Chapter 19: A Jaunty Forest Outing

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A light breeze ruffled the decaying meadow plants as it puttered past, and the churr of scattered insects and squirrels rode with it. The faint rush of river water underwrote it all, akin to the noise religious people enjoyed when they meditated. Midafternoon heat, scented with the spice of colorful leaves and grass decaying in the earth, hovered about them as Lapis stood at the bottom of the blocky building’s stairs, staring at the dark grey metal door torn from its hinges and haphazardly lying against the railing.

The edges had dents, reminding her of the way Vali attempted to open the Taangis door to the tunnels. Cassa must have thought something similar, because her firm-lipped distress as she regarded the portal focused on the gouges in the jamb.

“I don’t remember the door being ripped off when we passed over earlier,” Rodas said, his fingers tapping on his hips.

“It wasn’t.” Lapis edged over to peek inside. A heavy wooden table and several chairs laid on their sides, amongst paper and scattered metal and random, broken objects; wires poked out from cabinets and the walls, sparking. The large cage in the back that protected a tech box with running lights had deep dents, but remained whole.

Considering the damage, how odd the tech still had power.

She had the urge to scratch at her chest and somehow rid herself of the gnawing dread in the back of her mind. Her uncle had attempted a scan of the small meadow, but his instruments returned garbled info, so they had to land and check for themselves. Had to land. She snarled. No, they could have noted the discarded door, the lack of lizard presence, and continued on. Could have, but did not.

Tearlach glanced at the older man, then drew his weapon. Lapis triggered her blades and rounded the side opposite the rebel, searching for anything out of place. The grass bent to the north, as if a heavy body passed over it, and a few steps beyond the building she discovered a stray lizard track in soft dirt, pointing towards the trees next to the river.  A gob of grainy cyan gel covered the ground nearby, and a trail of it continued in the same direction. Lapis frowned and bent down, studying the contaminated rocks and droopy grass blades.

The drips had run off the plants and pooled in the dirt, duller, like colored paper faded by the sun. It did not resemble the goopy stuff held in the khentauree that Vali broke, but it produced the same burnt flesh, burnt feces, rotten egg odor. She thought Cassa mentioned the sponoil lost viscosity when it deteriorated, and while the stuff looked runnier, she would not consider it free-flowing.

She lifted a few blades with the tip of her weapon; the stuff coating it did not drip but pooled into a drop that almost had enough weight to break free, but did not. The edges had a white, powdery look to them, and the grass sported deeper yellows where it touched.

Tearlach wandered to her, noted the track, and shook his head as he eyed the forest beyond. “There are several prints on the other side, but they’re mooshed under tire treads and I can’t make out how many individuals there were.”

“There were two vehicles here earlier. They were boxy and didn’t have windows.”

“Sounds like an armored transport or something.”

“Then I bet the mercs were here. The terrons didn’t drive them away.” She set her hands on her thighs and rose. “I didn’t notice any tracks near the stairs.”

“I didn’t either. It’s a soft dirt walk, and has the only gap in the railing large enough for a heavy lizard to use.”

She nodded and glanced at the afternoon shadows softly darkening the scraggly bushes beneath the pines. Did the terrons hide there? Or an injured khentauree? No blood sprinkled the soil, so she did not think that the lizards had come to harm, but it seemed the metal creature, even damaged, trailed them.

Perhaps they thought it defeated?

“Cassa!” Tearlach called, interrupting the insects and the chatter of squirrels. Lapis stood as skittery prickles raced up and down her arms. Something was wrong. Very wrong. If she were on a stake, she would have turned around and fled back to safety. Better to live for another day than to nose about and find out how ill her luck truly was.

The scientist hustled over, her hands wrapped about her upper arms, Rodas behind and alert. She squatted to study the foul cyan covering the plants and ground.

“Do you have any idea what they were looking for?” Tearlach asked, his tone darker, softer.

“I don’t know.” Cassa shrugged helplessly. “We had an emergency medical kit and the station’s weather computer. Everything else was . . .” She raised her hands, flabbergasted. “Maybe they were after some extra components? Is that why they tore out the wiring in the walls? I need to ask Ghinka about who left with Badger. He’s too large to fit through the door, though he’s probably the one that ripped it off its hinges. Most of his support is . . . bulky, and scraping through the frame would have left evidence. And, well . . . none of them have ever shown an interest in tech.”

