Lost Colony Ch. 14-3

It was still predawn when at last the electric lights of the Odysseus camp twinkled before him.

***

“I’m not fucking waiting anymore,” Sparr muttered. A thousand things might yet go wrong with his plan. He no longer cared. They could go wrong the next day, or right now. He scrambled another half kilometer south until he found the stream which became the camp’s water source. Working quickly before dawn could expose him, Sparr undressed and slipped on the evacuation suit he had taken from the sub. He stashed his clothes and the survival kit. Taking only the waterproof case and the small bundle that Brielle had pressed into his hand a week prior, he eased into the water.

Even protected by the evacuation suit, the water chilled him. “This is easy,” Sparr told himself as he floated toward the camp. “You’ve submerged for longer than this in water just as cold, and without the suit.” He periodically dunked his head, hoping to present a minimal thermal profile. The airspace over the camp would be swarming with drones. The farther he got before being detected the better his chances.

Ahead, the camp perimeter emerged from the gloom. Sparr could make out fencing carefully camouflaged to look like native growth. Both outside the fencing and within, he knew, stun turrets waited to neutralize any threat. Before he got too close, Sparr activated the CESA function of the evacuation suit. He dove.

CESA stood for Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent, a SCUBA self-rescue skill taught on Earth. In the case of the Sea Otter, the evacuation suit contained a simple respirator and a modest oxygen supply intended to aid self-rescue when a lungful of air wasn’t enough. Sparr sucked in a breath and swam along the bottom of the stream.

The Odysseus engineers had been careful. The stream didn’t just flow freely into the camp, it passed through bars sunk below the level of the water. But they had missed something. A rock had stopped the bars before they quite reached the bottom. Sparr tugged at the rock, then pushed it, twisting against the half-buried mass. He drew in another lungful of air and tried again. The suit wasn’t designed for sustained use. At most he had another minute of air. Sparr gave another hard push. At last, grudgingly, the rock shifted. Before the bars could settle deeper, Sparr wriggled under and kicked free of the gate. He was in. The camp, his goal for the past year, was awaiting just above the waves.

He dared not surface. Instead, Sparr conserved his breath, allowing the stream to pull him farther into the camp. He concentrated, trying to recollect the layout of the camp as he had seen it from the air car. The command center should be to his left, just less than halfway into the camp. Sparr drifted for another thirty seconds, then, just as the suit ran out of air, he crawled to the bank of the stream.

“Shiiit,” Sparr muttered softly. Nothing looked familiar. Instead of coming out near the command center, he had crawled from the stream on the outskirts of a residential area. Rows of low-slung dormitories stood before him, an athletic field behind. He hadn’t floated nearly far enough into the compound. He began to weave his way through the housing, but it was dawn and a man in a dripping evacuation suit drew attention. A woman he didn’t recognize appeared from a doorway, carrying an armful of clothing. She froze when she saw Sparr, her eyes blinking as if he was part of a dream she had yet to shake. A man sipping coffee stared at him with a flicker of recognition.

From somewhere an alarm chirped, one of the drones announcing an intruder in the camp. Sparr picked up his pace, darting between buildings and the trivia of camp life – chairs, storage bins, and debris containers. He was lost and short on time. More figures appeared, ghostly in the still-dim morning light. A couple gawked at him from an open window. “Isn’t that-” the man began, but Sparr was already past them. Where was the command center?

There! A landscaped central plaza led from the residential zone toward more official looking buildings. Two hundred yards of exposed space. He couldn’t make it. He had to. Sparr ran, as more alarms went off behind him. A year of fighting, flight, and survival came down to a sprint.

“Intruder!” Kevin stepped from one of the side buildings, energy pistol drawn. Two drones dropped from the sky to flank him, obedient pets. “He’s armed!”

Kevin wouldn’t let Sparr live, couldn’t take the risk. Whatever he and Calista had done to frame Sparr might not hold up. The man would put a bullet in his brain rather than take the chance. As he ran, Sparr fumbled at the small bundle Brielle had given him. It will hurt, she had warned him.

The drones lit, their sensors training on Sparr. Kevin raised his pistol. Sparr squeezed the bundle. The world tore apart.

In his hand, the tiny creature that Sparr had carried with him for a week sang out a sweet, shrill song. The drones went dark, falling to the ground, lifeless chunks of metal and glass. Pain erupted in Sparr’s neck and ear, his implant going haywire, dying with a shriek.

“Fuuuck,” Kevin screamed. Like Sparr, he clutched at his ear frantically, fingers digging uselessly against his own flesh. The EMP emitted by the tiny creature had a limited area, but it was enough.

