“Elana, where can I find Connor?” I asked abruptly. The eldest Pierce was the first soul I had seen in five days, but more to the point she was the first person I saw coming into camp, and I had no time to waste trying to track my friend down. She was looking at me like she was seeing a ghost. “Elana, Connor!” I snapped. She shook herself.
“I’m so glad you’re ok. We were so worried. He’s at the town hall; the Council’s meeting. Oh god, you don’t know, do you?” she gasped.
“I know, I just don’t know who. No time though – I’ll find out from them. Thank you!” I shouted over my shoulder, running towards the town hall. As I reached the double doors people were just starting to stream out. As soon as they saw me the crowd started to murmur and edge away. I suppose to them I must have looked like some sort of primeval amazon, wearing virtually nothing, taller than most of the men and slathered head to toe in mud to disguise myself and my scent. More than one person muttered something about “alive” – I guess they weren’t expecting to see me again after last night. I had no time to worry about all that though. I walked in. The hall was mostly empty, but the Council, Jaisa, Rocco and the two Stuart men were still there.
“Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. I know someone was killed last night, and I know what did it – give me the details so I can go do my job.” Reye and Kara did a double take, and Histy looked a little shocked at my appearance, but the rest took my entrance in stride.
“Jack Seaworth was killed in the northeast corner of the camp while on guard, Jaisa got there just after the fact.” Connor replied. “Did you see it or just the evidence?”
“I picked up its trail late yesterday and around midnight realized that it was headed towards camp. On its way back out it passed about twenty yards from me, fifteen miles out of camp – it used the same path in as out. It’s one big bastard – Jai, I didn’t see any blood. Where did you hit it?”
“Six in the head, the other nine across the chest. Penetrators, which I know was a mistake, but with six shots to the head I should have killed it firing anything but blanks. And no blood? It must clot fast.”
“Who else can tell me something useful?”
“Now wait a minute. What-” Reye started.
“Mr. Reye,” barked the sharp voice of Andy Stuart, “The Council Session is over. Let the experts get you enough information to make some smart decisions. Sin, you ready to run the back trail and get some solid data?”
“That’s the best idea I’ve heard all morning.” She replied.
“Good” Andy said, “Lets swing by my tent and then head to where Jai hit that sucker and work out from there. You knowing where it went will help; but we need some hard data on that beast.”
“Lead on Colonel!”
Just as we left the hall I heard Rocco murmur, “What a woman!” under his breath. Not intended for my ears, I’d guess. I certainly didn’t mind the sentiment though. We moved towards the tent area when the younger set stopped us. “Boss do we go work on the Hydro-Plant or what?” Ryu asked Andy.
“No Corporal, you stay down here today. I have a job for you all, leave Candidate Benjamin out of it; she deservers the down time and I don’t want her involved in this.”
He was the first one to snap a salute in Alchibah history, “Sir, yes Sir.” He then turned towards the young guns and started talking.
Andy ducked into the tent and came back out fitting a battery pack into his field jacket and attaching a hood arraignment to the neckline. Motioning towards the site, he started walking.
Sin looked at what she now understood was a hulking monster topped by only one other she had ever known. “You know,” she said, “The only reason I trust you is because Gabriel Benjamin said I could.”
Andy turned his head and looked at her, never breaking stride. “Angel was one of the best; I wish we had him here. But he ain’t here, we have to find a way to make this work with what we have. Corporal Ryu, Frago!”
The young guns clustered around. “What I want is a detailed search of 100 yards from the first blood spot we found. If you will notice from the interlace pattern of the trees, there is no way a round could go 100 yards without hitting a tree. What you are looking for is dings on the trees that are not penetrating impacts but, bumps where depleted rounds may have hit. I have sample bags and at least one medical glove for each of you. When, not if, you find an expended round; place it into the sample bag using only your gloved hand. Anything we find will go to the Lab for examination. I will back you up with the metal detection capabilities of my gear. Any questions?”
Andy was pleasantly surprised when the whole group snapped off a salute and replied in unison, “Sir, No Sir.”
Sin looked at him and asked, “This in 7 days?”
He just nodded, “They are good kids Sinopia, some of them will not make it as Operators. But we will need a solid stay behind force.
We reached the start point and spread out, while I pulled over the hood and engaged the sensors. It did not take long to find six blunted penetrators, but the others were nowhere to be seen. I also found some weird chitinous like debris that I bagged and tagged.
“Cpl Ryu, search the area for another hour. I suspect the other nine simply embedded in the thing, so I doubt you’ll find anything else, but it’s worth being sure. Then take the squad and take these samples to the Lab, then get back to camp and get your bots on charge. When you’re done try and get everyone to catch a nap, we are standing the guard watches tonight.” I watched his surprised face, “The sign the list roster at Hanna’s Place is not going to cut it anymore, and I am not going to be able to get this in front of the council in time for anything else. So tonight is a training exercise in proper guard detail.”
“You ready Sin?” We moved fairly rapidly, to the rocky where I had lost the trail in the early morning. As I was pulling the hood with the dynamic mesh over my face, “I’ll use the optics of the hood to try to find some strike evidence on these rocks, you keep me straight. Sound ok to you?”
“Of course. It’s about the only way we are going to find anything on this surface,” she replied, smiling.
I started a figure eight path across the rocks with Sin keeping the centerline of our path moving towards where she had seen the beast.
“Small strike here Sin, take a look.”
She moved over and knelt down, “Very light strike but look at the disturbance in the debris and the rock. The claws were sheathed and the foot flexed over this rock, that’s why we have any strike at all.”
I turned up the magnification and looked closer, “I think you are right, that’s probably why it headed straight for the rocks.” I paused. How the devil could she see that? “You’ve been holding out on me haven’t you? You saw the path right away. Well, lead on then.”
Sin laughed. “You seemed like you wanted to use your gadgets, so…” she shrugged. “And besides, it worked, didn’t it?”
She quickly moved through the rock field, pointing out the trail as she went. I had heard about trackers like her, but I always thought they were just tall tales cooked up by amateurs who didn’t know what they were talking about. As we reached the end of the rocky area and found our first real print in a field of low-lying cover plants Mariana’s comp call blasted into my ear bud.
“Magic, Reaper; don’t worry we are not going to catch this sucker today. I figure it’s around 40 miles away from here by now.’
Hearing only my side of the conversation Sin commented, “At least, more than likely farther than that.”
I said, “Good cause Mariana just told me why no blood. The darn thing regenerates and from her tone I gather rapidly.”
Sin whistled lowly, “That’s going to be tough – we have to figure out the kill shot fast. But the way this thing was leaving we know we can hurt it. I think Jai scared the living shit out of it.”
We started examining the prints we had found. Sin hit the big one, “Look at how these prints get larger and make less of a depression as it went across the field. The feet must splay out to provide better traction in the soft ground. By the time it gets to the other side most people wouldn’t see a damn thing.”
I was busy with my wrist comp taking pictures of the prints with a measuring grid superimposed. “Yeah, and back here the first print of each foot really tore up the ground. The sucker is heavier than we first thought.”
“Four thousand or so pounds, I’d guess.”
“Look at what it dug up though Sin. Does that look familiar?”
“Looks like some weird kind of potato.”
“Well, that’s makes two that think so,” I said as I quickly put 10 or 12 in my game pouch. “I have all the measurements and we need to get these things back to Mariana. Let’s call it a wrap, OK?”
“I could be where it is now by nightfall,” she said, looking into the distance, “but who knows where it would be by then? Yeah, let’s head back. And call up the usual suspects – I need to give my report on what’s out there. The rumbler is hardly our only problem.”