Degrees of Guilt

Part Four -- by Becky Ratliff

See Disclaimer in Part One


It was a long hike into the cave, they passed through several narrow tunnels and more open chambers. After a while they came to an underground river. Jimmy Avery was waiting in hiding there, when he was sure who they were he pulled out an inflatable raft. Shane waded out into the cold water to hold it steady while the rest of them climbed in, then pulled herself easily into the bow. Jimmy passed her a towel forward and said, "I think we can paddle most of the way going back upstream, the current's strong in the channel but not too bad near the walls."

"Okay, let's save the batteries then."

Elisha held up his lantern. "Watch the banks, there are sharp rocks."

Avery pushed them off and passed the other paddle forward to Hawkes. McQueen asked, "How deep is this?"

Elisha wasn't sure, but he knew it was over his head in the middle. "I take it the enemy can't swim?"

Vanessa explained about chigs and water.

The underground river had created a fairyland of rock formations, their colors glistened in the unfamiliar light. At one point, an underground waterfall poured down from the ceiling along a wide column. In another place, Elisha pointed out the existence of a couple of water-filled tunnels going down. "I swam down there a few times to explore, there's a whole flooded level under this one. It's an amazing place, but I've never had more than a twenty-minute oxygen pack. Even with insulated gear, it's too cold to stay down there much longer than that anyway."

Vanessa said, "It sounds like Mammoth Cave back home."

After a time, he directed them into a side passage, and after a few minutes they saw lights ahead on the shore. The river flowed by a gallery that sloped steeply upwards, its highest reaches were above the high-water mark. Lanterns lit camps and walkways. They came ashore at a wooden dock, their other raft and a black one that must have come from the Wolfe Pack's transport were tied up there, along with a canoe and a few johnboats. Baker, Yamauchi and three of the colonists were guarding the dock.

Baker reported, "There are guard posts at all the other entrances to this area."

The sound of shouting from up ahead guided them to the camp and hurried their pace. West was squared off with Elder Joshua, he and Mark Miller were standing in front of Christy in an obviously protective manner. They were surrounded by a crowd which consisted of representatives of all three groups. Most of the shouting was coming from Elder Joshua’s backers, and the Wild Cards and the Wolfe Pack were among the people agreeing with Nathan. Sister Elizabeth was first among the settlers who had lined up with them, but she wasn't alone by a long shot. A smaller but still sizable faction of mostly older individuals stood off to one side, listening to both sides of the altercation without getting involved yet.

Elisha marched up the ragged aisle which had formed between the two warring sides. "Would someone care to explain all this shouting?"

Joshua said, "We are not going to share our camp and our supplies with these children of the devil!"

Lissie shouted, "My children would have died in that fire if it wasn’t for one of those 'children of the devil'! We were just plain wrong about that!"

Elisha tried to placate both sides. “We're all in this together one way or another! Either we find a way to live in peace with one another, or we can all die together at the hands of the enemy!"

Joshua replied, "We can't expect God to fight on our side if we harbor demons among us."

At last, Eldress Hepzibah spoke up. " 'Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and a house divided against a house falleth. If Satan also be divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand?' I don't know if these people are the devil's children, and I don't care! They're doing the Lord's work in protecting the colony, let Him decide whose children they are. Whatever son of the devil burned Elisha's barn had to come from a lot closer to home than these folks ever did!"

Most of Elder Joshua's supporters allowed themselves to be persuaded by that argument ... at least for the time being. People were tired, and that bit of scripture gave them a good reason to table the argument and go to bed. Hepzibah muttered something about a gaggle of silly geese, and she and Joshua exchanged glares. Then he and his diehards took off by themselves. “Stubborn old fool!”

Her gaze fell on McQueen, and after a long moment, her measuring stare turned to a grin and a wink. She turned around without another word and hobbled off across the rocky cave floor to her own campsite.

Shane barely kept her jaw from dropping. "Christ, if I had fifty of her I could have the chigs surrendering in a week and we could all go home!"

McQueen allowed himself the bare outline of a smile. "You can say that again."

"Ty, you're about to fall over --" She looked for her XO. "Hey, West, where's our camp?"

"Up here!"

The last hundred yards were the hardest. The living accommodations were located in a number of small holes and overhangs that faced on the river. The Wildcards had picked one of the more open ones and already had a relatively comfortable camp set up.

McQueen wanted nothing more than to find his rack and get some rest, but Shane wanted Christy to have a look at him first. He was going to blow that off, but then he saw the look of worry in her eyes and decided a few more minutes weren't worth scaring her.

The medical team had set up their shelter on a wide ledge. It was warm and dry in there, as opposed to the cavern outside. Mark got the hatch. Gloria was inside fiddling with the power supply when they got there. Only Mark and the two nurses had come along, ordinarily they would have had a doctor and another pilot. Their mission, however, had been only to set up for triage and determine if any of the colonists had health problems that would have required special consideration in moving them to the Sara. They hadn't expected to need to set up the first aid shack, but in this cold cave they were glad to have it since it doubled as their quarters.