Disoriented from the pain, Sparr staggered forward. Seconds earlier the space had been lit by a row of lights. Now they were dark. The faint hum of machinery, air handlers and power converters, had died. It was silent. He didn’t break stride, closing the gap between him and Kevin as quickly as possible. Kevin raised his pistol, pulled the trigger, and stared dumbly as nothing happened. Sparr crashed into him.

The men fell to the ground in different directions, Kevin to his back with a thud, while Sparr stumbled to the side before dropping. Pain seared through him, the still tender lacerations on his shoulder reminding him that it had only been two weeks since the air car crash. Sparr hauled himself to his feet, already looking for the door to the command center. It must be the building at the very end of the path. He lurched forward.

Kevin’s kick slammed into his back, missing the spine, but knocking Sparr forward and sending another wave of pain through him. Sparr drew in a ragged breath and turned. Kevin was already charging him. Sparr threw a punch but Kevin blocked it with tidy, martial arts expertise before landing a punch of his own. Sparr grunted, stumbling back.

The two fought, mostly Sparr trying to get close enough to land a punch while Kevin efficiently blocked and jabbed back. Sparr was taller and stronger, but was injured. Plus, Kevin had trained in martial arts. Sparr had watched him in matches, his style carefully calculated to avoid taking hits. Kevin would dance and feint, keeping clear of his opponent until he saw an opening.

Sparr took another blow, a kick to his shoulder which he only partially deflected. Kevin smiled, noticing Sparr’s sharp reaction to the blow. He shifted his strategy, now circling to attack Sparr’s right side. With another good kick he might be able to disable Sparr’s arm.

The strategy presented an opportunity for Sparr. He threw a punch, then lowered his arms, ready to shift his weight. Kevin spun, throwing his weight into a kick aimed high. Sparr was ready. Before the blow arrived he was already leaning into it, clutching at Kevin’s leg while driving his own weight forward. He absorbed the kick with a grunt, but latched onto Kevin’s calf. For a moment the two teetered precariously, but Sparr’s greater weight and momentum carried him forward. He drove Kevin against the ground, twisting his knee against the packed soil.

Kevin hissed in pain. He thrashed, trying to free himself, then thrashed again, this time pulling his leg clear. It was too late. Sparr loomed above him, his greater strength and weight once again an advantage. He punched, knocking away his opponent’s flailing arm.

Anger and pain welled up in Sparr. “This,” he said, cracking his fist against Kevin’s nose. “Is.” He punched the man’s neck. “For.” Another punch to the face. “Bogg!” Sparr’s final blow slammed into Kevin’s jaw, snapping his neck to one side and sending a spray of blood into the air. The man lay still, breathing, but unconscious. Sparr staggered to his feet.

The altercation had drawn attention to the little plaza, Alliance crew emerging from their homes or workspaces. Before more security could arrive, Sparr grabbed the waterproof case and bolted toward the command center. He burst inside.

To Sparr’s enormous relief, Captain Fowler was an early riser. He stood at an augmented reality worktable, alongside the mission’s chief anthropologist, Melissa Carpenter. Both looked up, at first in annoyance with the intrusion, then with incredulous expressions. “Alain fucking Sparr,” Fowler said.

“Yeah,” Sparr said, his voice ragged with exertion. “Sorry I’m late.”

“Shit!” A junior officer who had been hanging back pulled his pistol.

“No,” Sparr said, raising his hands. “Please, I’m unarmed. And whatever you think I’ve done, whatever you’ve been told, I didn’t do it.”

“In all my days,” Carpenter muttered. She began to back away, looking nervously between Sparr and Fowler. Another security specialist burst through the door, adding to the number of pistols aimed at Sparr.

“Search him.” Captain Fowler was addressing the security specialist, but his eyes were locked on Sparr.

The specialist patted Sparr down, and waved a detector over the baggy evacuation suit. She examined the waterproof case, pulling out the gene sequencer and bundle of DNA strips. “He’s clean,” she said, “but Kevin is down. Just outside.”

“Happner?” Fowler raised his eyebrows. “You must really have wanted to see me.”

“Yes, it’s pretty important. I’d like permission to do my job.”

“Your job,” Fowler said, flatly. “You finally, after a year, want to start analyzing the planet’s plant and animal life?”

“I’ve already started, but yeah, I’d like access to my equipment, the lab aboard the Odysseus. I have data I’m ready to-“

“Whoa, slow down,” Fowler cut in. “You aren’t going back aboard my ship. When you leave this room you’ll be escorted to a cell.”

