Degrees of Guilt

Part Two -- by Becky Ratliff

See Disclaimer in Part One

On their way to their LZ, the 58th squadron skimmed a beautiful landscape that reminded Vansen of her native California, as it must have looked before being paved over with cities and freeways. The sea met the shore in rocky palisades or wide, pristine white beaches. The land beyond was dry, except where the wide river valleys stretched from the mountains to the shore. 

Their destination was one of these valleys. As they approached, they flew over a few farms along a dirt road. The town was located on a hilltop, there was a little wooden church built at the very top of the hill. 

Before they landed, Shane reviewed McQueen's mission briefing. They didn't know what they were getting into here. On the Sara, they'd been concerned about the possibility of anti-government separatists, or pirates -- that was why they'd brought the Hammerheads in the first place. Thankfully, that didn't appear to be the case. She just couldn't imagine pirates whitewashing the pasture fence ... or building that beautiful little church. This was a place where families lived, not a hideout. 

Their orders were to fire only if fired upon. If there was trouble here they were not going to be the ones who started it. Shane agreed with that ... but at the same time, as CO, she didn't like it at all. She had a duty to get her kids home. Giving the other guy the first shot didn't fit into that picture ... but these weren't chigs. They were the citizens she and her people were out here protecting. The last thing they wanted was trouble.

 She got her mind on business as she started her final approach to the LZ, a large pasture near the town. The Marines routinely did things with SA-43's that their Aerotech designers had never had in mind -- like landing them on anything remotely flat, and in places anyone with brains would swear a canary wouldn't have enough runway. SA-43's were tough, dependable birds and ... most of the time ... they put up with the abuse without complaint. But putting her front wheel in a gopher hole at 150 mph would really ruin her whole day. 

Judy's recon pictures didn't do the colony justice. The town itself was small. The frame houses, the white church, and the red schoolhouse would have been at home in any North American agricultural community a century and a half ago. It was surrounded by fields and pastures extending down the flanks of the hill and into the valley below, all neatly enclosed by stone walls and split-rail fences. The overall feel of the place was order and calm. Vansen realized two things just by looking: that a lot of love had gone into building this place, and that the people who had built it wouldn't abandon it lightly. 

Their arrival had not gone unnoticed, the settlers gathered in a crowd near the church then came down the hill. They were all dressed similarly, in loose trousers and long-sleeved shirts buttoned high at the throat. The men typically had long beards and mustaches, and the women had their hair up under lace bonnets which they had hand-knitted or crocheted. There were a lot of teenagers present, who looked like younger versions of their parents and seemed to be treated as adult members of the community. No small children were in evidence, Vansen suspected they were out of sight up in the village. 

Three of the village elders came forward, two white-bearded men and a truly ancient woman who hobbled along on a hand-carved cane and glared at them from under the starched brim of her bonnet. They identified themselves as Elder Joshua, Elder Elisha and Eldress Hepzibah. Elder Elisha was the spokesman for the group. "What are you people doing on our land?" 

Well, that was short and to the point. Vansen identified herself and said, "We're here to warn you. For over a year now the Earth has been at war with an alien race known as the chigs. The war began when these aliens massacred the inhabitants of two of our colonies, on Vesta and Tellus. Now, we have good reason to believe that the chigs are going to attempt to take control of this system within the next few days. Our carrier, the USS Saratoga, is in orbit around this planet. We're prepared to evacuate all of you to safety before the fighting starts." 

"This is our Canaan, Major, God did not lead us here so that we could abandon it at the first sign of trouble." 

Vansen replied, "And we wouldn't ask you to. But we've seen plenty of what the chigs can do. There's no way this town can be defended against the capabilities they have. Your only chance is to get out of harm's way until the fighting is over, and then rebuild once the system is safely in the hands of the Earth forces. I have it on the authority of Commodore Ross, the commanding officer of the Saratoga, that you will be permitted to return once the danger from the chigs has passed." 

Someone in the crowd yelled, "Oh, I believe that! I spent a year in jail for sedition, let’s see this Jezebel give me one reason to believe anything the Great Beast says! How do we even know there are any chigs here? Once they get us on board that supercarrier, they'll take our kids away and re-educate them, and the rest of us will end up shipped off to a work colony somewhere!" 

There was a loud chorus of agreement. Vansen's best command tone carried over it, though she didn't seem to shout. "I'm not concerned about your problems with the civilian government before the war started. I can't see anyone caring whether or not you have a colony here. You aren't bothering anyone! If all we wanted was to round you up and arrest you, we'd be doing it right now, wouldn't we? But I can tell you from experience, the chigs don’t take prisoners very often and you'd better hope you aren't one of the ones they do decide to take alive! If you won't think about yourselves, think about your children!" 

