The age of Aquarius
The fires in the settlement began to die down by sunset, but the sea breeze still carried the acrid smell of the smoke and the sickly sweet stench of burnt human flesh.
The Laputan Marines were tired. The inhabitants of the settlement had put up a fierce defence and four Marines were dead. Laputan body armour gave excellent protection to the wearer, but a lucky rifle shot could still kill.
Captain Hawkins walked through what had been a relatively prosperous settlement until his platoon had attacked it a few hours before. Training instructors warned you about what you would see after you used a plasma rifle on someone, but they could not tell you how to cope with the sight and smell of the charred corpses. The wounds inflicted by laser rifles were no less horrific; the captain looked at the corpse of a woman who had tried to use her body in a desperate attempt to shield her child. A laser beam had cut through her like a hot knife through butter, and had gone on to kill the child.
Corporal Martinez, a short woman whose attractive features were somehow enhanced by the eye implant that allowed her to see deep into infrared, approached him. “Do you have the preliminary interrogation reports?” he asked.
“Yes sir. This settlement was just what it seemed to be. A peaceful community that supported itself through farming, fishing and trade with its neighbours.”
“But it was protected by two lines of fences. And most of the inhabitants had weapons, even if they were mainly ancient bolt action rifles. That’s a bit excessive for keeping out the occasional wandering transgenant.”
“We asked about that, sir. They said that there was a bad harvest across the region a couple of years back. The Cultists in the interior were hit particularly hard, so they raided this settlement for food. There were a couple of pirate raids as well.”
Captain Hawkins shuddered at the thought of people being reduced to killing each other for scraps of food. The hydroponics plants made food plentiful on the Laputa, even if old timers complained about the bland taste. “So they weren’t sheltering any rebel cyborgs then? There were no links with the Resistance?”
“Doesn’t look like it, sir. We checked for priest holes and everything.” Settlements that wanted to conceal cyborgs and other dissidents from a Laputan sweep sometimes built concealed rooms and cellars in buildings like the priest holes built to conceal Catholic priests from the authorities in 16th century England. However, cyborgs were designed for war, so they would take part in the fighting if their protectors came under attack.
“Four of our people, and over one hundred natives dead, and this is what we have to show for it?”
“These things happen in war, sir.”
“That’s not good enough. You know what’s going to happen when military intelligence debriefs us. They will talk about regrettable losses and promise that lessons will be learned. Or they’ll just blame us for not looking hard enough. Then we’ll be sent out to do exactly the same thing the next time the Council wants to boost its popularity. And another nameless settlement is going to be burnt to the ground.”
“Are you sure you aren’t planetsick, sir?” asked the corporal, a concerned tone in her voice. Planetsickness was a form of agoraphobia many Laputans felt when confronted with the distant horizons and open skies of a planet such as Earth, Luna or Mars.
“A bit, but I can deal with it. I’ve been pretty fed up for a long time, but this is the first chance I’ve had to say anything. You know how good our government is at spying on people back on the Laputa, and what they do to dissidents. And when they send troops to Earth, they make sure we’re accompanied by political officers. We know Political Security foisted Sergeant Rogers on us, and I’m damm sure Gombrich was a plant. At least I saw them doing a lot of conferring when they thought I wasn’t looking. Well they were both killed in the mission, and good riddance to them because it means I can speak my mind for once.”
“I never did take to Gombrich,” said the corporal. “He always seemed to be sneaking around and looking over your shoulder to see what you were doing.”
“There was a time when they didn’t put two political officers in each platoon to control us.”
“However did they ensure the loyalty of the army?”
“They didn’t have to. People volunteered because they were proud to serve in their national army. Soldiers were heroes back then. Look what we’ve been reduced to. Destroying a harmless village so the Council can look strong and decisive. That’s what this insane war is about. If anybody was seriously trying to win the war then we would have had some air support for a start.”
“Why would the Council do such a thing?”
The captain noticed that most of the platoon was now listening to him, although only Corporal Menendez would dare to get involved in a conversation that Political Security would doubtless call subversive. Thoughts that he had not even dared to think for more years than he cared to remember were suddenly bubbling at the surface of his mind, demanding to be spoken. “Well, as you know, the Council of Earth was founded a few months after the Fall. It was made up of the political leaders who had survived the Fall because they had been given priority for places in the shelters. The overriding priority for a human politician has always been to gain power. Things like morals and the welfare of the people are always secondary to the desire for more power. And there is no limit the ambition of a politician. This is why the Council was so ready to accept the Reticulan Offer, despite the death and destruction of the previous two years.
“A lot of people decided to tough it out down here on Earth instead of moving to the Laputa. Mostly, they didn’t like the idea of trusting the Reticulans. Besides, they figured that it would only be until the arrival of the Old Grey fleet. The people who moved to the Laputa figured the same thing: this isn’t going to be forever, the Old Greys will make everything better. The people would never have supported the decision to sign that treaty if hadn’t been for the talk about the Old Grey fleet. The dammed Reticulans are probably still laughing about that.
“Anyway, the Laputan Council, as it restyled itself, wasn’t too bothered about the people on Earth back then. It thought they would get fed up with fighting for survival and ask to be admitted to the space settlements. Trouble is, the opposite happened. The Earth tribes stuck it out. Then when corruption and political repression on the Laputa increased, a lot of Laputans decided they preferred things on Earth, so they emigrated. The Council hasn’t got any real control on Earth, and neither do the Reticulans, although they don’t like admitting it. News reports of squalid living conditions, tribal wars, famines and plague outbreaks just weren’t deterring people.
