Edition 2: Serial Fiction: Avoiding The Searchers (Part 2 of 5) by M.F. Burbaugh
Previously, in Part 1, we find that the narrator, Johnathan Frasier, is a boy in his late teens who lives on a colonized mining planet that has been militarily occupied by ‘Earthers’. The planet has many mines and he is holed up in one of them with a small community of refugees. There are many such groups scattered over the planet, forming a loose resistance organization. The ‘HQ’ have been, much to the frustration of the communities, reluctant to order the execution of any offensive action. Johnathan volunteers for a dangerous scouting operation with one of his childhood friends, Tonie, a young girl who lost her love to the ‘Searchers’, droids designed specifically to kill the colonists. Johnathan prepares himself for the mission, his shoulders lumbered with the responsibilities thrust upon him, as well as his growing attraction to some of the local girls, Tonie included. GH.
Next I knew I was awake. The clock said 1900. Exactly ten hours, like he said.
I got up a hair fast and felt a slight wave of nausea, but it passed almost instantly. I took a shower and was soon back alive. In the kitchen, all were there. Looked like Tonie had beat me by a few minutes. Coffee cup was half full.
Milda handed me a full cup and I sat down at the table.
“Okay, time is wasting. When you leave here head north to the lake, then west to your home. You know where and how to find the weapons?” Fred asked.
I just nodded.
“Well, stay off the roads, they are mined in spots, many trails are too. If you see a dark green paper or plastic lying about, it is their signal to others of mines in the area. The beaches where we all used to fish along the North and East of the lake are mined as well. Let’s see, check every damn thing you find for booby traps before you touch it. If it is something you need, use a string to move it from a distance. They haven’t mined any of the Horp tree groves yet—they use the food too—but keep an eye out anyway. James can explain the map—you can’t take it, so both of you memorize the route; he’ll give ya a blank one.”
James showed the map, an old topo most miners had. “Here is your home. From here go straight north, watch the stream and river, here and here. After Nellville, at the river, switch to west, stay away from the river directly—a lot of Searchers and mines. Follow its direction to the Kyleford mountains here.”
He looked up to see if we were paying attention, then continued, “Swing north along the mountains to the town of Kyleford. On the other side, right here, by this small fork in this stream, is the Ghostwater Mine. If you get the chance, and they let you see her, tell my mother we are fine and ready to fight. Give her this.” He handed me a little silver cross. I inserted it in my wallet’s little key pocket for safe keeping.
“Continue north then follow the mountain’s edges as they go west to the space port by Fantasia. Be very careful there, it is where all the Earthers landed. I suspect mines and ground sensors, as well as surveillance, will be all over.” James took and made the smallest of dots northeast of Fantasia. “Part of what we are not supposed to know. Try to get between here and the spaceport without being seen, watch for three days, record all you see or hear, then try to get back to us. We are interested in visitors from the spaceport to HQ or vice versa. That is your only mission, clear?”
James stared at us. We both just nodded.
James gave me the final item, a black and white reprint of the topo, nothing on it was marked, just a plain map. “You know the rules, no marks of any kind. They have them as well so it is not a big deal if they find it.”
Tonie got lectured about not being foolhardy, it was an Intel gathering mission, top secret. The less people saw us, the less explaining had to be done. She just nodded. We then emptied our pockets and my wallet of everything, and the contents were scrutinized. They wanted us carrying nothing the Earthers could use. I gave mother my pictures and ID card. Tonie gave James a single picture. It was David.
The packs were, as promised, light. Being early fall it was still plenty warm enough. Tiger Bat hunting suits, dried food, two canteens of water for each of us. All in place, all ready to go. One towel and one bar of unscented soap along with a few other items like toothbrushes. Sparse was the word. Fred and James adjusted Tonie’s straps, and Mother and Milda did mine. Mother finally just said to be safe and return.
Fred grilled us on a million things, corrected some answers, then just said, “Go, stay between your house and the lake for the first night. I know you know where the Sanford Shale Quarry is. Camp up top in the tree-line someplace—never saw Searchers there, only in the pits.”
“Okay,” I told him. I knew exactly where it was; I built my first fort to battle evil dragons up there when I was eight and visiting Grandpa and Grandma. I think I smiled, then sighed. Aha, to only have a few imaginary dragons to slay once again.
