Adventurer's Notebook: A Scout's Honour (Chapter 8)
Duke shook her rain coat, a cloud of water jetting in all directions as she moved to step under the field tent. The large A-frame structure remained open at both ends, allowing the air within to circulate, nominally removing the stench of the chemical procedures being conducted by the pair of scientists. ‘Scientist and assistant,’ she corrected herself.
Under the intense light of the twin flood lamps, a series of field tables covered in various esoteric scientific and recording instruments beeped and trilled. Carefully placed according to some design, the logic behind it escaped her. Three days after her initial question regarding the layout, and the stare down she had experienced, convinced her not to ask again; Scarlett Bennett had made her unwillingness to suffer those less educated than her very clear. When Philippe made the mistake of asserting Erik Bennet, her husband, must also be a scientist, he had received a snappy and terse reply. Even Erik had rolled his eyes, choosing not to intervene.
The diminutive woman, dark brown hair pulled back into a tight bun and dressed in a crisp white field coat that hung nearly to her boot-clad feet, moved about the tables, flicking switches and adjusting dials in an intricate ballet of lab science, as Erik had called it. Scarlett all but ignored Erik as she moved about, laser focused on her task and whatever scientific methods bustled about in the brain under that tightly manicured hair. The rest of Six-Delta would have made a snide comment about Scarlett’s ego taking up too much room.
“Erik,” she said as she took a step in.
Erik looked up from his note taking and smiled warmly at her. “Duke, welcome back. Were you able to find anything in sector eight?”
She nodded, producing a tablet from under her jacket. She handed it off to his outstretched hand.
“Make sure she cross-referenced the binomial distribution for that elevation’s substrate,” Scarlett called from behind a series of computers.
Erik clicked a few buttons and confirmed the results.
“She could have simply asked,” Micheline grumbled.
“Would you rather get into an argument, one you know will end in frustration as she intellectually dances circles around you, or swallow a little crow and let her have her little power trip,” he whispered back.
“I can hear you, Erik,” she snapped, standing back up.
“I knew you would,” Erik replied without turning, smiling. “How are we doing outside,” he asked.
“We’re all good,” Micheline stated. “Philippe and Kennie are doing a sweep, Piggy is on active security and Anna is resting.”
“Anna, resting? I find that highly doubtful,” he added.
“She still needs sleep,” Micheline laughed. “We’re scanning regional frequencies, so we’ll know if anything crops up from military patrol nets.”
Erik motioned back out of the tent. They moved into the leeward side of the Mountaineer, standing next to its six foot tires, clumps of mud still stuck in the treads. The massive hull shielded them from the rain. “The rumoured skirmishes near Sherbrooke?”
“You hear what we hear,” she replied. “Heavy hostilities along the southern and western borders of the expansion. But we’re almost a hundred kilometers north-east of the expansion settlements, well clear of the military engagements.”
“Not clear from danger.”
“You did hire us as a security detail.”
“Scarlett’s sensors and data antennas are all in place. She should be good until tomorrow,” Micheline said as she turned away. She flipped her hood back up and padded over the soppy ground, her feet creating shallow puddles of water with each step. Several meters away from the Mountaineer and field lab tents, away from the bustle and clinical setting Scarlett insisted on for her experiments, the Six-Delta tent was a quiet little haven.
She once again flicked her rain coat and stepped into the open end of their shelter. Just inside, cigarette precariously held in place by his lips and slowly letting out a thin column of white smoke, Piggy concentrated on cleaning plasma cells for his rifle. Cleaning tools were precisely laid out on the storage box next to him. Unlike the lab’s precision set-up, Piggy’s meticulous placement made sense to her. She was sure he could have stripped, cleaned and assembled his entire rifle with his eyes closed and not dropped a single pin or misplaced one gasket brush. Since making camp, he had become near obsessive in the care and cleaning of his arsenal.
Scarlett had never bothered to explain her methods to her or anyone else. She had allowed Micheline the singular honour of seeing the cargo compartment of the Mountaineer, converted into a full-fledged lab that made the tent set-up seem rustic in comparison. None of the others of Six-Delta had ever been invited up, something Scarlett thankfully never pressed, and the remainder of the team seem little inclined to make a deal out of either.
She gently sat down on her cot, careful not to disturb Anna, who rested on the top of her cot, stripped down to her undershirt and boxers. Micheline watched Anna’s slow, steady breathing. The internal robot medical surgeon system, a small, thin box, creased the front of her shirt between her breasts, the device directly connected to her heart. Along her legs and arms, tubes travelled to injection rings along her thighs, wrists, upper arms and neck. The sight of it never ceased to both amaze and horrify her. The woman had effectively given up her life for the ultimate performance as a Juicer, the system forcing her organs through a lifetime’s work to create the bio-chemical soup she needed to become a super soldier. That system would tax her body so hard, her body would simply cease to function after five years, six if Anna was lucky.
Micheline couldn’t argue with the results, particularly after the convoy escort fiasco. This security task seemed absolutely benign in comparison. She and the team had the distinct impression that Massey and his advisors were throwing them a soft pitch, easing them back into things. She hadn’t complained when they were briefed on this mission. Two weeks in the wilderness, with a pair of researchers while they catalogued plant life? She had initially adored the idea. The rest of the team were less enthusiastic.
