Demons Of The Past 02: Revolution – Chapter 06
For the first time in a long time, I was more nervous about one of my allies than my enemies. We had no idea what, if anything, Outpost Thovia knew about me – news updates to places this far out often went on six month cycles – but most of the Outpost had just gotten wiped out by a landslide.
A landslide that, it seemed, our jovial and friendly astrophysicist had somehow arranged, and done so with one short transmission and the hour or so it had taken The Eönwyl to get from Downbreak point to orbit. A landslide which had obviously seemed perfectly natural, if terrifying, to the Imperials on the ground – no sensor warnings, nothing to put the base on attack alert, just one of the natural disasters that the Empire can control on heavily civilized worlds but not on some remote outpost.
And neither our shields, nor I, nor you, sensed anything psionic. Yet it surpasses belief that this is merely a convenient coincidence, and that [untranslatable concept of insult] Thovian’s tone and behavior confirm it.
Oh, I have no doubt he arranged it somehow. But I can’t figure out how, and I can’t even guess at why he did it.
A mental snort. Elimination of witnesses? In that case perhaps his haste led to a lack of complete efficiency, as there are survivors.
Maybe. Maybe. Vick’s suggestion was obvious enough that I should have thought of it, but I had not previously considered Guvthor to be that ruthless. Vick, yes. His people were aggressively meritocratic to the point of insanity from most people’s points of view; I’d gotten the impression that the Thovians were, however, much more interested in friendship, accommodation, and good times (even if those good times might occasionally involve battleaxes or more advanced weaponry). But he seemed very pleased with himself. My gut feeling is that if he did arrange this, he meant there to be survivors.
Which, naturally, makes him, or his people, even more dangerous. The backdrop of Vick’s thoughts, contrary to mine, brightened and filled with anticipation at this thought. I wonder if they have been Tested… or, audacity itself, think to Test us? This may indeed be a fine choice we have made, Varan!
The last thing I thought we needed was more of what Vick thought of as “Testing” and I thought of as “being placed in desperately dangerous circumstances”, but I felt more than heard a crunching sound as The Eönwyl set down. “Time to do what we can.”
The loading ramp was already lowering by the time we reached Guvthor’s bay. The huge Thovian scientist was already standing at the top of the ramp, and his expression showed no sign of the prior dark humor; he was grim and tense, and preceded us both down the ramp.
The first thing that struck me – literally – was the gravity. Thovia’s gravity was nearly one-third greater than Imperial normal, making the natives’ size even more unusual. Many high-gravity worlds had creatures and plants that tended more to the low and squat; here it seemed that both Thovian animals and Thovian plants took the gravity as a challenge and pushed themselves to extravagant extremes.
The air was next; cool, moving, sharp with scents of living plants that I had never smelled before, something that would have been invigorating and inspiring had it not been for the other smells and the pall of grey dust that still hung and drifted over the mountainside, brimstone-smell of broken rock, deep-wet smell of masses of turned earth, and the sharper, urgent, throat-raw stench of overloaded and burning electronics, plastics, overheated steel and smoldering paint.
We emerged into sunlight of a slightly brighter yellow than Oro’s, though the sun was also somewhat smaller at this distance, and saw a line of Thovians waiting for us some distance away.
That had an impact all its own. Guvthor alone was impressive, a towering and powerful presence, but as we approached, the shifting mob of immense fur-covered people loomed almost like the mountains around them. Guvthor, I saw, was big, even for his people – most of them were close to sixty centimeters shorter than the astrophysicist – but those average Thovians stood three meters high and must have massed over half a ton. Even the children who peeked out from behind their parents or – in some cases – started to dash out to meet us before being yanked back were considerably larger than I was, let alone tiny Vick, whose brilliantly golden crest and bright green scales clearly attracted a lot of attention.
A smaller and very different figure emerged from the mob at nearly a run, heading for The Eönwyl, who had now caught up with us. Lieutenant Jan Mansteros, as his Pentriyal accent had caused me to guess, was tall for a human, broad, with hair nearly as gold as Taelin’s but around a face that was rougher and a lot redder with effort and, probably, windburn. “Eönwyl, thank the Towers!” the Lieutenant gasped. “Is that – you have medical supplies?”
“I don’t know if it will be enough, but there are three field trauma and maintenance units, standard Guardsman issue, and I’ve got supplies for a Naval forward emergency medical treatment post.”
I had been startled myself to find out just how much medical material The Eönwyl had on hand, and clearly Lieutenant Mansteros was even more surprised and gratified. “I’d almost call that a miracle! Why…?
