Degrees of Guilt

Part Six -- by Becky Ratliff

See Disclaimer in Part One

The recon patrol had no trouble staying on the correct heading, all they had to do was watch which way the chig transports were going. That sent them scrambling for cover at frequent intervals, though, a flight of them went overhead every half hour or so. It got so they carried their camo tarps loosely rolled up, so they could spread them out and dive underneath whenever Hawkes or Damphousse heard engines. Well, West knew Damphousse couldn’t hear them any sooner than he could -- but she didn't want to let the Segers know about her abilities. If the Salemites had reacted that strongly to In Vitros, who knew what might happen if they found out they had a psychic in their midst!

West wasn’t prepared to like Danny Wolfe. Here was a guy who’d made it into the 127th -- the best of the best -- and then got himself dishonorably discharged from the Marine Corps for black marketeering. Wolfe had accepted money -- Aerotech’s money, yet -- to kill them and Amy. The man was undoubtedly every kind of a criminal in the book. The story of the ass-whipping Wolfe had gotten from McQueen before John had broken up the fight had to be one of the most satisfying accounts West had ever heard in his life. In fact, one of the main reasons he and Cooper had volunteered for the mission was to make sure nothing Wolfe might happen to do gave Vanessa any trouble.

West was finding it difficult to hold onto that attitude, though. Wolfe was cheerful company, continually volleying wisecracks back and forth with O’Donnell and the Segers. He kept a respectful, professional distance from the three Marines, though. They all had the same job to do, and he didn’t ask for more than that -- he knew their opinion of him and avoided inflaming the situation any further. So, except for the time spent huddling under the tarps while chig craft went over, they made steady progress all that morning.

Danny called a break about 1200, when they found a shallow cave along a stream-bank that was sufficient to give them good cover.

Damphousse took first watch, she traded around until she found a ration bar with almonds instead of peanuts and climbed up in the rocks until she found a good lookout. She had a good command of the stream in both directions from here, and she knew the tarp would blend in well with this background if she needed to duck and cover.

Mostly, though, it was a nice day to be out in the fresh air. After all these months on shipboard, she had learned to appreciate such simple pleasures. If she ever quit the Corps and returned to civilian life, she thought, she would put big patio doors in every room of her house, so she could open it all up to the sunshine and the breeze whenever she wanted.

She heard someone in the rocks and her head snapped around, it was Danny. "Sister Margaret made some hot tea, I brought you a thermos. It's made from an herb that grows here, it's really good. Most of the colonists like it better than coffee."

She took the container. "Thank you."

"If I was gonna settle down here, I'd build me a cabin right up there in that little hollow," he said.

Vanessa nodded. "That would be a good place. The colonists say you can fish here, and I'll bet this stream has a lot of good fishing holes. Danny, I'm not used to talking while I'm on guard duty."

"I'm not McQueen."

"You can say that again."

"You don't like me much, do you?" He sounded amused.

"Got it in one," she confirmed.

"Didn't your mama tell you that when you point one finger at someone else, you point three more at yourself?" He teased.

She looked up. "I never said I was a nice person, Danny, I just call it the way I see it."

"Maybe you don't know the whole story."

"You took a lot of Aerotech's money to murder Amy -- not to forget us, too! Just what else of the 'whole story' do I need to know to figure out the bottom line?"

"Maybe there ain't no bottom line. Maybe things don't happen to be as simple and clear cut as you think. I'd worked for Aerotech before, and maybe I've done some stuff -- but I never targeted Florence Nightingale or Mother Teresa, either! As far as Amy goes, when I knew that girl at Loxley way-back-when, she was a spoiled rich bitch. She really managed to mess TC's life up pretty bad! I didn't have any reason to nominate her for sainthood. If she could think better of things and try to do different, why can't I? You think these here Christian people are innocent, the way some of them want to treat John and the others? I sure don't.

