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Authors: Sara Creasy

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BOOK: Song of Scarabaeus
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“And once we get inside,” Haller said, “how do we take out the circuitry?”

Zeke snorted. “Wire cutters.”

“Very careful use of wire cutters,” Edie corrected him. “We'll need containers to store it—about half a cubic meter per BRAT.”

“That's what the lags are for. Easiest assignment they've ever had,” Haller said. “How long will this take? We can
make up some of the lost time, but we'll only have five days dirtside if we're to make our rendezvous on the Fringe.”

“The first one will take the longest. Maybe eight hours.”

Haller looked horrified. She was fairly sure it would take no more than one—either she could do it or she couldn't, and she'd know after one hour—but she intended to use the rest of that time for something else entirely. Once jacked in, she planned to find out exactly what had happened on Scarabaeus, and if possible do something about it. She couldn't reverse the process but perhaps she could halt it. Perhaps there was something of Scarabaeus's original beauty left to preserve. She only needed to adjust the programming of one BRAT. Within minutes it would communicate with all the others and spread the new code. The rovers planned to remove only a small percentage of the BRATs, not enough to severely impact her plan.

“After the first one,” Edie continued, “we've got an average one hour's flight between each site, plus two or three hours working on each BRAT.”

Haller had his own ideas. “That's not enough. We'll be working with about seven hours of daylight, six of dark. Gravity is point-nine-four, weather is temperate. Ideal conditions for fast work. We'll split into two teams—you'll rotate between them. You'll crack open a BRAT for team one to work on, and then Cat will ferry you to the next site, where team two will have already prepped the area.”

“Uh, are you allowing any downtime in that schedule?” Zeke said. “I can't work five days straight.”

“We'll play it by ear.” That was the best Haller would offer.

Edie had a headache just thinking of the workload ahead, but she had an even greater concern. The BRATs were hundreds of kilometers apart, well beyond the range of the leash. Outside the bulkheads of the
Hoi
, there was a real chance she and Finn could get separated by a lethal distance.

Zeke turned to Edie. “You said there was advanced life on the planet. Anything we need to worry about?”

“The ecosystem was analogous to a late-Paleozoic period of evolution.” She was met with blank looks. “Nothing a standard e-shield can't handle.”

They seemed satisfied with that.

“Obviously, Finn will stick with me.”

“Obviously,” Haller echoed with a smirk. “So, any idea how we're going to fool our buyers on the Fringe that they're getting what they paid for?”

Edie returned his smirk. “That's your job, sir, not mine.”

Once they reached orbit, Haller allowed Edie a one-hour break before showtime while the rest of the crew continued working. Her mind was on overdrive. Unable to nap, she'd spent the time going over the specs for the toms they were taking with them. When her eyes refused to focus anymore, she grabbed a change of clothes and headed across the corridor for a shower. Maybe that would wake her up.

Just as she flicked on the water, a dark shadow approached the stall—Cat, stripping as she moved, leaving her clothes where they fell. Due to her untidy habits, Edie had found her belongings in the bathroom before. Bangles and scarves and pretty scraps of underwear.

“Hey.” Cat stepped into the jets, gesturing for Edie to make room. “Sorry. This is my last chance at hot water for days. I've got syscheck on the skiff in five minutes. You gonna be ready to leave at oh-six-hundred?”

“I guess so.”

Cat pulled a handful of decorated pins out of her black hair and untwisted the locks. Edie hadn't realized Cat's hair was so long and thick—she always wore it knotted up, speared with pins at strategic locations. As she soaped up, she looked at Edie for so long that Edie started to wonder if she was planning to make a pass at her.

“Did you happen to read those memos on the skiff?” she said at last.

“The data from the advance probe? Not much use—we learned more from the later surveys.”

“I mean the other memo.”

Edie frowned as she recalled that there had been two memos. She'd been so engrossed in the first, she'd never got around to reading the second.

“What about it?”

Cat shrugged. “It really doesn't matter now.”

