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Crouched in the mud-floored pit occupying what had once been Celeste's public square, Jaime Graham lifted his eyes to the eastern sky, beyond the ragged, flash-melted stubble marking the former site of Roland Towers. The dig was almost completely lost in darkness now, save for the gold-white gleams of work lights and various species of hovering clacker. Despite the glare of lights from the nearest floaters, the starclouds of Sagittarius filled the night sky with wonder and ice-glittering beauty.
Strange, he thought, that such beauty could have masked such unspeakable death and horror.
Even so, it seemed sometimes as though the sight of the stars was all that kept him sane, a way to lift him, however briefly, out of the living nightmare from which he and the other survivors could never wake.
"You'd better get back to work, Jaime," a cracked and dry-throated voice whispered at his side. "If the trusties don't see you, the clackers for damned sure will."
"As long as I keep moving, Wal," he replied, his own voice sounding just as ragged in his own ears. He glanced at his companion. Wal-formerly Colonel Waldon Josep Prescott of the Cloud Defense Forces-knelt in the mud by Jaime's side, a nylon bag strapped to the red-scarred stump of his left forearm, as he scratched through the muck with his right hand. His body, what could be seen of it through its glistening coat of slime and clay, was shockingly emaciated, the ribs showing like curved bars through taut, mud-encrusted skin, while both his hair and beard were matted and unkempt.
Jaime didn't need to see his own mud-coated body to know that he didn't look much better. Wal, though, was fifteen years older than Jaime and hadn't been in as good physical condition a year ago when the !*!*! had appeared in Cloud's skies. Both his left hand and his right eye had been harvested some months back, and the brutality of the past year had ground him down to a shadow of his former self. Jaime doubted that the colonel would be able to survive much longer.
As for himself, well, all of his body parts were intact so far, but there was no way of telling how long that condition would last. The worst of it for him was the debilitation brought on by constant work, unrelenting stress, and chronic malnutrition.
A faint, warbling hum warned of the approach of a floater eye, and reluctantly, he tore his eyes from the sky and made himself look busy. When he sensed the spy hovering close beside him, he looked up but kept digging.
Softball-sized and steel-gray in color, the floater hovered on internal contra-gravs that set his bare skin to prickling with the local buildup of a static charge. On the sphere's equator, a single, disturbingly human eye stared down at him from within a precisely crafted hollow on the floater's surface, unwinking, glistening in its trickling bath of nutrient solution, the iris a pale blue in color.
He wondered whose eye it was. Not Wal's, certainly, whose remaining eye was brown. Besides, speculation among those slaves with medical training and knowledge held that parts harvested from humans wouldn't survive more than a few weeks before they started to die, though there was no proof of that.
After a few tense moments, with Jaime continuing to feel through the mud, the warble increased in pitch and the floater eye drifted away. There were hundreds of the things adrift above the dig, constantly watching the slaves and presumably relaying what they saw to the Masters.
Keep working. Have to keep working....
Not for the first time, he considered the Hector Option. It would be quick, almost easy ... and without the agony of vivisection if the Masters came for him. Others had taken the Hector Option, lots of them ... with more and more attempting it each week.
Not yet. There has to be a way....
His hands slid an ooze of slick mud aside, and he reeled back on his haunches as a fetid stench broke the surface. "Uh oh," he said. "We got one here."
Wal moved closer, reaching in to help. The foul death-stink grew sharper, sweeter, and more eye-watering as they exposed the body, or what was left of it, lying in the wet muck next to a toppled, squared-off pillar from a shattered building.
After almost a T-standard year in the flooded grounds behind Celeste's waterfront, the body had been reduced to little more than a skeleton, with wet-paper skin still molded to the face and some of the longer, flatter bones, and colorless hair still clinging to the skull. It lay on its back, skull turned to one side, the fingers of the right hand crammed between gaping jaws, as though in a deliberate and desperate attempt to stifle a dying scream. From the length of the remaining hair, and the rags of cloth still clinging to the ribcage, Jaime guessed that it had been a woman. Only the top half of her body was accessible; the spool-train of her lower vertebrae vanished beneath the fallen pillar, and her pelvis and legs were hidden somewhere beneath the multiton block of stone.