“Because,” she cut him off, “I have spent a lot of time travelling in very remote areas, and I don’t dare rely on someone else having the right equipment.”
She glanced up, to where we could see, through drifting haze, the huge scooped-out scar on the mountainside that seemed to have come straight towards where we stood, only to have missed by a few hundred yards. “Enough talking. This is Sasham Varan, and Dr. Sooovickalassa, passengers, and Guvthor Hok Guvthor, whom we have just brought home.”
We were of course alert for any sudden reaction as she introduced us, and Mansteros did indeed stop dead in his tracks. But to my surprise, he turned abruptly to our Thovian friend. “Guvthor Hok Guvthor?” he repeated, his green eyes widening visibly. He began some kind of strange bow, but Guvthor caught his shoulder.
“No formalities necessary at this time, young Lieutenant,” Guvthor said. “I am but one of many.”
So directed, the Lieutenant did not attempt to repeat the formal greeting, but did continue talking, partly in Thovian; it was clear that Mansteros was one of the main contact “speakers”, a person intended to mingle with the native population and learn how they thought, how they behaved, what their rituals meant and how they might intersect – or might not – with Imperial traditions and values. The appearance of Guvthor also gave him some momentary distraction from what we were heading for.
It would seem both that your fame does not precede you, and that our Thovian friend has fame we did not previously recognize, Vick thought.
Yeah. Thinking on prior conversations and the little Thovian we’ve learned and looking at his name, I think it’s actually a title. He’s “The Guvthor of Guvthor”, a lord, a tribal or clan head, something like that. Enough that tradition would demand a proper greeting, anyway.
We moved through a forest whose trees were more like the Seven Pillars supporting the Imperial Palace, trunks wider than The Eönwyl’s main hull rising for possibly three hundred meters, maybe more. The whole world is built to a grander scale; these trees make even the Thovians look small. Perhaps there would be lots of underbrush in the deeper forest, but this was settled country; here and there I could see collections of cabins, buildings of smaller logs, stone slabs, wooden planking, roofs of shingled stone – slate or something like it, I thought.
And then the forest came to an end, as sharp as a sword-cut, and we could look unobstructed up the mountain to the center of that ugly scar, and down, down more than two kilometers to where the nigh-unstoppable force had finally met its match in the immovable object of the valley floor, piling the splintered wreckage of once-proud forest giants mingled with the white cast-stone and silver-bronze metal of an Imperial Outpost in a jumbled matrix of black, deep earth, grey stone, and brown soil that formed an immense bulwark across the valley; already a small lake was beginning to form where the landslide blocked a distant river, while farther down the river’s course dried up in the slanting sunshine.
“No point in going down there,” I said quietly, just loud enough to be heard over the hissing-rattling-clinking of the settling slide. “Anything that went down that far… no survivors possible.”
“How many people are we looking for?”
The Lieutenant almost managed a smile. “Not… as many as I first thought.” We could see now a number of human beings with a scattering of other non-Thovian species near the only intact building (a few others had partially survived). A few of these were already actively working with Thovians trying to dig out the mangled remains of the other buildings, but many looked to be in shock. “A lot of the main contact team was in a… well, call it a school celebration, not to get into details… and were on the one side of the camp, saw the slide coming, and most of them got clear, or mostly clear.
“Really it’s only about fifteen or twenty people – mostly the garrison and command staff, I’m afraid. I appear to be ranking survivor, actually.”
Even an outpost like this would rate a Captain as CO, simply because it was an independently operating island of the Empire in an alien setting. But I was unsettled by the convenience of the event. If Shagrath were playing a deeper game, he might not have allowed certain news to reach Thovia, keeping it a military secret in case we showed up – so we could be trapped without realizing it.
But in that case… was it possible that whatever Guvthor had ordered could have been arranged to be that precise? A surgical strike via avalanche? The idea was in some ways one of the most frightening things I’d yet encountered.
“You have the layout of the base as it was?” The Eönwyl asked. “… good. All right, I have penetration scans going. Some of the rock here appears to be metal ores, unfortunately, which combined with Imperial alloys is making detailed viewing difficult. Still, we can manage an overlay. If any survived, it would be the basement structures or in the lee of major structural components that did not fall. Move your excavations from there to here, here, and here.”
I shook my head and shoved the mysteries aside; no matter what the answers, right now, there were people dead or dying, and they and the living needed our help more than our questions.