“Then why mention it?”

“Because I wanted you to know…I tried to help you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I sent you a new flight plan for the autopilot.”

Edie wiped soap from her eyes and stared at Cat. “You wanted us to escape?”

“It would've taken you to a shipping lane. Given you a chance. I told you before, Edie, I didn't know about the leash until it was too late. What they did to Finn wasn't fair.”

“What
they
did? That infojack did it. The one you were fucking, remember?”

Her anger seemed to upset Cat. The navpilot held up a hand to calm her. “He was hired by Stichting Corp. He didn't tell me about the leash because it had nothing to do with me. The point is, I had a change of heart.”

“Well, the skiff had no fuel so it was never going anywhere, flight plan or not.”

“I didn't know that.”

Something about the look on her face made Edie think she was telling the truth about that, at least. The rest didn't quite add up.

“On the day you kidnapped me, you rejoiced at the death of that other serf. I find it hard to believe you care what happens to Finn.”

“You're right. I didn't care about either of them at the time. Just wanted to get the job done.” Cat flipped off the shower without asking if Edie was ready. “Anyway, none of
this matters now. You didn't find the flight plan. The skiff had no fuel. It's like it never happened.”

But if it had happened, Cat had tried to redeem herself. Her loyalties were flexible—she'd said as much herself. Would she help them again, when the time came?

“Listen, Cat.” Edie grabbed Cat's arm as she exited the shower. “Thank you for trying.”

Cat smiled but she didn't look happy. She wrapped herself in a towel, picked up a few of her dropped pins, and left for her quarters.

Edie dressed in fresh oxor-cloth pants and a gray V-neck, and pulled on her jacket. In her quarters she found Finn sitting on the deck, spine pressed to the bulkhead, eyes closed. She stared at the crease of worry between his brows, knowing the turmoil in her head was responsible for it.

She unclipped her diagnostic rod and called up the scan she'd done days ago, when he first complained of the strange sensations in his head. She'd done nothing about it, but perhaps she should try. He didn't need the distraction of being linked to her emotional state any more than he needed the distraction of a sexual relationship with her.

It must be because they'd used a biocyph strand in his splinter. It made the link unbreakable, which was the most important thing as far as her captors were concerned, but it was also able to crudely interpret the transmissions from her brain. From her mind to his, translated through two wet-teck interfaces, the result was the distorted signal that he described as white noise.

What she needed was a way to reduce the signal.

“Finn.” She spoke just loud enough for him to hear, not loud enough to wake him if he was dozing. “I thought you were working on the trackers with Zeke.”

He didn't move. “Came to fetch you. It's time to go.”

“I have an idea.”

He opened his eyes and looked at the holoviz hovering over the diagnostic rod.

“About the leash?”

“Yes.” She sat beside him. “Were you meditating?”

“I was trying to clear my mind. Of you. I guess that's meditation.” He stretched his neck and ran his hand over his head, lingering at the back of his skull in a gesture of irritation that was becoming all too familiar. “What's your brilliant idea?” His smooth voice seductively encouraged her to give him what he wanted—help, hope, relief.

“The problem is that our respective wet-teck is transmitting and receiving too much information. We need to find a way to attenuate the signal.”

“If the signal drops, won't that…you know, blow up my head?”

“Not if the attenuator is at your end, between your splinter and your brain. My signal will still come through loud and clear, but your mind will be oblivious.”

He liked the sound of that. “Do it.”

“After the mission, I promise. I have to take my time with this, get it right.”

“Okay.”

She fiddled with the diagnostic rod, the silence between them buzzing with unresolved tension.

“I'm sorry about what happened in the skiff. That I had to make you stop.” He said nothing, so she forged on, unable to look at him. “If we could've stayed there forever…” She bit her lip, annoyed at herself for such a ridiculous fantasy. “I would've let you…do whatever you wanted.” Damn, that was something she'd barely admitted to herself yet. Her body pulsed with the memory of his warm hands. “But we're back to reality, and it's impossible. My trainer died because she and Lukas couldn't prevent their personal relationship from affecting their jobs.”

