As Samuel's docking doors inched open, the muffled cheers from the gathering crowd grew into a deafening roar.
He lowered a ladder, but it hardly seemed necessary. In only 2% of Earth gravity, he could've just jumped the four meters to the metal floor below. The crowd parted just far enough to let him descend among them, and as he did so every hand within reach patted him on the back or the shoulder or the arm or even the leg with the most genuine appreciation they'd ever expressed.
And everyone in that cheering throng looked emaciated.
"Hali!" Samuel tried to shout over the crowd. "Where's Hali? Where's my sister?"
One of the men cupped his hands to his mouth for Samuel to hear. "She's down below!" He gestured at, or perhaps beneath, the floor. Alongside his answer, everyone nearby yelled to be heard. "Did you bring rations?" "Let's start unloading!" "CO2 scrubbers! We need the CO2 scrubbers!" "Not a moment too soon!" "The water reclamation parts, will they fit a model 51T?" "How did you make it past the blockade?" "Our machine shop needs all the tools you can spare!" "Is there salamanderone? My brother lost his leg last year!" "Food, at last!"
It took nearly a minute of gesturing from Samuel before the crowd noise finally died down.
"We can start unloading in a minute," Samuel said. "But first, I need to introduce you to somebody. This man used to be the biggest terror in the Karthosian blockade. In fact, he was on the brink of destroying my own ship. But then I met him, and he changed his mind. Without his help, I never would have made it through the blockade. Don't be alarmed when you see him. He's not your enemy right now." He unhooked a walkie-talkie from his belt and spoke into it. "Strangen, could you come down here?"
From the open docking doors above, a pair of long metal legs descended at a constant, antigrav-controlled pace. Bewildered faces looked up at the legs as they appeared. But when the metal torso and head emerged atop those legs, and its feet touched down on the metal floor, the crowd's gasps were nearly in unison.
"The Starlane Destroyer!" someone shouted. "Holy cats, it's him!" another yelped. "What the hell!" "You brought him here?!" "We're trapped up here!" "You goddamned traitor!"
"No no no no no!" Samuel tried to calm them. It wasn't working. "He's not our enemy! He's not here to attack us! He's on our side!"
Strangen's voice boomed from Samuel's walkie-talkie. "Your friend Samuel is right. I'm not here to attack you. I escorted him through the Karthosian blockade."
The crowd was dead silent. Some felt seething rage, some felt shock, but all were frozen in cold terror.
Strangen went on: "I don't pretend that I can atone for all the death and misery I've caused. But I do know that I can't keep inflicting more of it. I was born and raised Karthosian, and they told me over and over that Outsiders such as yourselves are inferior. But my government wants to rule the galaxy through iron and fear and siege and subjugation, and I've been their instrument of oppression for far too long."
He paused. A murmur started in the crowd, so he spoke again: "At least let me help you unload these supplies. Some of the crates are massive and bulky, and my 3-meter robotic body is as strong as a forklift. Where's your loading ramp?"
"You're standing on it," one man said.
Strangen puzzled, looking around. The only visible hardware was a built-in crane arm and operator's panel. The rest of the room was was surrounded by railing on all four sides, with no exit door. Then, he understood. The entire floor must be one giant freight elevator. "I'll get the first armload," he transmitted, and vanished back up through the docking doors.
The crowd's murmur resumed. "I don't like this one bit." "He's Karthosian military, he can't be up to any good." "What if he's bringing bombs? Or poison?" "Doesn't matter, we can't stop him."
Strangen descended back to one corner of the platform carrying two crates, each a meter on the side. One was stamped "dehy rations," the other "air circ". He shot back into Samuel's ship the moment he set the crates down. A moment later, he returned with two more crates. Then two more. And two more after that. The stack of crates was growing, slowly, but most of the platform was still empty. "The unloading would go faster if you'd help."
A young man in the crowd blinked, then hop-stepped over to the control panel in the low gravity. The rest of the crowd wasn't sure what to make of him. He flipped a few switches, pressed a button, grasped a lever, and then the crane arm shuddered into motion. It extended up into the open docking doors and grabbed a pallet of four meter-wide crates stacked two deep. Straps held the crates to the pallet, enabling the crane to move the whole stack downward faster than the low gravity would normally allow. They added neatly to the crate stack in one corner, and were quickly joined by two more crates carried by Strangen.
Then, another bystander opted to help unload, and began using handholds on the wall as a kind of ladder. With only one crane on the platform, this one had to pull crates out one-at-a-time by hand. It could never have been done on a high-gravity world like Earth or Karthos, but here his only worry was to keep the crate from moving too fast. Then another joined in the effort. And another. Before long, so many people were unloading they began to get in each others' way . . . but within ten minutes, all the remaining crates from Samuel's ship were sprawled out over half the floor.
