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.
“So Carthage,” she began, “how long have you been in the military?”
“I take it you’re not familiar with the Advanced Infantry program, or you would already know.”
“Sorry. My schooling was informal.”
“Advanced Infantrymen are genetically modified humans, grown in vats for 18 months until the physical age of seventeen. When we emerge, we’re given one year to learn how to do basic human stuff, then our military training begins. So to answer your question, ten years or twenty-eight years, depending on how you look at it. Either way, my entire life.”
Siobhan raised her eyebrows. “Wait, so your physical age is twenty-eight, but your mental age is eleven? You and your guys have a remarkable ability to learn and adapt.”
“It’s the primary reason why the program was implemented. We needed soldiers faster than the population could supply them. After our first year, we could be dropped right into normal military training, so an AI soldier could be conceived and ready for combat in just thirty-six months. Before too long, our enhanced physical abilities became evident, so a separate training program was devised, and now we have our own branch of service.”
“I’m guessing you weren’t always a ship’s security officer.”
“Ha,” Carthage barked. “No, I was part of the Space Expeditionary Force, Infantry Division, right up until a couple of months ago, when I was assigned to the Dutchman. First I was a ground-pounder, then I moved up to dropship pilot.”
“Wait, your ship was called the Dutchman? As in Flying Dutchman?”
“Yes. What, I hadn’t mentioned that?”
“Somebody’s got a twisted sense of humor naming it that. I never would have set foot on it. And sure as shit, your mission was doomed.”
He shrugged. “C’est la vie.”
“So why were you assigned to the Dutchman? Is it normal for AI guys to pull security for ships?”
“Thanks to the work of some politicians back home, a law was created that allowed AI soldiers to retire after ten years, if they want. I reached the end of my term of service, and for the first time in my life, I had a choice to make. I chose to stay in, but accepted a position as a liaison to the Exploration Committee. The Dutchman was my first assignment. I thought it would be a chance to see the galaxy, without the ever-present possibility of combat. Look where that got me.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I’m glad to have you on my side.”
“Thanks. It’s also a small consolation that Holland was following someone’s orders, it makes my failure to stop him a little easier to…” He stopped moving. “There’s something up ahead.”
Yet indistinct objects cast long shadows in the moonlight on the road. Carthage motioned for Siobhan to flank along the left side of the road, though there wasn’t much room to maneuver. He took the right side and they slowly moved forward. She listened to her PDA as they crept forward, but so far it wasn’t indicating anything. As they approached, it became evident that the objects were abandoned vehicles. Some of the windows were broken and the tires had long since gone flat. At the end of the line was a truck with an open bed; Carthage indicated that he wanted them to sweep it.
Siobhan stifled a scream as she found a corpse in the front seat. Mostly skeletal by now, there was a hole in its skull that matched up with a hole in the windshield. Drawing a straight line, both of them could see that a shot had come from the bluff overlooking the road. Carthage motioned for them to keep going. They swept several more cars, but didn’t find another body until the truck at the front of the convoy. That corpse told the same story as the last.
“Classic ambush,” he said softly. “Take out the front and rear vehicles, and trap the rest. Let’s check the other vehicles, but I doubt we’ll find anything useful. This looks like the work of bandits.”
“At least they didn’t kill everyone.”
“Ammo was probably scarce for them, too. Good thing for them they had one or two good shooters.”
She nodded grimly, and the pair searched the rest of the vehicles. As predicted, there was nothing of value in the convoy. She forlornly tossed aside an empty ammo can, and sighed.
“I hope the people who went by boat fared better. I wonder if this group was captured or allowed to continue on to Perth.”
“There were up to thirty people in these vehicles,” he replied, gazing at the bluff. “That’s a lot of hostages to try and manage. I suppose we’ll find out soon enough, if there are any survivors in Perth.”
She leaned against the side of a car. “I’m exhausted, Carthage. I wish we could stop and rest.”
“I’d like to get off this road, if there’s any chance those bandits are still active, we’ll be sitting ducks.”
“I agree, but that will increase the amount of time it takes to get into town. Do you really think we can still make it by dawn if we go bushwacking?”
Carthage frowned, and looked at his PDA. “Probably not. My map shows a large industrial complex about a mile to the northwest of here. We could probably rest there, if it isn’t full of bandits, anomalies, or monsters.”
“That would be quite a pitch for vacationing pensioners. If I recall correctly, it’s a cement plant.”
“Okay, we’ll check it out. I need you rested and alert.”
Siobhan saluted smartly. “Affirmative, Sergeant!”
“And for fuck’s sake, don’t ever do that again.”
It took Carthage and Siobhan less than an hour to reach the cement plant, traveling through sparse pine forest under Skye’s nearly full moon. They had wandered briefly through some areas of high radiation, but didn’t encounter any anomalies. They emerged from the woods on the edge of the plant’s enormous quarry, with the complex itself looming against the starry sky to the north. The complex was a combination of several large buildings, connected by a snaking system of covered conveyors. The largest building, its exact purpose yet unknown, was a tower of about ten stories, and sat at the eastern edge of the complex. The quarry was empty save for a single excavator.