“It was just sex.” His voice was soft, his tone just careless enough to make her wonder if the nonchalance was faked. “One time only, if that's all you wanted.”

Was that all
he'd
wanted? Their eyes met, and in his she saw a blaze of emotion that belied his offhand manner. Then it was gone. Pragmatically she reminded herself that
the leash transmitted her arousal to his head in unpleasant ways, which meant what they had done was probably as far as they'd ever get.

“Forget it,” he said, getting to his feet and grabbing his jacket from the bunk. He held out his hand and she took it. His steady strength flowed down the length of his arm and into her body as he pulled her up. “Concentrate on the job. Let's get through this.”

 

With a few minutes to go before the departure at six, Edie climbed up to deck one, to the viewing port, and looked out at the world—a ball suspended below the ship, streaked with aqua and white. Small enough to hold in her palm, as beautiful as Rackham's stolen talphi cocoon. From space it looked as serene and fragile as she remembered it. Her throat constricted when she thought about what they might find down there.

She made her way belowdeck to the skiff where Finn and the rest of the landing team had assembled. In the cockpit, Cat was running her final checks. Zeke ushered the serfs into their seats toward the back of the hold. Among them, Edie recognized the man Finn had saved in the engine room. He didn't look her way.

Along the bulkhead, inside the hatch, stood a line of compact backpacks and calibrated e-shield pods—one set for each team member. Edie clipped an e-shield to her tool belt, where it sat snugly against her hip. There was a rack of spurs and two rifles—the latter for Haller and Zeke. They'd lost the rest when Haller vented the engine room.

Haller went through the final plan. His mood seemed elevated after his recent decline into panic and frustration. He was at his best when he had a job to do, and despite the difficulties ahead, at least they had a plan.

“We've got six BRATs targeted for today, all within a three-thousand-kilometer diameter. Our base will be this island”—he pointed on the holoviz—“where Cat will stand by with the skiff.”

Their landing site was on the main southern continent of Scarabaeus. Edie had suggested the site because the region was temperate, as opposed to the more extreme climates of the northern landmasses, and the cooler, drier climate had resulted in slightly less dense vegetation growth around the BRATs—the only noticeable difference. Still, it was an important one. That physical barrier would be their biggest hassle in terms of time and effort. Rather than hacking through kilometers of dense jungle in order to reach each BRAT, they would climb down from the canopy and winch up the biocyph.

They squeezed into the cockpit—Haller up front next to Cat, Kristos and Finn behind them, and Edie in the back, in the foldout seat built into the bulkhead. Zeke stayed below with the serfs. Edie would've appreciated his irreverence and humor up on deck. Cat and Haller were all business, while Kristos's jittery nerves made Edie feel worse. She glanced guiltily at Finn's profile, wondering how he was coping with the nausea in her stomach, but there were no clues written on his face.

The skiff plummeted toward the planet, the gravplating equalizing out the gees so that, if not for the riotous view out the viewscreen, she'd have thought they were motionless. Edie concentrated her gaze on a light just above eye level on the opposite bulkhead, in order to avoid the temptation to look sideways out the screen. When she did chance a look, they were coasting through the clouds.

If her attempt to sabotage the terraforming mission seven years ago had worked, Scarabaeus would be as untouched now as the day she first visited it, except for those thousand inert metal bullets lodged in its skin. If the Crib had succeeded, Scarabaeus would be on its way to becoming a new and perfect world for humankind to colonize.

Instead, it was neither. As the skiff glided high above a dark, still ocean toward its destination, all Edie knew for certain was that no Eden awaited them.

In the drizzling rain, she sees neat rows of fence posts interrupting the desolate plain. From this distance, she recognizes the woven roof of the council meeting hall, the long nursery building, the hog pens tucked away in the corner of the compound.