That got a lot of them thinking and started some dissension, the three Elders were discussing it as well. But then one of the colonists objected, "They're taking the children of Satan into the military again, that ship's likely to be full of them!" 

Vansen remembered that the phrase "Children of Satan" was one that a lot of right-wing religious groups used to refer to In Vitroes (as well as others they didn't particularly like.) She sat on her first angry response, there was no place here for an emotional outburst from her. 

Things went straight down hill from there, after that the colonists' minds were made up. Before things could lead to an outbreak of violence, though, Elder Elisha came to a decision. "You may camp here until morning. I'll expect you gone at first light. Don't concern yourselves with our safety, the Lord will provide." With that, the colonists turned and walked back to the village.

 Vansen said, "Damn. They were listening until that woman decided to put in her two cents worth." 

McQueen said, "I should have anticipated that the colonists would have reacted that way. A lot of fundamentalist groups think we're demons who aren't created in God’s image." 

Damphousse said quietly, "Just as many more believe that whosoever will may come." 

"I wish we were dealing with some of them, Vanessa, but we aren't. This is only going to make things more difficult. I don't think they would have come with us willingly anyway, they aren't going to leave their homes without putting up a fight -- at least without some kind of evidence that there really is a threat from the chigs." 

Moore commented, "Colonel McQueen, I noticed one question they didn’t ask." 

"What’s that, Lieutenant?" 

" 'What the hell is a chig?' " 

The ramifications of that observation sank in. Obviously to know what chigs were, the colonists must have had contact with the outside since the summer of the year before. They couldn't be completely isolationists. 

Vansen said, "It looks like they're planning a bull session up in the school house. Coop, it's getting good and dark -- sneak up there and plant pickups there, in the church, and in as many of the houses as you can, so we can keep track of what they're planning." 

"Where in the houses?"

 West remembered the location of every serious discussion that had ever been held in his house. "Under the kitchen table, Coop. Then, if you've got time, put one behind the front room couch." 

McQueen said, "Don't get caught down there, if they realize that you're an In Vitro we're likely to have to stop a lynching." 

Hawkes wisecracked, "Don't worry about that, sir -- this crowd sounds more like they'd go in for burning at the stake than lynching." 

McQueen didn’t feel obliged to argue that point. Hawkes pulled down a box containing surveillance gear and packed what he needed into a case at his belt. Christy was obviously worried, he gave her a wink and a grin before he disappeared into the darkness outside the ISSCV's ramp. 

McQueen followed him outside and leaned against the side of the transport, looking up the hill at the village. It looked like anyone over the age of thirteen up there was considered an adult, and most of them were armed. Rounding them up and taking them offworld wasn't going to be an easy proposition, not when they were sure their destination was a work camp somewhere. He knew what he'd have done to stay out of a place like that. 

Protecting the children was the first priority. The adults could be argued to have the right to put up a suicidal defense of their land, if that was what they seriously wanted to do after they understood what they were up against. But the kids weren't able to make that decision for themselves, and it was McQueen and Ross' contention that they had the right to live long enough to grow up. 

He went through several possible plans, and decided to wait until Hawkes got the bugs planted. He was about to go inside when the sense that he was not alone stopped him in his tracks. He was in a good position, in the deep shadows under the ISSCV's wing, with some cover from the engine housing. Silently, he eased his visor into place, and the surrounding pasture came into focus. 

Aerotech occasionally did something right, and these light sensitive visors were a good example of that. Much better than the old low-light goggles that had nearly got Vanessa blinded when the lenses broke, they enhanced whatever light was available and popped up a display just like a HUD in a fighter. They were protective against a pretty good impact, and they'd even compensate -- somewhat -- for a sudden flash of bright light. 

With the visor turned on, he could easily see a shadowy figure detach itself from the landing gear of West's plane and dart across the pasture. McQueen did a double take as he recognized him, and let the safety off his sidearm with a clearly audible snap. 

"Might as well come on up in the light, Danny, I can see you just fine." 

Wolfe had frozen as soon as he heard that. He got his hands where McQueen could see them without having to be told, and walked up to the ramp. "I just want to talk this over, TC. No need to get hostile." 

"What the hell are you doing here?" 

