Lone Star – Chapter 15

Arcturus watched, silently, as the six forms– looking no larger than black specks- sped through the sky to the south.  They were more than 15 kilometers away, and 200 meters off the ground, but he would have recognized them as a SAMAS patrol from twice the distance.  They had first appeared to the south-east of his position, but were flying a long arc and now headed south-west.  His sensors had triangulated their positions, comparing their flight path with a probable point of origin.  While there were many small outposts scattered around the wilderness, the aerial patrols usually originated from the big bases.  These six were most likely from the large base near the Lone Star complex itself.  He was out of range of their scanners, and even standing out in the open was safe at this distance.  He could detect their radar signatures, but was too far away for the signals to return to them.

Their appearance had confirmed Deliah’s estimate of their location.  They were close enough to Lone Star for long-range aerial patrols.  It was time for them to move West-Southwest.  Traveling at night offered no more security than the day- with magnetic and thermal sensors, the SAMAS would spot them easily if they came within 5 kilometers, and possibly as far as 10 if they were paying closer attention.  The long, dangerous journey was giving way to the far more dangerous mission.

He had stood on a high rocky outcropping at the top of their hill throughout the entire day.  His mechanical joints thought nothing of standing perfectly still for 12 hours straight.  The others would sleep for a while yet- some more than others- but it wouldn’t be long before Deliah and Jacob, at least, were awake.  Jasmine and Martiniros would most likely wake last.  He didn’t mind being alone, as long as he could look forward to their company while they traveled at night.  And since he needed no sleep at all, he made the perfect sentry.

The land around here is astounding, he thought.  They had passed through some beautiful terrain on this trip, but the scene around him was just breathtaking- to use a human term.  He found himself needing to use those sorts of words and phrases more and more these days, especially among these people.  A machine rarely needs to communicate words such as beauty, courage, or breath- but he continued to encounter places and situations where no other words applied.  And if he had needed to breathe, this place would have interrupted it.

He had spent the entire day just looking at the wind-weathered rocks, the bare patches of earth, the tufts of grass that fought for life near the rocks, but eventually conquered them and grew into underbrush.  The trees close to him were lovely (another term machines rarely use, having little chance to experience love) but those farther away were what drew his eyes the strongest.  Seeing a forest from a distance, especially an elevated distance, was similar to looking out over the ocean.  The trees ceased to be individuals, and instead became part of a whole, individual cells in a larger organism.

Part of what makes an intelligent creature, he decided, is how they were changed by things they experience.

The sun was well into its downward descent when Deliah sent a machine-coded message to him, informing him of her waking and querying him on the day’s events.  She’d slept longer than usual.

All quiet, he’d replied, but there was a SAMAS patrol within sight.  You were correct about locating them.

His sensors began to pick up movement behind him, originating in the small cave the team had chosen to sleep in through the day.  One of them was climbing the rocks, approaching Arcturus and his lookout point.

“Good evening, Jacob,” he vocalized, neither turning his head nor moving his jaw.  “I hope you slept well.”

“I did, Arc, thanks.  How’s the day?”

“Quiet.  SAMAS patrol to the south, 15k or so.”

Jacob nodded.  “The real mission starts, huh?”  He paused.  “Sure is a pretty view.”  He took a deep breath, then let it out slowly, then turned to look at the robot.

Arcturus was nodding, slowly.  “It certainly is.  I have found this to be one of the advantages of staying up all day when the rest of you sleep.  I can almost always find a good lookout position with an excellent view.”

Jacob continued to stare at him.  “The way you talk almost made me forget you’re a machine.”  He turned to look back at the hills and the distant trees.  “A regular ‘bot wouldn’t see this the same.”

“No, a skelebot would tell you how many of each species of trees are out there, and little more.  Perhaps I can stare at such a landscape longer because I remember a time when I could not appreciate its beauty.”

Jacob smirked.  “I think you can stare longer because you don’t get tired from standing still all day.”  Then his head turned suddenly, as Arcturus’ vocal processor seemed caught in small bursts of static.  It took a moment for him to realize that the robot was chuckling.

Arcturus turned to look at him, and saw the confused expression.  “My apologies- my speech systems were not designed to accommodate laughter.”

“No problem.  Just didn’t know what the sound was.  Now that I do, I’ll try to make you laugh more often.”

“That would be splendid,” Arcturus replied.  “Few people tell me jokes.”

The two of them looked out at the land, silently.  Within a few moments, Torealis and Deliah climbed up the rocks to join them.

“Good evening, ladies,” Arcturus replied.  “I hope your day was comfortable.”

“Thank you,” Torealis smiled, gently.  She could change her shape to be comfortable almost everywhere, and Deliah’s cyborg body didn’t even really require comfort.  “You picked a pleasant place to spend the day.”