They're not 'good' or 'bad', they're just people, a little of both. You're dividing people up into the innocent and the guilty. It ain't that simple. Nobody's innocent. There are just different degrees of guilt. You find me someone who's never fucked up, Lieutenant, and I'll let him pass judgment on me."

"What is it you want, anyhow?"

"You're a psi, right? Do you see any way I can get my people out of the mess we're in? Because, right now, the only thing I can see is, one of these days we're going to go out in a blaze of glory like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- we ain't goin' back."

"I'm not a fortune teller. It doesn't work that way. I sense an immediate danger, something that's about to happen to mess up my whole day. I don't have a crystal ball handy."

"It wouldn't kill you to try, would it?"

She took a deep breath. "All right, Danny. You keep watch while I do this, though, I can't concentrate on anything else at the same time. Just sit down and be quiet, it will be a little while before I'll know if it's going to work."

He nodded and took over guard duty, while Damphousse found a comfortable place to sit down. She was practicing a meditation technique that a Buddhist roommate had taught her in college. At first she had thought, to control her abilities, she would have to create some kind of order out of chaos. Instead, she had found that she had marginally more success at getting her unpredictable abilities to work when she could find a state of inner harmony, open to the patterns that already existed. Anyway, she didn't give herself a sore jaw anymore by trying.

Gradually, an image faded into focus. It was a beach on a sunny day, gulls wheeled and dived overhead. There were a line of footprints in the sand, she couldn't see who had made them but the waves were gradually washing them away.

Puzzled, she described the scene to Danny. "I don't have the slightest idea what it means, if it even means anything."

He nodded. "I know where it's from. I went walking on a beach like that the day I thought over whether or not to enlist in the Marine Corps."

"Maybe it means that somehow time is going to wipe out the trail you've left behind you and let you start over."

"Maybe so."

She looked for answers in his eyes. After a time she said, "Maybe you ought to just live in today and let tomorrow take care of itself. You're looking for guarantees, but I don't think we get any. I know I never did. Just ... whatever is good in this moment. But I swear to God, even if I'd known the price I was going to have to pay, I wouldn't have traded one day, one hour, one minute of the time Paul and I had...!" She shook her head, Danny didn't know who she was talking about. "Maybe the law will get you, but then again, maybe it won't, or maybe not for a long time yet. There's always going to be an edge of civilization now where there isn't a lot of law."

Danny nodded, that wasn't the answer he'd been hoping for but it was good sense.


The recon team knew they were nearing their destination when they started dodging chig patrols early the next morning. Hawkes was taking point when they got there, they could hear heavy earth-moving equipment from the other side of the hill. He stayed low in the rocks and brush until he got to the top of a ridge and looked over the other side into the valley below.

The others moved up to join him.

The chigs had cleared most of the valley. At one end was a rough airstrip, the kind of thing they'd seen on a dozen worlds. But at the other end was a tower at least one hundred meters in height, surrounded by a ring of power stations.

Hawkes asked, "Is that thing a plasma cannon?"

Damphousse said, "The biggest one I've ever seen -- but yes!" She stared through her binoculars.

West said, "The ones they found on Ixion were only good out to about 100 kilometers."

"Yes, but this one's twice that size, and who knows how much more efficient. Remember the hardest part is punching through the atmosphere. My best guess is, this one could probably hit anything in the sky." She swallowed. "They've probably placed these things at strategic locations so that their arcs of fire intersect, nothing's going to be able to get on-world if they're all operational."

Hawkes said, "The fleet will be sitting ducks for those things unless we do something about it!"

Wolfe asked, "How many fighters do you make down there?"

"Eighteen," Damphousse replied. "That would agree with what we heard back from Ixion, two squadrons on the ground for one in the air. We don't know how well armed those cargo planes are, surely they're better than our transports."

"Probably a thousand ground troops down there, if you count the construction crews," Wolfe said. "And I'm counting them, their suits look just like the grunts we've seen on patrol."

West asked, "How the hell are we going to knock that thing out?"

Damphousse said, "The easiest way would be to overload one of the power stations, the explosion should be enough to take out the plasma cannon. But I don't know how we're supposed to do that!"

