Lone Star – Chapter 2

It seemed a dangerous idea to Yaran at first, but the more he thought about the idea, the more pieces of the plan began to come together in his mind.  By the time he had reached his destination, he realized that he felt obligated to go.  Hopefully he’d be able to convince at least a few of his old friends and adopted family to go with him.

Most of their kind, the creations of the Coalitions genetic laboratories at the Lone Star Complex, mutants based upon canines but altered on a sub-cellular level to stand upright and fight for the CS military, held a fierce loyalty to their masters.  Some of them, however, could not banish the doubts in their minds about their life, the life of combat they had been born into, and had decided that what they needed most was to escape.  What they had found out in the rest of the world was beyond their ability to describe.  Instead of being third-class citizens, mistreated at times and looked upon as quaint pets the rest of the time, they were now spoken to and treated as equals.  Especially in the kingdom of Tolkeen, far to the North of the Coalition’s cities and bases, where many of the mutants, including Yaran, had chosen to make a home.

The small, wooden house that he was looking for stood alone on a hill.  It overlooked a few small fields of beans, corn, and some fruit bushes that were nearly ready to harvest.  His old friend had done well over the years.  Yaran stepped onto the porch, knocked twice on the door.  He waited for a moment, then turned as his nose caught the scent of another of his kind.

Trindle stood near the house’s corner, with a simple garden hoe resting on his shoulder.  His bull-dog face held a playful smile, and his eyes twinkled.  He was dressed in loose cover-alls, but whatever color they had been originally, they were the color of the earth now.

“You Retrievers never were known for your sense of smell,” he said, stepping up onto the small porch.  “I followed you half-way down the lane.”

Yaran smiled back, and shrugged.  “You smell like the fields.  When you’re out in the fields, you blend in.”  The two old friends embraced, then Trindle led him back down off the porch to a wooden table set in the shade of a large oak tree.

“I’d invite you inside, but I’d be bringing half my field in with me.”

“Not a big deal.  It’s too nice out to be indoors,” Yaran said, looking up at the sky.

“It is that,” Trindle replied.  “So, you have news for me today?  Last time you stopped by here, it was to tell me Jerintha was engaged.”

“It has been a while, hasn’t it?” Yaran chuckled.  “They’ve adopted three children now, a young human boy and twin girls, orphans from Kingsdale.”

Trindle’s eyebrows rose.  “Good for them.”  He paused.  “You know, I never would have thought of any of us finding a mate outside the Dog Packs, let alone a human that would treat one of us like a real spouse.”

“She’s a lucky girl,” Yaran said.  “No, I came to ask for your help.”

The playful look returned to Trindle’s face, this time with narrowed eyes.  “Uh, oh.”

Yaran chuckled again.  “It’s worse than you think.  I’ve been asked to head South, to help out with the mutant underground again.  Apparently the chain’s been broken, and no one knows how or why.  But the people who are running the Mutant Underground want me to set up a few new safe-houses on the route, and help get things moving again.”

Trindle nodded.  “Well, you know me, si-shon.  I’ll do everything I can.  Finding help to watch my fields in the meantime should be easy enough, even if it’s through harvest.  Especially if I’m running off with you.  Plenty of people around here owe you their lives.”  He turned his head in the direction of the city’s huge walls.

A long sigh accented Yaran’s next sentence.  “It’ll be longer than a harvest season.”

“Oh yeah?  Where’d you get asked to go?  The old Nebraska territory?  I thought the tribes out there helped out more than enough to get runaways through.”

Yaran didn’t reply, but his eyes told the story.  Trindle’s expression turned hard.

“You’re kidding.  Lone Star?”

Yaran shook his head.  “I wish I was.  Dorian Westerly has disappeared, and with him, the start of the life-line.  The whole network is basically useless right now, because the starting point is inactive.”