And the guard tower, the shuttle pad, the fence itself—stark reminders of the Crib's control over the Talasi.

In six years she has run away from the institute many times, but she's not left the city before. Last night she paid for a landcruiser ride across the continent by jacking into Halen Crai gov's criminal records and wiping out the driver's insurance violations.

She doesn't understand why she's here—never has she entertained the idea of returning to that life. She wants nothing to do with those people. But tonight she will leave Talas for the first time. Its ecosystem is in her blood and she'll have to return, but for a while she'll be…somewhere else at last. Free. She needs to take one more look at the camp, at the place where she came from.

Just one look under a gray morning sky. Then she turns away. Talas made her blood. The Crib made her skills. But
it has not made her identity. That creation is left to her, and the future.

As she turns away, the driver scratches at his hair—bone dry in the rain. He's wearing an e-shield—terrified, as are all colonists, about contamination from neuroxin. “That's it? Leaving already?”

“I have to get back to Halen Crai.”

“What's the hurry? We only just got here.”

“I'm taking a space flight. I'm going to turn a rock into a new world.”

“A new world, huh?” He doesn't believe her. To him, she's just some street kid whose knack for dry-teck will keep him out of jail. “Sounds nice.”

“It will be nice. I'll make it beautiful.”

“Sure you will, hon. Send me a postcard.”

As they speed back to the mountains, back to Halen Crai and the stone walls of the institute, the sense of impending freedom lifts her spirits. She imagines the perfect world she will help create, and the people who will call it home, and she envies them.

 

From the stratosphere, the megabiosis was a gleaming, scalloped brooch on the rugged landscape. Edie couldn't take her eyes off it—as bizarre and unnatural as the sculpture of a tortured artist, yet entirely organic.

The skiff banked to make a slow pass over the area, and the megabiosis tilted out of view. Edie turned her attention to the external vid feeds. A thick web of matted vines covered the knot of jungle—three or four different species, judging from the variation in shape and coloration. Here and there a spindly feeler escaped the tangle to extend skyward, but the vegetation mostly turned in on itself, exposing only the unbroken curves of the vine stalks. The appearance of thicker, grayish branches indicated a sturdier arboreal species beneath.

A thousand of these megabioses peppered the surface of Scarabaeus, each ten or more kilometers in diameter. The
rest of the landscape looked bleak by comparison, far more desolate than she remembered. Retroviruses sent out by the BRATs had formed the pockets of jungle by reworking the ecosystem, but they must also be affecting the areas beyond, killing off native species. There was very little groundcover. Edie choked back a sob. Her perfect world was ruined, countless species wiped out or changed beyond recognition. Finn turned in his seat, gave her a look that made her wonder what her heartbreak felt like to him.

She drew a deep breath, telling herself to hold it together. There was a still a chance she could do
something
down there to make things right.

Haller sent team one into the cargo hold. Edie, nearest the hatch, was first down the ramp, with Finn following closely, as if he was eager to get to the surface. Zeke handed him a spur and took one for himself. The sight of the men strapping on weapons reminded Edie of previous missions. She'd had the protection of Crib milits, but that hadn't prevented the raids. In fact, the Crib's state-of-the-art firepower only encouraged their attackers—fanatical eco-rads, greedy rovers, and desperate Fringers—to band together and arm themselves comparably, exacerbating every confrontation. Edie could only hope that no one knew about this small team of rovers salvaging biocyph from a ruined world.

The skiff shuddered in the air currents, hovering at low altitude. Zeke slapped the control pad to open the internal hatch.

“Shields on,” he ordered, using a button on his belt to activate the serfs' shields as well as his own. They could not be trusted even with their own survival. “We'll move out in two groups. The serfs and me, then the three of you.” He nodded toward Edie and Finn, and then Kristos, who fidgeted in the shadows. “Cheer up, kid,” he bellowed. “My little buddy here goes first.”

He tossed a tom into the airlock, closed the internal hatch, and opened the external hatch.