West said, "I could fly in, nap of the rockball -- I could knock out a power station in one pass."

She nodded. "That's the problem, though. We don't want to just knock out the power station ... we've got to make sure it blows and takes the cannon with it."

Wolfe said, "Just photograph everything for now, this isn't the place to figure it out."

Brother Adam said, "Look at that piss-proud son of the devil down there, the one watching the rest work? I'll bet he's one of their leaders. I could hit him from here."

Danny said, "Hey, so could I, but don't get no ideas. The last thing we want to do is stir them up right now."

Adam said, "I wasn't saying I was going to, Brother Daniel -- but I wouldn't mind if I did!"

Wolfe seemed a little startled by that form of address. The kids Damphousse had been teaching to use the ISSCV sensors had started calling her Sister Vanessa and she was used to it -- it reminded her of her church back home. Danny laughed at what Adam had said, then he caught Damphousse' amused glance and shook his head.

That ridge was no place to hang around any longer than necessary.

(two days later)

Anita and Jimmy had watch that night up in the Crow's Nest. By then McQueen was getting restless with sitting around doing nothing, he decided to climb up there with them to see for himself what they'd all been talking about. Jimmy knew the way, but Anita hadn't been up there yet either.

They went up through a couple levels, and soon the cave turned dry. Below, where the water kept the rocks clean and sparkling, their lights revealed a wonderland of brilliant colors. Up here, everything was the same dull grayish-brown.

They climbed a rope ladder to the top of a sinkhole, and found themselves in what must have been the highest and oldest level of the cave. Anita gripped a flow-stone formation to swing herself up onto a shoulder-high ledge. What she had thought was solid rock came off in her hand. She swore and caught her balance.

Jimmy started forward, but McQueen stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "Wait a minute, son."


Anita handed Jimmy her pack and her rifle. "Just hold onto these a minute for me, Jimmy."

Mystified, he looked between them, and saw them exchanging a look that he couldn't begin to decipher. Nita's next actions left him no nearer an explanation, she carefully made her way up the ledges and handholds to the cave roof -- then unsheathed her Ka-bar and rapped it smartly on the rock up there, listening intently. Highly displeased with what she'd heard, she jammed her knife back in its sheath and jumped down beside them, landing like a cat. "Well, that's nice," she said.

McQueen nodded agreement.

Jimmy was beginning to suspect the two of them were playing a game of snipe hunt, and he was about to be asked to hold the bag. All the same, his curiosity got the better of him. "What was all that about?"

Nita said, "The rock talks to you."

"Yeah? What's it saying?"

"It sure sounded to me like it was saying, 'I'm gonna fall on your head the first chance I get.' "

McQueen said, "It's been a while, Lieutenant, but I'd have to agree with you. It sounded like bad rock to me, too. This all probably ought to be shored up, but we don't have the timbers to do that."

She nodded. "Yes, sir. Jimmy, the deal is, the ceiling isn't safe along here. Don't do anything to make noise. We don't know what might make it cave in, just like that sinkhole we climbed up earlier."

For the first time, it soaked in on Jimmy that TC and Nita had started their lives in places like this. The only reality they had known for years was hard stone all around them, and cold damp musty air. Even light had been a foreign thing. Before that moment, his indignation at the bigotry against In Vitroes had been an intellectual thing. Now, he felt a surge of blinding fury, that such conditions could exist in his world and "good people" could pretend not to see it. Never again. Not on his watch, anyway!

He returned Anita's gear and they continued, much more carefully now. Jimmy was afraid to touch anything, for fear of causing a cave-in.

When they got to the opening, it was late evening and nearly dark out. There were two teenage kids on guard duty there. They were tired and glad to be off duty. A young girl with brown hair and freckles said, "We saw lots more of those transports fly over. And something else, I think they were fighters. They had three wings, anyhow."

Jimmy took out his computer and pulled up a picture he'd grabbed from his gun camera's recording. "Like this?"