“How many times did you come here?” Rodas asked, standing with his hands on his hips as he peered around.

“A couple, with Shon. He’s the Mawai security chief.” She sighed. “Well, he’s a scientist, not a security chief. He tacked that title on because no one else would do the job. He can’t hit the side of a building with a weapon, so he’s not really a security anything. He’s nothing like the Minq and Lord Adrastos’s people.”

“They’ve more experience,” he agreed. “Are you familiar enough with this place to know what’s missing?”

“Equipment-wise? No. I never ran an experiment out of here, so I’m not certain what specific tech they had. Most of what Shon showed me was weather-related stuff and readout computers, nothing that the terrons might want.” She intently studied the grass in the vicinity of the cyan. “Badger and his advisors must have been in the company of someone small enough to get through the door, and they were looking for something specific, they just didn’t know where it was. Why else make that mess?”

“There were two vehicles here earlier,” Lapis said. “They’re gone.”

The scientist shook her head. “We never leave vehicles at a research station unattended.” She raised an eyebrow. “That’s asking for trouble we don’t need. Kathandra has already run interference with the Lord’s Council concerning our lack of tech security. Because, you know, rebels and all.”

Lapis wanted to chortle, but her internal danger sense screamed. She bit her lip, not wishing to seem reactionary. “So we should assume the terrons have merc help.” Of course, she had not noticed boot prints, either.

Cassa paused. “Yes. That would explain the damage—spite. Not all Gredy’s men are like the ones seeking shelter at the station.” She scanned the ground further away. “I don’t see any blood, so if they battled the khentauree, they escaped whole.” Her eyes trailed to the forest. “But I’m still concerned. How far do you think they’ve gotten?”

“It’s been a few hours,” Rodas said. “I doubt they’re nearby.”

“What other stations are close to this one, heading northwest?” Tearlach asked. “If they didn’t find what they were looking for here, they might try one of those.”

Cassa reluctantly nodded. “It may be our best bet, in finding Badger.”

And the mercs. “If he’s helping the mercs break into these smaller buildings, I doubt he’s going to care much about your concern,” Lapis said.

The flash of cyan between the trees caught their attention. A group of khentauree, too many for a brief glimpse to count.

“To the Bit!” Rodas shouted.

Lapis held back with Tearlach, a rearguard for the other two. Metallic gleams whisked through the shadows, the dapple effect making it difficult to tell exactly how many. More than two, heading for them.

No. Far more than two. They passed the building as more khentauree slid around the Bit from the east, a couple bumping awkwardly into the craft and losing their footing, blocking the ramp. How were they going to get into the craft? Cassa shouted something she could not understand and raced for the open doorway. What was she thinking? Unlike the terrons, the metal creatures could squeeze through the broken door. Her blades and the men’s tech weapons would not hold them for long, and with a wide-open way inside . . .

Cassa tore at a box positioned on the corner floor by the cage, one apparently not moved in the raid. Rodas helped her while she and Tearlach grabbed the table and set it across the doorway. It would not stop them, maybe just be an annoyance, but a second or two—

“There’s a cellar,” Cassa huffed. “They store equipment down there. It’s tiny, but there should be enough room for us.” Beeps came from the floor and the grind of hinges opening. “Come on, come on!”

Did she plan to trap them down there?

The khentauree reached the stairs. Tearlach fired at them before they vacated their position. Cyan beams raced through the frame and window in response, shattering glass and striking the cage before bursting into sparks.

The trapdoor led to aluminum steps. Large metal crates stood neatly against the wall, all stamped with a two-circle design and a stylized MSW in the center. Tearlach grabbed the handle and pulled down as the table shattered. The door clicked and beeped.

The only light came from a device Rodas held, illuminating everyone in a harsh white glow that brightened cheeks but kept eyes dark. He tapped with his thumbs on the screen, then scrolled his index finger up and down. Cassa leaned over his shoulder and raised her eyebrows. “What kind of camera is that? It’s a little grainy, but doesn’t look affected by the interference.”

