The old watch tower on the edge of Abernathy was a perfect place for Carthage and Siobhan to rest, eat some food, and observe the town. The sun was low in the western sky, opposite from the town’s position on the shore. Their first impressions were not positive; Abernathy seemed to be abandoned. It was difficult to tell from their vantage point on the tower, but it looked like no one had been there for at least several years.
Carthage had his feet propped up on the railing of the tower, and munched on a small packet of ancient crackers. Siobhan had unwrapped a portion of pork sausage from brown wax paper, and leaned against the railing while she ate. Radiation levels were even lower here than in Romanby, so they weren’t concerned about hanging out for awhile.
“We should wait until just before dawn to enter town,” began Carthage, putting his trash in his rucksack. “After dark, we’ll be able to spot lights or campfires easily. And if there are hostiles, we’ll want to catch them snoozing.”
Siobhan gazed at the town. “This is unnerving, Carthage. As of five years ago, there were over three thousand people living here. I hope we don’t stumble onto a mass grave.”
Carthage sat up, and picked up his binoculars. “Do you mean because of the Knights of Aberdeen?”
“To my knowledge, they were never so extreme as to exterminate civilians. Unless the entire town took up arms against them, they wouldn’t have massacred them. Either another splinter group drove them out, or they left on their own accord. I have noticed there aren’t any fishing boats in the harbor, maybe they packed up and sailed north up the coast.”
Carthage scanned the town. “I see a few masts from here, but I can’t tell if they belong to seaworthy vessels. Whatever happened, we’re going to have to tread lightly.”
“And keep a sharp eye on our PDAs.”
“That occurred to me, too. An anomaly in the middle of town would certainly encourage people to relocate.”
Siobhan yawned. “I guess we’ll find out soon. So, how are we going to wait it out? Do we sleep in shifts, or something?”
Carthage put down his binoculars. “It’s nine hours before dawn. If you want to rack out now, I’ll wake you up in five hours. Sound fair?”
“Sure, but I’m not ready to sleep just yet. Perhaps in an hour. I’m going to grab a chair, do you want one?”
Siobhan went inside the tower. The pair had already scouted out the interior; it had everything one would expect for a manned station, including a bed with a thin mattress. It didn’t look like anything had been touched in some time, and the calendar on the wall was from five years ago. Most likely the tower simply hadn’t been used since then. She grabbed the chair from the desk, brought it onto the balcony, and swept the dust off the seat.
“I should have brought some beer,” she began, sitting down heavily. “This would be the perfect time for one.”
“Check the fridge.”
“There’s no way I’m opening that thing. Though I suppose there might be a bottle of whiskey hiding in a cabinet.”
“Up to you.”
The pair sat in silence for a few minutes. The first stars of the evening began to show themselves. In any other context it would have been nothing more than a gloriously peaceful night, and sleep would come easy to Siobhan. She was still apprehensive about the unknown things in the dark, but felt safe with Carthage on watch. She considered the man, whose unflappable demeanor revealed little other than a professional soldier on a mission.
“So Carthage. This guy Holland, you really have no idea why he killed your crew and sabotaged the ship?”
“As I mentioned, the most obvious explanation is that he succumbed to superluminal psychosis. It’s extremely rare, but I’ve seen it happen. Most of the time the afflicted are easy to spot and can be removed from duty before they harm themselves or others. In this case, I had no clue until it was too late.”
“Okay, but have you considered less likely scenarios? Is there anyone who would want your mission to fail?”
“Not unless you indulge in some pretty far-fetched conspiracy theories. Some people might speculate that Holland was a sleeper agent for a shadowy arm of the Planetary Union’s espionage section, but I can’t imagine a reason why anybody would intentionally sabotage our mission. Skye was devoid of human life before the colonists got here, and to my knowledge nobody ever opposed the colonization effort.”
“What if the PU already knew about the disaster at the wormhole facility? What if it hides some horrible secret, and they want to keep it that way?”
Carthage shrugged. “If the secret was that important to keep, why not just order us to turn around and come home if Skye seemed devoid of life? Or at least let us land and gather more intel before Holland murdered the shit out of us? As I said, it seems far-fetched.”
“Have you checked Holland’s PDA for anything suspicious?”
Carthage looked at Siobhan for a moment. “No.”
“Really? That hadn’t occurred to you?”
“I’ve been a little distracted the past few days, Miss NicKennon. You’ll forgive me if I haven’t had time to bury my nose in mission files.”
Siobhan nodded. “Okay. Let’s check it out, maybe there’s a clue buried in there.”
“It’s worth a shot. His PDA is the one I gave you.”
She passed the device to him. He accepted it and turned down the brightness of the screen.
“Keep an eye on the town,” he said. “This could take some time. At the start of the mission, our PDAs were identical, so you might think anything Holland added would be easy to find, but if he had a secret agenda, the info is probably well hidden.”
