A chapter from my current WIP, “AWAKENING”. The sequel to my novel “REVELATION”.
“Oh, please! Get a room!” Nannette grumbled.
The goodbye’s were apparently taking too long for the limited patience of the teenager. She was anxious to get aboard the transport and experience her first trip through space. Kurt and Blackhorse had been dreading this moment for days and had been dragging the final moment out before Gina and Cheri boarded the ship. Even the frigates commander seemed to be a little anxious, the Tiger had already called over twice asking what was holding up the departure.
Both men finally gave a last hug and stepped back, watching as the ladies boarded the ship and the ramp closed behind them. They walked back to the tree they always watched departures and arrival from and waited for the convoy of ships to lift off. It was not long before the cruiser lifted and turned, its small fleet of four transports falling into formation with their big lead ship. Silently the ship arced into the sky, rapidly disappearing into the distance as they began the trip to Mars. There were only three more convoys scheduled for the move to the red planet. Within a few days the last of the families would be off world and only the Arizona base would still be occupied by CSS personnel. Kurt and Blackhorse would be leaving after the last family ship had carried its passengers safely through to the ever growing Mars base. For now, they still had things to wrap up here.
“What do you think they’ll say?” Kurt asked, referring to the conference call that was scheduled with the Texas Governor that morning.
“I really think that some of them will want to come on board with us. Having a formal agreement for trade and access to our technology is definitely a plus for them. With the American space program almost nonexistent, setting up a satellite launch facility would boost the Texas economy. Setting up power stations and making agreements for food and other supplies would help the other states as well. Hell, the power stations alone would boost their economies through the roof. Being able to eliminate the EPA regulations alone would be worth it.” Blackhorse replied.
“That’s what I was thinking. I can’t imagine a reason for them not to want to work with us except for their fear of the next administration. The election is only a couple months from now, if we can have a deal in place while the muzzle is still on this just might work.” Kurt stated.
“Speaking of work, I need to get to it. Meet up for lunch later?” Blackhorse asked.
“Sure” Kurt replied, “I’ll meet you in the commissary later.”
When Kurt arrived at the conference room Ron Wilder was already speaking with Governor Laramie and put the phone on speaker as Kurt sat at the table. An orderly set a cup of coffee in front of him and he thanked her before taking a sip and listening in to the conversation.
“… the problem I see with any sort of agreement is that the Constitution prohibits any state from forming a treaty or alliance with any foreign power.” Laramie was saying.
Wilder replied with “That’s true, however CSS is not a foreign power. We are an American company, as such any agreement made with us is considered a contract, not a treaty. The states that agree to a coalition with us would be well within their rights to form a contractual relationship with us. Unless the next administration wants to have us declared outlaws and continue its campaign against us there really shouldn’t be any repercussions coming out of Washington.”
“I can work with that, any attempt to change the law would be a long arduous process. It probably wouldn’t pass anyway. One other concern that got a lot debate from te others was how you intend to pay for goods that you purchase from the coalition states. As far as we can tell you have no commercial operations anymore.” The governor questioned.
Ron asked “We have gold, silver and platinum. Once the agreement is in place and we begin supplying all of your electrical needs we can accept payment in the form of goods and services. The launch facility will bring in a great deal of foreign capital as well.”
Governor Laramie said “I think that covers everything the others wanted to know. I will meet with them in a few days and get back to you with an answer.”
Ron said “That sounds good, Governor. I look forward to hearing from you. Goodbye.”
Once the phone connection was severed Ron looked at Kurt and asked “What do you think?”
He replied “I think it will happen. The upside for them will far outweigh any potential animosity from a new administration. The economy has been in a shambles for a decade and even though Texas rode it out better than most, even they could use the boost. Once the rest of the world realizes that energy costs will be almost nothing all of the coalition states will have a boom in new businesses relocating to them. For us, having a reliable supply chain is an imperative. This would give us that and the freedom to operate on the planet in our own home. Once the election is over and we see what happens some of our people may want to come back. I would prefer that to be a return to a safe home in a friendly state.”