Gloria moved a couple of boxes off the exam table. He saw Christy reaching for something off the shelf and said, "If that's more of what you gave me before, forget it!"

Christy shook her head and exchanged a "Men!" look with Gloria. Mark wisely kept his mouth shut. McQueen took off his shirt and waited while Gloria checked the burn. He said, "All right, I've been here, you've seen it, are we finished now?"

Gloria ran a quick scan, and said, "I guess. I'll warn you, I've got square needles for people who change their minds about pain shots at 0200."

He smiled a little at her teasing tone, not many people had the nerve to joke around with him. Gloria was as honest as she was acidic, and she didn't cut anyone any slack for foolishness. He said truthfully, "I really don't need it, my rack is looking too good already."

"Okay. The only things you really have to look out for now are infection and losing too much fluids. Burn treatment doesn't help with that as much as a gelskin would, so make sure you get plenty of liquids. If you wake up feverish or chilling, you need to let us know right then. Other than that, it's just common sense."

When he got back to camp, it seemed things had settled down, as far as the Salemites were concerned. Shane tried to get him to eat something, but all he wanted was some juice or something. She got it for him and reported that guards had been set at all the known entrances to the caverns. That was all they could do, although it was always a possibility that the enemy could find a way in that they didn't know about. Also, Vanessa had taken first radio watch at the transport, and she had taken along a couple of volunteers who wanted to learn to do that.

McQueen could see that Vansen was troubled. "What's the matter?"

"I don't like using the kids, but they call them adults at thirteen here."

"I don't like it either. But they get married and have kids that young, and I don't see any indication that they aren't accepted as full members of the community at thirteen. You can't tell them they can't defend their families. They have a different culture, I think we have to respect that. We'll just try to keep the youngest ones in the safest positions, that's the best we can do."

She nodded.

"Shane, we didn't make the situation. We're not responsible that these civilians got caught up in it. We are doing our best to keep them safe, that's what you have to think about."

She looked up and smiled. "Yeah."

"You're the one who's always talking about crossing bridges when you come to them. I think there's something else about not borrowing trouble. I'd like to get this thing a little better organized, but I doubt we'll get much more out of the colonists until morning."

Shane nodded. West had things in hand for the time being, she told him to wake her for the next watch.

USS Saratoga

Glen Ross paced the dark expanse of the main observation bay. This late at night, it was deserted. Sleep eluded him. Although everyone involved had understood it was unavoidable, he couldn't rest knowing that he had abandoned the 58th on New Jerusalem.

The Sara and her battle group had apparently escaped from the system's inner worlds without being noticed. They were lurking in the outermost reaches of the system, beyond its comet cloud, on the fringes of the gravity well where nothing would prevent quickly raising anchor and jumping to safety if they should be spotted by an overwhelming force.

Until reinforcements arrived, their duty was simply to watch, unseen. It was the job of Lt. Commander Ellison's recon squadron to sneak in under the enemy's noses and position the spy satellites, now dormant, that would provide the fleet with vital data, as well as to spot the operations of their enemy counterparts so that the Sara could evade detection. Once the George Washington and the Princess Beatrice arrived, the chigs would be in for a fight.

The hatch whispered open and then closed. Unaware of him, a woman crossed to one of the viewports and sank to the bench there. After a while, she put her face in her hands, and Ross realized she was crying.

He didn't want to intrude on her privacy, she wouldn't be the first sailor to find somewhere solitary to have a good cry. But he felt like worse than an eavesdropper standing there in the shadows, and there was no way she wouldn't hear him if he walked across to the hatch. It sounded like her heart was breaking. He came over to her. "Are you all right?"

To his shock, it was that AI of McQueen's. She tried to compose herself, said that she was, but the look on her face gave the lie to her words.

"What happened?" He finally asked.

"General Jeffords ... Colonel Penderson just told me when I made my report ... she's been put in the hospital."

"It's serious, isn't it?"

"She made me promise not to tell. But the Colonel says he's going to be in charge of the project for a while, so I don't know if that counts anymore."

Ross could guess, there were only a few things that could happen to create a situation like that. "Do you know what hospital she's in?"

Marcy shook her head. "I couldn't ask Colonel Penderson. He just wants my reports and that's all. If I hadn't asked him where the General was, I don't think he would have even told me she was in the hospital."

It dawned on Ross that anyone she could have gone to was on New Jerusalem. In spite of himself, he started looking at things from her point of view, and he didn't like what he saw. He'd made his decision before he was consciously aware of it. "Let's do something about that," he said. "Come on, it's still the middle of the day in Washington, we ought to be able to get an e-mail address."