"All unloaded!" Samuel announced. "We can close 'er up and get these crates moved away."
The young man at the control panel said "Dock seal, stand clear!," and the docking doors ground outward from the sides of the ceiling until they met in the middle. The rubber seals on the docking doors' front edges looked frayed from neglect, Strangen noted. He wondered how much longer they'd be able to hold air.
"Going down!" came the announcement. With a lurch, the floor began its gradual descent. The metal walls scrolled by for a few meters, then gave way to hastily chiselled stone — the bare stone of this tiny world's interior. It looked unfinished, as though this entire shaft had been bored out in a hurry.
"Samuel," Strangen transmitted, "This access tunnel has to have been one of the first things this colony built. It should date from before the Karthosian blockade, when resources would've been a lot more plentiful. So why does the construction look so slipshod?"
Samuel picked up his walkie-talkie and held it close, keeping his voice low. "I'll bet most colonies are similar. I got a certain . . . gist from Hali's early messages to me. When she first made landfall, all she cared about was getting those sweet, sweet mineables. She and her husband were gonna get rich selling them to the inner worlds. I guess they all figured there'd be plenty of time to go back and flesh the place out once they were living the good life."
Strangen nodded his metal head. That must be part of the reason why the Karthosian blockade had been so devastatingly effective. So few colonies were self-sufficient because none of them had been aiming for self-sufficiency.
After descending a few dozen more meters, the close walls of the stone shaft flared outward into a wide room. A safety cage guarded the perimeter of their elevator-floor for the last few meters, then they stopped at the bottom. Tunnels headed off in three directions . . . and from two of the tunnels wafted a bedraggled crowd, gaping at them just like the smaller crowd when they'd arrived.
They'd been forewarned over radio by their contemporaries on the elevator floor, but still, some of them jerked in involuntary fear at the sight of the Starlane Destroyer. But when he didn't make a move toward them or aim any weapons at them, their attention switched to the supply crates that had the potential to save their lives, and soon this new crowd was grabbing crates so enthusiastically they were getting in their own way.
Samuel looked out on the crowd, trying to find . . . but she found him first. A feminine voice called out, "Sam!"
His eyes opened wide and he broke into a huge smile. "Hali!" He rushed out to meet her.
Strangen watched from a distance, deaf to the sounds of the crowd with no one transmitting. He dared not accompany Sam, for fear that any movement might spook the crowd. But the sight of Sam hugging that emaciated woman, and enthusiastically shaking the hand of the scraggly man with her, warmed what passed for his heart. He could almost see the resemblance of those two to the picture on Samuel's console.
Samuel took their hands and led them back to the elevator floor. When they were close enough, he held his tachyon walkie-talkie up to his mouth and flipped its transmit switch. "Strangen, this is the sister I've been telling you about. And my brother-in-law."
Hali stared and spoke. She was close enough to Samuel's walkie-talkie that it picked up her words. "I can't believe you're friends with the Starlane Destroyer. After all the grief he's caused!"
"Karthos made him do those things," Samuel replied. "We both knew that."
"We suspected it," Hali countered. "How do you know he's not pretending to be on our side, just so we'll let down our guard?"
"If he wanted us dead," Samuel said, "He would have killed everyone in the room already."
"Samuel's right." Strangen's voice came from the walkie-talkie, taking Hali aback momentarily. "I've killed a lot of people at Karthos's command. But for all the horrors they've had me commit, for all the terror and suffering they've spread through the galaxy . . . Karthos is still my home. Or parts of it are. I can still picture the city I grew up in, and the people I knew, before they did —" he tapped his metal flanks "— this to me. And . . . and there's Dorsa. I love her more than anything in the galaxy."
This wasn't what Hali had expected to hear.
The stacks of crates on the elevator floor had been getting steadily shorter and sparser. In the distance, over the heads of the crowd, Strangen could make out a woman pulling a packet of standard food rations out of a crate and hugging her two children. In another corner, a man held up a CO2 scrubber while three others cheered.
Then, from one of the two populated tunnels emerged a middle-aged woman flanked by three attendees. Even in the low gravity, she managed to walk with a self-assured air that bespoke authority. Strangen's gaze got Hali's attention, and she turned to see what he was looking at. "Flor's coming," she said. "Uh, that's Flornangia Chloris. She's kind of like the mayor here."
Flor and her aides walked right up to Samuel, and the woman shook his hand vigorously. "I speak for the whole colony when I say thank you, Samuel Withers, from the bottoms of our hearts. You may have saved us all."
"Ma'am, I can't take the credit," Samuel replied. He turned his head and locked eyes with Strangen.
