Lone Star – Chapter 22

Gordon reached the top of the hill, in the almost-crawl that mutant canines were taught. Human arms and legs could never accomplish it- it was close enough to walking on all fours that natural dogs did, and was fast enough to be useful.  Yaran and Billie kept an eye on their own surroundings, but glanced up the hill at their scout enough to see if he’d signaled them.  It was a minute or so before he did.  Yaran dropped into a crouch, with his rifle slung across his back, and moved up the hill.  Billie was beside him, and laughed a little bit when his rifle slipped and nearly tangled up his arms.  He smirked over at her, setting his rifle straight and continuing his climb.

“It’s been a while, ok?”

“Don’t sweat it, si-shon,” she said.  “We’re all getting back into the swing of this sort of work.”

He nodded, then looked back up the hill.  Gordon hadn’t moved, wasn’t giving them the hold still signal, so he kept up his approach.  Yaran was beside the scout a few minutes later, and Billie fell into place on his other side.

“Right down there,” Gordon said.  “You said they were close by?  This is the only patrol we’ve seen out this far.”

Yaran looked over at Billie.  “I’m not picking up anyone else but them,” she concurred.  “You sure about this?”

“I’m sure.  It’s the Pit-Bull bringing up the tail of the patrol, there.  He’s been wondering for a while, but hasn’t seriously considered it.  We’ll take it slow.”  Yaran sighed, remembering his own time on patrols.  The memories were not fond ones.

“Think he’ll hear you?” Gordon asked.  Yaran wouldn’t call with is voice, but with his mind.  His limited psychic gift let him speak over great distances with other mutant canines, and gave him a knack for guessing which of the young dog-boys still in service to the CS were wishing they could escape.  Another aspect of his gift was that, unlike most psychics, Yaran wouldn’t alert other mutant canines.  Normally very sensitive to any supernatural energy, Yaran’s gift slipped right past them.

“We’ll find out soon enough.  Keep an eye on him, you’ll see a reaction from him if he does.”  Yaran closed his eyes, reaching his mind out toward the young pup.  He let the mental connection speak for itself for a moment, then whispered across the distance.  There is a greater world out there, where we can be equals.

The pup heard him, he was sure.  The head turned sharply, scanning for a source of the voice.  Unable to find anyone speaking to him, the young canine next looked at the rest of his squad to see if anyone else had heard what he did.  Yaran smirked, then spoke again.  Again, the pup looked around.  Yaran knew better than to expect him to abandon his squad and run off into the wild.  But he’d planted the seed in a fertile mind, and soon the idea of running away would blossom.  It was just a matter of time.  The tricky part was using his gift in such a way that it didn’t alert the rest of the canines.  Every breed was very sensitive to strong psychic presence.  Yaran’s gift was different, but he couldn’t afford to let down his guard.

Yaran moved back from his position, scooting backward down the hill and out of sight of the patrol.  Gordon looked at him, then scanned the horizon on all sides, looking for anyone or anything that might be watching them or watching for them.  Then he glanced at Billie.

“That’s it?”

She shrugged.  “I guess so.”

Gordon sighed, then followed Yaran back down the hill.  Once they had gotten to the base of their observation hill, they stood upright again and jogged the two kilometers or so back to where their hoverbikes were parked.  They moved the branches and improvised camoflage, then started up the engines.  Gordon touched the comm device at his throat, activating it.  “Please tell me we didn’t spend 5 hours getting here, just to spend 90 seconds watching a patrol.”

Yaran shrugged.  “That’s the way it is, at least at first.  Eventually we’ll have a couple of them to sniff out on each trip, but for now, that’s what we’ve got.  Besides, it’s only because of you that we got here in 5 hours.  I would have taken 7.  You’re a lot better at spotting air patrols than I am.”

“That’s why you’ve got me around,” Gordon half-grumbled.  “When do we come back?”

“A week or so.  It’ll get busier the longer we’re out here.”

“Good.  Speaking of other patrols,” he pointed toward the East, then raised his binoculars.  Just over the distant hills, a group of dark dots could be seen floating in the air.  This close to the Lone Star complex, they could be nothing else but an aerial patrol.  Most of those were SAMAS squads, and could pick them up on their sensors at least from 5 kilometers out.

