The Silent War
By Bova, Ben
Tor Science Fiction Copyright © 2005 Bova, Ben
All right reserved.
ASTEROID 67-046 Continues...
I was a soldier," he said. "Now I am a priest. You may call me Dorn."
Elverda Apacheta could not help staring at him. She had seen cyborgs before, but this...person seemed more machine than man. She felt a chill ripple of contempt along her veins. How could a human being allow his body to be disfigured so?
He was not tall; Elverda herself stood several centimeters taller than he. His shoulders were quite broad, though; his torso thick and solid. The left side of his face was engraved metal, as was the entire top of his head: like a skullcap made of finest etched steel.
Dorn's left hand was prosthetic. He made no attempt to disguise it. Beneath the rough fabric of his shabby tunic and threadbare trousers, how much more of him was metal and electrical machinery? Tattered though his clothing was, his calf-length boots were polished to a high gloss.
"A priest?" asked Martin Humphries. "Of what church? What order?"
The half of Dorn's lips that could move made a slight curl. A smile or a sneer, Elverda could not tell.
"I will show you to your quarters," said Dorn. His voice was a low rumble, as if it came from the belly of a beast. It echoed faintly off the walls of rough-hewn rock.
Humphries looked briefly surprised. He was not accustomed to having his questions ignored. Elverda watched his face. Humphries was as handsome asregeneration therapies and cosmetic nanomachines could make a person appear: chiseled features, straight of spine, lean of limb, athletically flat midsection. Yet his cold gray eyes were hard, merciless. And there was a faint smell of corruption about him, Elverda thought. As if he were dead inside and already beginning to rot.
The tension between the two men seemed to drain the energy from Elverda's aged body. "It has been a long journey," she said. "I am very tired. I would welcome a hot shower and a long nap."
"Before you see it?" Humphries snapped.
"It has taken us more than a week to get here. We can wait a few hours more." Inwardly she marveled at her own words. Once she would have been all fiery excitement. Have the years taught you patience? No, she realized. Only weariness.
"Not me!" Humphries said. Turning to Dorn, "Take me to it now. I've waited long enough. I want to see it now."
Dorn's eyes, one as brown as Elverda's own, the other a red electronic glow, regarded Humphries for a lengthening moment.
"Well?" Humphries demanded.
"I am afraid, sir, that the chamber is sealed for the next twelve hours. It will be imposs--"
"Sealed? By whom? On whose authority?"
"The chamber is self-controlled. Whoever made the artifact installed the controls, as well."
"No one told me about that," said Humphries.
Dorn replied, "Your quarters are down this corridor."
He turned almost like a solid block of metal, shoulders and hips together, head unmoving on those wide shoulders, and started down the central corridor. Elverda fell in step alongside his metal half, still angered at his self-desecration. Yet despite herself, she thought of what a challenge it would be to sculpt him. If I were younger, she told herself. If I were not so close to death. Human and inhuman, all in one strangely fierce figure.
Humphries came up on Dorn's other side, his face red with barely suppressed anger.
They walked down the corridor in silence, Humphries's weighted shoes clicking against the uneven rock floor. Dorn's boots made hardly any noise at all. Half-machine he may be, Elverda thought, but once in motion he moves like a panther.
The asteroid's inherent gravity was so slight that Humphries needed the weighted footgear to keep himself from stumbling ridiculously. Elverda, who had spent most of her long life in low-gravity environments, felt completely at home. The corridor they were walking through was actually a tunnel, shadowy and mysterious, or perhaps a natural chimney vented through the metallic body by escaping gases eons ago when the asteroid was still molten. Now it was cold, chill enough to make Elverda shudder. The rough ceiling was so low she wanted to stoop, even though the rational side of her mind knew it was not necessary.
Soon, though, the walls smoothed out and the ceiling grew higher. Humans had extended the tunnel, squaring it with laser precision. Doors lined both walls now and the ceiling glowed with glareless, shadowless light. Still she hugged herself against the chill that the two men did not seem to notice.
They stopped at a wide double door. Dorn tapped out the entrance code on the panel set into the wall, and the doors slid open.
"Your quarters, sir," he said to Humphries. "You may, of course, change the privacy code to suit yourself."
Humphries gave a curt nod and strode through the open doorway. Elverda got a glimpse of a spacious suite, carpeting on the floor and hologram windows on the walls.
Humphries turned in the doorway to face them. "I expect you to call for me in twelve hours," he said to Dorn, his voice hard.
"Eleven hours and fifty-seven minutes," Dorn replied.
