlog,’ Mr Smith said.
Mr Smith smiled in his usual, disquieting way. ‘Everyone knows that there is only one warlog in the Red Hill Dominion, and that he belongs to the Governor. This is one of the foundations of the strength of the current administration.’
‘The Governor won’t appreciate another warlog in his territory,’ Sierra said.
‘You mean he won’t appreciate another one not under his control,’ Mr Smith noted. ‘Given that our young friend Dr Ostin has been pilfering the ingredients for translation gel from the university stores, it seems fair to assume that this warlog has somehow fallen into his hands.’
‘A reasonable assumption.’ Sierra agreed.
‘So,’ Mr Smith concluded, ‘the sooner we remove this Dr Ostin from circulation, the better.’
‘That would be very unwise.’
Mr Smith’s ordinarily lifeless face twisted itself into a rare expression of surprise. ‘What do you mean?’
‘We don’t know anything about this warlog. If Ostin has taken control of it, it’s likely it will defend him. It’s a military-spec warlog. Trust me, you don’t want to get it defensive.’
‘You don’t have to remind me of the capabilities of warlogs, General. In any case, we have snipers. It could all be over before the warlog even knows there’s any danger.’
‘No. An ownerless warlog is unpredictable. Ostin may have ordered it to go into hiding if he is killed. If it did, we’d have little chance of finding it even if we tore this city apart.’
‘Is that a likely scenario?’
‘It’s not unlikely enough to ignore. There’s also the matter of next of kin. If he has already named someone to inherit his possessions, ownership of the warlog would transfer automatically on his death, and we’d have the same problem all over again. If the new owner decided to take revenge for Ostin’s death…’ Sierra paused and grimaced, as if he’d tasted something bitter. ‘Well, things could become very unpleasant for all of us, including the Governor.’
‘Sober counsel, General, sober counsel. However if we can’t touch Ostin, what options are still open to us?’
‘I can only recommend further surveillance. It may even be possible that Ostin and this warlog are completely unrelated. We just don’t know enough yet.’
‘We can set up surveillance on the house immediately.’
‘I’m afraid not, Mr Smith. The warlog will detect anything suspicious at Ostin’s home or workplace, and we’ll have lost the element of surpise. We’ll have to be more subtle than that.’
‘You are the Head of the Governor’s secret service, General. I’m happy to leave the matter in your hands.’
‘I’d consider it a favour, though, if you kept me informed.’
‘I’d better be getting back to the palace. As you noted, the Governor doesn’t like me to be out on my own. He thinks I might get up to mischief.’
‘I’ll give you a lift back to your car.’
‘No, I think it’s better if I walk. Nobody needs to know that we were both here, and at this stage the fewer people who know about this, the better.’
‘Well, I’ll see you back at the palace, then,’ Mr Smith said. He almost looked happy as he turned and began to stroll away along the road’s dusty shoulder.
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