I wore my old Tiger Bat hunting outfit, someone had said Ninjas of Earth once wore them. All black with a black skull cap pullover. Warm in cool night winds and almost invisible. Then a little black coal soot on the face and hands and I was set. Tonie wore one we had found in one of the bombed out buildings. She barely touched her face with the soot and I laughed and applied liberal amounts. Had to admit, the suit fit her a lot better than I would like.
Milda said, “Sexy!” and giggled.
Finally we were ready. It was almost 2200 now, we were behind schedule. I talked to Fred and he agreed to using the west entrance, rather than through the sewers. It was faster, but I again got a stern warning on covering our tracks. They knew we were here someplace, they didn’t know we had two real entrances and three air shafts. A few well-placed gas grenades or a single Searcher missile in the explosives and it would all be over.
I knew Fred would follow us out and recheck all our tracks and precautions. He’d been doing it to me for months, but I said nothing. Being paranoid was his job, we were still alive to prove he did it well.
We slipped out past the last of the rocks at the entrance and I slid the fake one back in place. I took a branch and swished away our tracks for the few yards to the rock shelf the entrance was near. Someone, long before Golson, had started a shaft in from the ledge about three feet, then abandoned it. If the Earthers went a few yards south they would have found, behind the trees and old rock piles, a real entrance.
I took Tonie’s hand and went into the back of the little hole and told her to shush and wait. Less than a minute later Fred was there. He took a stick and was doing a little swish here and there. When I told him, “You really ought to pay attention to your surroundings more,” he almost jumped out of his skin, then laughed and told us to get going.
After ten minutes Tonie spoke for the first time. “He is, or will be, your dad in all but name, you know.”
She just glanced my way and walked on. We had a quarter moon and by being careful we didn’t need the NVs at all. The darkness of the mine had us well adapted. Occasionally one or the other of us would step on a twig or slip a rock loose, the crunch or clack sounded deafening in the still night and we’d freeze and listen until the night sounds returned.
We made good time and soon skirted the lake. Fred was right, we saw and heard Searchers around it. Some with bright lights, some with the gloomy red stare of the NVs. The glow of the infrared was not invisible. I was sure that a few had the TI as well, but they became cluttered and overloaded easily, without constant refreshing. Ours were better, just not a lot, and the rocks gave off a lot of heat signature they collected all day. If you were caught in an open field you were a sitting duck, but there was a lot of better stuff out there. I had some hidden where we were going.
We moved deeper into the woods, then took off westerly for several hours as I saw the first hints of dawn. We were pushing it close. I found the old ravine—it had been my last desperate battle line against the Dragon Lords. We were above the shale quarry. I moved south to overlook it, there were several Searchers set in pattern search down there. Fred’s intel was accurate, we were alone up here. I moved back along the ravine to my old fort, now but a few logs laying here and there.
I spent time laying logs on top of each other along the bank, adding a few branches, and we had a very low lean-to. It seemed so much bigger when I was eight. After we set our packs down and I had time, we found a few problems. They gave us a single air mattress and a single thermal cover. If we lay against each other and didn’t move, we wouldn’t fall off. She said we could take turns sleeping, one on guard at all times. It wasn’t necessary, under the thermal blanket a Searcher could sit above us and we’d remain invisible if we didn’t move. It wasn’t reflective and worked very well in this environment, but we took turns sleeping anyway.
Late that afternoon we were ready to move on. I wasn’t sure of the moon’s cycle now, we’d either have more light or a sliver, Tonie said she thought it would be one day from a new moon, but she was guessing too. Our moon’s cycle was 18 days.
About two hours after sunset I found it was heading toward a new moon, as Tonie said. I also found my house, well, the few stones and brick not blown to bits and burned. As we got close I saw a green piece of plastic on the ground. At the entrance were three little prongs barely sticking out and a little yellow stick. I knew these. Contact detonator mines as well as a small thermal sensor. We had found more than one crater with a dead animal nearby. I knew from my scouting, and those of Fred, James, and David, that they almost never wasted more than one, unless something inside was booby-trapped.
“I need to go inside; stay here, I’ll be back,” I told her.
