Lone Star – Chapter 14

“Okay, how about this one…” Damien cleared his throat dramatically, as he did before imitating his favorite quotes.  When he continued speaking, his voice sounded less like a young canine and more like and old, growly warrior.  “Yes, build your ship, and I will destroy her, just as I destroyed the other one.  And in time, I will tell you why; it was your ship, or your life.  I, too, choose your life.”

Yaran smirked as he listened.  Damien knew more pre-cataclysm movies by heart than anyone he’d ever met.  While the others in the group could usually guess at the movie-of-origin for his quotes, no one could continue coming up with them the way Damien did.  The group had had to stop to repair one of the hover-bikes, and it was a good way to pass the time.

Mageera sighed, loosening one of the bolts that held an access panel closed on the malfunctioning bike.  While it could still hover, it had lost most of its thrust.  “Damien,” she said into her headset, “You know that no one else here has seen Shogun.  You might as well just direct those at me.”

“I know it,” came the reply.  “I just don’t want you to feel left out.  You’re the one doing all the work, and you’re concentrating so hard on getting that bike running.  I have to interrupt you at least once.  Besides, that show is on one of the disks I brought along.”

Trindle’s voice came over the comlink next.  “Is it any good?”

“Its fantastic,” Mageera said, smiling.  Yaran was close enough to hear her speak normally, so the delayed-echo effect of hearing her on the headset was a bit distracting.  “Ancient Japan, samauri and stuff.  More ancient than the cataclysm, I mean.”

“You’d like it, Trindle.” Damien groaned quietly as he stretched in place.  “Alright, one for everyone else now.”

Yaran and Mageera were the only two with the hoverbikes.  The others had set up a loose perimeter, watching out for wild animals or intruders into their temporary camp.  Mageera had convinced the rest of them to stop long enough for her to do some preventive maintenance on all of their bikes.  Better to have a longer stop, now that they were stopped, than to have another unexpected breakdown that she could have prevented.  So while they hadn’t set up any tents or unpacked their bikes, they had set up a cook fire- and that meant both smoke and the smell of cooked food.

“Hey, here we go.”  Damien’s voice took on a tone similar to those used by instructors at the schools of magic, back home in Tolkeen.  “A box without hinges, key, or lid, yet golden treasure inside is hid.”  His voice changed back to normal.  “And double-points if you know both the movie and the answer to the riddle.”

After a pause, Billie answered.  “I know it, but I’ll wait to see if someone else gets it.”

“Its a cartoon, right?” Gordon asked.  “The Hobbit.”

“That’s right- got the answer to the riddle?” Damien asked.

There was a long pause.  “No, I don’t remember that part.”

Billie snorted into her comlink.  “How can you remember hearing that in a movie, but not remember the answer?”

“I barely remembered it.  It was a good guess.”

“The answer is an egg,” Billie said, half-exasperated.  “If you haven’t read the book, you should.  There’s a bunch of good riddles in there.”

Damien agreed.  “The one about the dark is my favorite.  ‘Hides behind trees and beyond hills, and empty holes it fills.’  I wish I could write stuff like that.”

Mageera replaced a burned-out pressure hose, then closed up the access panel, and turned her head to Yaran.  “This one’s done.  Only one left, and we can move on.  Thirty minutes.”  She ratcheted the bolt over the panel tight, then began gathering up her tools.

“Everyone hear that?” Yaran asked.

“Hell, yeah, this forest is starting to get creepy.  I don’t want to be out here in the dark.” Billie said.

“I agree.  We’re ready for the next one, Damien,” Trindle said.

“Gotcha.”  Damien cleared his throat again.  He took a deep breath, but before speaking or letting it out, his breath caught for just a moment.  He began speaking before anyone asked if he was ok.  He spoke in his normal voice, which surprised everyone.

“Hrm…” Damien said.  “I sense a disturbance in the force…”

Four different voices called out “Star Wars” all at once.

“No, no, seriously,” Damien said, his voice growing quieter.  “There’s someone else out here.  Not something, I don’t think.  A psychic presence.  Billie, you feel it?”

“Yeah, I do.  Somewhere East of us, but not far away.”