“Look for the folder labeled ‘hard core donkey show,’ and there you go.”
Carthage smiled. “I don’t have that kind of luck.”
“Luck to find some files, or to enjoy some high quality equestrian pornography?”
“Take your pick.”
Carthage was gently roused from a dreamless sleep by Siobhan, who pointed at the first hint of daylight in the sky. He had dozed soundly for the entire four hours that she was on watch, and was slightly surprised when she woke him. She had also rested well, though she did not complain when it was her turn to monitor the town. Carthage wanted to check Holland’s PDA immediately, but he scanned the town with his binoculars first. As she had told him, night had passed without any light or sound from the seaside village, and he also spotted nothing in the early morning gloom.
That done, he checked the PDA. Before Siobhan had taken her turn on the old, lumpy bed, Carthage had found an encrypted folder under several layers of mundane crap. When he had received his own PDA, he added a few programs he might find useful, including an anti-encryption algorithm. Transferring the program to the other PDA, he set it to dismantling the protected folder, and was told it would take approximately ten hours to crack it. As expected, it estimated two hours until completion. He shared this information with her, then helped himself to a meager breakfast of a pouch of sliced peaches. She had already consumed a small piece of bread for herself.
“Are you going to be ready to move soon?” he asked, shotgunning a packet of freeze-dried coffee.
“I am now. How do you want to do this?”
He took a swig from his canteen. “I’m going to take point. I want you ten paces behind me. I’ll need you to regularly check your PDA for anomalies, and keep an eye on our six. Here, take my wireless earpiece. I’ll set your scanning program to give you an audible warning so you don’t have to have your head buried in it. If we make contact with hostiles before they see us, I’ll give you hand and arm signals for what to do. If they spot us first, I’ll use verbal commands. Obviously we’ll want to talk to anyone we encounter, but if they threaten us, feel free to take them out.”
“I’ll do my best, but I’m not a soldier.”
“This is what you signed on for. I’m counting on you to be an asset, not a liability. If you have any doubt, now is the time to tell me. You’re more than welcome to wait here.”
“My father didn’t raise a coward, Carthage.”
“I’m not questioning your bravery, Siobhan, I just need you to be realistic about the amount of support you can give me.”
Siobhan nodded stoically. “I’m committed.”
“Good. Double-check the tower and make sure you didn’t leave behind any trash. Then we’ll head in.”
Before long, the pair was moving through the outskirts of town. So far, there was no sign that anything terrible had happened. Carthage moved swiftly and silently, his rifle at the ready. Siobhan struggled to keep up at times, though he was taking care to make sure she was still behind him. From the street, they only noticed shuttered windows and closed doors, and hadn’t yet seen any vehicles or personal belongings. There was also little trash scattered around; whatever had caused the town to evacuate, it had apparently been an orderly affair.
Siobhan’s PDA hadn’t made a peep, though it was still making her apprehensive to be moving through town in the pre-dawn light. The anomalies may have been invisible, but adding darkness to the equation was worse. Faint shadows had begun to appear, and her imagination was filling them with undefined horrors. She found herself double checking every corner for fear that each phantom was something real. Certain that Carthage wasn’t plagued with the same doubt, she wished they could walk together instead of spaced out so far.
It didn’t take long for them to reach Abernathy’s main drag. It much resembled Romanby in layout, though it had a nautical theme obviously absent from her home. A faded sandwich board outside of a former restaurant was advertising deep-fried mudcarp, all you can eat. Donal would have been pleased. The thought of deep-fried anything was enough to make her stomach gurgle, despite a constant feeling of vague nausea that accompanied her. Carthage motioned for them to stop, scanned the street, then walked up to her.
“It doesn’t look like we’re going to find any answers here without entering a building,” he said quietly. “I want to find the town hall and see if there are any clues there.”
“If you’re asking me to tell you where it is, I don’t know.”
“I know. I stopped here because that bell tower looked like the center of town from outside. We’ll start a search grid right here until we find town hall. Hopefully it won’t take long. Same arrangement as before, okay?”
Carthage nodded, and the pair resumed walking. He led them on a pattern that was essentially a counter-clockwise spiral from their starting point, turning west at each intersection and moving one block further out with each circuit. The approach, while methodical, would take a very long time if they didn’t find the town hall soon. She hoped a street sign would help them out, but after thirty minutes they were still searching. The sun crept up over the horizon, and golden hues began to saturate the tops of the tallest buildings. Siobhan felt relief at the daylight, until a sound caused the pair to freeze in their tracks.
It was a low moaning, louder than anything Siobhan had ever heard in her life. It was almost a scream, with both a deep guttural pitch and a higher, keening wail. It seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. The noise faded, and she struggled not to pee in her pants. Carthage motioned for her to take cover, and they waited, wildly scanning their surroundings. Less than a minute later, the sound repeated, but impossibly louder, and rattled the windows of nearby buildings.
Siobhan definitely peed a little then.