“So they banned all civilian travel to Earth in the late thirties. But there were still people ready to risk their lives to escape to Earth. And I do mean escape; the Council assigned some patrol ships to the Laputa/Earth route to impound or destroy ships carrying dissidents heading for Earth.
“The blockade wasn’t enough, so the Council escalated things by starting this war. It wants to destroy all the viable settlements on the planet, thereby ending the emigration that damages its claim to be the representative government of humanity and thus its standing with the Reticulans.” Some of the soldiers were looking at the captain in disbelief, but he noticed that a few were nodding in agreement, as if they had already had similar thoughts but had been frightened to speak out for fear of getting a one-way ticket to the asteroid mines.
“Sir, are you saying that we’re only attacking the settlements on Earth so that the Council can stay in power?” asked the corporal.
“What about the cyborg mutiny at Camp Lagado?”
“Yes, I keep hearing about that. At least, I keep hearing about the soldiers they killed before they dispersed across the planet. Nobody seems to want to talk about what set off the mutiny though.”
“But you’ve got a theory, haven’t you sir?”
“Not really. But I have found out through, shall we say, more informal sources that an investigative journalist was close to figuring it out. So the government called him a security risk and quietly shipped him to the asteroid mines. Execution would have been kinder. Only the strongest people survive a year in the mines and nobody has ever survived two years. It’s a great way of removing people the government doesn’t want to be seen to be executing.”
“It’s been a hard mission for all of us, sir. The troopship will be arriving in another four hours or so. You’ll feel better once you’ve got back home and had some rest.”
The Laputa was clearly visible low in the eastern skies by that time, the sunlight reflecting off the solar panels that provided much of its power. “Look up there,” said the captain as he fought down the accompanying feeling of nausea at seeing those open skies. One soldier was less lucky; he took one look up at the evening sky and promptly threw up. “To you, that light in the sky represents home. Plenty to eat and comfortable quarters. That’s what humanity sold its collective soul for. But that light means something different to me. Corruption, repressive tyranny, senseless war. It stands as a monument to our surrender to stupidity.
“Well you lot can go back home if you like. I’m fed up with it all. I’m going to desert and stay on Earth. Anyone else who decides to stay down here as well is more than welcome.” He was disappointed but unsurprised when nobody else wanted to desert as they all had family back on the Laputa. The Constitution of 2047 guaranteed that no action would be taken against a Laputan citizen simply for being related to a criminal or a dissident, a subtle way of telling people that the government would punish the relatives of anybody who stepped out of line. He wondered if he would have dared to be so critical of the government if he had happened to have any hostages to his good behaviour back home as well.
Corporal Martinez made one last attempt to dissuade the captain. “But sir, you’ll never survive down here. The natives will probably kill you on sight, that’s if you’re not killed by a transgenant, starvation or disease first. Think of those horrible skies that just seem to want to suck you into infinity. And they have weather down here as well. Imagine being stuck in the open when it starts to rain or snow.”
“It still sounds better than going back to the Laputa and having some chair bound intelligence officer trying to put a positive spin on this mission, or maybe he’ll accuse me of dereliction of duty for failing to find cyborgs that were never there to be found.” The captain strode over to where the prisoners were being guarded by two Marines. There were about fifty frightened people of all ages. Many of them looked as if they had been crying. None of them seemed to be much of a threat to the Laputa. “Do any of you people speak English?”
“I do,” said an elderly man who looked as if he had last seen military service during the Reticulan invasion so many years before.
“One of our troop ships will arrive here in about four hours. If you are still here when it arrives, you will be taken back with us. Your children will be sent to re-education facilities to learn to be good Laputan citizens. The rest of you will be given a life sentence in the asteroid mines. Grab some supplies and get away from here right now. It’s a full moon tonight so you should be able to see your way. Our people will lose interest in you by tomorrow, so you can return to your settlement and rebuild if you want.” Some of the prisoners were carrying wounds, so a night march would be hard on them, but their chances of survival would be far better than if they were taken to the Laputa for processing.
“Why would you care about us after what you’ve just done?”
“We attacked you because we were lied to by our leaders. I can’t undo what we’ve done, but I can make sure I don’t do the same thing to someone else. I’ve decided that I don’t want to have anything more to do with this insanity.”
“You might suddenly be feeling guilty, but what about your soldiers? They didn’t worry about how many women and children they murdered this afternoon.”
“Don’t worry about them, they’ll obey my orders. Besides I’ll shoot the first soldier who tries to stop you.” The guards were unsure what to do until a glare from the captain showed them that he was serious. He noticed that Corporal Martinez was trying to decide whether she should intervene or not. “What did you soldiers really think we do to prisoners of war?” asked the captain in a raised voice. “The government isn’t going to give them food, water and air unless it can get some work out of them.”
“Well now you’ve totally burnt your boats, what do you plan on doing now?” asked the corporal.
“I think I’ll go hiking in, well, any direction I damm well like. Maybe I’ll try to find out whatever happened to the Old Greys. But there’s one more thing I’d better do first.” Captain Hawkins calmly took his penknife out of his pocket, rolled up his sleeve, and winced as he dug the blade into the flesh of his left forearm. The soldiers were mesmerised by this display, unsure of what he was doing. He then used the knife to dig out the tracking and identification chip that had identified him as a Laputan citizen since he had been born.
He turned over the cubic centimetre sized chip in his hand as he allowed the platoon medic to apply a field dressing to his arm. The Council used millions of these Reticulan devices to help maintain its control over its citizens. He let it fall to the ground and then he aimed his plasma rifle at the chip and fired. The superheated plasma blast vaporised it instantly.
Finally, he was free!