An Arrow for an Olive Branch: A Sci-Fi Short Story, Part Six
Recap of Chapter
President Golden and his team of scientists were planning Earth's response to the alien threats. Ruth and Toshu were on a mission to the derelict alien ship. It was the same spacecraft that had nearly killed Ruth and her pilot just days before during their mission to the Moon.
An Arrow for an Olive Branch
A door opened on the side of the larger sphere, and Toshu flew her ark inside the docking bay.
"Rhall’s ark has the special designation of being where the Rhonks are repaired and maintained,” Toshu said as they put on isolation suits. “Their continued work on artificial intelligence is conducted here as well. My brother works in AI. His name is Bari. He has been living and working here the entire voyage." Ruth and Toshu shouldered the M4 carbines provided by the marines and proceeded toward the main entrance to Rhall's ark.
"Before we enter I need to warn you about something." Toshu stopped and faced Ruth. "I know more about the disappearance of the other arks than I have pretended to know. One of Ghar's most atrocious acts was that he allowed the arks to run low on water. Rhonk's don't need it, so it was not a priority to him. First came rationing, then there was no water at all. We finally found an ice-rich asteroid field and the Rhonites replenished all the reservoirs. Protocol in such circumstances calls for extensive testing before the water can be accessed. But the Rhonites on all of the arks, except Ghar's, revolted and took control of the water supplies. All of the water was contaminated."
The Main Asteroid Belt of Our Solar System
The word alone sent chills down Ruth's spine. "But prions wouldn’t affect Rhonks. They could still navigate and use the radios to communicate."
"I'm hoping to find some answers once we're inside. Be prepared, Ruth. It may get ugly in there."
"I don't know about medical technology among your people," said Ruth, "but on Earth, prion infection of the brain is untreatable and always ends in death. And that's only after a period of loss of muscle function and speech, hallucinations, confusion, and severe dementia. You're right. If these people aren't already dead, it may get very ugly. What about your brother?"
"I haven't heard from him."
“Have you used your telepathy to contact him?”
“It doesn’t work between Bari and me. It never has. As for the others on this ark, I need a single receiver, someone I know and can call out to. I tried friends but got no answer. It has to be the infection.” She placed her hand on a screen embedded in the wall. The door opened. Their first glimpse inside the ark drove Toshu to her knees.
"Toshu, I'm so sorry." Ruth knelt beside her.
Dead Rhonites lay everywhere. Their bodies had wasted away until skin hung on bones like Spanish moss from an ancient cypress.
Toshu crawled to the side of a dead child. "This is all Ghar's fault." She brushed the small hand with her own gloved hand. "We had to leave Rhon, of course, but he drove us too hard, especially when water became an issue. These people should be alive right now. This child..." Ruth held Toshu and rocked until her sobbing stopped.
Toshu sat up, unable to dry her eyes or blow her nose inside the suit. "I'm ok now. Thank you."
"What about Ghar's ark?"
"Ghar has relatively few Biologicals on board. He can't stand them, well, except for me I suppose. We hadn't used all of our water, so when we refilled, it was only as a reserve. We never touched it. This ark held out longer than the rest. The Rhonks on board were not allowed to transfer to Ghar's ark because of the danger of transmitting prions. So the Rhonks are here. We just have to find a way to deal with them."
The ark's passages and many of the doorways had been built to accommodate the Rhonks, so they were high and broad. Ruth felt small, like Dorothy walking down the long corridor in the Emerald City, on her way to meet the Wizard. A dozen yards ahead, the gaunt face of a woman with matted and tangled hair peeked around a doorway, then retreated into the room.
"At least one is still alive." Toshu led the way and opened the door. The room was large enough to quarter the two hundred or so Rhonites without crowding anyone. Most were mingling, but each seemed to be in a world of their own. The signs of prion infection were on every face and body.
Ruth approached a gray-faced woman sitting at a table. An empty plate and utensils lay before her. "Either they are coping very well, or someone is caring for these people."
"Let's go find the Rhonks. The sooner I deal with them, the sooner I can come back here and comfort my people." Toshu led the way through the maze of bodies and into the corridor.
They followed a side passage and slowed. Toshu crept forward to an open doorway large enough for two semi-trailers. She pulled back.
"That's what I was hoping for. The Rhonks are in the transport staging area. Since Ghar won't permit them to transfer to his ark in the pod, they probably are at a loss about what to do. Stay out of sight, and wait for me."
"What's the plan?"
"I'm going to get rid of the Rhonks. Don't worry. They know how Ghar feels about me.”
"Wait, what's this?" Ruth was standing next to a wheeled platform with a control console and what appeared to be a weapon.
"Laser cannon. Very powerful, but not against a thousand Rhonks."
Toshu set aside the M4 and rounded the corner. Ruth stepped onto the laser cannon platform. The only control was a joystick mounted in the center of the console. She pulled it back, and the machine glided silently backward. She pressed it forward, and the machine returned to where it began. The wide-set handles of the weapon worked like steering a motorcycle. "Awesome." She climbed down and entered a control room with a window looking out into the staging area. With the light off, she could safely keep an eye on Toshu.
"Commander Rhall, I have a message from Mhon Ghar." Toshu spoke as if she were in charge.
"Toshu, it is not safe for you here.” One of the robots rolled to the center of the room.
"Don't worry. The disease which has overtaken the Rhonites is not contagious. Prepare to transfer to Ghar's ark in the transport pod."
"But Admiral Ghar said…."
"Mhon Ghar needs you for the battle with the humans. You are to transfer immediately." One thousand Rhonks rolled out to hear the news.
"But why did Admiral Ghar not contact us himself with these instructions?"
Ruth watched from the control room. Toshu had a plan for the Rhonks. The President also was devising a plan, one that would deal with a Rhonk invasion. But even if his plan succeeded, Ghar would likely remain in his ark with a weapon capable of a singular atrocity.
Toshu had said that this ark was where the Rhonks performed AI research. Were there secrets here about Rhonk vulnerability?" Her mind turned to the Rhonites and the unknown person who was caring for them. Could that person help Ruth find the AI research office?
She checked on Toshu. The discussion with Rhall was dragging on, so Ruth slipped out and ran back down the corridor.
The only difference to the room from a few minutes before was the presence of a young man cleaning up after the meal. He seemed healthy and spoke gently to those around him. He turned to the next table and looked up.
Ruth swung the M4 onto her back and held her hands up to show peaceful intent. "My name is Ruth. My Rhonite friend and I are here to help you. Do you understand what I am saying."
"I understand your language. You mentioned a Rhonite companion."
"Her name is Toshu."
"Toshu is alive? Is she here? Take me to her. I must see her now."
"She's with Rhall and the other Rhonks in the transport staging area. She has a plan for getting rid of them." Ruth looked into the young man's brown eyes. "You're Toshu's brother…" Her head began to spin. She stumbled. The young man caught her arm and steadied her.
"Yes, I'm Bari, Toshu's brother. Are you okay?"
"I think so." Then the voice came through.
Ruth, where are you? I need you here. Rhall won't get onto the transport pod without direct orders from Ghar. Ruth, you’re thinking about my brother. Why?
Because he is here, with me.
Bari? Is he––?
He's fine. We're on our way.
Coming Up Next in the Story
Ruth, Toshu and Bari fight the Rhonks on the derelict spacecraft. The President and his team of scientists unveil their battle plans to defeat Ghar.