Flor frowned. "You don't mean he . . . this monster here . . ."
"As I've tried to explain," Samuel continued, "I'm here only because of him. He pointed me to the least-patrolled route across the Karthosian blockade, and actually knocked out a Karthosian cruiser along the way."
The woman stared at the three-meter cyborg, incredulous. "I don't believe it. The Starlane Destroyer's never betrayed the Karthosians before."
Strangen's voice came out of Samuel's walkie-talkie: "There's a first time for everything."
She folded her arms. Then, as the thought sank in, a broad smile broke out on her face. "Well, then . . . this might be even better news!" She looked up into Strangen's blank, black eyes. "Regardless, this colony was on the brink of death. I can't tell you how incredible, how downright miraculous all these new supplies have felt. You've saved us. Is there anything we can give you in return?"
Strangen scanned his resource levels. "Now that you mention it, I could use some deuterium."
"Deuterium? You need deuterium?" She seemed positively jubilant. "We've got loads of deuterium! We've got more than we could use in a lifetime! This rock's crawling with hydrides, and we've got stellar-wind siphons topside. We'll give you all the heavy hydrogen your tanks can hold! But first, you've gotta come celebrate with us in the gravity room."
The "gravity room", nearly as big as a basketball court, was the only chamber in the entire Shanaya Reyansh c colony fitted with artificial gravity. Here, the denizens could walk and run as evolution had intended, hold drinking glasses filled with water — or other, more potent liquids — and do all the other things that inhabitants of high-gravity worlds took for granted. It allowed momentary reminders of what life was like on humanity's home world of Earth; and more importantly, it helped stave off the inevitable decay of muscles and bones that would otherwise have lain disused in low gravity.
Today, it housed a party.
Officially, Samuel was supposed to be the guest of honor. But everyone's attention kept drifting to the three-meter-tall metal Karthosian in their midst. The Starlane Destroyer kept Samuel's walkie-talkie laying right next to him, turned on and constantly receiving, to handle all the chit-chat he needed to make.
"So," Hali said to him as she approached, "Sam tells me your wife was going to have a baby."
"Mate, not wife," Strangen's voice came from the walkie-talkie. "Karthosians don't marry. And yes, we were going to have a baby girl. Her name was going to be Resti Dorsa. We were going to work her mother's name in there at the end."
"I can't imagine what it must be like to be told you have to abort."
"It's —" Strangen hesitated "— surprisingly common. Everyone pretty much accepts it." His voice took on a bitter edge. "For the greater glory of Karthos."
At the utterance of that phrase, all conversation near him stopped. Strangen looked over the heads that were glaring at him — Samuel and Hali included — to the rest of the people in the room. The gleeful partygoers. The disheveled hangers-on. The bedraggled faces wondering what was coming next.
His cybernetic left fist clenched involuntarily. He'd made up his mind. He picked up Samuel's walkie-talkie, placed it on his armored left shoulder, and cranked its volume up near maximum so the whole room would hear him. "Everyone," he said. "Listen."
The room grew as quiet as those standing next to him had become.
"Samuel has brought you sustainence," he continued, "But it won't last. And from what I can gather, it won't be enough to bring you to self-sufficiency either. You need more. And so do your neighbors. You need trade with the inner worlds to resume."
"You need," his voice grew more emphatic, "For this siege warfare that Karthos is waging against all of you to end. There are no concessions you can give them, no deals they will be willing to make with you. They will continue to starve you out until you and your neighbors are too weak to do anything but become their subjects. Or to die."
One of the pairs of eyes looking at him belonged to Flor. Of all the onlookers distressed by his words, the colony's leader seemed the most distressed.
Time to ask the big question. Strangen said, "Have any of you ever headed up a rebellion?"
Nervous glances passed from person to person. Flor shook her head and gestured as if to say "Not me, I've got a colony to run!" Nearly every head in the room was shaking "no."
Strangen turned to Samuel: "You don't seem to have a problem disobeying authority."
"Uh . . ." Samuel's jaw quivered, then he pointed to Hali. "I only did what I did to save her life."
Strangen canted his head slightly to one side. "That's how a lot of revolutionaries got their start."
"So long as Karthos keeps up its blockade," Strangen transmitted, "You, and every other colony on this side of them, are in jeopardy. Karthos has to be brought down. And to do that, we've got to organize. Your colony, the other colonies, the inner worlds, all of us. Our first step is to send out a rallying cry, something that'll bolster their morale and let 'em know there's a chance they can pull off a real victory."
Strangen looked at a cluster of transmission lines high up on one wall. "Get the word out. The Starlane Destroyer is now fighting against Karthos, instead of for them."