They nodded. "Yeah, that was them! Did you take that?" The other one, a boy maybe a year or two older asked.

Jimmy nodded, and answered quietly, "That was the first one I shot down."

Both kids gave him a wide eyed stare. "Wow!" The girl exclaimed.

He didn't tell them he'd been so scared he hadn't stopped shaking until they'd gotten halfway back to the Sara.

McQueen said, "Listen up, kids, we're going to have to go back the long way around. There's a place back there where the tunnel isn't safe, so we’re going to have to make for the next nearest entrance before it gets dark. Lieutenants, you’ll be relieved at dawn.”

Neither of them was particularly pleased with a double watch, but Jimmy was just as glad he didn’t have to go back through that unsafe passage.

The kids identified themselves as Magdalene and Luke, they were brother and sister. At fifteen, Luke was already married and soon to be a father, his concern was the safety of his wife and unborn child. Maggie, on the other hand, had her eyes on the stars. She had spent her life hanging around the traders whenever they stopped here. She planned to get off New Jerusalem the first chance she got.

The kids said the nearest way back into the caves was a couple kilometers away. They led the way through a thick forest, it was already very dark under the trees.

Suddenly, Maggie stopped so abruptly that McQueen almost ran into her. He steadied her with a hand on her shoulder. "What is it?"

"S-shambler," she said, wide-eyed. "Down there, that lump in the middle of those rocks -- it isn't supposed to be there! It's got to be a shambler. Nothing else is that big." She took a shell from her belt and loaded her shotgun.

McQueen's visor gave him an entirely different picture. It was the back of a chig helmet. "Get off the trail, into the rocks, now."

They did as they were told.

Maggie whispered, "Once they get your scent--"

"It isn't a shambler, Maggie. This visor amplifies the light, so I can see in the dark. There are several chigs down there."

"What do we do? Go back?" Luke asked.

McQueen considered. If the chigs tried to get up to the Crow's Nest, there was no way that Jimmy and Anita wouldn't spot them in plenty of time to prepare a reception. On the other hand, if he and the kids tried to get back up there, the odds were they'd be spotted on the trail. He didn't know how the chigs hadn't already seen them before now. "Just sit tight, let's see which way they go."

He counted six chigs in the patrol. Three of them followed the trail up the mountain, and the other three went the way they were going. McQueen told the kids calmly, "They should go right past us, Avery and Moore will take care of them. We'll worry about the others. But if they do spot us, I have the first one, then Luke, you take the next one. Maggie, don't waste a shot on the other one unless they're close by, one of us will get him otherwise. You'd have to be right on top of one of them to punch through his armor with that shotgun -- but at short range you'd blow a hole you could put your fist through."

She nodded. Luke chambered a round in his ancient hunting rifle. It looked like a large enough round to take a chig down with one shot. The boy checked to make sure he had a reload handy, and ran his hand over the hilt of his survival knife. McQueen compressed his lips into a thin line at that, he sure hoped the situation didn't go far enough to hell that this kid ended up going hand to hand with some chig.

The first three went by, and around a bend in the trail. McQueen said, "Okay, here's what we're going to do. I'm going to go first and check things out. You two stay back, and watch our six -- behind us, in case the chigs double back. Don't shoot unless you have to, we don't want anyone to hear the gunfire."

They nodded. McQueen followed the chigs down the hill, he knew they weren't too far ahead and it didn't take him long to get them in sight. When it became obvious they were going to spot the cave opening, he waited until they got inside.

He expected a fight to break out as soon as the chigs stepped inside, but the aliens got well into the tunnel before Kenny popped up over a rock and shot one. The young man had the sense to fall back and let them get far enough underground that their radio transmission would be blocked. McQueen took out another one from behind, and they had the last one in a crossfire.

They were making sure of the chigs when they heard shooting and yelling from outside. Both men broke into a run back the way they'd come. They found Maggie and Luke pinned down outside the cave mouth by a large number of chigs. Just as they got there, a couple of them tried to rush the kids' position. Luke took a wild shot that somehow hit the first one, the other chig thought better of it and took cover behind a tree.