“The Bit has some nice mods,” he said, not answering the question. The tech was likely very Dentherion and very illegal. “I wasn’t certain if I could link to it, considering how the scan failed, but it looks like I can control the craft from here.” He looked at their pinched faces. “I can shoot them, but how effective the weapons will be is anyone’s guess. My smaller tech offenses use the same technology the Minq employed last night, which didn’t do much besides dent the frame.”

Metallic hooves resounded off the floor. The ringing echoed down to them.

No one spoke. Rodas settled the screen against his chest and they held their breath. A trickle of sweat cascaded down Lapis’s cheek, and she did not dare wipe it away. The room closed in, dark, suffocating, with the smallest of motion amplified in the close quarters, too loud, too grating.

Too coffin-like. She smashed her lips together and desperately tried to think of something besides rotting flesh and sour fear.

The crack of metal, above them. Did they attack the cage? Another hit, and another. Low, thrumming sounds, all having the cadence of speech. How else might they communicate? She recalled the heads, with indents for eyes and mouths, a nose, but no detail, so she doubted they opened their lips. Did they have speakers they used? Where? In the sphere?

Hooves pounded on the door.

The portal rattled. A breeze passed Lapis as Tearlach stepped away from the bottom tread and waited. He raised his tech weapon, which glowed a soft blue, illuminating his tense face. She crushed the grips to her blades, then tried to straighten her fingers as they cramped. Calm, collected would keep her alive, but her chest squeezed tight and she fought for breath.

She did not want to die by cyan beam.

She jumped as her uncle placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. He hugged her to him as the sound of metal pounding against metal reverberated in the tiny room. Squeals and scraping sounds fell from the door, along with a minute amount of dust.

Silence.

Then the clack clack of many hooves across the floor. Then nothing.

Rodas pulled the device away from his chest and looked at the screen. “They’re leaving,” he whispered.

“All of them?” Cassa asked.

“Yes. They’re making a formation and moving to the north.” He tapped at the surface several times. “Let’s see if I can maneuver the camera about.”

Lapis bowed her head, fighting against the engulfing terror threatening to stifle her brain. She wanted to shriek, loud, long, but that might bring the enemy back—and if they busted through the floor, they would probably all die. She already brushed against death once that year; she did not want a repeat experience.

“I don’t see any stragglers,” Rodas said. “As far as I can tell, they all left. The Bit isn’t in the best position to look inside, but I don’t see any movement above us.”

“I don’t hear anything, either,” Tearlach whispered.

The rebel crept up the stairs and grabbed the handle; he slowly turned and pressed upward. The door did not budge.

“I think they warped it.”

Dammit. Lapis sheathed her blades and joined him on the stair. She needed OUT. They pushed against the door in unison; it gave way but did not swing up. She peeked through the slits between the door and the floor, but trash blocked the view.

“When we get this open, run as fast as you can for the Bit,” Tearlach said. “Don’t hesitate.”

“The ramp’s down,” Rodas reminded them.

Tearlach pounded up with his shoulder; the metal gave way with a screech.

Lapis jumped up first and made a pirouette; no enemy remained in the building. “Clear!” She streaked to the Swift and took a guard position as Cassa ran up the ramp, Rodas behind her. Tearlach pushed her inside and jumped next to her as the craft jerked. They slid the door shut and quickly stumbled to their seats as the ramp began its momentous upwards closing.

“Look at them,” Cassa breathed. She sat with Rodas at the dash, stretching up to see. Lapis mashed into the back of her uncle’s chair and stared over his shoulder.

They had formed a v, like birds, only backwards. While they did not move in step, they headed in the same direction; northwest, on a trajectory to follow the river. A couple twisted their torsos about and looked up as the Bit rose, but did not attack. They turned back around and continued into the forest, disappearing under the canopy. Glints of cyan and metal burst through the boughs at odd intervals, showing the speedy progress they made.

“They’re headed towards one of the other stations,” Cassa said. “Probably the next one on Badger’s list.”

“Why are there so many here?” Tearlach regarded the group.