“I told you,” Sparr said. “I don’t know exactly what I’m accused of, but I didn’t do it.”

“Accused of?” Fowler shook his head in amazement. “Here’s what you’re accused of.” He whispered a command to his implant before directing Sparr’s attention to a screen. There was no sound, but the video which played next didn’t really need it. The first scene showed Sparr loping through the corridors of the Odysseus, seemingly in a hurry. In the next clip he stopped at an emergency rendezvous point. Next, Sparr could clearly be seen entering one of the escape pods. In the final clip, taken from a camera outside the ship, the pod blasted out into space.

Sparr’s heart sank. “That was a game,” he said weakly.

“You and I have different ideas about games then,” Fowler said bitterly. “That stunt, the alarm you triggered, turned the first half of this mission into a complete clusterfuck.”

Tracee had already shared the details of the Odysseus’s arrival. The false alarm resulted in most of the crew emerging prematurely from cryo-sleep. The accelerated arrival protocol hadn’t gone smoothly.

“I mean it’s a game we played during our tour of the Odysseus. Your game,” Sparr continued.

“I didn’t authorize any games! The Odysseus is a science vessel, not a playground.” Fowler had, during mission preparation, always shown a tolerant side. That trait must have burned away during the difficult arrival.

“It was Kevin. He gave us each a list of places to visit on the ship.” Sparr began to realize how hollow the claim sounded, but he forged ahead. “The clips from the video, they’re all places Kevin directed me to.”

“Kevin Happner? Your friend?”

“We’re not friends.”

“I can confirm that,” the security specialist said. “Looks like Alain rang his bell pretty good out there.”

Fowler ignored her. “So what other non-friends played this game?”

“Calista Brandt and Tracee Rask.”

Fowler’s expression darkened. “Well, Rask is another one we’ve lost track of, but Brandt is around. We can confirm with her, or are you going to tell me she was in on it, too?”

“Well, yes, in fact.”

“Oh, for the love, Sparr!” Fowler threw up his hands. “The absolute worst-kept secret on this mission was that you and Ms. Brandt were having a fling. Now you’re telling me she and Happner are both out to get you?”

“They’re working together, yes. How long has it been since we arrived? Has it been one year yet?”

“Two days ago.”

Sparr cursed inwardly, doing quick math in his head. It would be achingly close. “And did Calista already file a claim against the biological rights on Kaybe?”

Fowler said nothing for several seconds. Was he already putting the pieces together? “It’s been more than a year, Sparr. She’s perfectly within her rights to do so.”

Fowler was referring to the way that Alliance contracts were written. When a corporation such as K2 Genetics purchased the rights to a planet’s resources they had one year from the time their representatives reached the planet to make a claim. If it took longer than that, the rights would no longer be exclusive. Anyone could make a claim.

“Well don’t you think it’s suspicious that she was ready to go on day one? I mean, K2 Mineral isn’t supposed to be looking for DNA. Why would she be so ready to make a claim? Why did she even have the equipment to collect DNA in the first place?”

Before Fowler could respond, Calista burst into the room. Her eyes located Sparr immediately. “I heard you’d come skulking back.” She turned to Fowler. “Why isn’t this man in chains?”

The Captain eyed Calista coolly. “I’ll take Mr. Sparr into custody when I determine it is time to do so.” He kept his eyes on hers. “May I ask if you have a personal interest here?”

Calista stiffened. “Well, yes,” she said carefully. “I mean, not a personal interest, but that of my employer.”

“Right,” Fowler said. “Your genetic claim on the behalf of K2 Mineral.”

Only an infinitesimal nod hinted that Calista had even heard him.

“Ms. Brandt, would it surprise you that Mr. Sparr here has been telling some interesting stories?”

“No, it wouldn’t,” Calista said quickly. “Don’t believe a word this man says. We all know the charges against him. He’d say anything to slither free.”

“Were you and Mr. Sparr in an intimate relationship prior to the Odysseus’s arrival at Kaybe?”

“I don’t understand these questions,” Calista said. She was rallying. “Am I on trial here?”

Fowler shrugged, allowing a note of fatigue into his expression. “No one’s on trial here, Calista.” He rubbed his eyes. “But I have a mission to run, a ship in orbit, and hundreds of personnel depending on me. This is one distraction I’d like to put behind me as quickly as possible. Do you agree?”

“Absolutely!” Calista said, with just a touch of posturing. “Whatever is best for the Odysseus, and for Earth.”

“And what about you, Mr. Sparr? Feel like getting this done?”