No matter. Her organic parts could no longer be harvested in any case, and there was plenty of pure metal here, within easy reach. A gold ring encrusted with tiny gems still encircled the fourth finger of her left hand, a fingerwatch the fifth. A black-stained necklace of flattened chain links that might be gold but were probably gold-plate circled her neck. A pin of some kind, an ornament of some heavy, silvery metal worked into a lozenge shape centered by an exquisite, emerald-cut heliodore, lay on her ribs above what had been her left breast. Stardrop pendants next to the skull had probably been earrings.
Working swiftly, he plucked each article of jewelry from the bones and transferred them all to Wal's bag. The necklace clasp had corroded into an unworkable lump of oxide, so he had to work the skull free from the vertebrae to get at it. With the skull free in his hand, he checked the teeth for gold or gemstones. Gold dental fillings were a curiosity of the remote Dark Ages, of course, a medico-historical footnote, but some Cloudwellers had affected gold or silver teeth as cosmetic statements. This nameless woman, though, still had all of her original teeth, and no body prosthetics. There were some tiny catches and hooks here and there, however, that might have been part of her clothing. Each of these was carefully rescued from the muck and placed in the bag.
And through it all, Jaime carefully ignored the stink, ignored the emotions welling up in his throat as he stripped the skeleton of every scrap of metal he could find, and somehow buried the very thought of what he was doing far beneath the reach of his conscious mind. He knew from long experience that it simply didn't pay to dwell too much on what the Masters forced him to do each day.
"That's it," he said at last, the thing done. He wiped at his beard and mouth with the back of his arm, then pointed. "Let's move up that way."
They continued their sweep of the plaza, moving past the toppled pillar, inching along on hands and knees, feeling through the mud for any recyclable materials-pure metals, especially, but also gemstones, plastics, and even shards of ceramic or glass. The !*!*! used it all, forcing their human slaves to salvage every scrap. Around Jaime and Wal, filling the entire, stadium-sized pit, thousands of other ragged, filthy, half-starved, half-naked humans, slowly widened the dig, exploring for the bits and scraps of their own shattered technology with bare and mud-caked hands.
Life had become a nearly unendurable nightmare, an unending torture turned monotonous by the routine of slave labor that went on for day after day, punctuated all too frequently by moments of intense terror each time the Harvesters appeared. According to the calendar they'd been scratching out on one wall of the barracks, they'd been here for just under a T-standard year.
Had it only been a year? Existence now was a damned good recreation of an eternity in Hell, lacking, perhaps, in fire and brimstone, but more than adequate in the pain.
His probing fingers found a crumpled wad of metal, the surface so corroded he couldn't even tell what it was ... an appliance of some sort, he thought, maybe half of a power defroster, or possibly a piece of a hand sterilizer. He worked it free and passed it to Wal; the relic filled the nylon bag, so Wal struggled to his feet and started off across the dig, to the brooding presence of the Collector squatting in the midst of the slave-filled pit.
Jaime kept working. To stop was to die, and while death was welcome, most of the slaves preferred to wait and endure, knowing that there were far better ways to end this hell than to submit to the hot blades and microlasers of the Harvesters.
Has it really been only a year?
One year ago, Celeste had been the largest, the grandest of human cities on the blue and temperate world of Cloud, a white and sweeping growth of crystal-shining arcologies and polished, needle-slim skypiercers rising along the blue curve of Celeste Harbor and the nearby coastlines of the Tamarynth Sea. The city's population had numbered something just over one hundred thousand, and the population of the planet as a whole had been nearly ten million.
Cloud-named for the Sagittarian starclouds so prominent in the night skies of the northern hemisphere's spring and summer-had been colonized some two centuries ago by people fleeing the horrors and uncertainties of the Melconian Wars. Those pioneers had purchased a dozen large transports and abandoned several of the war-torn worlds near fair, lost Terra, seeking a new homeworld somewhere among the teeming billions of suns swarming in and around the star-thick reaches of the Galactic Core. They'd come from a dozen different worlds, from Destry and Lockhaven and Aldo Cerise, from New Devonshire and Alphacent and from Terra herself. They'd come with a single goal uniting them, the dream of a world where they could put down roots, raise crops and families, and in general get on with life ... in peace.
While the founders of Cloud had certainly included pacifists among their number, they'd not allowed pacifistic principles to blind them to the dangers of colonizing a world some tens of thousands of light years beyond human space; they'd brought both a military force and a Mark XXXIII Bolo along as protection against the Unknown.