“I don’t know,” Rodas said, his voice heavy. “If the terrons injured one, they might be looking for it. We just happened to be in the vicinity.” He flipped a red switch. “Buckle up.”

The speed of the Swift shocked Lapis. She had not expected it to zip along so fast, but the trees below blurred. She had to look much further afield, so her eyes did not cross. Tearlach sat in the back, face plastered to the window, but she doubted he noticed much more than she.

“There!” Cassa said, pointing ahead.

Lapis saw nothing. The Bit made a wide turn, and she got a good look at a meadow with another metal building. It looked identical to the previous one, even sporting the same communications dish. Another weather research station? Outside stood a terron larger than Vali, with a dark blue head that faded into a dusty blue-grey, five smaller ones scattered around them, while two mercs with weapons on their backs stood next to the boxy vehicles and waved their hands, animated.

One vehicle had the side blown out, sharp bits jutting away from it.

The door of the building lay on the droopy grass, torn from its hinges. Collapsed next to it was a limp khentauree.

The group looked up at the Swift, and the men reached for their tech.

Rodas pressed a button. “We’re from the Mawai Research workstation,” he said. “We just encountered thirty or so of those khentauree, and they’re headed this way.”

“He’s not lying, Badger!” Cassa yelled, as if expecting the thrust of her voice to influence the large terron. His head jerked back, and he took a keener interest in the craft. “A larger contingent than that is heading south, towards the station, and there’s no guarantee that they won’t target the Depths.” She paused. “I can’t read your claws from here!”

“Think they’ll attack if we land?” Rodas asked drily.

A rhetorical question, because he set the Bit down without anyone else’s input. Lapis smiled to herself; she never pictured her uncle as strong, fearless, but a quiet and uncertain academic would never have chanced a potentially deadly encounter like this one. Why did he?

Cassa flung herself from her chair and rubbed at her hands as the ramp deployed. The large terron ambled over, his sharp, bark-brown gaze focused on the scientist. He raised a claw and his fingers flew through the words.

Behind the lizard, the mercs trained their weapons on her.

“Sherge Badger, the Depths needs your help,” Cassa gritted. “Instead you are breaking into Mawai’s research buildings. You’re a respected leader. Why are you doing this?”

The terron stuck his snout into the air and flicked his tongue.

The mercs cautiously approached; two more joined them, all outfitted in black, camouflaged gear, with a thickly padded vest, knives and overstuffed backpack, a canteen tightly strapped to the side. They carried tech weapons large enough they required both hands to hold them. Lapis slipped from her seat, alert, and took a position on Cassa’s left, waiting for the men to do something stupid enough to warrant a knife in the eye.

“I don’t really care what they’re looking for,” Cassa snarled. “But you need to get out of here. Unless you think you can take on at least thirty khentauree on your own. We found out last night that tech weapons don’t work well on them. I’m betting you just found that out yourself,” and she pointed to the machine. “Your kosee aren’t up to the challenge.”

Two of the lizards growled at that, but she ignored them as he spoke. The mercs glanced at the defeated khentauree, then at the terron; Lapis assumed Badger crushed it, and their weapons did no damage.

“Someone modded them.” Cassa’s voice took on a warning tone. “They aren’t like the machines you knew centuries ago. Those cyan spheres in their chest have—”

“What happened last night?”

Cassa eyed the merc who interrupted her; he had a severe tan and sun-bleached locks pulled back so tight it made the edges of his face look funny. “Your people fought two khentauree last night, and they lost, Lieutenant Cile. Badly.” She folded her arms. “A group from Jiy staying at those four cabins off the main road offered sanctuary to your men. And they’ll stay there until Gredy sees reason, which may never happen.”

“What happened with Gredy?” Cile said through clenched, smoke-stained teeth. His grip tightened on his weapon.

“Gredy attacked someone from the group who helped your men. No one’s very happy with him right now. He’s threatened to attack the workstation and the Depths.” She glared as Badger rumbled, unaffected, then turned back to the man. The low sound vibrated Lapis’s chest, but she kept her reaction hidden, unlike the mercs, who grimaced. “He’s focused on revenge for an insult. If you get into trouble out here with the khentauree, not only is he going to ignore you, no one else is going to bother because you’re on his side.”