“I have been able to find a pleasant view every day we have been travelling,” he replied.  “We live in a beautiful world.”

“You slept late,” Jacob said.  “Are you feeling ok?”

Torealis nodded.  “I needed more rest after the infusion.  I’m better now.  Are you feeling better today?”

“Yes,” Jacob replied.  Over the previous three days, his chem-supply system had been running low on its most important of supplements- dragon blood- and she’d given a fresh infusion before they had slept.  “Lots more energy.”

“Good.”  Torealis’s eyes narrowed, shifting their color from green to violet, and her shape suddenly shifted.  Her usual form, medium-height and petite build, suddenly grew in size until she was the same height as Jacob, much more muscular, and with darker skin.  And the two seconds of shape-shifting were all the warning she gave him.  She dove forward, tackling him hard and carrying the both of them down off the rocks to the bare earth below.  A fall of 4 meters would injure a normal person, but a young dragon and a Dragon-Juicer wouldn’t even show a bruise.  Jacob had twisted them both in the air, and landed atop her.

Deliah looked over at Arcturus.  Neither her cyborg body, nor his robotic face, were designed to smile.  She was caught off-guard by the static-burst laughter, but couldn’t help laughing herself.  When he said, “I do not know that I would want to wrestle either of them, but it is entertaining to watch,” she laughed again.

*****

The two of them rolled several times before breaking apart long enough to stand. Only a moment later, they had entangled again, both trying to unbalance the other but neither gaining a clear advantage.  It wasn’t until Jacob allowed Torealis to lift him that they moved- her lifting and pushing him backward toward another rock, intending to pin him against the rock face.  But instead, he twisted sideward, planting his feet on the rock, pushing and twisting her sideward and off-balance.  By the time she’d gotten off her heels, he had his shoulder against her midsection, his arm around her waist, and had picked her up over his shoulder, nearly dropping her backwards.  She didn’t have time to roll sideward before he was atop her, pinning her down.

The two were eye-to-eye for a long moment before their expressions relaxed, before Torealis stopped trying to force him off of her.  She smiled, softly, and he released one hand, lifting his own to touch the side of her face.  Her eyes turned from violet to sky-blue, running her fingers through his orange-red hair, then cupping his head behind his ear.

He couldn’t help the way he felt for her, no matter what her true nature was.  The two had risked their lives for each other, and together, too many times.  He moved his face closer to hers, until the ends of their noses were just touching.  Then he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, reclaimed his self-control, and moved his head back.

Her eyes narrowed, playfully, and she smiled.  Then she opened her mouth, and a long, grey, forked tongue slipped out and licked the end of his nose.  He laughed hard enough to roll off of her on his own.

*****

The team had been travelling for almost an hour before the sun finally disappeared. They had been riding almost directly toward the sunset.  Finjiarn was leading the group, scouting ahead by 100 meters or so.  The trees began to thin out again, and after crossing a small river, Finjiarn let out a sharp whistle, holding up a hand.  The rest of the group stopped on the far side.   Perridan moved around the group so silently that few of them noticed- they merely saw him step up beside his apprentice.

The remainder of the group collected on the other bank of the river, waiting for the two psi-stalkers to signal them.  The circled, almost like a small council, pointing their hoverbikes inward and talking quietly.

“It’s the lights up ahead,” Jasmine said.  “They’re seeing aerial search lights ahead.”

Deliah nodded.  Whatever they were, they were just out of her sensory range, but they were easy to spot with the naked eye.  Searchlights at night worked for you and against you.  She looked over to Arcturus, but he shook his head.  “They are beyond range of my sensors, as well.”

Jacob and Torealis looked off toward the south-east, and spotted the lights easily.  “Three sets of lights, but more than three sources,” Torealis said.  “I would guess that they are SAMAS units, most likely in pairs.”

Father Martiniros watched the sky for a few moments, then looked at Deliah.  “I’ve seen them fly in patterns like that before.  SAMAS and just about any other pack hunters.  They’re herding something – or someone – westward.”

Darien shivered, watching the lights.  Tristan, sitting next to him, saw the expression, and clapped the magician’s shoulder.

“You’re not here alone this time,” he said.  “This group could take on a SAMAS team any day.”

“Yes, but the question is whether or not we should,” Deliah said, gravely.  “And I might be swayed to either side.  Whoever it is they’re chasing, if the CS sent a SAMAS squad after them, they must be important.  Possibly worth rescuing, even with the risk of exposure.”

Arcturus continued to watch the sky, then turned his head toward the cyborg.  “I believe there is a ground team involved as well.  They should pass within 5 kilometers of our position here, so we should have no problem intercepting them.  Wherever their ground team is, they’ll be much closer.”