The chigs opened up on the kids' position, plasma bolts exploded all around them. Maggie had taken McQueen's advice to heart, she had been keeping her head down and waiting for an enemy to get close enough for her shotgun to do some good. When the shooting started, she ducked further down with her arm over her head, but stayed where she was at.

A bolt exploded close enough to Luke to blister his arm, he let out a scared yell and ran for the cave mouth. Maggie screamed, "Luke, you IDIOT!!" She ran after him, firing a wild shotgun blast in the chigs' direction that served somehow to get her and Luke to the cave mouth in one piece.

McQueen grabbed Luke and pulled him to cover. He could feel the kid shaking. "Luke, are you okay? What did you think you were doing, you could've got yourself killed!"

The boy shook his head, too frightened to answer, and Maggie turned around with fire in her eyes, ready to jump to her brother's defense.

Damn. The boy had panicked the first time he'd come up against massed fire, something any green recruit was likely to do. There was no sense in scolding a kid when a grown man was just as likely to have done the same thing. "You're okay now, Luke, do you hear me? Maggie, get him behind you there."

The chigs followed the kids into the cave, overconfident and careless because they obviously considered a couple of panicked red stinklets no real threat. They were more than a little surprised to find a couple of Marines waiting for them as well. McQueen had an eye on the kids, but this time, Luke kept his nerve when the shooting started. Between them, Maggie didn't flinch when McQueen's rifle went off six inches from her ear. She just waited, sighting down the barrel of her shotgun, and when one of the chigs got close enough she let him have it. She reloaded the shotgun, kicked the spent shell out of the way and waited for another target. By then the survivors had beaten a quick retreat down the path and back into the woods.

McQueen examined Luke's burned arm, it was blistering badly.

Luke said, "Sorry --"

"That can happen to anyone the first time you're in the middle of something like that, son. That's what basic training is for. Now you know -- you won't do that again."

"No, sir!"

McQueen put some gel on it for now, that would control the pain somewhat until the kids could get back to camp. He told them, "Get back as quick as you can and get this taken care of. Maggie, tell Major Vansen what's happening. Be sure and tell her about that tunnel! Lucas, where's Waite?"

"I sent him back to warn the camp, sir."

"Good, you're with me. There were more of them headed for Avery and Moore's position."


Avery had taken first watch, Moore was taking a rest. Avery spotted the chigs coming and said, "Hey, we’ve got company here! Chigs!"

She joined him at the opening. As they watched, about 100 meters away three chigs coming up the path were met by several more who came around the side of the mountain. One of them pointed directly at the cave opening. Moore said, "Damn it. They must have realized there was a cave here!"

Avery gulped. "Go back and warn the others."

Moore shook her head. "That's your job, kid."

They looked at each other, they both knew whoever stayed behind to delay the chigs faced some pretty long odds of getting out of it. Avery pulled out a coin. "Call it in the air, loser stays." He flipped it, and Moore called, "Heads." The coin came up tails.

She said, "Remember not to make any noise going through that bad section."

"Yeah. Nita--"

Moore gripped his shoulder for a moment, then smiled. "Get out of here, college boy."

"I'll come back for you." They both knew they could take that to the bank.

Moore dropped back from the entrance to a place she'd spotted earlier, a little hollow behind a column big enough for her to duck behind. She killed her light, pulled down her visor, and sighted in on the cave mouth. No damn chig ever hatched was going to be her equal down in a dark tunnel!

The chigs approached cautiously, but that didn't do the first three very much good. That was how many she was able to take down before the rest scattered to cover, she flattened back against the wall as crisscross plasma beams filled the tunnel. Where ever the beams hit, shards of rock exploded like shrapnel. She just waited in her hiding place until the chigs quit wasting shots and decided to move up. They were firing as they advanced, but there was enough cover that she was able to put some distance between them.

<End Part Six>

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