She followed him back to his office and stood with her hands behind her back. Ross realized she was scared to death of him. Well, wasn't that what he'd wanted? He logged into the net and got his netspider started visiting the patient information pages of all the Washington area hospitals. This was the kind of simple thing Marcy should have done herself ... if she hadn't just found out the first person she'd ever really learned to care about was in the hospital.

It didn't take the 'spider long to finish its search. Room 1412 of Saint Anthony's Cancer Center. He put Marcy in the queue for a vidphone call, the General's condition gave Marcy's call a high priority but it still didn't look like she'd get through until sometime tomorrow. He gave her the e-mail address.

Marcy said, "Thank you, Commodore Ross."

Ross dismissed her to go send her e-mail. Ty had been right all along about that AI, he realized. Well, the least he could do was look out for his friend's little shadow while all of this was going on.

Breaking the bad news about a death back home was a duty he'd had to carry out all too often, with a crew the size of a small town. He didn't want to try to generalize from his human crew to an AI civilian, but if she had been one of his sailors with a friend dying of cancer back home, he would have been very concerned about the situation if the worst should happen. "Marcy -- look, if you need any help with anything, just ask."

That sounded lame to him, but Marcy looked back at him from the hatch, surprised. "Thank you, sir!"

Ross nodded and watched the hatch close behind her. He logged off the terminal and headed for his quarters. If anyone could keep those colonists safe from the chigs until help could arrive, it was McQueen. In the meanwhile, Ross had his job to do here.

(On New Jerusalem, October 2064)

McQueen unzipped his sleeping bag to crawl out and regretted the movement. It was a toss-up which was worse, his back or his leg from sleeping on cold stone. Either way, moving around was the solution for it. He set his jaw and got to his feet, get it the hell over with.

Vansen was out near the overhang, looking out over the river and the still-sleeping camp. He joined her. She said, "I sent Hawkes and West out scouting, told them to bring Benjamin in as soon as it gets light."

"Good," McQueen replied. "All we need is for him to go loose cannon and get himself captured by the chigs. The AIs would have our location out of him in no time."

Vansen nodded, that had been her assessment of Benjamin as well. "He's armed and dangerous. I told them to bring him in if they could, take him down if they have to."

McQueen agreed. It was 0600, it would be light soon. Hawkes and West were probably already in position at the cave entrance.

Vansen asked, "How are you this morning?"

"I'm all right. What's our situation, anything new during the night?"

"Hepzibah seems to have the colonists in line ... for now. I heard her reading a bunch of them the riot act a while ago. Danny went up to the crow's nest last night, it's a small entrance some of the kids found way up on the mountain. He says it makes a great lookout. He saw a lot of flyover, he thinks the chigs are establishing a base of some kind up north of here."

"That means regular patrols in this area. Damn."

Vansen said, "They're not going to make our job any easier."

McQueen knelt by their fire and poured himself a cup of coffee, Vansen was relieved to see that he was moving a lot easier than he had the night before.


Hawkes and West had waited for first light to head out into the bush. They had gone to the town first, figuring that Garrett had probably headed back to get supplies after the colonists had fled. Hawkes had picked up a fresh trail outside town, and they had followed it through the trees along the river. At least Benjamin had had the sense to lie low overnight, Hawkes estimated that they were about two hours behind him. It was by now nearing midday.

West asked, "Do you think we're gaining on him, Coop?"

Hawkes shook his head. "He moves pretty good for a civilian."

"We're pushing our turnaround time. If we don't find him pretty soon we're not going to make it back to camp tonight."

"Better be on the lookout for a good place to hole up then, because we're still a good hour and a half behind him. Look where he's stepped in this mud, it's drying."

West nodded, and kept his eyes moving as they continued on.

A scream that had definitely not come from a human throat sent both of them scurrying for cover. When nothing showed itself, they continued on, covering each other. They heard something thrashing heavily in the underbrush up ahead. Hawkes said, "Could be one of those shamblers the colonists were talking about."

West said, "I don't think so ... I don't think it's an animal. Cover me, I'm going in." Rifle at the ready, West crossed several meters of open ground and poked into the underbrush.

The first evidence of trouble he found were two dead chigs, they had tripped a wire and got caught in a spear trap. He nearly slipped in spooge and stepped around. It wasn't the dead chigs he was worried about.

He heard the thrashing again and raised his weapon. He advanced cautiously, on the alert for more booby-traps.

He found another chig that hadn't been as careful. It has stepped into a snare attached to a bent tree, the tree had straightened and whipped the hapless chig back onto a sharpened stake with enough force to run it through. West felt his stomach lurch into his throat as he realized the jade-green liquid flowing around the stake was still pulsing weakly -- that was blood, or whatever the chigs had instead of blood -- and the alien was still alive.