Humphries's nostrils flared and he slid the double doors shut.
"This way." Dorn gestured with his human hand. "I'm afraid your quarters are not as sumptuous as Mr. Humphries's."
Elverda said, "I am his guest. He is paying all the bills."
"You are a great artist. I have heard of you."
"For the truth? That is not necessary."
I was a great artist, Elverda said to herself. Once. Long ago. Now I am an old woman waiting for death.
Aloud, she asked, "Have you seen my work?"
Dorn's voice grew heavier. "Only holograms. Once I set out to see The Rememberer for myself, but--other matters intervened."
"You were a soldier then."
"Yes. I have only been a priest since coming to this place."
Elverda wanted to ask him more, but Dorn stopped before a blank door and opened it for her. For an instant she thought he was going to reach for her with his prosthetic hand. She shrank away from him.
"I will call for you in eleven hours and fifty-six minutes," he said, as if he had not noticed her revulsion.
He turned away, like a machine pivoting.
"Wait," Elverda called. "Please--how many others are here? Everything seems so quiet."
"There are no others. Only the three of us.
"I am in charge of the security brigade. I ordered the others of my command to go back to our spacecraft and wait there."
"And the scientists? The prospector family that found this asteroid?"
"They are in Mr. Humphries's spacecraft, the one you arrived in," said Dorn. "Under the protection of my brigade."
Elverda looked into his eyes. Whatever burned in them, she could not fathom.
"Then we are alone here?"
Dorn nodded solemnly. "You and me--and Mr. Humphries, who pays all the bills." The human half of his face remained as immobile as the metal. Elverda could not tell if he were trying to be humorous or bitter.
"Thank you," she said. He turned away and she closed the door.
Her quarters consisted of a single room, comfortably warm but hardly larger than the compartment on the ship they had come in. Elverda saw that her meager travel bag was already sitting on the bed, her worn old drawing computer resting in its travel-smudged case on the desk. She stared at the computer case as if it were accusing her. I should have left it home, she thought. I will never use it again.
A small utility robot, hardly more than a glistening drum of metal and six gleaming arms folded like a praying mantis's, stood mutely in the farthest corner. Elverda studied it for a moment. At least it was entirely a machine; not a self-mutilated human being. To take the most beautiful form in the universe and turn it into a hybrid mechanism, a travesty of humanity. Why did he do it? So he could be a better soldier? A more efficient killing machine?
And why did he send all the others away? she asked herself while she opened the travel bag. As she carried her toiletries to the narrow alcove of the lavatory, a new thought struck her. Did he send them away before he saw the artifact, or afterward? Has he even seen it? Perhaps...
Then she saw her reflection in the mirror above the wash basin. Her heart sank. Once she had been called regal, stately, a goddess made of copper. Now she looked withered, dried up, bone thin, her face a geological map of too many years of living, her flight coveralls hanging limply on her emaciated frame.
You are old, she said to her image. Old and aching and tired.
It is the long trip, she told herself. You need to rest. But the other voice in her mind laughed scornfully. You've done nothing but rest for the entire time it's taken to reach this piece of rock. You are ready for the permanent rest; why deny it?
She had been teaching at the University of Selene, the Moon being the closest she could get to Earth after a long lifetime of living in low-gravity environments. Close enough to see the world of her birth, the only world of life and warmth in the solar system, the only place where a person could walk out in the sunshine and feel its warmth soaking your bones, smell the fertile earth nurturing its bounty, feel a cool breeze plucking at your hair.
But she had separated herself from Earth permanently. She had stood on the ice crags of Europa's frozen ocean; from an orbiting spacecraft she had watched the surging clouds of Jupiter swirl their overpowering colors; she had carved the kilometer-long rock of The Rememberer. But she could no longer stand in the village of her birth, at the edge of the Pacific's booming surf, and watch the soft white clouds form shapes of imaginary animals.
Her creative life was long finished. She had lived too long; there were no friends left, and she had never had a family. There was no purpose to her life, no reason to do anything except go through the motions and wait. She refused the rejuvenation therapies that were offered her. At the university she was no longer truly working at her art but helping students who had the fires of inspiration burning fresh and hot inside them. Her life was one of vain regrets for all the things she had not accomplished, for all the failures she could recall. Failures at love; those were the bitterest. She was praised as the solar system's greatest artist: the sculptress of The Rememberer, the creator of the first great ionospheric painting, The Virgin of the Andes. She was respected, but not loved. She felt empty, alone, barren. She had nothing to look forward to; absolutely nothing.