*****

Damien was looking East now, even though he could tell that whatever he sensed, it was past several hundred yards of dense forest.  It wasn’t someone casting magic, he could tell… just a fairly powerful psychic mind, reaching out to touch his and the others, just enough to sense their presence.  Using mental powers to detect people was a bit like using a flashlight in the dark;  you could see if someone was there, but you gave away your own location as well.  He could barely feel it, but it was there.  And if he could barely feel it, that meant that either the source wasn’t very strong… or it was strong enough to cloak its own presence.  Either option bothered him.

It was stationary, or moving slowly.  For the next few minutes it didn’t seem to move at all.  He wondered if they had realized they’d been ‘spotted’, whoever it was.

“It’s not moving much, si-shon.  Think I should try to get closer, and see what it is, or should we just hope it doesn’t come in for another 30 minutes and focus on getting out of here?”

“Better safe than squishy, Damien,” came the reply.  “Everyone move back in a little, and keep alert.”

Damien had turned toward the clearing when he heard the sound coming toward him.  Not from the East, but from the South. He turned, then moved behind a tree.  To the South was a space with few trees, where ferns and other underbrush had been thriving.  Something was approaching that area fast, and not being quiet about it.  Damien checked the settings on his energy rifle, then swung it around the tree.

Into the clearing a mutant canine burst through the underbrush, running as fast as she could.  She had a dark pelt, and at first glance Damien took her for a Doberman breed.  She was wearing what was left of field fatigues, standard issue CS military clothes for the Dog Boy brigades.  Her eyes were wide with terror, and she was running without paying attention to direction- she only looked forward enough to dodge trees and push through the bushes.

Damien paused for a moment, his mind torn between possibilities.  He didn’t want to give away the team’s position to a CS patrol, but it was pretty clear this pup wasn’t looking for them.  If it was a runaway, she had made it a long way from CS territory to be this scared.

A moment later, his decision was made for him.  Two huge hunting cats burst through the underbrush, only a few seconds behind the canine.  Their eyes were focused, hungry, and angry.  He’d seen this look before- the bigger hunting cats would often get so caught up in the thrill of the hunt, they would kill their prey- even against orders to bring the subject back alive.  This was why they were rarely sent out on missions where the targets life was valuable.

The tiger broke to the left, getting ready to circle around, while the lioness kept pressure on the fleeing prey.  Damien could see it happening in real-time, watching the cats’ strategy play out right before his eyes, and knowing their next move.

They were herding the pup right toward his tree.

He whispered intensely into the headset comlink.  “Guys, there’s a runaway coming from the south with two Kill-Cats on her tail.  Get over here to help if you can get here in time, but I have a feeling this won’t be a long fight.”  He switched his rifle settings again, one click short of full power.  His rifle would only have enough power for a few shots at this setting, but he figured he wouldn’t get a chance to fire more than a few times anyway.  Then he shouted to the pup.

“Get behind this tree and stay there!”

The new voice shocked the fleeing pup, but it startled the cats as well, throwing off their concentration.  The pup regained her wits quickly, turning her course toward the voice.  The cats both closed in on her, and were within 5 meters when Damien opened fire.

*****

Trindle had been moving quickly through the brush ever since Damien’s report, but he had also been moving quietly.  When he heard the signature sizzle of an energy rifle firing, he quit caring about how much noise he was making.  It took him 20 seconds to get to Damien, and the sight made his blood chill.

He saw the runaway first, cowering behind a tree.  Her breath was ragged, her clothing ruined, and her eyes wide.  In a patch of underbrush nearby, he could see the body of a mutant tiger with two large, smoldering wounds in its chest.  Damien would have to have turned his rifle up pretty high to do that.  But Trindle immediately agreed with the younger canine’s judgment- some kill-cats wouldn’t be hurt at all by the low-power settings, and Trindle wouldn’t have taken the chance either.

Damien was locked in a fight with a lioness wearing a modified CS field uniform.  The colors were different- greens and greys- but the insignias were all in the right places.  Damien had a combat knife in each hand, and the lioness’s claws swung closer each time she struck.  The two blocked, dodged, and parried each other’s attacks, circling each other, neither one giving the other a moment to breathe.  The lioness was a head taller than Damien, but he used her height against her, forcing her to stoop to protect herself from his blades.  She tried to strike downward from above, but pit-bulls were trained well against taller opponents- almost every other fighting breed was taller than they were.  Damien sidestepped and dodged each attack with ease.  Trindle held his rifle on the two, but couldn’t get a clear shot.  He moved closer, then called to the runaway.  She hesitated only a moment before dashing toward him.  Billie and Gordon came through the trees a moment later, and Billie led the shivering Doberman back to Yaran and the hoverbikes.

