First, Boggs tried to raise Colonel Peng on his neural implant. Unfortunately, he did not have contact links for any officer, something he never needed before now.
“I’m pretty sure Peng’s dead, anyway,” Jamieson said. “He was in the part of the ship that disappeared.”
“Well, I certainly don’t have the Captain’s info. I got Sergeant Gruman’s, though.”
“Okay, try him.”
“We ain’t got a relay for the neural net.”
“Isn’t there one on the transport?”
“The transport’s no telling how far away. Under water.”
The two stopped at that point and finally seemed to notice about 200 men clustered around them, listening to their every word.
“Huh. You guys don’t have a lot of privacy on this island, do you?” Boggs said.
Jamieson said, “Look, I’ll go tell someone what we found here. You stay with the X99 and keep an eye on things.”
“What’s there to keep an eye on? They’re not going anywhere. It’s a prison island, they said.”
But Jamieson already was heading back for the hill.
He shouted back, “Just keep an eye on them! And don’t let anybody grab those blasters!”
Everybody turned and looked at the bodies still lying on the ground, and the blasters next to them.
Boggs grinned, nervously.
“You guys are all friendly, right? I don’t need to worry about you, right? I’m just going to go get those guns. Heh. Hey, don’t forget my friend and battle buddy, here.”
All eyes darted to the X99, whose featureless face seemed to stare back at them impassively. If anyone really had been thinking about trying to grab one of the weapons, they quickly reconsidered. The machine had not moved, and still held its blaster close to its chest, aimed up at an angle. But no one had any doubt it could quickly shoot down anyone racing for the gun.
Half an hour later, Jamieson found Sergeant Gruman and the Captain in the same general area of the woods. Delgado was trying to hold a meeting by shouting at his officers, spread out across several square meters. It all looked very awkward.
“Private Jamieson, reporting sir!”
Jamieson had to yell from a distance, and he decided to address the highest ranking officer with his news.
“What is it, son?”
“My battle buddy and I discovered a large group of civilians about to be executed, sir. We disrupted that with the assistance of the X99 unit assigned to us. The civilians say this is an isolated prison island, a reeducation camp. Even though we were all clustered together, no missiles came in. They explained the missiles are military and their camp is SSI. Even though my partner and I were in proximity of dozens of people for several minutes, no missiles ever threatened us, sir. We think that additional sailors and Marines can mingle with the civilians and possibly be safe. Back at their camp.”
The Captain shouted back and forth with his officers for a while before deciding to accompany the private to the prisoners. He left Hogue in charge and marched out with several people in tow. Everyone followed Jamieson back to the hill in single file, keeping at least 20 meters between them.
At the bottom of the hill, in the field, the officers could see the long trench dug earlier, and about 200 men. Most of them were sitting and taking shelter in the shade of nearby trees.
An X99 unit watched over everybody impassively, operating as a tireless guard. Its sensors were no doubt able to track all the civilians flawlessly.
Everybody seemed to realize the X99’s capabilities, too, and remained passively in place even though they could have run away.
A corner of the trench had been filled in recently. Evidently, the bodies of the men killed by the battle bot had already been covered up. Delgado smiled at the irony that they were buried in the very trench meant for the prisoners.
Boggs turned from his conversation with a couple of the prisoners and waved at Jamieson and the line of officers following him.
Since no missiles had taken out the large group of people, Captain Delgado cautiously approached, although he kept looking up in the sky, expecting to see a supersonic streak approaching any second.
Behind him Sergeant Gruman walked up, then one of the ship’s officers. They nervously stood with the others near the prisoners.
Delgado said, “I wonder if there’s a threshold. If the satellites see too many enemies, will they launch a missile even with civilians present?”
One of the prisoners shook his head. He said, “No. And I should know, I designed the system.”
Everybody looked at him, and he blushed slightly.
He said, “Well, I helped design the system, at least. I’m Percy Feldham. Design Engineer for Thespar Industries. Uh, former, I guess.”
Delgado said, “What are you doing out here, Mr. Feldham?”
Feldham grinned, white teeth flashing from his dark brown face.
“I made the mistake of complaining about the Billings Administration too loudly and too often. One of my friends must have reported me to SSI. We would go to a bar after work and shoot the breeze. I like to talk politics too much, I guess. So, I showed up for work one morning and an SSI agent was waiting for me. Next thing I know, I’m being whisked off to reeducation camp for forced indoctrination.”
“How long ago was that?”
“About four years back. Before the war. But, like I said, I helped design the system. MARS is triggered by external threats. The local Thespar branch is pretty innovative, and we have to address some unique challenges with our planet. One of the challenges is there are no large continents. It’s an ocean planet with thousands of islands, most of them small, like this one. MARS, or the Missile Armed Response System, was designed to reach out and strike remote threats all over the globe.
“But we programmed safeguards in the system. If there are civilians present, the missiles don’t fly. These are triple redundant. Even with surgical strike capabilities, the missiles are held in check when citizens of Sporades are nearby.”
Delgado said, “And, there’s not a threshold? I’ve got several hundred crew and Marines. What if they all showed up here and mixed in with your people? Would the missiles still not fly, Mr. Feldham?”
“No. Granted, it’s been four years since MARS went live. They could have changed things. But I don’t think they did. It’s a global weapons system and we designed it to run for decades with minimal maintenance.
“No missiles have struck us so far, and you have six Republicans present. Six or six hundred, with Sporades’s citizens nearby you’re all safe.”
Delgado nodded. He looked convinced.
He said, “We’ll still maintain caution, but I believe you. I think somebody will eventually send people our way if their remote system can’t handle us. But until then . . . I’d like to see your camp, Mr. Feldham. Walk with me in that direction while I relay some information and orders back to my XO.”