“Can you block or scramble their communications?” Jacob asked.  “They wouldn’t be quick to respond to our surprise.”

“Possibly, but not if they are using laser communications, which I presume they are.”  The robot turned his head again, looking at the sky.  Then, suddenly, his head tilted downward.  “Their ground team is closer than we suspected.”  He pointed off into the trees.  “I’m picking up radio-based machine communication, within 1 kilometer of us.  Four sources, spread out and moving toward us at 6k per hour.”

Deliah nodded.  She’d noticed the same thing.  “They’re using Skelebots.  Let’s dismount and spread out.  Try to let the skelebots get close enough to destroy them quietly.  Don’t let them see what hit them- they’ll transmit visual images back to their controller.”

Arcturus twisted his left arm downward and backward, and pointed to a point on his back just below his ‘ribcage’.  “The skelebot power core is here, right near the base of the spine.  It is a hard target, heavily armored, but if you can hit the bot here-” he moved his hand outward, away from the spine- “you can sever the power connections without doing too much damage to the rest of the machine.  The only visual sensors are the eyes, but remember the magnetic, radar, and ultrasound sensors are elsewhere, and they will still get a reading on us.  The more of the machine we can salvage, the more useful data I can retrieve from them.  And one more thing… I will most likely be the only skelebot without a weapon in its hand, so if you see one that is not armed, please do not shoot.”

*****

Jacob stood still, his back to the tree, listening as the machine came closer. He’d seen its eyes coming through the darkness a few minutes earlier, glowing faintly red as it stalked through the gigantic oak trees.  Now he could hear it, pushing aside the underbrush and breaking large sticks as it stomped toward him.  It would pass within two meters of him, and the tree he’d picked was just big enough to hide the width of his shoulders.  He slid around the side of the tree as the robot circled the other side.  Jacob’s night-vision was still good- with no light source and an overcast sky, not even the moon was casting shadows.

No matter how fast his reflexes were, the skelebot would be just as fast.  Jacob had drawn his vibro-blade earlier, but wouldn’t activate it until he was about to strike.  It would make just enough noise to give him away.  He tilted his head to glance around the tree.  The robot was two meters away from him, moving slowly and quietly.  Its joints whirred softly as it moved, but from more than 10 meters it wouldn’t be audible.

Jacob lowered his center of gravity, just slightly crouching and preparing to spring.  He felt the chemicals enter his blood, his juicer-rig anticipating action.  Time slowed slightly, his senses sharpened, and he focused on the weak point Arcturus had pointed out earlier.

When he pounced, he crossed the distance between them in a fraction of a second.  His knife went active only a moment before entering the robot’s lower back.  It stumbled forward from the impact, then straightened and tried to turn to face its attacker.

But what it didn’t do was lose power. Jacob thought he’d missed, but when the robot turned his head, he realized his problem.  The structure of the body was similar, but the joints were slightly less knobby, the arm ‘bones’ were not just straight metal pipes welded into their sockets, and the shape of the ribcage wasn’t just similar to a human’s, the way he was expecting.  This one had a ribcage that was so close to human proportions that it was creepy.  And while the head was still definitely that of a machine, it was far more refined than any of the skelebots he’d fought before.  It was either something they hadn’t expected, or…

“These are a new model,” Jacob hissed, knowing his communications link would carry his warning to the others- and if they hadn’t, the sound from his link would attract Jasmine’s attention, and she’d pass the word along.

The machine’s head turned, trying to get a visual image to send to its controller.  Jacob switched off his vibro-blade, making it just as effective against a skelebot as a flat iron bar.  However, it was still deep inside the machine’s lower back.  It could turn its head, but as long as he held onto the hilt of the knife, he could keep it from facing him.  The shoulder joints of the old model would have allowed the arms to simply twist backward and wrap around or strike him.  Impossible for a human to do.  And apparently the designers of this machine hadn’t considered the human skeleton’s limitations- the shoulder joints had been made more human than the old version, and couldn’t reach him.  He smirked just slightly, then drew the vibro-blade out of the skelebot’s back.  Activating it again, he drove it into the base of the skelebot’s skull.  Again he switched it off, and discovered that it made a very efficient way of keeping the machine from getting a good look at him.

He whispered under his breath, directing his thoughts at the team’s psychic.  “You seeing this, Jasmine?”

*****

Indeed I am, she replied silently. Jasmine, Tristan, Kierla and Darien were with the hoverbikes, staying out of the action, as they would be of little help in the current fight.  Jasmine closed her eyes for just a moment, needing more concentration than usual to communicate with the entire team at once without broadcasting her thoughts for everyone in the area to ‘hear’.  The presence of skelebots did not rule out the presence of a Dog Boy team, and having so much psychic and magical talent around was enough of a risk.  Arcturus was nearby them, both as protection and to reduce the risk of being spotted.  Having a team of travelers encounter a CS team was one thing- but if any of the skelebots transmitted an image of a rogue skelebot traveling with them, they’d be hunted down for sure.

