Sample PagesAlmost two years had elapsed since the Security Arm's former training base on Rhea was obliterated by impacting bodies that got past the LORIN defenses. The base had provided an environment for weapons familiarization, field engineering instruction, and deployment exercises that typified airless surfaces to be found all over the Solar System, but since the disaster SA had transferred the facility to the less representative but safer location of Titan. The sites being excavated for new industrial installations at Omsk had taken some damage too, Delmor Caton recalled. It had happened when he was on shift as Surface Operations supervisor.
He stared down over the ruin of the base from the passenger cabin of the personnel bus making its descent after the two-hundred-mile hop from Omsk. In the seat facing him, Hector Norburn from Operations Management, also suited up for surface EVA, was sitting forward and taking in the view intently. Unlike Caton, he had never had reason to come out in this direction previously and had only seen the pictures.
What had been the area used for firing practice and tactical training, along with the landing pads and vehicle servicing shops, was buried under mounds of secondary debris from a three-mile-long furrow gouged into the surface by a grazing impact. Outlying surface installations such as antenna arrays and ground beacons had disappeared. The transporter used by the Security Arm people who had arrived at Omsk earlier was standing in front of the buckled remains of the main surface buildings protruding from an overburden of rubble and rock. Figures were standing around it, easily discerned in their brightly colored surface suits. Norburn had said the party consisted of a colonel, another officer, and three technical specialists.
Although Omsk was in production now, supplying forgings and pressed parts for the spacecraft construction program, Caton was still there with the Construction Directorate, looking after new excavations for an extension to the ore processing and rolling facility. Tanya, his former Terran assistant rescued from Mars, had completed her certification as a mining and drilling engineer despite her breakdown shortly after the tragedy, and had moved to Titan. She had joined a group at Essen who were developing methods of quarrying rocks and moving them based on the revolutionary artificial gravity technology that had emerged in the past year or so.
Caton shook his head at the thought. Either he was going to have to go back to school, or his professional days might be numbered.
Being closest at hand at the time of the disaster, with vehicles and equipment from Omsk at his disposal, Caton had organized the first rescue teams to arrive on the scene. But after the immediate tasks of dealing with the casualties, searching the remains of what was left both above and below ground for more survivors, and clearing the worst of the wreckage were done, the later work of salvaging what could be used and evacuating the facility had been carried out by the Security Arm's own engineering crews from Titan.
So they had left the remains, deserted and unchanging, apart from the rain of dust and occasional fusillades of larger bodies as Saturn and its moons swept their path through the storm of debris that Athena had stirred up across the Solar System.
And then now, all of a sudden, the Security Arm was interested in the place again and had requested Omsk to provide local transportation and assistance for a team that would be coming from Titan to conduct some kind of reconnaissance out there. Some hours after the SA team departed from Omsk, administration had contacted Caton to ask if he would fly out to the site with Norburn to look at something the SA group had found there. Caton's name was on record as having been involved in the rescue and cleanup activities following the meteorite impacts, and apparently that was considered significant for some reason.
The bus settled a short distance from the transporter. As its engines died, the flurry of dust around it collapsed in the airless environment like a tenuous balloon deflating. From closer up, the remains of the domes and connecting buildings formed a wall of twisted and splayed metal bordering the rubble-strewn area where the vehicles had landed, sagging out from beneath the debris that had buried it like the spilled content of a gigantic rock sandwich. At one end, part of a flattened dome had been lifted aside - way back, in an operation that Caton himself had supervised - to open the way down to a section of the underground galleries that had escaped being totally pulverized. They'd had to tunnel under a bulkhead wall concertinaed between two levels of flooring that had been crushed together, he recalled. Fortunately, in the gravity of a body the size of Rhea, supporting the load above had not been as difficult as the sight suggested.
"This place certainly took a pasting," Norburn commented, as he sat back from the port and unsnapped his restraining harness.
"You have to see it for yourself to get a real idea of it," Caton agreed.
"Was there much left there below - where the opening goes down?"
"Just parts of a couple of levels. We got a bunch of survivors up from a compartment in the living quarters that had been sealed in. Most of them were just trainee kids. Too dazed to know which moon they were on. Nobody left in that dome up above, though. There was some nasty cleaning up to do in there."
They stood up and took down their helmets from the rack above. "Well, now maybe we get to learn what this is all about, Del," Norburn said. "Any bets?"
"I couldn't even begin to guess,"Caton replied.
The pilot came back from the nose compartment and checked their suit readings before opening the lock. They bounced lightly down the extended steps and joined the group of three figures waiting in front of the tunnel, two wearing suits of Security-Arm blue, the other's, yellow, all of them carrying hand lamps. The other two making up the party were at the transporter, unloading equipment of some kind. The SA officer in the suit with colonel's insignia had Oriental features and the name tag XELU on his chest pack. Caton judged him to be around thirty. He introduced himself, and then the others as Lieutenant Queele, SA, and Bor Ethan, a technical advisor.
"It was you who led the rescue team from Omsk, I understand, Mr. Caton," he said. "The Service will always be in your debt."
"It was my privilege, Colonel," Caton replied. "Just glad that we were here. Only sorry we couldn't do more."
"You did as much as anyone could have," Norburn put in.
Colonel Xelu half turned, at the same time looking back toward the tunnel. "And you directed the digging under the debris there?"
"Right. We could tell from sonar scans that some of the underground levels were still intact farther down."
"Can we go and take a look?"
Caton and Norburn looked at each other. Caton shrugged inside his suit.
"Sure," Norburn said. The question seemed to have been more for form. It was what they had come out here for, after all. They followed Xelu into the opening, Queele and Ethan falling in to bring up the rear.