Edie had modified the tom to take some basic readings,
and it was linked remotely to a holoviz. For now, though, they all watched the skiff's external vid as the tom dropped into the canopy of the megabiosis. It scrabbled for a grip and took a few cautious steps.

“Can that vegetation take our weight?” Haller asked over the comm. He had the same vid feed as they did.

Edie called up the data collected by the probes and overlaid that visual with the tom's readings. An indistinct dome wavered in midair between her and Zeke, the holo becoming gradually clearer as readings from the tom streamed in.

“Ultrasound shows dense cover almost all the way down—seventy meters,” Edie reported.

“Gonna be tough, hacking through that.” Zeke gave the serfs a quick look. That would be their job. “The vines seem to have good structural integrity down to the last few meters. Then it's open at ground level.”

At the center of the holo, the dark, impenetrable shape of the BRAT waited in a clearing.

Edie had programmed the tom to climb straight down, but it was having trouble finding a large enough gap in the vines. It skittered in a circle, testing the vines at each spot, returned to its starting point, wandered off in another direction, and didn't come back.

Zeke banged the vid feed, as if that would help. “What the…?”

“I think the transmissions from the BRAT confused it.” Edie watched the holo as the tom's transmissions became increasingly nonsensical, and then dropped out altogether.

“Well, we've got a general image of the environment down there. I've scanned for weapon sigs and signs of human life. All clear,” Haller said.
Human
could only mean eco-rads.

Zeke cycled the airlock and corralled the three serfs inside. They obeyed mutely, dull-eyed, doped up on tranqs. Ready to work. They carried cutting tools—simple water torches—and packs of equipment needed to set up the shield, cut out the biocyph, and haul it back up to the skiff. The
Hoi
hadn't come prepared for this job, and the torches were the only tools on board that were suitable for hacking through the jungle while being safe to place in the hands of serfs. E-shields could effectively absorb or deflect the impact of a torch's high-velocity water stream, in case any of them got trigger-happy.

Edie watched the serfs disappear through the outer hatch, following their progress on the vid feed. Zeke winched each man onto the matted canopy, and then himself. Finn repeated Zeke's actions with the airlock, venting the dangerous air of Scarabaeus so as not to contaminate the skiff. The inner hatch opened and he stepped inside, along with Edie and Kristos.

Finn opened the outer hatch to face a blustery morning. Edie's e-shield muted the feel of the wind on her skin, but not its sheer force.

“I'll go first,” he said, raising his voice over the wind and engines instead of using the link. “Just grab the winch and I'll catch you.” He didn't offer Kristos any guidance. His job was protecting Edie. “You ready for this?”

She nodded. “It's our payday,” she said, too quiet for him to hear, but he read her lips and gave her a quick grin.

Finn disappeared over the lip of the hatch. Her stomach flipped as she peered over the edge, but he landed safely on his feet, smooth and steady as a cat. The winch rebounded and she put her foot through the loop, wrapping her hands around the rope. Like Finn, she wasn't going to trust Kristos with the controls. She worked the panel herself and descended slowly the four meters or so to the canopy. A gust of wind caught her, swinging her underneath the skiff and back again, and then she felt strong hands on her, guiding her down.

Finn helped her off the winch, and she leaned against his sturdy body. He pulled her down into a crouch like Zeke and the others, because the wind and the uneven surface made everyone unstable on their feet. The vines looping up from
the dense vegetation formed convenient handles, and Edie grabbed on to them. Zeke yelled instructions up to Kristos as he made his way down. The young teck dropped the last two meters, landing on his back, limbs flailing.

Zeke clambered over to help him up. “Damn kid couldn't find down in a gravity well.”

“Everyone safe?” came Cat's voice over the open line, and Zeke yelled back in the affirmative. “Back in a few hours to collect you guys, and whatever you dig out of there. Stay in touch.”

The skiff ascended in a steep climb, turned, and flew away.