*****

Martiniros had caught the visual image relayed from Jasmine, liking the idea Jacob had implemented.  He rarely used vibro-blades- with the cursed blood in his veins, his hands had enough un-natural strength to tear a skelebot limb from limb.  In this case, however, he would rather not be spotted, either.  He had leaped atop a tree limb before, and now watched the machine tromp through the brush right below him.  One more step past him, and the vampire dropped out of the tree, activating the blade just a little early.

The machine heard it, tilting its head upward to try to get a visual image of its attacker.  All it accomplished was to give Martiniros a perfect angle for the blade to enter the skull.  It slid through the armored skull, the hilt touching the shell at the same time the vampire’s feet hit the ground.  The machine’s back arched, its head pulled backward by Martiniros’ grip on the knife, then doubled over forward as the vampire sprung forward.  He drove the machine’s face into the dirt, holding it down by the now-deactivated vibro-blade.  Then he used his free hand to twist one of the machine’s flailing arms backward at an angle that would have caused excruciating pain in a human.  The joint broke, badly, the mechanical systems completely ruined.  Martiniros proceeded to dis-assemble the machine, one limb at a time.

*****

Deliah had just beheaded her opponent in much the same way. She marked its location for Arcturus to pick up later, then turned her head to the west, hearing a scuffle in the underbrush.

Torealis’ voice came over the intercom.  “I have a notion…”

Jasmine answered before anyone else could ask.  I like it.  Deliah was about to ask, but she saw it happening for herself.  Torealis was just over 50 meters away, close enough for Deliah to see clearly, but not be seen herself.  The dragon had taken the form of a large woman, almost 4 meters tall, with green skin and octopus-like tentacles protruding from her back.  She had also engaged her skelebot directly, letting it get a perfect view of what it was facing, and no doubt transmitting that image back to its controller…

Giving them a look at some monster they would spend weeks combing the forest for, Deliah thought with a smile.  Not only that, but the proximity of something like this would doubtless get the attention of the rest of the CS hunting party.  With luck, the SAMAS would come by much sooner now, rather than herd their original targets any farther.

Torealis- Darien says you should grow wings and fly north.  Jasmine acted as a far more efficient communications link than the electronic systems they carried.  Too bad they couldn’t ditch the electronic system completely, Deliah thought.  She wished she knew what the others had in mind, but a moment later, it became clear enough.  Torealis stopped playing with her opponent, smashing him three times in the head and torso to disable him.  Then she crouched, leaped skyward, and sprouted bat-like wings from her shoulders, right behind the tentacles.  She looked like the strangest humanoid thing Deliah had ever seen, flapping the leathery wings and flying up over the treetops.  She turned west, toward where the SAMAS units were just turning to see her, and roared at them with her full dragon-voice.

And as if that hadn’t gotten their attention, another form leaped up into the sky.  Deliah looked askance at the second shape.  It appeared to be the same as Torealis’ invented shape, but the young dragon was the only one in the group who could shape-shift so efficiently.  She also wasn’t getting any sensory information from it, no thermal or radar signature at all.  A moment later she figured it out- Darien was casting an illusion.  One such creature was a minor threat, and would be chased off by the aerial support team.  Two creatures could possibly divert the air support entirely- at least for long enough for Deliah and her team to deal with the ground team.

It also might cause them to call for backup.  They would have to move quickly.  With the skelebots out of action, and now their air support heading north, the remaining ground team would light up their communications to find out what was going on.  They would be easy to find.

*****

Too easy, Deliah thought less than five minutes later. They were in hot pursuit of three humans- at least they looked human at a distance.  The CS ground team was fanning out to encircle them, 12 regular ‘dead boy’ soldiers who were moving in a rough half-circle as they closed in.  Their transport, a hovering troop carrier, followed them about 300 meters behind. Their prey was on foot, and was exhausted, not trained to run very fast, or both.  The CS team was moving almost twice their speed.  Deliah’s team was positioned close enough to observe the whole thing, but with Darien and Torealis distracting the air support, no one could magically teleport in and extract the targets of the pursuit.

Jasmine shut off her hoverbike, then drew her feet up to sit cross-legged on the saddle.  Her eyes didn’t close, but it was clear she wasn’t focusing her attention on her surroundings.  “I have an idea, Deliah, but I’ll need to concentrate.  Can you interrupt their communications?”