Ron looked puzzled “So, you’re planning a reverse migration?”
Kurt smiled “Oh, no. I doubt that many of our people will ever want to come back for more than a visit. But there will be a few and eventually many will want to retire and come home. To be honest, if this coalition works out I think that we will be in need of more room out there. People are naturally adventurous, they seek out opportunities to expand. And we are the greatest opportunity going at the moment.”
The two men discussed possible scenarios for a while, then agreed to have a full board meeting after the Texas Governor called back.
Kurt left the building and went to take Etundo for a long walk in the desert. The wolf needed to stretch his legs and Kurt needed time to think. The best place for both was out amongst the hills in the desert outside of the base. They often went to a particularly colorful and hilly area about twenty miles away, Etundo loved running around the scrub and scattered boulders and Kurt liked how the wind never stopped coursing through the narrow defiles between the outcrops of stone. The drive out was bumpy but they knew the route well and the solitude suited both man and beast without Gina to fill the space. Kurt parked in his usual spot, under the shade of a stone overhang at the entrance to a narrow pass that led into a long, narrow valley between sandstone cliffs. Kurt knew that having this routine was a dangerous habit, one that any adversary would turn against him if he could. But he wasn’t worried, he slung his rifle over his shoulder and hooked his ever present .45 caliber pistol onto his belt. Etundo would smell anyone coming from miles away and there was a follow on team on standby, just in case.
Etundo took off as soon as he leapt from the SUV, swiftly disappearing into the path between the stones as he took care of whatever important things that wolves did. Kurt smiled as he slowly walked through the defile, admiring the unusual shapes and colors of this landscape. It wasn’t long before Kurt began to notice signs of people having passed through recently. The occasional sign of footprints in deeper sand, the marks of loose stone being scuffed by feet. He could not tell how old the tracks were, only that the wind had not yet removed any trace of human passage. The signs could be a day or so old, or they could be minutes old.
The ex-soldier began to follow the tracks as best he could, often losing them when they crossed hard stone only to reacquire the trace in deeper sand and loose rock. They led him deeper into the hills and turned into a side ravine he did not remember having gone down before. The ravine was only a few feet wide but deep enough below the cliff top to be darkly shaded. Carefully stepping on the piles of loose rock that lined the path, he continued to see signs of recent activity. Disturbed areas of freshly overturned rocks and the occasional imprint of human feet in sand kept him moving further into the ravine. At about a hundred yards the crevasse widened and more sunlight reached the bottom, the loose rock gave way to a wide bowl of fine sand and clear evidence of three humans having passed through. The imprints in the sand were undisturbed by wind in the deep cut and led straight toward the far wall of the cliff. He was in a box, one way in and only one way out. The cliff that surrounded the end of the ravine was a sheer forty foot rise of almost perfectly smooth sandstone.
Kurt could tell that the footprints went only one way, into the box. The telltale drag marks of feet in sand only pointed in, whoever had made them had either flown out or was still here. Removing his rifle from his shoulder and setting the sling for a combat carry in his front as a precaution, Kurt quietly slipped to his left, back into the shadow near the wall of stone. Senses on high alert he moved forward, following the tracks of the people that had come into the box and were most likely still here. He stopped beside a vertical ridge that protruded from the cliff, from its deeper shade and what cover it offered the former special operator knelt and took stock of the area. He had followed the tracks into a closed bowl at the end of a ravine whose entrance was so small that he had not noticed it in a dozen trips past it.
The bowl offered no cover beyond the small protrusion he was now beside and anyone watching could not have missed him coming into the bowl. He studied the cliff sides, looking for any sign of another ravine or possible exit, he saw none in the smooth stone. The only break in the surface was a small patch of darkness almost directly across from the entrance, there should not be any shadows there at this time of day. It had to be either a cave or a fissure in the wall. While caves were not unheard of, the relative softness of the local sandstone made them an unusual feature. Caves are mostly formed by water or volcanic activity and Kurt could not remember having heard of any local volcanoes. That left water, he did know when the last great deluge was in this area, but doubted that any cavern formed at the end of the last ice age would have survived to the present day. The sandstone was simply too soft and unstable. So, that left manmade or a freak of nature and an upthrust of harder bedrock had been exposed, creating a cave that could withstand millions of years of exposure and earth tremors. The bright sun reflecting off of the light colored stone made a detailed examination of the entrance impossible.
