The Plaza of Robert the Bruce was the crown jewel of Aberdeen, centrally located and above the city on a plateau. Once the de facto cultural center of town, it was lined with cafes and small shops, though most of those had closed since the Wave. The shops, both those abandoned and those still clinging to life, were nestled underneath a rectangular formation of colonnades. At the center of the plaza was a fountain, and naturally, a statue of its namesake. Never meant to be a place for a governing body, it was nonetheless serving the role quite well for the Knights of Aberdeen, the former historical society building at the head of the plaza having been appropriated for their headquarters.
As such, it was common for Knight leadership and supernumeraries to take breakfast in the plaza. The man who emerged from HQ was trying to find his boss, not an easy task at this time of day. Knight senior staff typically wore civilian clothes for all but the most formal occasions, identified only by the golden badge on their chest which indicated their rank and station. The man’s boss was wearing khaki pants and a dark blue button-up shirt, making him indistinguishable at a distance from the other fifty or so people in the plaza. The man barely glanced at the gray skies overhead as he headed toward the fountain. As it turned out, he had guessed correctly.
Breakfast at the military barracks was a familiar affair to Carthage. He, Siobhan, and Joseph had been roused before dawn, and shuffled through the line at the nearby chow hall along with the rest of Perth’s rag-tag defensive force. There, they filled their trays with real, honest-to-goodness bacon and eggs, toast, and brackish coffee in plastic mugs, all served by surly soldiers who had woken a couple of hours earlier to prepare it. MacGregor and Rebecca were waiting by at the end of the line with the same fare, and led the team outside to a row of picnic tables in a sparse pine grove.
While they ate, Carthage laid it all out for their hosts. Halfway through his story, MacGregor pulled out a briar pipe and lit it, puffing vigorously while he and Rebecca listened with riveted fascination. As promised, the truth of Joseph’s origins remained obscured, but over the course of an hour, Carthage revealed everything about his mission and his adventures on Skye so far, including Holland’s mysterious last transmission. When he was done, MacGregor tapped the ash out of his pipe, and took a sip of his cold coffee.
Night had fallen over Perth, and Carthage and his team were holed up in a classic English-style pub with Mayor Blalock and Doctor Connor. Four members of the mayor’s security team sat watchfully at the next table over, and several locals feigned disinterest as they consumed their meals. The contingent at the bar was even less concerned, more interested in finding the bottom of their glasses than their unusual visitors.
Carthage and Siobhan had just finished giving MacGregor and Rebecca a redacted version of their story, between gulps of a much appreciated hot meal. Joseph demonstrated less of an appetite, but had relaxed considerably after a couple of glasses of ale. He seemed eager to share his knowledge of the Lagrange Project, adroitly contributing his expertise on it, and the cursus, as information gained from searching the cement plant rather than first-hand experience. His cover story, as suggested by Siobhan, was that he was a low-level technician at Romanby’s reactor, spurred to adventure by her and Carthage. So far, their hosts seemed to accept their version of events, though in the back of their minds they remained worried that a trained eye would find Carthage’s clothing and equipment a bit out of place.
A light rain was falling on the road to Perth, and Siobhan and Carthage were keeping a watchful eye on their PDAs. Joseph hobbled between them, five rifles strapped haphazardly to a rucksack full of other valuables looted from the corpses of his former colleagues. Though he seemed to struggle under the weight, he hadn’t complained. Whether or not any of the extra gear would be of value to the residents of Perth remained to be seen.
Their new companion had identified an alternative route to the town, a road that ran parallel to the coastal highway but about half a mile further west. It offered more options for cover and concealment should they run into trouble, and the young canopy above from the thickening forest provided some protection from the rain. So far, radiation levels remained low, but it was well known to the locals that precipitation could quickly change that.
It was just past noon when Carthage awoke. He and Siobhan had swapped their sack time five hours earlier, and she roused him with a gentle kick to his thigh. He pulled his poncho liner from his face and blinked at the bright sunlight streaming through the open windows.
“What did I miss?” he asked, sitting up.
“This place is deader than heaven on a Saturday night,” she replied, returning to her chair. “If there’s anyone else alive in there, they haven’t ventured outside.”
He stood up, and looked out of the north side window. “That’s good. What have you been doing, other than keeping watch?”
“I had some breakfast, then took the liberty of cleaning the NMP, which was in desperate need of attention. Other than that I’ve been keeping an eye on the complex and playing Solitaire.”
All but one of the men broke west toward the ridgeline, firing indiscriminately. One figure knelt by a tree near the fence, and Siobhan settled the reticule of her scope on him. She aimed at his sternum, and squeezed off a round. Her rifle was a bit quieter than Carthage’s, but the shot still deadened her ears. Her target collapsed behind the tree, so she opened her left eye and shifted her attention to the left side of the glade.
Carthage had already stopped shooting, and he rose to a crouch. He gestured for Siobhan to move up the right side, and the pair cautiously advanced. Aside from the groaning of a wounded man, the glade had returned to silence. The entire fight had lasted less than six seconds. Siobhan approached as far as the man she had hit, and moved a rifle away from his motionless body before waiting. She breathlessly scanned the far side of the glade, but saw nothing until Carthage emerged into the moonlight. She swung her rifle in his direction, catching herself before the muzzle crossed his body. He looked at the man she’d shot before speaking, his voice sounding far away.
The road to Perth followed the coastline, carved out of the side of a steep hill that steadily rose in elevation. It was a cloudless night, and Skye’s larger moon was rising in the east, over the ocean, casting a bluish glow and deep shadows over the highway. Carthage and Siobhan had sneaked out of Abernathy two hours after sunset, and made their way north along the road.
Carthage wasn’t happy that the roadway lacked any appreciable cover, concealment, or defilade, but using it was the easiest way to scan for anomalies. Siobhan wasn’t happy about traveling at night after a long, exhausting day, though lessening the possibility of encountering more weird monsters was a plus. If they kept their current pace, they would reach Perth by dawn, hopefully with enough time to find a defensible position should that city be plagued with the same problem as Abernathy.
Even more reserved than his typically laconic self, Carthage trudged along dutifully, with a wary eye on the high ground to the west. Though his face betrayed little about his mood, Siobhan had been with him long enough to know that the revelation of a deeper plot against his mission was troubling him. Though he had expressed frustration with any further speculation on the matter, she wanted to talk to him about something to break the tension.