Cile’s eyes narrowed and flicked to the Bit. “You mean killed.”

“Nope.” Lapis half-laughed. “She means attacked. And I depantsed him. And I got to see his pretty blue, skimpy underwear up close but not very personal.”

Her uncle sighed in exasperation as the mercs regarded her in horrified disbelief. The terron cocked his head at her, then his eyes narrowed and his head jerked up.

The same unease that swept through her at the previous building spread from her chest. She pressed her hand against her breastbone and looked to the trees behind the Bit. “I felt this when they showed up at the last place. They’re here.”

Tearlach and her uncle looked through the Swift’s windows as Cassa whirled, to stare as the first machines marched past the treeline.

It should not have surprised her, that the mercs opened fire, uncaring whether the Bit sat between them and their targets. The beams struck the silver sides and bounced away, reflecting in odd directions. Return fire from the khentauree did the same. Lapis cursed and bent down, though that would hardly keep her from getting nailed in the back.

Badger whirled Cassa around and pushed her to the ramp. She stumbled and looked back; he said something and maneuvered to block the shots from striking her as he made a shooing motion.

“We can help!” She paused and mashed her lips together while she watched his claws. “I know what I said. I don’t want to leave—” She trailed off. “You what?” she asked flatly.

Cile levered his weapon at Cassa. “You’re taking us up and out of here,” he commanded.

Lapis did not bother to hide her disgust. Cassa, focused on Badger, did not seem to have heard.

“You did what?” So dark, sinister. The terron dropped his head; if human, Lapis would have assumed him embarrassed and upset.

The other mercs raced up the ramp and pointed their weapons at Rodas and Tearlach. Cile snagged Cassa and dragged her into the craft, shaking with repressed fury. Lapis looked at the large terron; he jerked his head at her, then the Bit.

“You may need to retreat,” she advised. “Your scales protect you, but we don’t know how long, and under what kind of assault.”

He wobbled his head back and forth, then jerked his chin to the craft. She raced up the ramp; Cassa screamed something and fought Cile; what had Badger told her?

“If anything happens to Tovi, Badger, I am coming for you!” Cassa shrieked as the door slid shut, bapping Lapis on the butt. Dread shot through her chest as a cyan beam splattered against the Bit and broke apart.

“Tovi?”

“He said they went and got Tovi,” she said, shaking hard. “And your apprentice. They snatched him when he went to the bathroom, and Rin wouldn’t let Tovi go with them alone. They gave them to another unit that went further into the ruins.”

Lapis fought for her footing as the Bit rose, dropped to her knee, then rammed her head into Cile’s stomach. He made an odd hnnff ; the backs of his knees slammed into the middle bench and he tipped over, her momentum carrying him down. He wailed as the edge dug into his lower back, and he landed on his neck and shoulders. Tearlach planted his foot against the man’s throat and Lapis yanked the weapon from his grasp as the Bit careened to the left, throwing the other mercs off balance. One righted himself, but before he could point his tech, she triggered a blade and cut the tip off. She had no idea if that might inhibit a strike, but he lowered it, aghast.

Cassa grabbed the weapons from the other two, who apparently had no experience with people who fought back. These were the mercs who followed Gredy? Unskilled bullies, who kidnapped teens? Surely a man who spent time in a government prison had access to more credible men.

Or maybe she was furious enough, she did not care what kind of dangerous people she fought. “You kidnapped Rin and Tovi?”

Cile’s eyes watered and he coughed. His back must hurt plenty. Good. “You filthy—”

“Answer the question, or I’ll throw you out of here. You can explain your shit to the treetops when you hit them.”

He stubbornly held his peace. Lapis smiled. She assumed the Minq had a way with the silent, cowardly types.

Cassa barked at the others. “Sit.”

Maybe their luck has slightly shifted. Lapis held her blades ready and attempted the furious, insane look a couple of street actors wore while they performed the Omerdewrane and Chewraineve myth. And may those non-existent gods help the mercs, if anything happened to Rin and Tovi. She and Cassa would never forgive—and their targets would never see another dawn.

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