"What the hell do you think I’m doing here? We needed a nice quiet place to lay low. The Salemites needed somebody to keep the pirates off them. It worked out fine for everyone, until the war screwed things up. TC, I don't want to see those kids up there get hurt any more than you do. Prove to me you're on the level, and give me a chance to get my people out of here, and we’ll help you get them offworld. As long as it doesn't involve blowing away the adults, I've taken their money and I won’t turn on them." 

McQueen considered. Although he wouldn’t have been surprised if the Danny Wolfe he had sent to prison would have sold out his own grandmother for the right price, that Danny Wolfe wouldn't have risked his life to rescue John Waite. That the man Danny Wolfe was now took the mercenary code seriously was altogether possible. "Fair enough." He re-engaged the safety -- and heard an echoing snap from the vicinity of West’s fighter. 

"Is that your partner over there?" 

"I'm not dumb enough to think you've forgot all about Vesta this soon," Wolfe replied. 

"Damn straight I haven't. But I've got more than that to worry about right now." 

"I was hoping you’d see it that way." 

(USS Saratoga)

"Crow's Nest, this is Crazy Lady -- EYEBALL, repeat, EYEBALL, over. Stand by for LIDAR feed ...  and put the Boss on here. He is not gonna like this...."

Campbell turned serious in a hurry. EYEBALL was the code for "enemy fleet sighted" and that wasn't supposed to be happening now. "Standing by. Commodore Ross, sir!" 

Ross crossed over to Campbell's station and stood there watching the LIDAR display, hands clasped behind his back. A large hive ship and its attendant fleet had just dropped anchor in-system. "That's got to be the fleet from the Serus system...." He bit his tongue and didn't cuss intel out loud, he'd wait until he got his hands on their CO for that. He'd had every reason to believe he had at least another eighteen hours before chiggy could get anything into this system ... but there they were. The Saratoga didn't have a chance against those odds. He had just run out of time and out of options, and there was no way he was going to be able to get McQueen offworld before they had to retreat. 

"Ms. Harris, order all squadrons to return to the carrier immediately, and prepare to raise anchor. Mr. Lee, keep your eyes open to make sure they don’t hem us in here. Mr. Campbell, get me a secure channel to Queen-6 on the double." 

"Aye, aye, sir." 


From the cockpit of the ISSCV, Lucas called, "Colonel McQueen, sir! There’s a priority transmission from Crow's Nest, sir!" 

McQueen stepped through the hatch into the cockpit. He accepted the headset that Lucas held ready. "Crow's Nest, this is Queen Six, go ahead." 

"This is Ross. We have a situation up here, be aware that our original plan is a no-go. Suggest you plan for a shore leave down there." 

McQueen heard the keen regret in Ross' voice and let nothing but confidence show in his own. "Understood, sir. We will await further orders." 

"Crow's Nest out." 

Danny asked, "What’s the situation?" 

McQueen returned Lucas' headset. "The chigs crashed the party early, the Sara can't extract us. I'd take that to mean they've got to pull back and wait for reinforcements." 

Wolfe turned serious, McQueen could see him running through a short list of options. 

From outside, Gordy Crae called, "Hey, Danny, you’d better see this!" 

They got out there in time to see several chig transports enter the atmosphere. McQueen said, "Danny, those people trust you, they'll listen to you where they wouldn't pay any attention to me. Get them to kill their lights and douse their fires, shut down any electrical or radio sources. If they don't do that, they're going to end up just like the colonists on Vesta and Tellus and there won't be a damn thing either one of us can do to stop it. Beyond that, if you’re going to make a run for it, it's now or never." 

"I've got one transport, TC, I don’t know about you but I don’t feel like taking on the whole fuckin' chig navy with that. Gordy, head east and hit those homesteads up towards the lake. Then get the tarps over the Lucky Lady, and stay there. I'll warn the town and send someone to tell the ranchers down river." 


McQueen would have made the same call. The odds of getting to a wormhole before being jumped by the chigs would be pretty slim. 

He hadn't had to tell Lucas to silence the transport, the young lieutenant had shut down all but minimal systems and now he was getting the camo tarps out of a locker. Baker and West helped him get the transports and the SA-43s covered.  

Danny's warning was heeded, there was a lot of shouting from up in the village and people scattered to kill their lights. McQueen got all of his people under the tarps, where a flyover wouldn't pick up heat signatures. After that, all they could do was wait and hope they weren't spotted. Hawkes got back, out of breath -- he'd seen the lights going out and run back hell-for-leather. No one had to tell him what had happened. 

McQueen overheard West telling Yamauchi, "Aw, don't worry about it, after Demios this'll be a shore leave!" The echo of Ross' words made him grin momentarily in spite of himself. 