She was soon standing next to me. “Not on your life. Where you go, I go. End of discussion.”
I went to the back and helped her up on the wall of what use to be our fireplace rockwork. I needed to get inside to get the key. We had a few old weapons in the house for defense, however, if we were robbed, all the real stuff was hidden in the ammo bunker about twenty yards out from the house.
We climbed up the four foot wall and I was going to help her down. She laughed and said she wasn’t helpless. I jumped down lightly among the rubble. I turned to watch her as she managed to trip and fall. Well, I blocked her fall and caught her across her chest and a hand in her crotch and wrapped around her leg.
“Get a good feel?” She asked.
“Sure did,” I laughed.
She started to say something but thought better and finally said, “Well thank you, now I’m safe and you can let me down.”
I was embarrassed. “Sorry.”
“No, I am. I’m the klutz that fell.”
“Things happen. Let’s get the stuff, feels creepy here with my dad gone.”
She stood and waited. I went to the slabs of rock by the front of fire place and had her help clean some of the rubble away. I lifted one floor slab and had her balance it as I dug in the loose dirt. I found the little box and pulled it up, brushed some dirt around, and helped her lower the stone. We scattered rubble about.
I showed her the box and the special key. “Titanium, only fits one lock. Uncle made it and a few other items.” She knew he was an engineering professor on Eperia. Everyone we ever met knew it, we were quite proud of him.
I helped her back out over the wall without incident. I went directly behind the chimney remains and counted out the steps. I bent as she watched me move twigs and branches—the small logs were fake and attached to the stone slabs. She had to help me lift them both. I carefully let them down on their backs and exposed the small staircase.
“We have—well, had—a small tunnel from under the kitchen to here but there is tons of rubble on top of it now,” I told her.
I descended the stairs, you could see where the crawl tunnel from the house came in. I told her to watch. “If Mother and I die, someone needs to know how.”
I inserted the key and turned it left, little lights came on behind a number screen. “Just hold 6 and 8 at the same time and turn it back to the right.” As I did the door made a soft click and popped out an inch.
I took the key out and pulled the heavy vault door open. We went in and I closed it. In the dark you saw nothing. I felt around and found the light switch, I just hoped the batteries were still up. As I flipped it on I found they were.
The room was a standard 8 x 8 x 8 heavy metal shipping container, converted to a weapons room. Along the back, stacked to the ceiling, were the LAWs. Along the right were the rifle racks and the left had the ammo boxes and pistol rack. All neatly laid out for quick access.
“All are loaded and ready for use, Tonie. No games at all,” I told her. City folk tended to take safety as a silly nuisance, hunters knew better.
I went down the list of our rifles.
“Barrett model 473 50cal.” I saw her curiosity. “4 is the series, 7 is six rounds in the clip and one in the chamber, and 3 is kilometers it can shoot with any accuracy. It can go a lot farther. A wonderful weapon, but too heavy for us, even with the composites and Titanium modifications.
“Next is the one I will take, the SAW or Squad Automatic Weapon. It is 7.62mm with a thirty round clip. I have three spare clips for it and I try to never fire more than three rounds at a time. Deadly inside 800 meters.” She nodded, she’s seen them before, we all favored these old military arms. Again, my uncle lightened it with Titanium and composites and changed the buffer setup. Half the original weight.
“This is your rifle, 5.56mm, 30 round clip, little recoil, and accurate to about 400 meters with a scope—this has one. Mostly aluminum and plastic but the barrel has been redone in titanium and sleeved.”
I handed it to her. “Remember, it is loaded.” I showed her the safety and semi and auto selector. “Semi only,” I told her, and she nodded.
I gave her four additional clips and a black ammo belt to wear. I had already put one on. I took her to the pistols. I had been internally debating. The reworked 45 autos were excellent, but I felt she would balk at the kick. I finally settled for a matched pair of 9mms, also reworked by my uncle for ease of use, lightness, and accuracy. I added 12 clips of ammo plus the two she had in the pistols and she was ready. I thought about the antique Anaconda for me, but settled for the matched 45 ACPs and 10 more clips of ammo.