“And of course, they asked you.”  Trindle shook his head.  “Yaran, it would be suicide for you to try to take Dorian’s place.  Just getting close will be risky enough.  A human doing that sort of job doesn’t attract attention, and can blend into the cities.  You wouldn’t be able to set foot near any outpost or checkpoint anywhere along the way!  They’d presume you’re a runaway- which you are, I should point out- and they’ll either haul you back to the lab, or kill you on sight!  How are you going to keep yourself supplied, much less hidden?”

“No one said it would be easy.  But I can spot the pups who are having doubts, and I can communicate with them the way Dorian did.  It’s tough enough for a runaway to trust anyone when they break free and start running- who better to trust than another runaway?  That’s why they picked me, I think.  And, like you said, finding people willing to help me out won’t be hard around here.”

“Around here, no!  Once you get past Chillicothe, your options get a lot more limited.”

Yaran shrugged.  “True, but as you pointed out, the tribes in Nebraska are very helpful to us.  I won’t be able to set up a permanent operation anywhere near the complex itself, I know that.  I’ll have to find a hiding spot away North, maybe West, going into the Lone Star area only once a month or so – and that’s about as often as the life-line gets used, anyway.  We don’t get a continuous stream of runaways.  The system works, Trindle.  We just need to get the far end of it back up and running.”

A long moment passed before either of them spoke again.  “And you want me to go down there with you.”  Yaran only nodded.  “I wouldn’t have any of this if it wasn’t for you,” Trindle said, gesturing to his fields.  “I’d still be hoisting a rifle, hoping for a biscuit at the end of my shifts- presuming I was still alive.  You know I’ll go with you.”

“That’s why I came here first,” Yaran replied.  “I knew you’d go – if not for me, then for the runaways we’ll be saving.  I need muscle, and I need someone who knows their way around the Southwest plains.  No one else comes close.”  He sighed, then smiled.  “Besides, anyone else I ask will feel a lot safer knowing you’re coming along.”

Trindle smiled at the compliment, then looked back toward the city.  “So when do we leave?”

“One week.  We’ll be meeting tomorrow, at Quenlia’s restaurant, 2:00.  Have a list of supplies and gear you’ll need.  Quenlia sounds like she’s willing to spend some money on us.”

Trindle nodded.  “I’ll be there.”  The two shook hands, and Yaran stood to make his way back down the lane.  He had a lot of people to find, and not much time.

*****

There were fourteen of them at the table when Yaran arrived. Quenlia had closed off one of her private rooms for them, following inside as he arrived.  She looked as young and lovely as always, even though Yaran knew her to be at least 70 years old.  Her dark eyes had a sparkle in them, and she had turned her hair green to match the dress she wore.  They circled the table in opposite directions, each coming to the ends as the others around the table fell silent.

It was not a large room, and as the chatter died down, the walls seemed to move a bit closer.  A single ball of light hovered over the table’s center, a conjured illumination with no mass.  Quenlia was very gifted at such magic- in fact, all the lights in the restaurant were the same way.  Yaran’s eyes drifted over the group around the table, meeting each of their eyes with a smile and a reassuring (he hoped) nod.  Besides Quenlia herself, there was only one person he didn’t recognize- a cyborg woman in loose clothes.  Yaran could only see her hands and head, but both were bionic. The face was an exceptionally realistic human model, but the skin gave it away.  And while the hands also looked fairly human, the skin color was just a little… well, he couldn’t describe it.  It was just not a color that real human skin could achieve.  He guessed that if her face and hands were both bionic, there was a good chance that the rest of her was, too.   He didn’t know her purpose there, but he assumed Quenlia would introduce them eventually.

Everyone else there was known to him, most of them known well.  Six of them he had guided to the area around Tolkeen personally, three had passed through a safe-house he was running, and all the others had needed help adjusting to their new lives.  He knew he could trust every one of them with his life- and soon he would be doing precisely that.