Then Martin Humphries swept into her existence. A lifetime younger, bold, vital, even ruthless, he stormed her academic tower with the news that an alien artifact had been discovered deep in the Asteroid Belt.
"It's some kind of art form," he said, desperate with excitement. "You've got to come with me and see it."
Trying to control the long-forgotten yearning that stirred within her, Elverda had asked quietly, "Why do I have to go with you, Mr. Humphries? Why me? I'm an old wo--"
"You are the greatest artist of our time," he had answered without an eyeblink's hesitation. "You've got to see this! Don't bullshit me with false modesty. You're the only other person in the whole whirling solar system who deserves to see it!"
"The only other person besides whom?" she had asked.
He had blinked with surprise. "Why, besides me, of course."
So now we are on this nameless asteroid, waiting to see the alien artwork. Just the three of us. The richest man in the solar system. An elderly artist who has outlived her usefulness. And a cyborg soldier who has cleared everyone else away.
He claims to be a priest, Elverda remembered. A priest who is half machine. She shivered as if a cold wind surged through her.
A harsh buzzing noise interrupted her thoughts. Looking into the main part of the room, Elverda saw that the phone screen was blinking red in rhythm to the buzzing.
"Phone," she called out.
Humphries's face appeared on the screen instantly. "Come to my quarters," he said. "We have to talk."
"Give me an hour. I need--"
Elverda felt her brows rise haughtily. Then the strength sagged out of her. He has bought the right to command you, she told herself. He is quite capable of refusing to allow you to see the artifact.
"Now," she agreed.
Humphries was pacing across the plush carpeting when she arrived at his quarters. He had changed from his flight coveralls to a comfortably loose royal blue pullover and expensive genuine twill slacks. As the doors slid shut behind her, he stopped in front of a low couch and faced her squarely."
"Do you know who this Dorn creature is?"
Elverda answered, "Only what he has told us."
"I've checked him out. My staff in the ship has a complete file on him. He's the butcher who led the Chrysalis massacre, six years ago."
"Eleven hundred men, women and children. Slaughtered. He was the man who commanded the attack."
"He said he had been a soldier."
"A mercenary. A cold-blooded murderer. He worked for me once, long, ago, but he was working for Yamagata then. The Chrysalis was the rock rats' habitat. When its population refused to give up Lars Fuchs, Yamagata put him in charge of a squad to convince them to cooperate. He killed them all; slashed the habitat to shreds and let them all die."
Elverda felt shakily for the nearest chair and sank into it. Her legs seemed to have lost all their strength.
"His name was Harbin then. Dorik Harbin."
"Wasn't he brought to trial?"
"No. He ran away. Disappeared. I always thought Yamagata helped to hide him. They take care of their own, they do. He must have changed his name afterwards. Nobody would hire the butcher, not even Yamagata."
"His face...half his body..." Elverda felt terribly weak, almost faint. "When..."
"Must have been after he ran away. Maybe it was an attempt to disguise himself."
"And now he is working for you again." She wanted to laugh at the irony of it, but did not have the strength.
"He's got us trapped on this chunk of rock! There's nobody else here except the three of us."
"You have your staff in your ship. Surely they would come if you summoned them."
"His security squad's been ordered to keep everybody except you and me off the asteroid. He gave those orders."
"You can countermand them, can't you?"
For the first time since she had met Martin Humphries, he looked unsure of himself. "I wonder," he said.
"Why?" Elverda asked. "Why is he doing this?"
"That's what I intend to find out." Humphries strode to the phone console. "Harbin!" he called. "Dorik Harbin. Come to my quarters at once."
Without even a microsecond's delay the phone's computer-synthesized voice replied, "Dorik Harbin no longer exists. Transferring your call to Dorn."
Humphries's gray eyes snapped at the phone's blank screen.
"Dorn is not available at present," the phone's voice said. "He will call for you in eleven hours and thirty-two minutes."
"What do you mean, Dorn's not available?" Humphries shouted at the blank phone screen. "Get me the officer on watch aboard the Humphries Eagle."
"All exterior communications are inoperable at the present time," replied the phone.
"All exterior communications are inoperable at the present time," the phone repeated, unperturbed.
Humphries stared at the empty screen, then turned slowly toward Elverda Apacheta. "He's cut us off. We're trapped in here."
Copyright 2004 by Ben Bova
Excerpted from The Silent War by Bova, Ben Copyright © 2005 by Bova, Ben. Excerpted by permission.
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