Both rifles had the new duel scope with split image auto range finder. I had to show her how it works. It wasn’t anything like the IR or TI they had. “Turn this one first to move both images atop each other then turn this second one to move the little dot back to the center of the crosshairs and you’re set. For close work you can just use the open sight under the scope.
“The NV/TI selector is here.” I showed her the flip switch. The NV cannot be seen by the Searchers. It uses available light only. The TI can, but it has new limiters and won’t be overloaded like the old ones. “Unc says they also work on a non-standard freq, making them harder to detect.”
I saw her test both and she was quite shocked.
“I thought he taught engineering at college or something,” she said.
“Yes, well, he also has been a major weapons developer for Eperia since he was drafted in their Army. He just passed a few of his ideas and designs to us. All perfectly legal of course. As long as no one ever finds them.” I grinned. “He claims he is a spy as well.”
“I see,” was her only comment.
I switched out the old NV IR goggles for the Light Amplification variety. Not detectable.
I opened a little chest, and took out six earpieces. They were small in-ear transceivers with a thin wire and throat band. Hunting parties used them for years to keep track of each other, and miners used them while working in the mines.
She recognized them. “Fred says we can’t use them, leads them right to us.”
“Yes, if these were regular ones he’d be right of course. Again, Uncle reworked them. He says they have new crystals in them that are far above normal monitoring frequencies. They would not use them because all the crystals shatter before they get that high. Not these, he was just developing them the last time we were there. These actually take just the almost silent exhales of breath and convert them to words if you speak, even through your nose. Takes a little practice but it is as close to silent communication as you can get, we call it sub-vocalizing.” I picked up a few remote listening devices as well. I’d deploy them when we stopped as listening posts.
“Quite a man, this uncle of yours,” Tonie said.
“Ya. On Earth they called his real business spying, um, CIA I think. Dad was involved somehow, that was before I was born. He quit after he got married. I wonder why they didn’t know about the Earth attacks though.”
“We may never know,” she said, as she strapped the throat mike to her neck. I had been doing the same thing. “Takes them about two minutes to charge off our skin.”
“I know, we used them in the city for our chase games all the time.” She smiled at me.
I’d forgot about them. Two teams, six on a side. One team ran, one hunted, they actually held yearly championships. They used paint balls and judges.
Not as good as real hunting, however you did develop a few tactics and offensive and defensive strategies, but they tended to be overly aggressive. After all, no one died for real.
I debated a LAW and left it, but took up three grenades for each of us. I showed her how to store them correctly, no movie stuff. Again, special gifts from my uncle with a tripwire spool and epoxy strips built on. A pair of electronic binoculars finished the load. Now, with weapons, ammo, and the packs, we became heavier and I guess I could better appreciate Fred’s skimping on the packed items.
I helped her adjust her pack and showed her where to put all the war gear. She asked if real soldiers carried all this stuff and I told her no. They carried almost double the weight. Unless they were going on a long march, then they carried even more. She thought I was teasing her. I wasn’t.
After I closed the vault I showed her a wooden upright, down the tunnel about three feet. I twisted it and exposed a little hole. I put the key back in the box and then into the hole. A little twist moved the beam back into place. “Safer there than in the wrecked house now.”
We went back outside and re-hid everything, if you didn’t know where it was you wouldn’t find it. Just a pile of brush and wood. Since it was getting daylight we went back to the ravine and set camp. With the packs on each side I found if I laid against her with the pack at my back we didn’t slide off the mattress and I was soon asleep.
I woke, it was dark. With all our planning neither of us had thought to bring a watch. In the mines time didn’t matter much and we had the big clocks. I tried to get up without waking Tonie, which wasn’t going to happen.
I saw the look of confusion then recognition. “Hugging a pack all day is not my idea of fun.” She half grinned and got up. I started to say something about my hugging her, but decided not to.
We ate a dry meal, a little jerky and some trail mix that was little more than raisins, some Horp nuts, a thin layer of wheat flour and water Mother would bake then crumble up, and a couple of dried fruit pieces finished the ingredients.
After we packed out, she wanted to skirt along the road that ran near her home at Nellville. As long as no Searchers were about and we were quiet, I saw no reason not to. It was a new moon so we wore the LAs. Once she saw how to focus them and got used to the slight disorientation, she was fine.