He considered his options, he could back out of the bowl and slip back down the ravine hoping that whoever was in here either did not see him or was not a threat, or he could press ahead and investigate the cave. While he doubted that anyone would have used this tactic to lure him into a trap, his natural curiosity wondered who and why anyone would want to come to this place.
Kurt flipped the safety off on his Sig Sauer M4 and moved swiftly in a combat crouch toward the dark entrance to the cave. No shots rang out, no challenge to his approach came. Slipping into place beside the narrow opening he stopped and listened intently at the edge. A faint voice, muddled by the caves acoustics, reached him.
“I know I heard something, now be quiet so I can listen” a male voice said.
Moments later another voice, female this time “Michael, you’re scaring her, quit it.”
“Shhh” came the male voice.
Kurt heard another sound, so faint that it fell at the very edge of hearing and imagining. Someone was crying, it was muffled not only by the caves echo but by a face being buried into something to stifle the sound. A child.
The female voice again “Michael, stop it! No one is coming after us. Quit scaring Jenny.”
Etundo nudged Kurts leg, he had walked silently up to him on padded paws, a feat that Kurt often found annoying when he was concentrating on something. The animal looked at him, a quizzical look in his eye, as if to say “What? You’re scared of children now?” Then he proceeded to trot straight into the cave.
The male voice said ”Crap!” and two female voices screamed, sending Etundo backing out of the cave. Kurt moved past the startled wolf and plunged into the darkness, stopping just inside and moving to his right to allow the light to come in past him. In the dim light he saw that the cave was only about fifteen feet deep and roughly circular, its floor was slightly sloped outward toward the entrance and was covered with several inches of fine blown sand. A small fissure at the back reached all the way up to the top of the cliff presenting a small shaft that a narrow beam of sunlight shone down. The walls were an almost white, gray color, indicating that it was a limestone feature. That explained how it had survived the eons since its creation. The small space filled with camping gear and sleeping bags, a camp stove sitting on a large flat slab of stone in its center and a battery powered lantern hung from a wire wrapped around a small protrusion of stone on the far side from Kurt.
There were also three occupants pressed against the far wall. The male, Michael apparently, was about sixteen or so. A tall kid with short light colored hair, wearing dirty jeans and an even dirtier t-shirt. The female that had spoken earlier appeared about the same age, Kurt was always notoriously bad at guessing girls ages, she was shorter than the boy by a little but no less dirty and her hair was blonde underneath a filthy ball cap. The youngest, Jenny he assumed, was no more than eight. Her long blonde hair was reasonably clean and combed, she wore a blue sundress that had a tear in the hem but was otherwise less filthy than the others, her bare feet were the only unwashed part and were well covered by sand that stuck to her sweating feet.
Kurt sized the situation up, brother, sister, baby sister. The older siblings had done their best to keep the youngest clean and fed but the two older children were beginning to show the early signs of malnutrition. Kurt had seen it often in the third world crapholes he had worked in. The pallor in the skin tone, the tightening of the skin around the cheeks as the human body scavenged its own fat stores and eventually its own muscle in an attempt to make up for too few calories.
Silently, he admired the older kids courage. They had to know that things were going badly with themselves, but they had chosen to tend the most helpless first. That told him everything that he needed to know about the character of the people in front of him. Despite the hunting knife in the boys hand, Kurt safed his weapon and returned it to its place across his chest before sitting down in the sand and leaning against the cool stone wall. Etundo ventured back in and lay beside him. Kurt took out his canteen and cupped his hand, pouring water into it so that the wolf could lap it up. When Etundo had drunk first, he then took a swallow himself. The boy was unconvinced but the older sister recognized the gesture and relaxed, just a little. Just enough that her grip on the littlest one loosened enough for her to peek out from behind her a bit more.