“10 kilos away, maybe more, and not coming directly at us.  They’re headed more North.  But lets get out of here before they circle around this way.”  Gordon put the binoculars away in the storage compartment of his hoverbike, then accelerated away to the West.  Yaran and Billie were close behind him.

They had to change course three times to avoid patrolling SAMAS units, and at one point had to dismount and take cover in some trees as an aerial transport roared by, within a kilometer of their position.  But before the sun got low in the sky, they had passed beyond the range of the widest patrol routes.  They stayed in the valleys where they could, close to trees where they found them.  When the sun was nearly touching the distant treetops, Gordon let his bike coast to a halt, then put his feet down and looked off to his left.

Yaran stopped beside him, letting his bike engine idle.  He followed Gordon’s gaze, then spotted what his scout was looking at; a thin column of smoke, rising nearly straight up in the calm, clear sky.

“I’d guess a kilo and a half from us, si-shon,” the scout said.  “Easy enough to avoid if you want, but close enough to have a look.  What’s your gut tell you?”

Yaran shrugged.  “A CS patrol wouldn’t light a fire out here.  They’d go home for their meal.”

“Right.  But is there any reason for us to get spotted by anyone else?”

“Depends on who it is.  There’s lots of wanderers around the wilderness, and they might have information we could use, if nothing else.”

The scout sighed.  “So, you want to check it out?”  Yaran nodded.

Gordon smirked, then dismounted from his bike.  He walked it up to the top of the hill on their left, and while idling it didn’t make excessive noise.  They crested the hill, leaving the bikes just short of the top, stopped between a small clump of sapling trees. There was another plain before them, more or less flat, with tree clumps scattered across it.  Almost a kilometer away from them was a small campfire, and two figures sat beside it, each holding a stick or skewer.  They had caught some small animals, and were cooking them.

Gordon had his binoculars out, and was gazing down at the makeshift camp.  The saplings they stood between were barely 4 meters tall, but enough cover at that distance to keep them from being spotted outright.  Yaran didn’t have his own binoculars- he’d left them with his bike.  After a moment, Gordon passed his over.

“Mutant rats,” he said, with a grimace.

Yaran’s eyebrows rose.  “Rats?  Excellent.”  He had his look, then passed the binoculars to Billie.

Gordon’s head turned, his expression turning to mild surprise.  “Excellent?  You must have a different memory of them than I do.”

Yaran smirked.  “Well, not a more pleasent memory, I don’t think, but the rats know more about what’s going on around here than anyone else does.  If there’s any runaways roaming around out here, since Dorian Westerly disappeared, the rats may have spotted them.  They might even know what happened to Dorian.”

“If we’ve got the money to pay for the information,” Gordon said.  “And they’ll give us away for the right price, too.”

“That’s always a possibility, but there’s a good chance that the rats know of our presence here already.  If we open business with them, we have a chance of being more profitable to them as a client.”

Gordon wasn’t convinced, but he wasn’t going to argue, either.  Yaran hadn’t been wrong about such a thing yet, not in the many years Gordon had known and worked with him.  “Your call, si-shon.”

“Lets shoulder our rifles and walk down, real quiet-like.  We’ll take the bikes- no reason to pretend we walked all the way here,” Yaran said.  “And keep your rifles back over your shoulders.  We’ll stop about 100 meters out, and walk the bikes in from there.  That should give them a chance to look us over before we get too close.”

*****

The three crested the hill on their bikes, moving slowly toward the fire, but not on a direct path toward it. They headed off toward the right side, as they faced it, and stopped 100 meters or so away.  The rats had noticed them before they’d reached the base of the hill, and while they had energy rifles within reach, they weren’t being overtly threatening.  As the canines marched their bikes closer, Yaran could see the two rats smiling at them.

“Greetings- we’re coming to trade,” Yaran called.

“Not much here,” one of the rats replied.  “By look of bikes, you have more than we.”  By speaking first, he’d marked himself as the subordinate.  In almost any group of rats, the true leader of the group would remain silent, and let the lower-ranked members do the talking.  Yaran had dealt with the mutant rats around Lone Star several times in the past.