Sparr nodded. “I just want to get back to work.”

“Okay,” Fowler said. He spoke into his implant. “Legal, Comms, get to command. This is Fowler.”

For several minutes the group remained mostly static, Calista pretended to be confidently indifferent, while Sparr tried to ignore the guns pointed at him. Captain Fowler found a cup of coffee. It wasn’t until the new arrivals showed up that the dynamic in the room changed.

Sparr recognized Charlotte Li immediately. The willowy, almost severe communications officer carried herself with unflinching style and grace. Her greying hair was carefully trimmed, voice precise, and attire unfailingly glamorous.

Kabir Bhatt was more of a mystery. The plump chief counsel gave off an aura of serene contentment, but little more. Sparr had no idea if he might be an ally or hindrance.

“Kabir, Charlotte,” Fowler began. “Thank you for joining us. I believe you both know Calista Brandt, the mission specialist from K2 Mineral. And perhaps you will remember our long-missing mission specialist from K2 Genetics, Alain Sparr.”

Both of the new arrivals nodded carefully, their eyes lingering on Sparr. He knew he would be an object of interest, especially so given his unkempt appearance and battered frame. What, he wondered, would they see in him? Was he a violent brute, or a victim? He wondered that himself sometimes.

Fowler provided background, then began to question Charlotte Li, the communications officer. “Charlotte, I understand you’ve received a transmission packet from Ms. Brandt.”

“That is correct,” Charlotte said, consulting her data pad. Her posture was perfect, the lines of her suit crisp. “Two days ago.”

“Do you know what the packet contains?”

“No. The data are encrypted. However, the packet was labeled ‘K2-136-b Genetic Sweep’. I can surmise that the packet contains DNA from this planet.”

“Right,” Fowler said. “How much DNA is represented in the packet? How many different species?”

Li pursed her lips. “I’m not certain. I would have to research how much data it takes to represent a single species.”

“Two gigabytes,” Sparr said. “There is some variation, but two gigs is a good average.”

Li eyed him, but didn’t seem to take offense. “That’s less than I would have guessed,” she admitted, before returning her gaze to Fowler. “Assuming what Mr. Sparr says is true, the data packet contains tens of thousands of species.”

Sparr sucked in his breath, startled by the number.

“It’s mostly bacteria and insects, I’m sure,” Calista said. “We weren’t intentionally collecting DNA.”

“And how does one accidentally collect tens of thousands of DNA samples if you’re looking for rocks?” Sparr asked.

“Minerals,” Calista shot back, her face tight.

Fowler raised his hand, asking for quiet. “Fine. Now, Kabir, the Alliance contract written for K2 Genetics, does it have a one year exclusionary limit?”

Bhatt rocked forward, smiling blandly. “Yes.”

When the chief counsel added nothing more, Fowler continued. “So as of two days ago anyone could submit a claim against Kaybe genetic material?”

“After one year anyone may submit a claim.”

Fowler grimaced, clearly vexed. “Is that a ‘yes’? Can anyone, as of two days ago, submit a claim?”

Bhatt’s expression stiffened somewhat. “That is a broad question. I would need a specific example in order to offer counsel.”

“I thought I had provided… oh, never mind.” Fowler rubbed his face. “So Li, are you ready to send the packet?”

“Wait, wait,” Calista broke in. “I submitted that packet two days ago and you haven’t sent it yet?” She was incredulous.

Li smiled at Calista with icy politeness. “Ms. Brandt, I run communications for this mission. Your packet is quite large, and subspace bandwidth is limited. Your data will be transmitted in turn, if that pleases you. In any event, a universal timestamp was placed on the packet the moment you submitted it. Whether it takes another minute or another week, the legal record will reflect the time it was received, not just when it was transmitted.”

While Calista choked back her indignation, Fowler continued. “So, this is where we stand. Legal counsel is surprisingly reticent on the matter, but it has been more than three hundred and sixty-five days since we arrived. Ms. Brandt has a packet of DNA sequences ready to transmit, but Mr. Sparr has raised doubts about the conditions under which she has obtained those data. So the question for Mr. Sparr is, do you have any concrete objection, or can we send the data and move on?”

Sparr was ready. “I maintain my objections about how the data were collected,” he began. “I don’t believe Ms. Brandt and her partner Mr. Happner have acted within the law, or even within the boundaries of human decency. Given sufficient time I believe I could make my case that they have actively attempted to subvert Alliance law, not to mention trying to kill me. However, in the interest of what is best for Earth, I won’t object to sending the DNA packet.”

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