Trindle watched, unable to help, and dreading the outcome.  The runaway was safe now; there were only two ways this encounter would end.  Either Damien would win, or the lioness would get blasted by Trindle’s rifle the moment Damien fell.  He thought about calling out to his friend to drop to the ground, and give him a clear line of fire, but he knew the ‘bull’ part of pit-bull applied just as much to Damien’s mentality as it did to his appearance.  Damien would never back down.

The cat pushed Damien’s blades aside, then crouched low, her head almost level with Damien’s belt.  The pup had seen this move before, too, and instead of trying to move sideward to avoid the coming pounce, he twisted his right side away, reversing his grip on the knife.  When the cat leaped, its claws were wide, swinging inward to catch the canine’s shoulders.  Damien twisted at the waist again, his right elbow connecting hard with the cat’s head and pushing her to the side.  When he pulled his hand back, the reversed blade dragged its point across the cat’s face.

Trindle had never heard a wounded hunting cat make such a screech before.  He froze in place for a moment, realizing that the two fighters were far enough apart for him to shoot, but unable to pull the trigger.  Damien did not hesitate- he closed the distance a heartbeat later, pushing both his blades into the cat’s upper chest.  She dropped, drawing a last painful breath before falling still.

Gordon had approached Damien before Trindle could really move.  Gordon looked over the remains of the tiger first, then clapped his friend on the shoulder.  “You had us worried there, brother.”

Damien was still getting his breathing under control, but he had relaxed and stood straight.  “I was, too.  She wasn’t thinking about who she was fighting- she made a couple mistakes, I just wasn’t fast enough to get in there until the end.”

“You were fast enough,” Gordon replied.  “But next time, shoot them both, huh?”

Damien shook his head, pointing to the dead tiger.  “Only reason I hit him was he wasn’t expecting to get shot at.  Once she knew where I was shooting from, she dodged every shot.  How’s the runaway?” He had lost his headset in the fight, and now looked around the forest floor for it.

“Billie, how’s our guest?” Trindle asked his headset, resetting his rifle and approaching the other two canines.

“Frightened out of her mind, but physically ok,” Billie replied.  “We have her calmed down.”

*****

Mageera had the last bike ready to go. The group sat around a remains of the campfire, no longer so worried about attracting attention.  They wouldn’t be there for long.  Billie had pulled out and distributed field rations.  The runaway called herself Greta.  She talked as she ate, answering questions about her escape and chase.

“We had a wonderful home there, but we knew it couldn’t last.  When the MCR team arrived, I had been across the village, working late in the repair shop.  All of a sudden there were spotlights in the sky from a squad of SAMAS.  I stayed undercover until they were gone, but I knew they’d be back.  I had thought I was far enough North that they wouldn’t chase me… but the one time I stopped, those cats nearly caught me.”  She paused for a minute.  “They wouldn’t have taken me back, would they?”

Yaran shrugged.  “Sometimes they do.  Cats like that usually get caught up in the thrill of a hunt too much to resist the kill at the end.”

Damien shook his head.  He’d seen that look in the cats’ eyes- he’d known how they’d have finished their hunt.  He wouldn’t say it aloud, though- Greta was scared enough as it was.  He did think of something else to say.

“If it makes you feel any better, you probably won’t see anyone else sent after you.”  He poked the dying fire with a long stick.  “When they send Kill-Cats, it’s almost always a last resort.  Even if the cats don’t come back.  And by the time your old bosses start wondering about those two, you could be north of Tolkeen.”

“But you guys aren’t a CS patrol.  Are you headed north?” she asked.  “Could I travel with you?”

“No, we’re not going North, but we’ll help you get there.  You’re luckier than you thought, running into us.”  Damien smiled.  “We’ll tell you how to get all the way to Tolkeen if you want, but we’re going South.”

Trindle looked sideward at Yaran.  “How much should we tell her, si-shon?”

The older canine raised an eyebrow.  “Think she’s going to turn double-agent on us?”