“We might,” Yaran said, looking over the camp.  Bedrolls and wilderness gear, two energy weapons, and not much more.  No cases or satchels that might be carrying trade goods.  “We’re interested in information.  The rats have always had a surplus of that.”

The rat nodded, a smile creeping onto his face.  “Information we have.  Information on patrols?”

Gordon snickered.  Yaran replied, “No, we can avoid the patrols as we need to.  Information on dog boys.”

“Dog boys with patrols.  Patrol information same as dog boy information.”  The rat looked confused for a moment.  But then, understanding crossed his face.  “You want runaway information.”

“Yes.”

The rat shook his head.  “We don’t help runaway hunters.  All rats runaways, don’t help hunters.  Don’t help MCR.”

Just hearing the slang term for Mutant Containment and Recovery made Yaran shiver.  “We’re trying to help the runaways, not hunt them.  We ran away too.”

The rat looked askance at him, not believing at first.  “You helping runaways?”

“We’re trying to.  A friend of mine from around here used to help them find their way out, but he’s disappeared.  I’d trade for information about him, if you have it.”

“You mean human.  Tell his name, I believe you.  Don’t know name, you lying.”

A simple enough test.  Yaran was sure the rats had known all about the underground railroad, and with Westerly already gone, there was no harm in revealing his name.  “Dorian Westerly.”

The rat smiled, his initial suspicion clearing at hearing the correct answer.  “That right- Westerly.”

“Do you know what happened to him?”

The rat nodded.  “All rats know.  Information costs.”

“What can we trade for information?” Yaran asked.  “What do you need?  Not weapons, right?”

The rat cough-laughed, shaking his head.  “Not weapons.  We get plenty from base.  You from North?  Have techno-wizard gear?”

Yaran thought for a moment, going over what the canines had with them in his head.  “Not much- not weapons.  Communications stuff, that’s about all.”

The rat’s eyebrows rose.  “Comm stuff good.  Techno-wizard comm stuff good- easy sell if more than one piece.  Coalition can’t listen, pieces get good price.”

Yaran nodded.  He hadn’t thought of that, but it made sense.  With all the listening and recieving equipment at Lone Star,  any radio transmission within at least 5 kilometers could be picked up easily.  But using techno-wizard equipment that ran on magical energy, instead of ‘normal’ electricity, would completely defeat it.  “Dog boys will still sniff them out.”

The rat shrugged.  “Dog boys maybe, not air patrols.  SAMAS bigger threat.  How many you have?”

“Just three with us.  More elsewhere, but three for now.”  They had a regular radio given to them by Silicon, back in ‘their’ village, but it wouldn’t be of much value in this encounter, and Yaran didn’t want to give away all their communications gear at once.  Yaran took his comm-link off, and tossed it over to the rat.

He looked at it for a moment, then nodded.  “Three enough.  Must sell together.”  He looked up at Yaran.  “Westerly caught by Coalition psi-stalkers.  Called down from Free Quebec.  Took long time, long hunt.  Dog-boys couldn’t find Westerly. Psi-stalkers went home after hunt.”  The rat looked almost sad for a moment.  “We warned.  Westerly ignored warning.  Too bad- Westerly was good business.”

Yaran turned to look at Billie, then at Gordon.  The two were grudgingly removing their own comm-links- the headsets had been modified to fit a mutant canine head, but could be adjusted to fit almost anyone.  The mutant rats, in particular, would have an easy time getting them to fit.  Gordon held his tongue, but Billie whispered, “I hope you know what you’re doing, si-shon.”

He shrugged, then replied quietly enough that the rats wouldn’t overhear.  “Silly can get us new ones, and we can work off the debt.”

“Trindle is going to be pretty mad when we tell him we gave these away,” Gordon added.

“Yes, I’m sure it’ll make his socks roll up and down,” Yaran said with a smirk.  The two canines surrendered their comm-units, and Yaran tossed them, one at a time, to the rat.