Personality conflicts between Scarlett and Six-Delta did little to curb their general frustration. “Glorified baby sitters,” Piggy had called it. The lack of tasks other than camp security or following Erik or Scarlett into the woods of the Appalachian foothills just added to their sense of restlessness. Despite her excitement and happiness to be back in the woods, even she found the beauty of the setting diminished by the surgical and sterile approach Scarlett dictated.
She jumped up from her cot with a yell as Anna bolted upright, blinked her eyes a few times, completely revived, refreshed and ready to launch into combat. The Juicer regarded her with a cocky grin. “Gotcha,” she winked. She could hear Piggy laughing outside. Micheline sat back down, her hands holding her head as she tried to relax her breathing. It had become a game between the two of them, one she was an unwilling participant to. Kennie had labelled it “How many different ways Anna could scare Duke.” Anna had yet to lose a round.
“How is our queen,” Anna asked as she slipped into her patrol gear.
“Same,” she said, her hands running her temples.
“At least she speaks to you,” Anna said. “Philippe only gets by with her because he leads the squad. Piggy, Kennie and I only get spoken at, because she thinks we’re too uneducated to keep up with her. How’d you crack through?”
“All it took was a run-in with a particularly bad-tempered moose.” Anna looked at her like she had made a bad joke. “I’m serious. We were setting things up in sector three. A couple of deer and a spooked rabbit later, we came across a bull moose. I had to pull her back while the brute stamped the earth and scraped antlers into nearby trees.”
“She never leaves the lab without her armour,” Anna suggested, strapping the final bits of her armour on.
“More dangerous than a bear. A charge from that thing would have busted her up with bruising and internal bleeding, armour or not. She asked a million questions about the thing on the way back. Erik told me she spent an hour at a terminal ‘doing the math’ as he put it, whatever that meant. After that she seemed to change her tune a little.”
“Maybe for you. She seems to take it out on Piggy and me more than the rest of you. At least Philippe and Kennie seem to be able to keep clear and deal with Erik.”
“Speak of the devil,” Micheline answered, her cybernetic ears picking up Erik’s gait as he approached.
“What’s up, doc,” Piggy asked without looking up from his table.
Erik waved in greeting. “Scarlett lost access to some of the data towers in sector four. At this time of day, I’d prefer if two of you went with her.”
Micheline looked over at Anna. The Juicer shrugged her shoulders, grabbing her rifle. Reaching down, she grabbed her own weapons, her field pack slipping over her shoulders.
Scarlett waited for them impatiently in the light cast from her tents. Her lab coat had been replaced by the padded armour, a large flashlight in one hand, a tool kit in the other. As the three of them moved into the cover of the forest’s canopy, Scarlett sent a beam of light stabbing through the trees ahead of them.
The fading light deepened, their rifle lights and Scarlett’s intense beam showed them the way. Micheline engaged her cybernetic hearing, registering the footfalls of their party among the multitude of background noise. Trees swayed in the slight breeze, a pair of squirrels scampering away from their approach. The twenty minute walk turned more treacherous, inclines and outcrops of exposed boulders more frequent and harder to avoid.
They arrived at the first of the data towers, halting slightly at the sight of it. The cylindrical device’s lights remained illuminated, winking their coloured lights. Normally held vertical by a tripod, this one had been knocked over. Sheltered from the wind by the surrounding terrain, there were no signs of disturbance to explain its current position. Scarlett placed the light down and began repairing the equipment.
“There are three more failing to respond,” she stated as she finished placing the tower upright.
As they discovered the fourth tower, Scarlett could not hide her frustration. Like the first three, it lay knocked over with no trace of disturbance around it. Anna seemed to find a certain amusement in it all.
The breeze picked up as the evening hours progressed, the swaying branches in the failing light made it harder to differentiate the natural movements from anything abnormal. A few particular gusts caught her attention. Micheline cocked her head, trying to ease the sounds into the mechanical receptors and willing her mind to break through. She had no idea what her intuition was hinting at. She felt she knew something was amiss, something not caused by the gusting breezes.
As the winds died down, her hearing cleared. Nothing but the silence of the forest at night. Scarlett continued making a racket, tools clinked and beeped repairing any damage from the fall, the tower’s system rebooting. Aside from that, silence.
She slowly panned the light of her rifle around their perimeter. Nothing seemed out of place, a heavy carpeting the forest in a multitude of reds, yellows and oranges. Something tugged at her senses; an itch she couldn’t scratch on a part of her body she couldn’t identify.
Another gust of wind followed by more silence.
She clicked her radio, firing off the warning signal to Anna. She panned her rifle around in a slow arc on the far side.
“What have you got,” Philippe called over the squad net.
“Something, not sure.”
“What is it,” Scarlett asked as she righted the tower.
Micheline reached behind her into a side pouch of her pack. She fished out an illumination grenade. “How long?”
“You have two,” she answered, heaving the device into the open space in the distance ahead of her. The grenade flashed to light, chemical burn flooding her nose with a dry tickle, light bouncing off the trunks and sprawling branches overhead. She continued scanning, the forest playing tricks in the failing light.
“I’ve got nothing,” Anna said out loud.
Scanning back across her field of vision, Micheline shifted position. ‘The forest. Was it moving?’
“Scarlett, we’re leaving,” she announced. “Grab your tools now, or we leave you here,” she ordered when the scientist started to argue. “Anna, I’ve got point.”
“Got it.” The Juicer moved next to Scarlett, the unspoken signal to move. They filed back the way they came, moving apace.
“Philippe, we’re on the move.”