Research Vessel Ganymede
(12 hours later)
“Commander, Probe Seven just went black,” Emmons said, his voice hard. “That’s the second one we’ve lost.”
Ramirez was slightly ruffled by Emmons’ last comment. It was unnecessary. He knew what the probe mortality count was perfectly well. He decided to ignore the wisecrack this time. “That one was one the two probes on the western continent, correct?”
“Yes, sir,” Emmons answered flatly.
“At least one of them made it,” Ramirez said in a low voice. At his work station on the command bridge Emmons rolled his eyes in irritation.
There were now fifteen probes on the main continent, including the one already with Dr. Mitra, all heading for his location. The three other surviving probes were still en route from the barren eastern continent and would not arrive for another ten hours - if they managed to survive the large dirt storms that had sprung up at the northern tip of the continent, directly in the path they would need to take before crossing the sea to the central continent.
Ramirez continued pacing the command bridge as he had done for the past six hours. Other than routine chatter between the bridge officers and the hourly reports from Koushik very little was said.
At his station, Emmons inwardly chafed while he watched invaluable probes being lost in a fruitless search that went completely against the pre-launch mission guidelines set down - guidelines that he had a large part in writing up. Yes, Garland and SciCom had ceased all probe operations weeks ago, but now Ramirez was using Command hardware - exorbitantly expensive and highly advanced hardware at that - in some personal, quasi-chivalrous quest to find a renegade scientist who had no business going down to Chiron in the first place. It troubled him to no end as he watched his immediate superior break the rules in order to save two other officers whose actions had broken those very same rules. Quite frankly it was pathetic.
* * * * * * * *
As he did every hour, Ramirez quickly walked back to his quarters for Dr. Mitra’s update. There was still nothing to report. He and Ramirez would then go their separate ways until the next hour brought them together again. On and on the cycle continued, hour after hour.
Koushik had refused to sleep until he found some trace of the missing Dr. McKibben. Ramirez knew Koushik could go days without sleep but he had a feeling that guilt was playing a more prominent role in his determination. Dr. McKibben had gone missing while Koushik was snoozing on a pile of leaves and he felt it his duty to remain vigilant even to his personal detriment. After nearly two days Koushik had been unable to find any trace of Dr. McKibben other than the discarded pear. Not even a footprint.
Koushik had fashioned a makeshift machete from a piece of discarded metal he had found and was slowly hacking his way further into the Gaian greenhouse-forest where he strongly felt Dr. McKibben would be found. He exertions were using his remaining oxygen containers up at a much higher rate than Dr. McKibben would have approved but Koushik never gave it so much as a thought. He would continue chipping away through this overgrowth until Ganymede had no more lifepods left to send him.
* * * * * * * *
Rhona’s eyes slowly opened to a blurry, distorted world. She found her thoughts distant and unfocused as if she had awaken from a long, deep sleep. There were no traces of ghastly nightmarish images upon her awakening, however, and she became alert much quicker this time. They could have made it uncomfortable for me if they had wanted to. I wonder why they didn’t? Then again, if these “tests” they are running don’t reveal whatever it is they are looking for, then I’m sure they’ve saved the best for last.
She was lying on a long table tilted back about thirty degrees from the vertical, her wrists and ankles once again tightly bound. The room was fairly small and rectangular in shape. Numerous medical devices and terminals of all shapes and sizes were placed neatly around the sterile space. A lab of some sort.
Rhona craned her neck to look down the length of the room then blinked with a start. Standing at the far end next to the only door in the room was the rifleman who so eagerly wanted to place her into this “punishment sphere” he mentioned. She knew it was the same person because of the the way he gripped his weapon and how he flexed his fingers. But what really surprised her was the youthful, almost boyish, face scowling back at her, quite a contrast to the strong, resolute voice she had heard earlier. His attempt to appear intimidating barely dented his soft features.
“So,” Rhona exhaled. “We meet at last. What’s your name?”