"West, you've got one hell of an idea of shore leave!" 

He replied with a laugh. "Yes, sir." 

They kept watches through the night, they couldn't be sure that chig recon flights hadn't located the colony just as they had. Everyone was on edge. There was nowhere to run. They all knew if the chigs attacked the colony tonight, the best they could hope for was to make damn sure the enemy would never forget the fight. Apparently, the chig recon pilots weren't as good as Crazy Judy, because dawn came without incident. 

Soon after that, Wolfe and Crae came up to the camp. Wolfe had talked the village elders into hearing McQueen out, since he'd been right about the chigs. Vansen sent West and Hawkes to find them a good place to hide the planes. Quietly she asked, "Ty, do you want me to go along with you?" 

He considered. "No, they've made the first move. If we're all going to get through this, we can't keep treating each other as enemies." 

Vansen nodded, she didn't like it but as always she would back him once he made a decision. "I wonder how the hell Bad John's been getting along with those people?" 

"Passing for an NB, most likely," McQueen surmised. 

The villagers were openly hostile, but they heard McQueen out. He was brutally honest with them when he described the attacks on the Tellus and Vesta colonies. He didn't want the Salemites, as they called themselves, to have any illusions about the possibility of defending the town. They had to be persuaded that getting out before nightfall came again was their best chance to survive. 

The colonists took some convincing of that, but it didn't take long to do the math. They had three transports, only one of which was fully combat ready, and six SA-43s. The enemy's resources were all but unlimited, as far as they were concerned. All the buildings were highly flammable wood-frame structures, and they didn't have any anti-aircraft capability whatsoever. 

One of the men spoke up from the back of the schoolroom. "Colonel, what about taking the kids off? The rest of us would be willing to fend for ourselves if you could make a run for it with them." There was a murmur of agreement. 

Now, they were in a mood to cooperate ... the time for that would have been yesterday evening! McQueen said, "It's too late now for anyone to get a transport out of the gravity well without being spotted by the chigs, and an ISSCV can't outrun their fighters. Our only chance now is to avoid being detected by the enemy until Earth forces can get here to reinforce the Sara." 

"How long will that take?" Asked Elder Joshua. 

"At least a week, and possibly longer," McQueen replied. 

The Salemites asked all of the unbelievers, which included the Wolfe Pack, to leave while they considered their options. McQueen went across the street from the school to Elder Elisha's house, and stood at a kitchen window looking out over the pasture and down to the barn. The Elder shared the house with his daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law Benjamin Garrett, and their two children, a four-year-old named Abigail and a slightly older boy named Ephraim. Elizabeth was a quiet woman, too quiet. 

He would have felt out of place in a place like this back home, much less in a clandestine colony on an alien planet lightyears from Earth. He wasn't too concerned for himself, he'd been dealing with overt prejudice all his life. It had never come as a surprise to him that there were people out there who would just as soon string him up from the nearest convenient tree limb as look at him. Cooper and Anita were no strangers to it either. But it did concern him where Christy was concerned. That kind of behavior from "good Christian people" might just come as a surprise to her. He hoped she wouldn't wander off from Mark and Gloria, they would look out for her. But if she got off on her own and these people recognized her for what she was, she could be in real danger. 

Elder Elisha came into the kitchen. "Fortunately, we've already harvested and preserved this year's crops. We'll move all the supplies we can into the caves. We know those caves well, we sheltered there when we first landed. They go for miles in all directions, the chigs won't have an easy time of finding us in there." 

"They could seal off the exit with one explosive charge, then where would you be?" 

"Out one of the other exits," the Elder replied, a little smugly. "There are several and some of them aren't easy to find. I'd thank the Lord above if they did throw a bomb in the cave mouth and leave, believing they'd buried us alive." 

McQueen thought of the tunnels that the Viet Cong had used during the Vietnam War and nodded slowly. It was probably the best possible plan ... if they holed up in the cave it would be impossible for the chigs to pick them up with infrared sensors on a flyover. It was only a temporary thing. As soon as the chigs figured out what was going on then, given enough time and effort, they could be flushed out of the caves. If they avoided notice, though, and if the system was retaken within a month or so, they should be all right. "Tell your people not to strip their houses to the walls. Leave behind things you can do without, try to make the places still look lived in. I want the chigs to think you vanished into thin air. I don't want a trail leading to the caves, the longer the chigs don't know you're in there the better off you'll be." 

Elder Elisha nodded. He was a lot more accustomed to giving advice than taking it, but common sense was common sense. 

<End Part Two>

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