“At this range I can, yes,” Deliah replied, giving a silent command to her on-board computer systems to look for the CS communications band.  Once it was located, she merely overloaded it with static.  The communications systems the soldiers carried would attenuate the noise, but nothing else would get through to them.

*****

Lieutenant Linda Saladin was getting more worried by the minute. This operation was laid on much too fast.  She and her team were too far north to be without a Dog Boy squad, and now the cowboys that Command had sent along for air support were off chasing some new critter- no doubt hoping for the bonus pay awarded for discovering and retrieving an undocumented life form.  The hover APC she rode in was well protected, but had no weapons with which to threaten the escaping traitors- they didn’t even have windows to stick their rifles out of.  So to actually catch them, the team had to dismount.  They’d been able to pick up an infra-red signature on their quarry, but only intermittently.

And now, her communication links with her troops were being blocked.  Without line-of-sight laser communications, her soldiers weren’t getting the orders she was relaying to them.  And it was beginning to show- their formation had been nice and tight before, but was becoming frayed as some of the soldiers slowed their pace, and some seemed to wander the wrong direction.  She’d given up trying to talk them back on track, and was now shouting at the young corporal operating the sensors and communications panel.

He was helpless.  The jamming was almost alive, switching its distortion patterns continuously and not allowing him to filter it out.  And now his magnetic and thermal sensors were showing errors.  He turned to report this, but his LT was right behind him, and had already figured it out.

“LT, the sensors are being blocked now, too,” he reported anyway.  She merely nodded, which was a relief- she’d stopped the shouting, at least.

“Well, whatever it is that is doing this is going to hit us any minute now,” she said.  Then she turned forward, to the driver’s compartment.  “Move us in closer to the team.  We can still get out and holler if we need to. And check your sidearms, people.”  She turned back to the operator.  “Let me know the moment you hear from the SAMAS team.”  She cursed under her breath.  Her report would be custom-designed to end the career of every one of those pilots.

*****

Jasmine didn’t waste any effort speaking. Her requests went out to the others in the team directly from her mind.  Tristan, Kierla, Jacob- if you can move around their formation, you can intercept the quarry and give them a lift out of there.  I’m going to point the soldiers slightly north, so slip around from the south. The three of them silently agreed, then rode southward to get into position.

Tristan glanced upward as his hoverbike sped over the forest floor.  The elm, maple, and oak trees in this part of the world formed a heavy canopy overhead, perhaps 50 meters over their heads.  But the tree trunks themselves were spaced widely, and visibility along the ground was good for over 100 meters.  The CS team was close enough that Tristan was worried about the engine noise from their hoverbikes, but Jacob’s observation seemed to prove true; at the speed those soldiers were running, they wouldn’t notice the strike team unless they opened fire on them.  And the CS team was all-human, so they didn’t pick up anything strange about the new orders or information they were being fed by the super-psychic.

Serves you right for not bringing Dog Boys along, Tristan thought.  Kierla was right behind him, and he could feel the tension rolling off of her.  She was a mechanic, not a fighter, and if this didn’t go as planned she’d be right in the line of fire.  She’d jumped at the chance to help the strike team go down to Lone Star and cause trouble, but had made it clear from the start that she wasn’t there to do any shooting.  Damn, if she wasn’t standing up to her fear.  Jacob was leading the trio through the trees- his vision was better, and he was better at second-guessing CS soldiers.  He angled northward, pulling ahead of the CS formation and heading directly for the fleeing…

…What?  They still had no idea who or what they were chasing.  Jacob sped up, and Tristan matched his speed.  After a two-minute sprint, they crested a small hill and saw who they were after.

There were only three of them, all human and all over 40 years old.  Two men and a woman, and while one of the men looked like he was in fairly good shape physically, the other two were overweight and not used to this sort of running.  They were also carrying bulky looking packs of various shapes and sizes, which slowed them down even more.  Tristan’s first thought on seeing them was that they were lucky they made it as far from Lone Star as they had.

They heard the hoverbikes coming, and turned to look just before trying to run again.  They were exhausted, and in a near-panic by the sight of a Juicer charging toward them on a hoverbike.  For a moment, they didn’t even notice Kierla or Tristan.

He was about to suggest that Jacob allow him to approach them first, when the juicer seemed to have the same idea himself.  Jacob angled his bike backward, toward the approaching soldiers.  Tristan circled the trio of escapees, getting in front of them, then coasting to a stop a few meters in front of them.  The three were dressed for the outdoors, but not used to it- they’d gotten the right gear, but they were still out of place.  They stopped, staring at him in panic, but then curiosity as the realization crept into their consciousness- these are NOT regular CS troops.

“Hop on, unless you want to get caught,” Tristan called.  Kierla pulled up nearby, stopping her bike smoothly and planting her feet.