Kurt sat the canteen down and looked at the boy “So, tell me a story Michael. Why are you and your sisters hiding out in a cave in the desert slowly starving to death?”
Michael stiffened “We’re not hiding out. We’re camping. With our father. He’ll be back soon so you need to leave or when he gets here there’ll be trouble.”
Kurt shook his head “Nice try. There are only three bedrolls, three cups and three plates. So, no. Your father is nowhere around. Even if he were, I couldn’t just sit by knowing they you were here starving. From what I see of your supplies you have less than a day before the little one finds out that you and big sis have been giving her your share. Have you ever seen a small child begin to starve? It’s not like the two of you. She has no fat or muscle to spare yet, her body is too busy growing to waste energy storing fat. She would make it about four days, five max before the damage was permanent. Seven before she died. I have a problem with that, so I’ll ask again. Why are you and your sisters hiding out in the desert?”
Michael tightened his jaw in defiance, but his sister wasn’t as stubborn.
“My name is Cristy. Cristy Moore, and this is Jenny. My brother is Michael and we really are waiting for our father. He sent us out here and said we were to wait here until he came for us.” Her voice broke and a tear slipped down her cheek, “It’s been so long though. I don’t know why he hasn’t come for us. We tried to leave last week, but those men caught us and wrecked our four wheeler. Dad was right, they have come to take over.”
“When did you come out here? Why, did he send you out here?” Kurt asked, a sinking feeling was beginning to grow in the pit of his stomach.
“He went to help stop a train full of foreigners that were coming to take over the city.” Said Michael, obviously proud of his fathers courage. “We were to stay here and keep Jenny safe until he came for us. We brought supplies for a week, maybe two. He said we were to stay here no matter what until he came for us.”
Kurt asked “What happened when you tried to leave. Who wrecked your four wheeler?”
Cristy answered “When we got down to only a day or two of food we tried to drive out. We hoped to get supplies and maybe find out what happened but when the strangers jumped us and wrecked the buggy we realized that we had lost the war. The foreigners had taken over and were hunting us, just like dad warned.” She completely broke down, holding her little sister as her shoulders heaved with her sobs.
Michael asked “Are you with them? You don’t sound like a foreigner but dad said a lot of men in the government were working with them.”
Almost absently Kurt said “Of course not. We kicked their asses and sent them packing three weeks ago.”
Kurt realized what he had done and cursed himself under his breath. The older boy of course knew what that meant, Kurt had a flash of hope that the youngest would not get it, but his hopes were dashed when he saw her face, the wide eyed shock registering and sending a wail of loss only a small child can create to her lips.
Kurt mentally kicked himself for being so careless. But it suddenly registered on him that they had been attacked by men well after the train battle. This area was well outside the cordon they knew was being watched around the airbase. So, why were men hunting children this far away from the perimeter?
“Michael, I need you to focus for a minute. How do you know that you were attacked by foreign soldiers?” Kurt asked.
The boy sniffed back his tears and answered ”They were speaking a language I didn’t know. One spoke broken English, enough to get his point across, but mostly they spoke something I haven’t heard except on the news. I think it was middle eastern. They were wearing uniforms too. And they had those AK rifles all those foreigners use over there.”
“Okay Michael, that’s good. Now, why did they attack you? Why attack children in the desert?” Kurt asked.
Michael looked at his sisters, then at Kurt. The gesture was not lost on the man. “They were going to kill me and keep them. The only way we got away was because some huge flying thing with a Tiger on the side came flying over just as they got us and the men ran away. If it hadn’t been for whatever that thing was, ….”
Michael added “When we saw the Tiger thing, we figured it was the enemies and that they had invaded. I’ve never seen anything like it so it must have belonged to the foreigners dad warned us about. Probably Russians.”
“No, not the Russians. The Tiger is mine. You and your sisters need to get ready to leave. If those men were here a few days ago they may still be around and we are outside the zone I have a watch over.” Kurt said.