The beam from Xelu's lamp came on to reveal a path of trodden-down rock fragments and dust descending among fallen floor beams and crumpled wall sections. A cleared shaft going up marked where Caton's team had cut their way through to check the upper parts. It didn't bring back the torrent of memories that he had been half expecting. Too much else had happened in the meantime since the day of those events.
"I suppose we owe it to you to say what brings us here," Xelu's voice said in Caton's helmet as they moved on and down. "The political situation in Kronia is getting complicated these days." It wasn't necessary for him to spell out that he meant on account of the agitation and demands of the Pragmatists. "What's worrisome is that this Terran-instigated movement is being led by individuals who consider coercion and violence to be a legitimate means of achieving social goals - or at least, of imposing the appearance of having done so." No Kronian would have considered results brought about by such means to have "achieved" anything.
The point didn't need elaborating. Even though Caton had been brought from Earth as a child, he was considered a Kronian and he thought like one. It seemed patently obvious to him that if a society appointed leaders from among those who had demonstrated their greatest proficiencies to be in the application brute force and deception, then that was how their affairs would be run. The nuisance being caused was certainly out of proportion to the numbers and not something that was needed at times like these, and some Kronians were for shutting the movement down forcibly if that was the Terran way. However, President Urzin and most of the Congress were adamant that suppression was not the Kronian way, and relied on the Kronian nature to prevail. If it wasn't robust enough to meet the challenge without turning into that which it sought to supersede, then it probably wasn't worth clinging to, they maintained.
Colonel Xelu went on, "As a precaution in case the need ever arises, the Security Arm is being trained in the capability for taking an expanded role in containing and countering the possible use of violence, sabotage, and suchlike to advance political aims. I trust I don't have to elaborate? I regret the necessity, but it seems that prudence leaves us no choice."
"Everyone regrets it, but it's only common sense," Norburn's voice said on the circuit. "When you think you're threatened, you prepare a defense. Look what happened right here. What kind of state would Kronia have been in by now without the LORIN stations?"
They had reached the bottom of a vertical section of wall. A doorway to one side opened into a large room that the flashlight beams showed to have fallen in at the far end beneath sloping floor sections pressed down from above under a mass of tangled metal. The space was somberly empty, covered everywhere in gray dust. "D-2 Level, Area 3," Xelu commented. "Dormitory and living quarters. This was where you found one of the biggest groups of survivors."
"Over twenty," Caton answered dryly. The memories were starting to come back now. How the place had kept enough air for the time it took to tent the entrance and get down here was something he would never understand. They didn't go through into the room now. Evidently what had brought the SA party here lay elsewhere. Xelu turned from the doorway and indicated a length of corridor leading in the opposite direction, partially blocked by the wall on one side having burst inward, and ending maybe ten yards farther on at a blockage of collapsed partitioning.
"You didn't penetrate through any farther in that direction?" Xelu inquired.
Caton shook his head behind his helmet visor - although in the darkness it would be invisible. "The plan showed there were only sealed storage compartments that way. The access door through to them was closed, and we couldn't pick up any readings of movement or identity transmissions. It seemed better to use the time we had to check other places." He was beginning to wonder uncomfortably if the SA party had uncovered more bodies that they thought he should have found. But in times like that, these decisions had to be made. Xelu would understand that.
But Xelu said, "Let's have a look, then," and picking his way carefully through the wreckage ahead of them again, he continued, "One of the things we're doing is increasing our weapons stocks at various strategic locations. But to avoid attracting undue attention with sudden manufacturing requests, we're trying to make as much use as possible of the stocks that were built up during the Emergency period." He meant a time around twelve years prior to Athena, when there had been fear of the political tension that had existed between Kronia and Earth at that time leading to armed conflict. "Our records showed that there was a considerable inventory here that hadn't been recovered. The reports sent back after the impact, pretty much like your own conclusions, wrote them off as inaccessible and probably not worth the effort. But our needs have changed since then, and we were sent out to assess what would be involved in retrieving them. And what we found is this. . . ."
Xelu stepped aside to let the beams of light show a dark opening leading on through what had been an impassible barrier. He ran a finger of his gauntlet over the end of a piece of metal ribbing. The edge was rounded by melting, showing that it had been cut by heat, not broken in the impact. His flashlight beam picked out spatterings of melted metal on the floor below, and beneath more severed members beyond. "It wasn't like this when you last saw it, Mr. Caton?' Xelu asked. "Either at the time of the accident, or in any of your visits subsequently."
"No!" Caton was bemused. "There was no way through there. As I told you, all that we had reason to believe existed there was a closed door leading into a sealed storage area."
"That was where the weapons were," Xelu said. "The door has been cut open."
A gasp sounded from Norburn. "And the weapons?"
"What's left are old or of inferior quality. Whoever took them knew what they were doing. We made a circuit of the area before calling you. The ground in the immediate vicinity was churned up by the activity going on here up to the final evacuation. But there are traces of a ground track leading away toward the east that cuts through the other markings, meaning it was made more recently. It gets lost farther out among the general impact gardening. What it looks like is that whoever pulled this off landed some distance away in the opposite direction from Omsk, below the radar horizon, and came overland."
"How long ago did this happen?" Caton asked. The question was mechanical. He was still grappling with the implications.
"Impossible to say," Xelu answered. From the degree of erosion of the tracks, given the current conditions, I'd say six months at least. . . . It could have been anytime in the last year." He paused for a moment, then went on, "It seems there are those among us who would try to impose their wills by methods that are not the Kronian way. We hoped it would never come to this. But if we are left with no choice but to defend against force with force, then that is how it will be."