I soon decided it had been a bad idea to go near her home. As with the rest, it was blown to hell. Unlike most of the others there were the remains of four bodies lying in the street next to each other. I tried to keep her back, but it wasn’t going to happen. The corpses had been feeding scavengers, but they were still recognizable, her mother, father, baby brother and a neighbor, all shot in the back of the head with hands tied. Her brother had just turned eight.
I had to grab her as she screamed. I held her tight as she fought me then just cried and sobbed. Like my dad, we knew they were dead, but we didn’t think they had stooped so low as to do ritual slaughter. It also meant they had some ground troops about. I didn’t really want to, but we buried them in their yard before we moved on. Tonie had a much deeper need for revenge than before and I was worried she’d jeopardize this mission if given the chance.
We moved westward toward the Kyleford Mountains, you could see them on the skyline. A little before daylight we came across an old shack that had been someone’s storage shed. Part of the roof was gone and the door was hanging loose. The area we were passing through was open and I didn’t like staying in the shack, but the sky looked like rain so I decided to use it to hide out for the day. If we stayed in the back corner we’d be dry.
A little after daylight it did start to rain. Rain was good, Searchers didn’t fly much in it. We bedded down and I was asleep in a few minutes. Tonie just lay there sobbing and I woke when she rolled over and buried her head in my shoulder as I hugged her and she cried.
I woke again sometime before dark. I heard trouble—Searchers! I woke Tonie quietly and took out my 45s. She finally held up her 9mms and we sat back in the corner with backs to the wall and waited. She had a resolved look, not a fearful one.
“Safeties off,” I subbed through the throat mike, and heard two clicks. I flipped both mine off as the buzz got louder—we weren’t getting away undetected, they would search the shack. I felt it.
“Cover the roof hole, I’ll get the door. Shoot as soon as you see them, don’t give them time to fire. I only hear two,” I said.
I saw her nod as she raised both 9mms straight out and up. I aimed both mine at the door and we waited, but not long.
I suspect they checked this out every day, it felt routine. Dummy me. One came slowly down through the roof, a sitting duck. The other popped in quickly through the door. I saw its camera eye swing to take us in as I opened up both 45s and took it out. Its missiles exploded. I heard Tonie’s 9mms bark as I swung up, but she had already dispatched it.
“They will send more, we got to move!” Tonie said. The concussion of the missiles exploding left my nose bleeding and ears ringing; even my eyes throbbed, but we were both functional.
“Let’s roll then,” I said, as we were packed up and gone in minutes. One of Tonie’s Searcher missiles had exploded, one was by the door. I brought the door close to shut and leaned the missile against it carefully from the inside. If someone opened it, it might go off. I then climbed out the roof to meet up with Tonie.
We headed north toward the river. I was hoping they would think we’d either head south or west, away from their strong points. The river came to view from a small rise, and I saw through the binoculars that Fred was right. There were a lot of Searchers all along the banks. Guess they thought we needed to get water. I couldn’t see the extent of the mine fields, but I wasn’t going any closer.
I looked the map over. A small stream ran from the south a mile west and we still had a while until dark. We were exposed on the ridge. I showed Tonie and said we’d hang there until dark.
We took our time as we had to back off the skyline then skirted the ridge to the west. The stream was swollen from the rains but there were several thick tangles along it—we found one that I felt was safe. I had to clear out a little space inside the densest part and it was actually okay if it didn’t rain. We were about four feet up from the water’s edge.
I got my pack off and helped Tonie with hers. I set up the little air mattress while Tonie sat down and rummaged in her pack. She said, “I need a bath; close your eyes, or not.”
She stripped there, set clean cloths out and took the soap and slid down the back into the water. “Damn this is cold!” she subbed to me. “Come on in, you stink too, you know. Or are you bashful?”
“I’ll guard then you can guard me. Yes, I am bashful, and shy. Always was.” I subbed back, and she laughed a genuine laugh and I told her, “Shh.”
“Sorry,” she subbed back. “Forgot Milda said you are a virgin. While we’re on that, why didn’t you take her? She said she offered and you said no. I always thought you were sweet on her.”
“Um, I find that hard to talk about. First you’re her sister and second, you’re here naked and bathing near me.” I knew if she saw me I was red as you could get.