The rifleman stared stright ahead in grim silence, his flaring nostrils the only indication he had heard her. Rhona shrugged her eyebrows and looked around the room. Idle chatter may soften that exterior, she thought. “Some interesting equipment here. I think I can actually recognize some of it - not that different in appearance from what we have on Earth - nor in function, I suppose.” She nodded in approval. “Quite intriguing.”
A haughty sniff from the young rifleman was the only reply Rhona got. Clearly she was not going to get anywhere with this young man by chatting about laboratory utensils. She decided to stop talking to him for the moment, temporarily abandoning hope of culling some nugget of information from this Spartan-like adolescent...
A light went off in her head. If this youngster is cast in the Spartan mold, or he fancies himself one, then he won’t want to talk about mundane topics like laboratories or the gadgets that fill them. He’ll want to talk about the gadgets of war, combat tactics, conflict, weapons...
Rhona continued turning her head appearing to examine her surroundings. When she spoke again her voice was casual, as if she were merely talking to herself. “That weapon you used on me in the greenhouse was quite effective. Ghastly to be honest. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such intense terror in all my life.” She made a point to not look at the young rifleman but nonchalantly worked her searching gaze toward his location. She noticed from her periphery that she may have gotten a reaction from him. She ignored it and pressed on in a low tone but loud enough for the rifleman to hear.
“I would assume it to be some sort of...psionic weapon? Yes, probably so. A psionic weapon that causes abject terror in the victim - ah! - a technology most likely based on Chiron’s mindworms! I remember reading reports about the terror they wrought for several years after planetfall. Thousands of deaths. Waking nightmares so intense the victim would often literally tear themselves apart with their bare hands while the worms bore into them.” She gently shook as if chilled. “Terrifying and effective.”
The young rifleman mumbled something in an incoherent, reluctant tone. Rhona purposely did not answer for a few seconds, then spun her head toward him with an innocent, questioning expression. “I’m sorry...did you say something?”
“I said we only used a quarter of the total frequency on you.” The words tumbled from his mouth in a rush but the young man kept his eyes rigidly forward, refusing to look at her.
Rhona slowly nodded her head in understanding and to mask any visual traces on her face regarding her success at cracking this young man’s belligerent veneer. “You say that as one who has witnessed others reacting to this weapon the same way I did but at higher frequencies.”
The young man remained rigid but his eyes narrowed as he spoke. “Spartans can withstand up to ninety percent of the total frequency.” He blinked once. “The - other factions - could endure around fifty to sixty percent. If well trained.”
“Interesting,” Rhona said softly. Interesting that this young Spartan grudgingly mentioned the capabilities of other factions. From what I have researched Spartans were loathe to give credit to any faction as related to fighting capabilities. Spartans thought themselves the only true warriors on Chiron. “You must think me weak after observing my reaction to your psionic weapon.”
A corner of the Spartan’s mouth twitched, his eyes remaining cool and unreadable. “All spies are weaklings. They have no idea what constitutes a true soldier. They are trained vermin, sneaking into whatever place their gutless leaders tell them to go so those leaders can then come in and take by force what they believe is theirs. Spies are afraid to fight for what they believe in because they have no beliefs. They merely react to what they have been told. They have no honor.”
Rhona, watching the youth speak, said nothing in reply. The words he had spoken did not faze him in the slightest. He did not twitch, or shudder, or raise his voice hysterically. He spoke the words clearly, confidently, as if they were the ultimate truth. Rhona thought she understood the Spartan mindset from what she had uncovered from Chiron’s archives, but seeing it tangibly displayed in this young man had left her feeling somber, even a tad melancholy.
“And you continue to believe I am a spy,” Rhona said evenly. She dropped her head. “I don’t know how many times I have to tell you people - I am not a spy.” She looked at the Spartan with steely eyes. “And just because some decide not to use conflict or battle as a first option it does not make them weak. Neither does it stain their honor. I would argue there is more honor in conflict resolution than in resorting to battle, or war, or whatever you want to label it.”