They gulped down a few breaths, glancing at each other.  “How are you going to avoid the air support?” the woman gasped.

Jacob coasted up to them, stopping next to her.  “Let us worry about that.”  He extended his hand to her, helping her onto the bike.  The other two climbed onto the passenger seats behind Kierla and Tristan.  The moment their new riders were secure, they sped off, first heading west to put distance between them and the CS team, then turning south to loop around and rejoin their companions.

*****

Torealis got a mental signal from Jasmine once the trio had been rescued. Being in the shape of a giant, green, winged-and-tentacled demon woman was kind of fun, but even in her natural shape, the SAMAS units would be able to outpace her in the air. They were almost within firing range now, and her ruse had served its purpose.  She dove for the trees now, shifting her form again the moment she was out of sight.  The on-board computers the SAMAS carried would try to track her by magnetic and heat signature, so she didn’t have much time.  She caught the lower branches of an ancient maple just before completing the conversion, wrapping her new shape around the trunk and slithering upward.

The six SAMAS units split into two teams of three, one continuing past her overhead.  They were chasing an identical copy of her, but it wouldn’t make it much farther.  Darien’s illusion could only fly so far away from him before it became incoherent.  The three that pursued her dropped through the trees, landing in the underbrush 30 meters from her.  They fanned out, pushing their searchlights up to full power and blinding every creature that was brave or stupid enough to remain close by.  Torealis did the logical thing a common snake would- she slithered up the tree and out of sight, putting the trunk between her and the SAMAS.  They fanned out on the ground, trying to pick up any signs, but the hatchling’s new form was cold-blooded.  Her natural form was, too, but ice dragons were so cold they’d show up as negative space on an infra-red scope.  This snake-shape was perfect for the moment.  After a minute of searching, the SAMAS leaped up through the trees again, apparently hoping to scope the trees more thoroughly from the air.

*****

Kierla had to fight to resist laughing on the way back to their rendezvous point. They had moved South-East, out of the path they’d guessed the CS team would take.  When they met up with the others, the team headed South, then South-West.  Avoiding the SAMAS air team was dodgy for a while, but no one had expected them to head back south.  When people ran from Lone Star, they tended to head North.

Jacob’s passenger was talking to him intermittently- Kierla could see his head turn occasionally to reply to her- but Kierla’s own passenger was too shaken to do anything but hang on.  They headed West, putting some distance between themselves and the CS patrols.  It was close to dawn before her passenger could speak.

“So if you don’t mind me asking, where are you taking us?” he asked, finally.

She turned her head, smiling gently.  “For now, we’re just getting clear of CS patrol territory.”  She waited for a moment before asking, “Why did they send an armed patrol after you?”

“Worried about what we carried around in our heads,” was the reply.  “I guess the Internal Security Service decided we knew too much.”  He sighed, deeply.  “Taking a bunch of gear from the lower labs probably didn’t help much, either.”

She snickered, and nodded agreement.  “So what is it you worked on?  What’s your specialty?”

“Well, Caleb, the one riding with the well-dressed gent behind us, his field is genetic mutation- Dog Boy variations, things like that.  Helen, riding with your big friend up there,” he pointed past her, “she works on chemical enhancements.  So those two will get along well- he is a juicer, isn’t he?”

Kierla nodded.

“She’s been working on upgrading the juicer systems, finding a more efficient and powerful chemical mix.  She did a lot of work on the new Halcyon juicer variation- we think that’s one of the reasons ISS came for her.  They don’t know who leaked the design information.  But now there’s a whole mess of out-lying cities that are providing that system, and the CS isn’t getting what they consider to be their slice of the profits.”  Kierla had a good laugh about that.

“How about yourself?”

“My name is Martin, Michael Martin.  My background is electronics, but for the past few years I’ve been with the advanced robotics research.  A lot of the upgrades to the SAMAS control systems, some independent robot and cyborg components… little pieces of technology I’m hoping will be valuable out here in the rest of the world.”

“Robotics, huh?” Kierla smiled.  “Then there’s someone with us that you just have to meet.”  She touched one hand to her ear, activating the tiny communications device she wore.  “Arcturus, would you mind joining me?  My passenger would be intrigued to meet you.”

“Certainly,” came the reply.  He’d been running alongside Jasmine, at the end of their line, but he sped up his running to come alongside Kierla’s bike. Keeping pace with her was easy for him, and he had maintained this running speed every night since they’d left Tolkeen.

“Greetings,” he said, coming alongside Kierla’s hoverbike.  The scientist in the passenger seat shrieked, and nearly fell off the bike.  He did manage to pull them off balance as he cowered behind her.  She half-growled, half-chuckled as she righted the hoverbike, then slowed down.