“Ya, I know, but come on, John, sex isn’t some deep religious taboo or anything.”
“She told me about you getting an itch that needs scratching. Well, I don’t feel I need any itches distracting me right now. Sure I like her, never made any attempt to hide it, but she doesn’t like me. She is going to marry Jeremiah if he is still alive,” I subbed her, as she came up the bank drying off.
“He isn’t, she knows it, too. James found his body and gave her his class ring. She does like you a lot, so do I, and most of the other girls that know you. But you’re not a party guy, you’re not a dancer, and you’re pretty much a loner, so no one could really get to know you, except Milda.”
“Go take a bath, we can talk when you get back.”
She had me dry her back and I saw the raw whelps from the pack straps.
“Wait a second,” I said, as I dug in my pack.
Mom had added a small tube of the burn ointment, well, general purpose cream really. It had anti-bacterial properties and something to ease sore muscles as well as numb touchy areas. I took it out and she watched as I rubbed a little into each of her shoulders and partway down the back. She felt the relief instantly.
I handed her the tube. “For sore legs as well, and your shoulders in front.”
She just said thanks.
I was shy, always, but I steeled up and stripped as she handed me the soap and wet towel. “Remind me to wash the clothes wherever we stay tomorrow, give them time to dry,” she said, as she sat on the mattress.
That water was cold. I soaped down and got out as quick as I could. Soon I was back, dry, and in fresh clothes. She was right, you do feel better. We huddled in that thicket by the stream and slept a few hours.
After dark, as we packed out, she warned me, “The itch isn’t that bad. But Milda will need her itch scratched by someone. Promise me you will at least give it serious thought? I like you, but you will marry her, there is another David out there someplace for me. Oh, yes, I know she told you to scratch my itch, I heard her talking to you.”
She kissed my cheek. I felt the blush. Milda had said it, but I ignored it.
What a predicament. Both were beautiful, and both wanted me to care for the other rather than themselves.
Because of the large number of women and small number of men before the attacks, we were allowed two wives, though most were like Mom and Dad and declined. Still, I understand a lot of the wives had to look the other way when their men went into town. I never knew if Dad did—probably.
I think I had the itch they talked about and it had never been scratched either. Still, sisters? Maybe I could ask Fred or Mom, they knew far more than I did, if we survived, that is.
Now that it was full dark we headed back west toward the Kyleford Mountains. I heard a few night Searchers south of us someplace, but we were safe. What had been bothering me since we found Tonie’s parents had been they were killed by ground troops. Searchers didn’t tie hands and shoot pistols. We had heard nothing about any being about.
Tonie said, when I mentioned it, “Who said they had to be Earthers? We had a good supply of food laid up, couldn’t check to see, but it might have been gone.”
Hum-mm, rogue groups? I hadn’t thought of it.
We were near the base of the mountains and it was pushing a few hours before daylight when, out of the quiet of the night, someone told us, “Stop.” Not a shout, but not a whisper either. I could make out his shape behind a tree ahead through the LA, he had a rifle. Not an Earther.
I stopped Tonie and subbed to be ready to use her pistols, but wait to move. She just stopped next to me on my right and a step behind.
“Who commands us to stop?” I asked.
“Name’s Seymour, we have you covered,” he said.
I carefully scanned the area—he wasn’t using NV and best I could tell he was alone. I decided to be a bit bold. “Well, I see you and your rifle but see no others, so you lie. Either you are on a mission, sitting a listening post, or a guard for a rogue group—which is it? If I don’t like your answer, you die,” I told him.
“If he tries anything, drop him,” I said to Tonie.
The way she was standing I don’t think he knew she was there. “Okay, boss, I’ll nail him between the legs; you men are so afraid of that,” Tonie giggled.
He visibly jumped. I was right, he didn’t see her.
Born in the post war era of 1947 and raised in the farm country of upstate New York, MF Burbaugh writes in the sci-fi/fantasy genres. He has published a large number of short fiction, as well as two novels, Circle of Seven (fantasy – IFWG Publishing, 2011) and We Were Legends (scifi – IFWG Publishing, 2011). He has two more novels coming out in 2012. He now resides with his wife of forty years in El Paso, Texas.
MF Burbaugh’s bio page at IFWG Publishing