Quenlia stood at the end of the table, and addressed the group.  “I can’t tell you how grateful I am to you all for agreeing to help.  There are a lot of mutants out there, on the run, looking for help, and we don’t know if they’re getting what they need to escape.  I’m sure you’ll encounter some along the way, but it’s the runaways that don’t have a direction that need us.  All of you remember what that first day, first week is like.  For some of you, it was a month or more before you knew where you could go for safety.  Yaran?”

“Thanks for coming, all of you, and thanks for agreeing to help out.” Yaran took a deep breath before continuing.  “We have a difficult task ahead of us, and we won’t know how much work is really involved until we get out there to see what’s left of the life-line.”

“Trindle, Mageeria, Billie, Gordon and Damien- you’ll be coming with me all the way down to Lone Star.  Everyone else will stay with one of the safe-points we’ll be setting up along the route.  It’s a long way to go, and while Quenlia is providing transport for us, we’ll need to go low and slow to keep from being noticed.  Our route will take us into the plains, far enough to be out of range of most Coalition patrols, and close to Pecos territory.  Staying un-noticed won’t be a cakewalk, but it shouldn’t be hard, either.  Gordon will be leading us most of the way, and everyone knows Trindle’s experience with the Southwest Plains.  I’m confident we’ll get through without any major problems.”

Trindle cleared his throat.  “The biggest thing we’re going to have to remember- and I mentioned this earlier- is that we can’t stop to help people out along the way.   We all need to get that into our heads before we move out.  When we get into the wild, especially toward the Plains, we’re going to be seeing some unpleasant things – bandit gangs invading a town, travelers getting mugged… I personally guarantee it.  And while I wouldn’t expect anyone here to just pass that kind of thing by, the trouble is that if we stop to help people out too much, we’ll get noticed, and that’s precisely what we don’t want.  We’re strong enough that we can move around without being bothered too much, unless someone thinks we’re after their turf.  And that’s easy enough to avoid- we stick to a fairly direct route, and we keep moving.  But don’t let your sympathies get the better of you.  If our mission is to get down there and stay out of sight, it means we’ll be letting a lot of injustice happen around us.  If the Cyber-Knights can’t keep everyone safe, we sure won’t be able to.”  Heads nodded around the table.  It was hard to turn a blind eye to injustice, especially for a group who had signed on to put their lives in danger to help other people.  But their mission demanded it.   And his reference to the order of wandering Cyber-Knights, the famous protectors of the innocent that roamed the lawless lands and lent a helping hand where they could, had its intended effect.

Yaran nodded as well.  “This is true.  Staying focused on our mission is imperative.  The safe-points we’ll be setting up will be out in the wild, so you’ll be needing to fend for yourselves.  You’ll be in groups of three, so no one will be alone out there.  Each group will be given a radio beacon locator, and we’ll be sending a beacon with the runaways as they come through.  Each of you will have to program in the frequencies for the next stop along the way.  Quenlia, as I’ve mentioned to each of you, will be providing what supplies and gear we’ll need, as well as the hover-cycles we’ll be driving.  Some of us have our own combat armor, some do not- ask for it if you do not.  Hunting supplies will be important, too.  As I said, we’ll be living off the land.”  He sighed, deeply.  “Six days to get yourselves ready.  We’ll meet Saturday morning at dawn, and move out as soon as possible.”

All of the mutants stood, leaving the room in pairs and trios, discussing ideas and concerns as they went.  Yaran picked up pieces of conversations, and was reassured by what he heard – they knew the importance of planning, and all had things to worry about, but they weren’t downcast about their chances.  After they had all left, only he, Quenlia, and her anonymous guest remained in the room.  Yaran nodded silently to both of them, then slowly left the room.  He had much to do before leaving.

When they were alone, Quenlia circled the long table to stand across from her one remaining guest.  The cyborg looked up, meeting the older woman’s eyes.

“You didn’t tell them about the other team you’re sending.”

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