Deliah changed her course, heading toward the ruined and abandoned village they had chosen to pass the day in.  The line of hoverbikes followed her, snaking through the giant trees.  One at a time, the coasted to a gentle stop.

*****

Only two buildings were even visible above-ground, both of them just a collection of cement-block walls that had not quite yet succumbed to time.  A dozen or so other foundations could be found, 3 of which had not been caved in from the sides from pressure from the earth.  Deliah, Jasmine, and Father Martiniros spent a good deal of time poking around, in an attempt to detect anything unfriendly nearby.  There was the remains of a small campfire behind a series of ruined walls, but it had been abandoned for at least a month.

By this time, their routine in the wilderness was almost automatic. Martiniros found himself an isolated basement, and as the sun came dangerously close to rising, he crept downstairs and into the shadows.  Arcturus wandered around the perimeter, dividing his attention equally between the ground and the sky.  Jasmine, satisfied that they were relatively safe, bed herself down quickly, this time picking a shaded spot beneath a tree.  Tristan and Kierla gathered enough wood for a small cook-fire- which Tristan lit without even lifting a finger. Jacob had hunted a few days before, and there was enough meat from the elk he’d killed to last another few days.  They had to be cautious cooking over Tristan’s fires- they burned hotter than they looked- but they’d gotten the hang of it.

The ground was harder and dryer, slowly giving way to the deserts and plains the team was approaching.  The trees were still tall and strong, pushing up between what was left of the concrete and blacktop streets, but there was more space between them now. There was less underbrush below them, too.  The sky was clear, with only a few wisps of cloud that drifted lazily eastward.

Deliah sat with the three rescued scientists, talking with them quietly as the others went about their work.  Kierla couldn’t hear them talking, but had guessed at the basics of the conversation- don’t give away our position, you’re welcome to come with us if you like, we can’t guarantee your safety, try to get some rest… she set down the last of the firewood she’d picked up, then picked out a good spot not far from Jasmine, laid out her bedroll, and was asleep within a few minutes.

Torealis was asleep quickly, as well.  She’d exerted herself near the edge of her endurance, and needed extra time to recover.  Jacob knew that his passenger from earlier would want to talk to him some more, and he was excited to speak to her as well.  He’d prepared his own bedroll, then checked on Torealis.  He always felt better knowing where she’d bedded down.  He smirked when he found her- in the same ruined basement that Martiniros had chosen.  He shrugged, thinking it made twisted sense… the two would really be little threat to each other, and it was the place with the best shade and coolest temperature.  Heading south had been gradually making Torealis’s days less and less comfortable.  She was in natural form, her huge body curled up across the floor from the wooden box that the vampire had brought with him.  Her tail nearly circled the room.  Jacob gave the side of her meter-long head an affectionate pat, and one of her eyes opened lazily.  The color shifted from deep blue to light green, then the eye closed again.

When he returned to the surface, Deliah was in process of shutting down, Jasmine and Kierla were asleep, Tristan was finishing his meal, and the two psi-stalker tribesmen were snickering as he cleaned up his fire-pit.  Being psi-stalkers meant they never had to concern themselves with cookfires, or many other inconvenient remains of their camps.  Jacob again wondered where the two passed the days- he’d never seen them sleep- but he didn’t wonder strongly enough to ask them.  As he approached, Tristan offered him an aluminum plate with two slabs of meat on it.  The juicer accepted it gratefully, then sat down to eat.

Helen approached him a moment later.  “Thanks again for picking us up,” she said, sitting down.  She was in fairly weak physical shape, and about 10 kilos overweight, he thought- the CS had taken a little too good care of her.  Being outdoors was hard on her, but would do her good in the long run.

“You’re entirely welcome,” he replied.

“I didn’t know what to expect from the people we’d meet out here, but I must say we could never have expected a group like yours.”

He smiled.  “Well, that’s the idea.  Few people would believe we would work together, just because of who we are.”

She turned her head toward a gap in the trees, where they could see Arcturus wandering around the perimeter of the ruins, accompanied by the man who had ridden with Kierla.  “Your cyborg friend gave us the quick version of the Skelebot’s story.  Michael will pester him for hours- his specialty is robotics.”

Jacob smiled, taking another bite of elk steak.  It was delicious as always.  “Yes, Arc is quite a guy.  Did Deliah tell you about Father Martiniros?”

“The vampire?  Yes, she did, and I can’t imagine how you fall asleep with him around.”

“He’s already saved our lives.  Besides,” Jacob pointed with his fork to the ruined basement he shared with Torealis, “he’ll have a lot of sunlight between him and us in an hour or so.”

As he withdrew his hand, he caught her eyes looking at the cuffs he wore.