With a big smile on his face, the rat looked them over, then looked back up at the canines.  “You good business, too.  We warn you, you listen.  You live longer, more business.”

Yaran’s smirk changed shape slightly.  That more or less defines our relationship with the rats, he thought.  They’d prefer us to stay alive and free, so they can continue to profit by us.  But at the same time, if the rats did warn them of a direct threat from the CS, it would be worth more than the 3 comm-units.  He briefly wondered what profit the rats would get from them.

“We’d better head back, si-shon,” Gordon said.  “It’ll be dark soon.”

Yaran nodded.  “You make yourself easy to find?”

The rat shrugged.  “Can’t trade when can’t be found.”  Then he looked back to his companion- probably his superior, Yaran remembered- and the two whispered for a moment.  Then the speaker turned back, and took a few steps closer.  They were less than 2 meters apart now.  “One more thing.  This one you get free.” His voice took on an almost bombastic tone, as if he were giving a sales pitch.  “Trust leads good business.”  He looked back one more time, then leaned close.  His voice changed again, back to the coldly serious tone he’d had before.  “Dorian Westerly… still alive.”

Yaran’s eyes grew wide.  He had presumed Westerly had been killed by the Coalition- he couldn’t imagine why they’d keep him alive.

“Alive?” he hissed.  It was all he could say.  He didn’t turn to look at the other two canines, but he could feel their shock.

“Alive,” the rat repeated.

“How long since he’s been caught?”

“3 months,” the rat replied.  “Rats think CS doesn’t know what he did, who he is.  They knew, they’d kill.  Or worse.”

Yaran nodded.  “Do the rats know where he is?  Where inside the base?  How to get to him?”

The rat nodded, slowly.  “We can know that.  Can find out.  That expensive.  You can’t afford.  Not with three tech-wizard comms.”  He held up the units, smirking.

Yaran was too shocked to do anything more than nod back again.  “Next time, we’ll talk about price.  We’ll find something we can agree on.”  The shock was a lead ball in his stomach.  How would he tell the rest of the team?  Westerly had helped directly with the escape of many of them- how would they react?  And more importantly, he thought,  what will we do with this information?  Go in after him?  How?

Yaran didn’t see Gordon’s head suddenly turn, but the rats did.  Their attention shifted, and Yaran followed their eyes to Gordon, then followed his to the horizon.

“There’s a fight out there,” Gordon said.  “Can’t tell at this range, but sounds like a patrol got into a fight.”

Yaran sighed, then looked at the rats.  “I don’t know if you need to get out of here, but we certainly do.”

The rats shrugged.  “Most patrols ignore us.  They ask questions, we answer, they look at goods to see nothing stolen from them,” the speaker said, obviously not rattled by the thought.  “We had CS gear, they’d be problem.”  He waved one arm, lazily.  “No CS gear here.”

Yaran nodded.  “Westerly.  I’ll be back to trade for information about him.”  Then he turned to his companions, and the three made their way back toward their hoverbikes.  “How far away are they?  Can you hear it?”

“Yeah, but nothing more than shooting from here.  Maybe 5 kilometers, a little less.  Not far from…” Gordon looked back at Yaran for a moment, and the thought formed in both their heads at the same time.

Billie was the one who said it aloud.  “Think it’s the patrol we were shadowing?”

“If it is, we gotta go back and see.  Could be a good chance to get our potential runaway out of there.”  Yaran sighed.  Gordon almost grumbled, but caught himself.  Yaran saw it coming, and clapped the younger canine on the shoulder.  “I know, we’ll be out after dark, but we’ve got to at least go look.”

“Right,” Gordon said.  “We’ll have to high-tail it home, though.  No more fancy footwork avoiding patrols.”

“If we get stopped by an air patrol, we’ll pull the ‘wide-patrol for MCR routine again,” Yaran said.

“This close to the base, they can query the network.  That might not work, even if we tell them we’re doing classified work.”

“It’s worth the risk, guys.  It’s a potential runaway, and that’s the reason we’re here.”  The other two agreed.  They fired up their bikes, and took off in the direction of the distant gunfire.  Yaran still couldn’t believe Gordon had been able to hear gunfire from such a great distance.

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