Cristy asked “Why should we trust you? You could be just as bad as the men that try to take us before.”
“You’ll just have to decide, Cristy. You can come with me now or I will sit here with you until the end. Its up to you. But you need to decide right now. If those men are still near they may have seen us drive in or may have found my vehicle. Either way, we may all be in deep trouble.” Kurt said.
Michael shelved his grief “We don’t have a choice Cristy. Jenny deserves a chance, if we stay we have no chance.”
Kurt tapped his comm link “Anybody out there?”
“Yes sir. Commander Shinto here. I have the duty today, sir.” Came the reply.
“Good. Saddle up commander and come get us. And Commander, bring friends.” Kurt ordered.
“Aye sir. We have your location, ETA three mikes.” The Commander replied.
Kurt turned to the three Moore children, little Jenny was inconsolable, her face buried in her sisters dirty shirt. Michael was gathering up their things and putting them into backpacks, doing his best to appear brave. Cristy patted the youngest one on the head and spoke softly, doing what little could be done to calm the child. Her eyes widened when Kurt placed his rifle back at ready position, hanging across his front torso, right hand on the grip. Etundo had stood and turned toward the entrance, sniffing the air, the animal turned his head to Kurt and pulled his lips back, bearing his canines and dropped his tail to point down. Something was getting close and he did not like it.
With fear trembling her voice, Cristy asked “Are those men coming?”
Kurt answered her with “Someone is, but it’s too late. The Dragon will be here before they are.”
“A Dragon?” Michael asked, “What do you mean?”
Just then a shadow slowly crossed over the bowl, plunging the entire space into a deep shade. A series of dull thuds, like a rock dropping onto a beach, came into the small cave. Kurts link activated “We are onsite, General. You have company converging on your position.”
Kurt replied “We see you. I have three new friends I need evacuated.”
Kurt turned to Michael and his sisters “Lets go. My people are here now. You have nothing to be afraid of.”
He lead the trio outside, a dozen Dragon Marines surrounded the caves entrance and a medic waited in the center of the circle. Kurt told Cristy to let the medic have Jenny and she reluctantly peeled the child from her side. She and Michael stared upward, the Red Dragon frigate blocking out the sky above and its Dragon emblem gleamed in the light.
“The Marines will get you on board and you will be perfectly safe there. To do that they will have to carry you. Jenny is fine, the medic will carry her and you will be in each others sight the whole time. We have bad guys coming, I need you to go now. Do you understand?” Kurt said to the Moore’s.
Both older children nodded and a Marine took each one and jumped, landing on the lowered ramp of the frigate.
Kurt turned to the squads leader, Fleet Lieutenant, B. Garza and said “Deploy your scouts, sweep the area. There were troops of unknown origin out here a few days ago. Possibly left over troops from the trains but I don’t know why they would be here. Three men, foreign uniforms, possibly from an middle eastern military tried to take the girls a few days ago. The arrival of the Tiger scared them off before they could do anything and the kids escaped. If they are still out there, I want them found.”
“Aye sir.” The Lieutenant replied. He began issuing deployment orders through his team link and two scout vehicles leapt from the rear bay of the frigate and took off in opposite directions. Immediately behind them came another dozen Marines who jumped from the ship to the top of the cliff and bounced outward in an increasing circle followed by two more identical formations that repeated the maneuver.
Kurts link came to life again, this time with Blackhorse on the other end.
“The drone shows cockroaches scattering all around your position, brother. What happened? There shouldn’t be anyone out there.” He asked.
“I think we may have stumbled onto some new players. Maybe we can get one that’s in a chatty mood and find out. Do me a favor and have someone check the drone logs for this region, maybe we got lucky and captured some video we can track back from.” Kurt asked.
“Will do. Watch your back, Kurt.” Blackhorse said.