Someone had looped a length of vine around its wrists so it couldn't set off its suicide device. West wasn't sure why that hadn't happened automatically, but the important thing was it hadn't. The alien convulsed again, and made a weird moaning sound that West couldn't mistake for anything other than pure agony. Hoping someone would have the decency to do the same for him if he ever had the misfortune to find himself in a similar state, West drew his Ka-bar and ended the alien's suffering.

"Hawkes, you can move up, but watch out. This place is booby-trapped."

Rifle at the ready, Hawkes moved up to join him. "What in the hell --?"

West said grimly, "He's been having some fun. This one was still alive when I found it."

Hawkes gulped hard. He'd killed plenty of chigs, but he'd never deliberately tortured one. "That's what screamed?"

West nodded. "Yeah."

Hawkes said, "If the chigs find their buddies like this--"

"You're not kidding! We've got to find this guy before he pokes a stick in a hornet's nest."

Hawkes swallowed again. "Or has the chance to do this to any more of them. I don't care if they are chigs, Nathan--"

"I know, Coop. I know. We'll get him. But we can't let any more chigs find these ones, either. See if you can pick up his trail again. I'm going to cut this one down and try to hide the bodies ... somehow ...."

Hawkes said, "Throw them over the hill and cover them up with leaves, that's all we can do now. I'll take care of their trail in here." He was staring at the dead chig, he cut off the vine around its wrists. "This looks like the stuff that skeleton in the cave had around its neck."

"Are you sure?"

"No, not completely. That stuff was dry as paper ... but I think it's the same."

West got his stomach under control and found where the rope around the chig's ankles was tied off, cut it down. Angrier by the minute, he set about covering up for a homicidal maniac so the innocent colonists wouldn't catch hell for what he'd done. He carefully scattered leaves over the patches of spooge.

Hawkes, meanwhile, had found Benjamin's trail. It led down by the stream, apparently he had stopped there to wash the chig's body fluids off his hands. Hawkes knew from experience that the substance was acidic, it had probably taken about that long for Garrett to start noticing the irritation.

Hawkes spotted something from where he was kneeling by the stream ... it was a footprint ... slowly filling with water. His eyes widened and he started to get up. Suddenly something dropped around his head and pulled tight around his neck, cutting off his air. He flashed back on the time the bigots had tried to hang him, and panicked, clawing at the rope with all his strength. He did manage to loosen it enough for one strangled breath, but then a knee in his back forced him face down in the grass and the noose drew tight again. He couldn't get at his weapons, or get his hands on his attacker.

Just as he started to black out, a heavy weight fell across his body and somehow he could breathe again, in harsh ragged gasps. After a moment, the weight came off him and he rolled over, to look up into Nathan's scared gray eyes. "Coop, are you okay?"

It was a long time before he could do anything but nod. Finally he focused on Benjamin Garrett's corpse. Nathan had stabbed him.

Hawkes coughed a couple of times. "We'd better hide him too, and get the hell out of here!"

"You're gonna have to take his feet, he weighs a ton. I like to never got him off you."

"Down there in that thicket, nobody'll ever find him in there."

After that, they made a careful search of the area for more traps, and didn't find any. They headed back towards the caverns as quickly as they dared. It soon became obvious that they weren't going to make it back before dark, however. They spent a sleepless night huddled under a camo tarp, their situation made even more miserable when it started raining about midnight.

West said, "I'm just as glad I can't sleep. I'd dream about that damn chig."

Cooper pulled the tarp further up over his head so the rain would run off somewhere other than down into his boot. "Nathan ... you saved my life back there and I don't think I even thanked you."

West couldn't remember whether he had or not. They'd been reacting to the situation, neither of them had wasted a hell of a lot of time on etiquette. "Makes us even for Vesta, when you got the hell beat out of you rescuing me from Bad John. You know, that is one big bastard! All I was thinking about today was getting out of there. I was afraid another patrol would come along, and catch us, and find those first ones. I was afraid they'd think we did it, and --!"

"Yeah. McQueen told me once -- if it looked like I was gonna get caught -- to save a bullet."

West nodded slowly. "I think that's what I'd do, Coop. I couldn't go through what they did on Marged ... I don't think I could handle it."

Coop agreed, "Me either. Nate ... if it ever looks like .... Swear to God you won't let 'em take me alive."

Nathan held out his hand. "You've got to make me the same promise, Coop. I don't ever want to get strung up like that chig today --!"

It was too dark to see each other's faces, but each could hear the echo of his own fear in the other's voice. They shook hands on their agreement. After a time, Nathan said, "I wish it'd quit raining."

Coop shook his head. "No, let it pour. It'll wash out all the tracks. Less chance the chigs will ever find out what happened down there."

West nodded. "You're right."

<End Part Four>

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