Unfortunately, the Unknown had found them, and the Unknown had been so unimaginably powerful that even the latest in Bolo technology and six-megatons-per-second firepower had not stood a chance. Celeste had been flattened by a rock dropped from space, the towers toppled, the arcologies vaporized in a searing instant of ferrocrete-melting heat, the towers smashed by the crystalsteel-splintering shockwave. A crater a hundred meters across and twenty deep had been blasted into the city's heart; the shock had been so great that the very foundations of the city had settled, which was why the crater was now a lake, and the city square, inundated by water and mud, had still not drained.
Presumably, the other cities on Cloud all had suffered the same fate, though no one now slaving in these pits knew for sure. Every person in and near Celeste had died in the attacks; the survivors were those who had been outside the city when the high-velocity chunk of nickel-iron had lanced out of a cloudless noon sky. There'd been no warning, no ultimatum, and no chance to coordinate the entire planetary population. The war, such as it was, had been over within a few days of what now was called the Great Killing.
The survivors had been offered amnesty by the Masters, the offer transmitted by Speakers, the strange species of !*!*! floater that could actually communicate in Terran Anglic. The offer had been irresistible: surrender peacefully to the Masters, and they would not incinerate the continent ... or vivisect the millions of humans already captured. Life, after all, was better than death on a planetary scale.
The Masters' definition of "life," however, included slave pits, slow starvation, and random harvestings. More and more of the survivors were beginning to think they'd made the wrong choice.
Wal returned, his nylon bag empty. Without a word, he dropped to hand and knees and resumed digging. Everywhere, as far as eye could see, the human slaves continued digging, as a steady stream of individuals lugged bags filled with the detritus of civilization to the Collector, emptied them into the machine's yawning maw, then trudged back to their assigned places.
Jaime's fingers touched something slick, and he fished it out, swishing it in the muddy water to clean it. An exquisite china carving lay in his hand ... a ballerina, en pointe, arms raised, her figure miraculously perfect and unchipped.
Jaime stared at the figure for a long moment ... until Wal reached across and plucked her from his fingers, dropping her into the bag. He was left wondering how the figurine had survived. The meteor strike and the shockwave that had followed had leveled the entire center of the city, and moments later the ground as far back from the bay as the city square had been inundated by an inrushing wall of water. Buildings had shattered and toppled ... the ones that hadn't melted outright. The ballerina must have been blasted from some apartment in one of the city's arcologies, a knickknack swept from mantelpiece or bureau top and hurled by tornadic winds ... here. How had it survived?
"Why," Jaime asked aloud, his voice a ragged whisper, "are the Masters so damned concerned about retrieving every scrap of junk?"
"Waste not, want not, they always say," Wal quipped. He smiled, but the expression was no more than a tired showing of dirty teeth.
"There's more to it than that. They already had their machines pick over the entire surface. They got almost everything, except for scraps. Why do they need us for that?"
"Maybe they don't like getting their hands dirty."
"Yeah, but, I mean, what difference does it make, one gold ring on a skeletal hand, more or less?" Or one delicate, unbroken china ballerina.
Wal didn't reply right away, but continued feeling his way through the mud. "You know, Major," he said after a long moment, "one thing you shouldn't forget, one thing none of us should ever forget, is that these, these machines are not human. They don't think like us. They don't feel like us. Hell, we don't even know whether or not the things are self-aware."
"It's not enough," Jaime said, "to explain strange behavior just by saying they're alien."
"Mebee. I guess if the clackers want every last gram of refined metal and plastic and stuff like that recovered, they must have their reasons." The colonel paused, moving his hand in the mud, then plucked a goblet, a drinking glass miraculously intact save for the snapped-off stem and base, from the muck. He put the find in his bag before continuing.
Excerpted from Bolo Rising by William H. Keith Copyright © 1998 by William H. Keith. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted September 17, 2000
This book goes further than the other Bolo books since it is the longest Bolo story until now. Here the characters are more developed so they do not only function as the decor for the Bolo. The Bolo also gets more 'time' for characterdevelopment. If you enjoyed the other Bolo stories this book is a real Must Have since the storyline is fast, mindgripping and exiciting.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 24, 2000
Well written, with a longer story than the other bolo novels, Large battles with enemy units that are pretty dang nasty, and an enemy intelligence that game me the BORG willy's. If you like the other Bolo novels, pick this one up!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.