Kneeling by a tree, Carthage took out his binoculars and scanned the complex. Almost immediately, something caught his interest. He handed the binoculars off to Siobhan, and pointed toward the top of the tower. She scanned it for a few seconds, seeing nothing.
“What?” she asked quietly.
“Wait for it.”
A moment later, she saw the faint red glow of the end of a lit cigarette. “Ah, got it.”
He took back the binoculars. “It’s a rookie mistake. They must not be expecting company. We’ll sit tight for a while and see if we can spot any other activity. At this point we have to assume they’ll be hostile.”
“If we’re lucky, maybe it’s just the one guy.”
“Not likely, but I’d be happy to be proven wrong. Let’s back into the tree line a few meters and watch. Use the scope on your rifle and let me know if you see anything else.”
“What are the rules of engagement?”
“Right now? There aren’t any. That’s over eight hundred meters to the top of the tower from here, and I doubt your cartridge is capable of that shot, even if you are. Even for me, it’s a waste of ammo. If they see us, we’re going to displace. Follow my lead.”
She nodded, and they retreated several feet into the woods. Carthage unlimbered his rifle and got into a prone position, so she did the same. Tucked behind a couple of wide trunks, it would be almost impossible for someone across the quarry to spot them. Carthage continued to favor his binoculars, though Siobhan had no option other than her rifle scope; its 4x magnification was still better than her naked eye.
Peering through her scope, she could no longer see the cherry of the cigarette, so either the figure had finished, or gone back inside. She decided on a lazy counter-clockwise scan of the complex, starting on ground level and sweeping around to the top. Other than a gentle breeze, and the chirp of crickets, it was dead quiet. Though she was glad to be off her feet for a while, her calves were still screaming at her, and blisters were pestering her heels. She had thought she was in good shape, but this little wilderness trek was proving her wrong.
She rested her chin on the stock of her rifle, and took a break from the scope. Her mind wandered, moving from one disturbing image to the next, encapsulating all the bizarre things she had seen in the last 24 hours. When she had slept two nights ago, her fears about the world outside of Romanby had been indistinct, undefined, and the subject of pure speculation. Now, despite herself, she slept again, but her nightmare now waking, and her sanctuary the oblivion of unconsciousness.
Carthage woke her up with a swift kick in the butt. Startled, she glanced at him, then at her PDA. Hardly fifteen minutes had gone by, but she was thoroughly disoriented.
“Get your ass up,” he hissed, “we’ve got movement.”
She looked through her scope. “Where?”
“A squad-sized element just departed from the west side of the complex, they’re already in the woods. Come on, we need to find a better position.”
Rising to a crouch, she said, “Are they coming after us?”
“We have to assume they are. Maybe they spotted us with night vision, or we set off a proximity alarm. Either way, we need to get ready to ambush them. I’ll show you where I want you.”
She gave a thumbs-up, and he led the way to the west. They had barely moved two hundred feet when they came across a ridge line, itself rising to about fifteen feet above the floor of the forest. They climbed it, and moved along the top to the north. Carthage stopped when they found a clearing below the ridge, bordered on the other side by the quarry and a mostly intact chain link fence.
“This is perfect,” he whispered. “You take cover behind this tree, I’ll be a few meters ahead. I’ll initiate contact. If things go to shit, you take targets on the right side of the clearing. I’ll take left. Give me your PDA.”
Handing over the device, Siobhan settled in behind the tree and watched Carthage. He moved silently to the other side of the clearing, near the fence, fiddled with both PDAs for a moment, and left one of them by the fence. Returning to the ridge, he took up a position a few dozen feet in front of her, and readied his rifle.
Siobhan’s heart was pounding, and she tried to take deep breaths. The moon was providing enough light for her to see through to the other side of the clearing, but not much further. Several minutes later, figures emerged from the darkness. As they drew closer, she could see that it was a group of seven men, all armed with rifles. It was difficult to see much detail about them, other than that they were not wearing uniforms. They were walking in a twin diamond formation, four men in front, three behind. They got a hundred feet in front of Carthage’s location before he acted.
“That’s far enough.”
Carthage’s voice boomed out of the PDA he had left by the fence. The men froze, raising their weapons, and each man scanned his side of the forest.
“Identify yourselves,” said Carthage.
“You first,” said the lead man, his eyes searching the woods.
“Just travelers, trying to reach Perth.”
“Bullshit. Nobody ventures outside of a city without a damn good reason.”
“Maybe, maybe not. What group do you represent? Perhaps we can help each other out.”
“I doubt it,” said the man, and motioned for his team to spread out.
“I wouldn’t do that. You’re outnumbered and we’ve got the drop on you. Stay put, and let’s talk this out.”
“No thanks,” came the reply, and the man took a step forward.
Carthage’s rifle barked, shattering the peaceful night, and pandemonium ensued.