Through the e-shield, the vines felt slimy between Edie's fingers. Her injured shoulder protested as she clung on, finding footholds to work her way closer to Zeke, always aware of Finn nearby keeping a close eye on her.

It took twenty minutes for the serfs to cut a hole into the vines. The water torches sheared through the clot of vegetation and the serfs used brute force to push it aside. Zeke went after them, followed by Finn and then Edie. Above Edie, Kristos was the last one in. He moved too fast, lost his footing, and kicked her in the head.

“Watch it!” she said, and he stuttered an apology.

She rubbed her skull, looking down to make sure she didn't do the same thing to Finn. She could see the top of his head, his broad shoulders, and his arms reaching out to grab the vines. It was slow going. The serfs had to make the tunnel wide enough to accommodate their equipment, which took time but made it comfortably wide for the rest of the team.

“This is fuckin' crazy!” Zeke yelled from somewhere down below, but he sounded like he was enjoying himself.

“Stay closer,” Finn called up. He sounded annoyed that the gap between him and Edie was increasing. Her shoulder ached fiercely now, refusing to take the weight of her body, so she had to look carefully for every foothold.

“I won't let you out of my sight,” she muttered, wishing more than ever that her first bodyguard were here. Lukas
would have offered encouragement, made her feel okay about being here. Even when it wasn't okay.

“What did you say?” Finn was suddenly right behind her. He had either climbed up, or stopped to let her climb down. Their descent was so slow, with long periods of immobility, that she hadn't noticed. Now his lips were at her ear, his body against hers.

“Lukas used to say that.
I won't let you out of my sight.

Finn said nothing, but when he moved again he adjusted his pace so it matched hers, and the gap between him and Zeke widened instead.

It took ninety minutes to climb halfway down. Sunlight still penetrated but it was darker. Unidentified sounds came from all directions—soft chirps, rustling, buzzing. The vines were looser and softer here, and Edie had plenty of time to examine them during the stop–start descent. While she despaired over the loss of the native species on Scarabaeus, she couldn't help but be fascinated by the new alien life before her eyes. The thickest vine species, white and almost translucent, had a purple, thready parasitic fungus growing along its branches, and the green leafy tendrils of another species twined up from below, using the main vine structure as scaffolding to climb upward to the light. Occasionally she caught a glimpse of a blue-winged thriplike insect darting through the gaps in the vines.

“What's that?” Kristos yelped. She looked up to see him flapping his hand around his head, swatting at a tiny thrip. It was attracted by the aura of the e-shield. It flitted toward the shield and disintegrated with an audible
zap
.

“What setting is your shield on?” Edie called out.

“Um…maximum.”

“We're not in combat!” Zeke yelled from several meters beneath them, having heard the exchange. “Crank it down or you're gonna set this place on fire.”

That was an exaggeration, but maximum shield strength was overkill. And while their other equipment was of dubious origin and quality, Zeke hadn't skimped on the shields.
They were first-rate. They kept the temperature and air mix stable within the barrier, filtered out organics, and deflected or absorbed minor physical impact.

“What if, you know, the BRAT knows we're here,” Kristos said, quietly this time so no one else could hear.

“It's not going to notice a few hacked vines,” Edie threw back.

“But there's all those airborne viruses, or whatever, that sample our DNA and change it—”

“They can't get through the shields, even on minimum. Just don't turn it off or you'll be mutating within the minute.”

She couldn't resist teasing him, but it was true. On her previous visit, Edie had turned off her e-shield for a few minutes, trusting that the alienness would not harm her. But now the environment was drenched in cyphviruses released by the BRATs. They sampled everything in the ecosystem, transmitting the data to the biocyph in the BRAT, which analyzed it and wrote custom-designed retrovirus code. This was transmitted back to the cyphviruses, triggering them to recode their embryonic DNA-analogs and integrate the new DNA into the host organism's genome. Thus the organism was transformed, at the genetic level, to become more like the target ideal that the biocyph was working toward.

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