Kurt motioned to a nearby Marine, holding his thumb up and jabbing it toward the frigate. The marine grabbed him and jumped, landing him on the ramp. Kurt walked over to the medic who was now checking out Michael, both girls thirstily drinking down bottles of water. The medic told him that they would all be fine with a few good meals and plenty of water. Cristy had an infected cut on one foot but it wasn’t serious. They all needed a bath and clean clothes. She quietly asked why the littlest one kept bursting into tears. Kurt told her that some big dumb bastard had let slip that her father was probably dead in a careless comment. She saw in his face that he blamed the childs tears on himself. “It’s amazing what they can pick up from tiny little things we lets slip,sir. They’re smarter than we give them credit for.”
“Amen, Doc. Amen.”Kurt said.
A Marine had given Etundo a lift up to the ship and he stood beside Kurt near the still open ramp. He keyed his link and Commander Shinto answered “ Aye, sir. What can we do for you?”
“Take a glide along the crevasse to the southeast, then sweep around wide to the west back to this point Commander.” He said.
“Anything in particular you’re looking for sir?” She asked as she initiated the maneuver.
“How many cockroaches are you seeing on the drone feed, Commander?” he asked.
“Tracking seventeen still moving sir. We have eight in custody already.” She replied.
“Well, Commander Shinto, that many roaches would need a garbage can somewhere, wouldn’t you think?” Kurt stated.
“Yes, sir. I would expect so. Switching the scanner to probe subterranean.” The Commander replied.
They located the groups base in less than ten minutes. A team of Dragon Marines were forming up on the ramp to jump and assault the small underground facility when it suddenly went up with a deafening explosion and a cloud of smoke and debris that reached well above the frigate. As soon as the ships sensors detected the explosion the rear ramp closed, the Marines standing on it riding down the incline like skiers on a slope. There was no explosion on the planet short of a nuke that could harm the ship’s hull, it was designed for a far harsher treatment at the hands of space objects moving at thousands of miles per second after all. The people in the ship were a different matter, with the ramp open they were vulnerable.
“Commander, I take it they didn’t want to talk to us?” Kurt asked.
“Apparently so, General. The explosion originated in the center of the bunker, I showed six people in the facility when it blew.” Shinto answered.
“That’s one way to shred the documents, once the Marines have the unsquashed roaches in hand recover and head for base, Commander.” Kurt ordered.
Kurt told Michael and his sisters that the medic was going to take them forward to the ships galley for a snack and that they would soon go to the airbase.
Soon the ships ramp reopened and it landed on the surface near where the cave was, the Marines had captured only fourteen of the men alive. The others choosing to die uselessly combating a foe they had no chance against. Kurt watched as the men, all in varying degrees of different uniforms, were frog marched into the bay wearing only their pants. Lt. Garza boarded last carrying a bag full of ID’s and documents and many cell phones. The men themselves were a motley crew, Arabs, South Americans, Europeans, Africans, Russians and several Americans. Kurt had a sinking feeling that these were not the same group that had aided former President Hines and his U.N. thugs. These looked more like flat out mercenaries, and Kurt knew damned well who was responsible for their presence.
The Marines had set the prisoners in two rows down the center of the bay, hands behind their heads and down on their knees. Kurt walked down the row, Etundo keeping pace and snarling at any that moved. Once he had circled the group and returned to the ramp end of the row he loudly said, “Commander, bring the ship to two thousand feet and open the ramp.”
“Aye, sir. Angels two, ramp down.” Came across the ships intercom.
Kurt beckoned for the Marines to stand the prisoners up on their feet and face the ramp.
Kurt watched the mercenaries faces as the ramp lowered, revealing the sunbaked desert below. He could see the fear begin to take hold, there was no reason to stand them up and open the door, except one. At least in their minds. Kurt had dealt with these types before, they were arrogant, brutal men who knew nothing except other arrogant, brutal men. Kurt would use that against them, he let them assign their behavior to him. They would never leave any alive that could possibly come back for them later. They assumed that Kurt would operate at the same level because all they knew were people at their level.
Kurt announced very loudly “I only need one of you to talk. I have no use for the rest of you. I’d suggest you figure it out before we reach the end of the line.”
Copyright 2018 K. Z. Howell