“You come here, on your newly built cruiser, bearing all the gifts and money the Eleven Thousand has bestowed upon you, and you want me to “give a factual account” of my experiences of the Second Cluster War, to just tell you numbers and statistics and leave emotions out of it? You Offworlders, you never change, do you.”
The man was old, by Clusters standards. I guessed he was about a hundred and forty, maybe a little older, it was hard to tell this side of the Curis line. Medical advances from the Eleven Thousand took a few decades to permeate the border, trickling through, and it was too late for him now. Deep wrinkles lined his face, creasing up around the eyes and folding like the aged lines of a tree. Veins textured his forehead and his temple, flaccid with age. Set deep within his sockets, the eyes flickered brightly in his bald skull, quickly darting around and measuring me. I repeated my request to him.
“Yes, that is what I require. As you know, a full investigation is being done into abuses of power and weaponry undertaken in the Second Intra-Civilisation war. It would greatly help us if we could get an eye-witness account of your time fighting for the FCMCS.”
“You want me to slip up and tell you what you already know, don’t you? I won’t talk. Go find some other foot soldier to badger with your incessant inquiries.”
“I can offer you money, gold, materials. The Eleven Thousand are the wealthiest civilisation in known space, outside of the Extra-Galactics. What do you require?”
The old man threw his head back and laughed, knocking the bed around with the recoil. Sarif Hunoi was sick, the vigour of his youth, years he spent hunting large game on a distant planet, was long gone, and he lay suspended atop a thin, charged membrane of power cells that repulsed against the ground. The inside of the membrane was lined with a thousand molecular hypodermics, constantly spiking him with drugs each tiny motion he made. I estimated from the hacking aspect of his cackle that he didn’t have long left. Months, a year or two at most.
“I am wealthy enough. Nothing you have aboard that blasted ship is enough to make me open my lips. This world is mine, all the people who live here as well. It was unconquered before the war, you know? A world rich in metals, particularly rare earths, and yet ignored not only by you sons of whores, but by the Coalition States as well. Bah, the lack of ambition! Makes me sick. Perhaps that value is why you lot did what you did.”
I sensed an in-road. “What did we do?”
“I know your sort! Everything you have done, those thousand years of history, all recorded forever! Don’t act as if you don’t know what was done here.”
“It well may be that we have the facts from our perspective, but the courts do need another source of information, balance and all. Accounts like you could provide us are hugely important in the judicial process.”
“Yeah, but you lot aren’t very well going to punish your own people, are you?”
“I see news doesn’t spread quickly this side of the Curis line.”
A little white lie here or there, I reasoned, wouldn’t hurt our cause. “The officers who ordered the detonations of the stars of the Nawrim, Itry, and Badnvl systems in Conflict Year 48 were sentenced last week. At least forty years hard labour.”
They hadn’t been sentenced yet. The trial was still ongoing, but it was more than likely that they would be found guilty. Each day more accounts like the one I was trying to record were being played before the judges. I figured it was alright to lie to the man, as all that mattered was the truth I could extricate from him.
“You guys are really that committed to justice? Well… ok. I’ll tell you a little of my story. Will you be recording it?”
“Of course, for the trial.”
“I understand. So, you want to know about my time on Furthi, do you? Try and imagine what this world looked like back then. I was young, and my job was to pioneer, to set up a refinery on this world on a terrible budget. It sat right over there.”
We were aboard a platform, floating maybe thirty kilometres up in the air. An electro-field kept the temperature constant and warm against the high-altitude jet streams of the world, so we were treating on the veranda outside of the small medical building behind us. Below, jets of hot gas distorted the view, yet through the warped-glass sky and the thin clouds and haze hugging the ground I could see the perfect circular wreckage of what my host had built.
“Look at that place. Nothing left of it now. In its hey-day we were churning out thirty tonnes of rare-earths a minute, twice that of the useful nuclears, uranium and thorium. We had a bore-hole eight miles down into the bedrock, lasers heating the ground and melting it in a perfect vacuum as the gravitational centrifuge split the magma apart.”
His eyes were dancing and flickering over the rocky floor, desert now. I’d seen reconnaissance shots before coming here, from the war, had seen the vibrant green and blue forests and the vast plains of light grey grass the surrounded the steel pyramid of the refinery, covering a pentagon nine kilometres across. Even if I hadn’t seen the photos, the way his pupils moved over the landscape painted the image all too vividly for me. His face softened a little, remembering better days, but then it suddenly hardened.
“But you guys took all that away, didn’t you? Slammed it into the dirt, poof, gone. Didn’t even leave ruins behind for me.”
“Please, sir, we need an explanation of what happened.”
“For the trial?”
“For the trial,” I nodded, doing my best at smiling reassuringly. The man coughed and hit a highlighted panel of the membrane, bringing a nurse out of the building. She was young, maybe a twelfth the age of the man she served. As she administered another shot of medicine and poured some water down his throat, he laid a hand upon her upper thigh, gripping it tightly through the thin, metallic fabric that hung too close to her flesh. I felt my smile twist into a frown, which I hid before he saw.
“What was it? A meteor? Some other projectile? Guess it doesn’t matter, really. Some ship of the ET fleet, the Permanent Fixture if I remember correctly, accelerated an object up to a crazy speed, tiny little object. Most of it ablated in the atmosphere I suppose.
“You ever seen something move at just below light speed in the atmosphere? It came down from warp as the drag affected it, but not enough to make a difference for us. A trail of explosions lit up the sky, we could see it from nearly four thousand kilometres away. By the stars, the very atoms of the atmosphere fused, and that thing slammed into the ground like the fist of god. Do you know what it’s like to see everything you have be wiped out in less than an instant?”
“The problem is, sir, you don’t either, do you?”
“I beg your pardon?” he squawked, suddenly indignant. Tapping a panel, he rotated more to the upright, facing me.
“Well, you weren’t here when the impact took place, of course, otherwise you’d be dead. Where were you?”
“I was keeping order among my men!”
“Look, if I tell you, you have to switch off that, that… device.”
I motioned as if I had. “Go on.”
He grinned with past remembrances. “We had prisoners of war, and insubordinate soldiers. I was their commanding officer. I had to keep order, and we didn’t have the food to feed them.”
“So what did you do?”
He seemed reluctant to continue. “I… I punished them.”
I could see that he wasn’t going to give me any more. “Thank you for your service. If your evidence is used in the trial of Commanders Fuging, Ytt, and Iaeauin, then you will be informed.”
I boarded the metallic ovular ship docked to the platform, and watched the world recede as the automatic piloting software began to rocket me back to Uuaiter, my home, one of the largest orbital habitats that the Eleven Thousand operated. My only other shipmate, a gelatinous Elragh, came up to me and asked me about the man.
“Juku, get an arrest warrant out on Hunoi. Inhumane treatment of prisoners, Level 1, plus ten counts of murder. If the Coalition States don’t play ball, disable his platform from orbit, let him fall to his death, an ‘accident’. You know what to do.”
“Hunoi? Why? What did he do, Erj?”
“He was nowhere near the refinery he operated when it was attacked. The evidence at that site we landed at before meeting with him confirms my suspicions.”
“The man was a hunter before the war, and he carried that with him after he was assigned control of the planet, and the prisoners dumped there by the Coalition forces. He simply changed prey.”