“I knew it,” she said.  “A Juicer.” She pointed to the cuffs.

Jacob snickered, holding up his plate.  “It wasn’t the extra portion of food that gave it away?”

She laughed.  “No, that’s my field.  The reason I had to escape, too- I did a lot of work on Juicer variations, and one of them appeared on the open market in Northern Gun.  They think I sold the design.”  She shook her head.  “They had hoped to have an exclusive product to sell, and now they won’t be able to make as much profit on it.”  Then she looked Jacob up and down, her professional eye picking up more details now that they were sitting still.  “Not big enough for a Titan, but obviously too large for a standard conversion… I know there are some places offering knock-offs of my Halcyon variation- they call them Mega Juicers out here, but it’s still not as good as what we can do in a proper lab.  Is that what you got?”

Jacob smiled, grimly, and shook his head.  “No.”  He set his fork on the plate to free a hand, and reached down toward his waist.  His chem-pack was there, on a relatively small belt.  The most important of ingredients in his chemical mix were carried separately, and he opened one compartment on his right side.  He drew one of the plexiglass tubes out, holding it up and letting its dull green-blue glow illuminate his hand in the growing sunlight.  He handed it across to her a moment later.

She held it up to the light, her expression confused at first.  “A radioactive component?  No, for it to glow this brightly, it’d be killing me right now.  But…”  she looked back to Jacob.

“It’s Dragon blood.  You saw the petite woman with ice-white hair?”

Her expression turned to near-shock as the answer hit her.  “I’ve only head rumors about that sort of conversion.  But why would she want to travel with someone who needs her blood?”

“We were friends long before my conversion.  I was kidnapped, and this was done against my will.  She’s keeping me alive.  Besides, what I need is relatively small amount, and not very often.”

“Against your will?”  Helen was silent for a moment as she absorbed it.  “I’ve administered juicer conversions to so many people, seen the excitement in their eyes when they come out of recovery… I can’t imagine doing it to an unwilling subject.”  She was quiet for another moment, thoughtful this time.  “How long has it been since your conversion?”

“Two years.  No one is sure how long we’re supposed to last… some people think the blood will keep me going longer, some think it’ll burn me out faster.”  He shrugged.

She looked away for a moment, then back at him.  “I might be able to answer that- if I can have a look at your blood chemistry.”

“It won’t give you a clear answer, will it?  I mean, everyone reacts differently.”

“Partially true.  The juicer chemistry has a set of very specific effects on the internal organs, and those effects are the same for almost everyone. The body’s reaction to those imbalances are always different, but the triggers are nearly the same.  Well, different variations have different triggers- the Hyperion, for example, nearly eliminates a pair of very specific hormones, one of which cripples some of the liver functions.”

“I have no idea what you just said,” Jacob said with a disarmed smile.

She smiled back.  “Hard to explain.  But that’s why the Hyperion system has to have a specific alcohol filter in the system, and why you probably don’t see them drink all that much.  The system can only filter out so much alcohol at once, and without it, a single can of beer would be fatal to them.”

Jacob’s eyebrows rose.  “That’s interesting.  Especially when you think about all the pre-race drinks you see them trying to choke down the night before the Juicer Marathon.”

She looked at him, half-shocked, then shook her head.  “Insane.  Anyways, the standard conversion has a specific effect on the bone marrow- the body doesn’t produce blood cells the way it should.  After a while, the blood starts to become too acidic, and that just starts tearing down the entire body from the inside. Some people go out slowly, some just pop.”  She paused, and sighed.  “A few of the variations get this, too, but usually not before some other catastrophic thing happens.  There’s so many things that can go wrong, you almost need to have a chemistry lab follow you around to keep an eye on you.  But anyway, there might be a specific sign for your variation, too.  We’d just have to figure out what it is.”

“Too bad your lab didn’t follow you out here,” he said.  “I’d give you a sample right now if I could.”

She smiled, then looked back to her pack.  “As a matter of fact, some of it did.  We didn’t have too much time to plan, but one thing we figured out was that we’d need money eventually, so we brought some of our gear out with us to sell once we got far enough away.  I’ve got just enough diagnostic gear to do a good analysis.”  She sighed.  “I don’t think I should draw blood just now, though…” She held up one hand, which shook slightly.  “Let me sleep off some of this stress before I handle a needle.”

Jacob nodded, then stood.  He returned his plate to the chuck-wagon box on the back of Deliah’s hoverbike, then started the cleaning cycle.  Within an hour, all their eating tools would be washed and disinfected. Then he took his bedroll off his own bike, picked out a good spot, and lay down.  He was asleep within minutes, but his dreams of finding a cure for his conversion had new fuel, and they tormented him for most of the day.

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