The Tectorist stood its ground. ‘There was nothing. All we could find was the wreckage and bodies from the Freeborn Algoryn already on the surface.’
Shaltok pulled at his lip. That was not good, suggesting he had not succeeded after all. But he was sure he – and they – had seen the reinforcements. ‘What about in orbit?’
The tectorist brightened. ‘Our instruments struggle to ‘tect so far but there are remnants of a number of major disruptor explosions. How many, we cannot tell. There is some sizeable wreckage, not ours. Some may have come down to the planet as we’ve seen a load of new craters.’ He looked proud of the announcement. ‘It may be our troopship caught the humans off-guard.’
‘As they were sending in their reinforcements. Or thought they were.’ Shaltok ignored the tectorist’s lack of protocol: by their nature, tectorists were not your normal, run-of-the-mill, respectful Ghar. This one idly pulled at his equipment straps, adjusted his helmet that, as ever, he had not bothered to remove.
‘Where are the human survivors?’
‘Underground. Their habitats are destroyed. They trawled through the wreckage then took a few injured into the ruins. The ground, dust and stone is making it difficult to ‘tect them.’
Shaltok wondered how far the tunnels extended underground. Are our shelters connected? ‘Despatch a team to scout the artificial tunnels we found. See if they link up with the ruins. One thing – how is your equipment?’
The tectorist pulled himself up to his full height and bared his teeth in pride. ‘The dust does not touch our tector rods, just as it has not touched any Ghar sensors.’
Is that an accusation? ‘Dismissed.’ The tectorist leader scurried back to his team. Shaltok watched him go. But I saw the reinforcements on my combat array. An idea occurred to him. Perhaps he has a point: there is truth in ‘tectors. I only saw the incoming reinforcements on an upgraded, human-nanosphere integrated combat array.
Shaltok had to pose an uncomfortable question. In tolerating not-Ghar technology, have I fallen into a human trap? He sent for the Outcast techs and the Slavemaster again.
* * *
‘We’ve checked and double-checked, sir. It wasn’t our equipment.’ The three Outcast techs stood bravely before Shaltok, neither quivering nor cowering. In others it might be seen as insolence; in them, merely a confidence in their own abilities. They were bred as techs. In Hatchery 12.
The Slavemaster stood to one side, inappropriate, self-righteous satisfaction visible in every movement and expression. ‘They were incompetent, sir, in the midst of battle. A capitol offense.’ Shaltok glared and the Slavemaster hurriedly looked away.
‘So you’re claiming the illogical, that the human equipment showed the anomalies? Why would it do that?’ The techs huddled together, began whispering amongst themselves. ‘I asked a question!’
The techs turned to face him. ‘It might be that something detected our interface and broadcast erroneous sensor images to confuse y… us.’
It was as I thought. Attempting to use the cursed human technology was our downfall, after all. He pursed his lips. But they managed to build an interface. And they produced the bomb-flitters!
‘They must be punished, sir,’ insisted the Slavemaster. ‘They caused us to fail.’
‘Not quite, Slavemaster! We had success in destroying their landers.’ Shaltok reached for his lugger pistol. ‘You speak out of turn, question my authority.’
The Slavemaster cowered down before him. ‘I beg humble forgiveness, Force Leader. I had no wish to suggest you failed personally….’
‘Shut up. Bring me two sheep, I mean Outcasts with camouflage skins. With their luggers. An execution is required.’
The Slavemaster prostrated himself, crawled out backwards. ‘Marvellous decision, sir. You will execute one yourself, I take it?’
‘Get up! Don’t make a fool of yourself or I’ll shoot you.’ Shaltok fired his pistol and a slug ricocheted off the tunnel wall. The Slavemaster sprang to his feet, sprinted out of sight down the tunnel. Shaltok put away his pistol, regarded the three techs before him. They cowered as was customary for Outcasts but did not appear to be afraid.
‘Why are you not scared?’
The trio glanced at each other, then the speaker cleared his throat. ‘There are some, ah, logical steps…’
They are bright, brave and potentially very useful to me. How can I avoid doing what I must do? Footsteps announced the return of the Slavemaster. Shaltok turned to his suit and from the corner of his eyes saw a nod from the techs. Too smart. ‘Help me into my suit,’ he said, gruffly. The techs stepped forward. ‘Not you. I will not have you sully my suit further.’ The Slavemaster and his escort put down their weapons. ‘And take off those stinking skins. I don’t know what they’ll do to the… contraption these disgusting excuses for Ghar have built for me.’ He sneered at the techs; they cowered back against the wall. Don’t overdo it.
Again, it felt good to be back in his suit, the displays enhancing his vision; its strength and power his once more. ‘Step back,’ he thundered and the would-be executioners and Slavemaster stepped away towards their weapons and skins. ‘Stand clear. I will do it myself.’ They backed away against the opposite wall.
The Slavemasters looked smug. ‘This is what you deserve,’ he sneered.
Shaltok’s scourer barked, the noise echoing around the cave. Three bodies fell.
Shaltok turned off his suit’s amplifiers, cracked open its shell. ‘Pick up the skins and weapons; adopt their serial numbers. Inform the other Outcasts you were shot as regulations demand.’
The trio of Hatchery 12 techs were already moving, anticipating his orders. Their speaker took the maglash and the Slavemaster’s helmet; the others the skins and the luggers.
‘You are his bodyguard.’ They saluted, and returned to the Outcast’s cavern. None showed any surprise at their sudden promotion.