“No, but then again, they may have other teams out here looking for her.”

Yaran nodded.  “That’s true.  And with that in mind, the only sensible thing for us to do is to send her straight to the team at Eagle’s Field.”

“I agree,” Trindle said, scratching his chin.  “In fact, we should give her one of the bikes.  If there’s another patrol out here, she won’t outrun them on foot.  We’re not too much farther from our destination.  I can find a replacement somewhere in the Plains.”  Trindle looked at Billie.  “Mind letting me piggy-back on your ride?”

She shook her head.  “Not at all.”  She turned back to the runaway, unfolding a map on the ground between them.  “Sister, there is a group of our friends with a good spot in Eagle’s Field.”  She pointed out their location, then traced her finger along the map to a mark showing the small village’s location.  “Here.  We’ll give you a homing device to help you find them.”

Greta looked at the map, quickly committing the course and direction to memory.  Most mutant canines were trained in land navigation.  She nodded, then looked up at Yaran.  “Why do you take the risk of coming back like this?”

Yaran cleared his throat.  “Where would you be if we hadn’t?”  Her expression paled for a moment, and she looked at the ground.  He smiled.  “It’s ok, but you are a perfect example of why we do it.  Do you believe the CS when they say there’s no more runaways than 1 in 10,000?”

She shook her head.  “No way.  Even besides our group, I knew of three others from my company who wanted to run.  Some of us would talk about it sometimes, but you’d never know who was talking about running just to turn us in.”

“That’s how it was for most of us.” Yaran paused.  “I met a man once who could tell which pups didn’t have what it takes to stay in the army.  He helped me get away, all the way to Tolkeen.  I helped most of this crew make it away.  So when he disappeared, we came back to help put his life-line back together.”

“Is there anything I can give you to help?” she asked.  “I didn’t bring much out with me, and it’s been almost 9 months since I first ran, so there’s not much intel I can give you.”

Yaran shook his head.  “No, we’ll need to spend time gathering information once we get there anyway.  Lets worry about getting you up to Eagle’s Field.”  He looked over at Mageera, who had pulled one of the locator beacons out of a pack on her hoverbike.  She handed it to Yaran, who handed it to Greta.   “Our team is up there with a locator radio, so when you get within a mile of the village, light this up and within a day or so, they’ll come find you.  Be patient with them- you won’t spot them until they’re sure you’re not a CS ambush of some kind.”

Greta nodded.  Trindle had started his hoverbike, walking it to the North edge of the clearing.  Everyone who had been sitting now rose to their feet, and Greta took the last bite of her rations.  “Thanks again, for everything,” she said.  Her eyes fell upon Damien, and she smiled.  “Especially you.  Thanks for saving my life.”

Damien smiled back.  “You’re welcome, sister.”  He watched her mount the hoverbike and speed away North.  He sighed, then began filling in the fire-pit.  Trindle helped him lift the square of topsoil they’d pulled aside, setting it back in place over their extinguished fire.  When they were done, it was impossible to spot unless you knew where to look.

Billie approached them just as they finished.  She smiled at Damien, then looked over her shoulder, toward the East.  Damien followed her gaze.

“They’re still out there, aren’t they?” he asked.

Billie only nodded.  “Probably picked up the whole thing.  But they’re not moving to follow Greta.  That was my worry- that as soon as she left, whoever it was out there watching would follow her trail.”

“Think they’re close enough to see us?” Trindle asked, squinting between the trees.

“Not through forest this thick.  They’re still 100 meters away, at least.”  She sighed.  “You know, the strangest thing is… I can’t help wondering if they want us to know they’re nearby.”

“How so?” Trindle asked.  The three of them started moving toward the hoverbikes.

“It’s a fairly powerful psychic presence- powerful enough to mask their own mental energy.  And they are- but not completely.  I’m wondering if they want us to know they’re back there… and that they’re not following Greta to the North.”  Billie sighed, then shrugged, climbing onto her bike.  Trindle climbed onto her back seat.  “It’s just a thought.”

Yaran had heard most of the conversation.  “Well, they’ve had plenty of time to come on in and say hello, if they were going to.  Let’s get out of here.”

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2 Responses to “Lone Star – Chapter 14”

  1. The Beave Says:

    shogun eh… nice

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