For the first time the young Spartan looked at Rhona, his eyes cold and piercing. “Then you are not only a weakling but a fool. In battle, your enemy must be defeated, not entertained with meaningless platitudes. If battle is joined it must be to the end, not until it becomes inconvenient for the side that takes the most losses.”
Rhona was becoming troubled by the the young Spartan’s demeanor. She could clearly sense his animosity toward her, specifically what she represented. She and Commander Ramirez had spent many hours over the course of the Ganymede mission hashing out the age old “peace-versus-war” discussion, but Ramirez had never once made Rhona feel like this. He had never been this rigid in his thinking. She decided to continue engaging this Spartan - to attempt to dialouge with him as she would with her commander - but deep down she felt it was a lost cause. With this Spartan, or with any Spartan, there seemed to be very little quid pro quo.
“Seeking peace is not meaningless,” Rhona said in a clear voice. “Right-thinking leads to right-action and most conflicts are begun for misguided or wrong reasons.”
The young Spartan sneered. “Do you bother to read Earth history, woman? It is a story of struggle and conflict. No hope or help whatsoever is accrued from those who are willing to roll over and die. Those that do deserve no pity. They should be allowed to die. It is the only way to ensure survival for the strong and worthy.”
Rhona frowned. “And who gets to decide who is strong and worthy? You? The Spartans? By what criteria do you get to become both judge and jury?”
“It is the law of nature!” shouted the young Spartan. “It is survival of the fittest. I will not paint a word picture for you!”
Rhona’s mouth hung open in disbelief, eyes beginning to glitter in anger at the imbecile that stood before her. “The law of nature?” Rhona said mockingly. “Your perverted notions of the actual law of nature is nothing more than a man made play on words by which men justify warring with one another! Statesmanship and diplomacy are just as effective, even moreso in most circumstances, than any weapon could ever be. Sound use of it is the basis for strong and true leadership!”
Anger had nearly reached critical mass in the Spartan as well. “And will your words protect you from the attacks of the armies of your sworn enemy? An enemy bathed in the strength of the trained warrior instead of the puerile diplomat?” The young Spartan spat on the ground as though casting out an impurity from his body. “Which of these strengths will prevail?”
Rhona let out a long breath, her eyes never leaving those of the Spartan. “In the short run, your way may prevail.” The young Spartan straightened himself, his smug, boyish face awash in apparent victory. “But in the long run, my way will prevail. Because when you have conquered all of your external enemies, real and imagined, and set yourselves up as rulers of your own destiny there will come a time when you will be compelled to seek out other enemies to battle. You will begin seeing enemies all around you, even within your own house - enemies that are not actually there.”
Rhona leaned her head toward the Spartan and her voice became grave. “You will eventually tear yourselves apart from within until there is no one left to fight - until there are no more bogeymen found hiding in dark places - until there are no more dragons left to slay. Your glorious society will no longer exist because it refused to acknowledge the real laws of nature and of reason - that human beings must strive for peace through co-existence. Otherwise human beings themselves will no longer exist. Not even the mighty Spartans.”
The young Spartan’s haughty demeanor disappeared in a flash. Rhona noticed the young man’s grip had tightened on his rifle, the weapon’s business end now pointing squarely at her. “The Spartans would survive,” he growled. “They fight against injustice - against oppression and tyranny. They fight for their way of life and against anyone who dare take that from them. They are warriors and not the simple minded infants you describe them to be.”
Rhona cast an aggravated, despairing glance at the ceiling, then looked back at the young man. “To a man, the Spartans may not be. But from talking with you their mindset truly is.”
In the blink of an eye the young Spartan charged at Rhona screaming at the top of his lungs, weapon now raised in the air, poised to come smashing down on her head. Rhona caught a glimpse of the young man’s face as he rushed toward her, his soft features grotesquely distorted by his wild eyes and gaping mouth, then she tightly shut her eyes and turned away preparing herself for the blow that was about to come. The sound of rushing blood in her ears helped drown out the cries of the charging Spartan.
At about the time Rhona expected her brain to be crushed by the rifle butt she heard a strong, loud voice exclaim “ Holden! Stop!”