Abandoned on Juracan
Earl T. Roske
Juracan was supposed to be abandoned.
A global nuclear war forced those not killed to flee their damaged world. Then came the Radial War, and Juracan was lost to history.
So why now is there a signal for help?
The revelation of a lost planet’s existence raises many questions. Who sent the message? Why do they need help now after all these centuries? And how is the cry for help coming from a modern emergency beacon?
The only way to find answers is to go and look for them.
There’s a feeling of déjà vu as once again, Dewey finds himself en route to investigate a planet. An abandoned planet long forgotten. A planet assumed to be uninhabitable.
At least this time, they can breathe the air.
Without a hint as to what to expect, Dewey plans for the worst. Seldom has he been wrong. Though, just once, he’d like to be.
“Go on, Castro, just say it.”
Lieutenant Dewey Tyler and Staff Sergeant Diane Castro were walking the central corridor of the Hospitaller ship, Graevya. Having just left his quarters, they were now making their way toward the bridge. Dewey could feel SSgt Castro looking at him. He didn’t have to turn his head to know she was smiling.
“I wasn’t going to say anything, Lieutenant.” There was mirth in her voice. Dewey could hear it clear as a klaxon alarm.
“You want to, though.” The conversation paused as they passed several ship’s crew in the corridor. The change of watch had just happened. These Hospitallers were likely on their way to the chow hall for their evening’s meal.
“Lieutenant,” they said, and saluted as they passed.
“Hospitallers,” Dewey said to them, returning their salute. To SSgt Castro, he said, “Waiting.”
With an exaggerated sigh, SSgt Castro said, “Well, it is true, Lieutenant.”
Dewey and SSgt Castro stopped and saluted as the ship’s XO, Captain Bruce Gregory, stepped out from his quarters. There was a short section of corridor behind him. It was the last seven meters before the ship’s bridge. Dewey assumed that the captain had been summoned, too.
“He was reading a book,” SSgt Castro said.
Dewey wondered, fleetingly, how she could talk while supporting such a broad grin. He was certain, if nothing else, Castro was proud of her deduction and enjoying that fact.
“A book?” Capt Gregory had started walking to the bridge but just as quickly came to a stop. He turned back to Dewey and Castro. “Right, now I remember. Major Hughes joked about how we should confiscate the lieutenant’s reader.”
“I’ll bet the major is regretting it only being a joke,” said SSgt Castro. Her words preceded a chuckle that she failed to control.
They were crossing the threshold of the bridge entry hatch as Dewey said, “Let’s not jump to conclusions. It might not be anything like last time.”
“Last time?” asked Major Winston Hughes as Dewey and the others stopped to salute. “Last time, was there a distress call?”
“Last two times, Major,” SSgt Castro said.
“Well, then it’s exactly as before.” The major, in Dewey’s opinion, did not seem as amused as SSgt Castro. In fact, he seemed anything but amused. “How much do you know about lost systems, Lieutenant Tyler?”
Dewey knew quite a lot. He knew more now than before the mission on Wenshen. After discovering that Wenshen was more than just an uninhabited uninhabitable planet, he’d been reading many books on the subject. A lot of old books he found on old servers in government archives and university basements. And as Dewey never forgot what he read, he could recall a lot about lost systems.
“Any system in particular, Major?”
“How about the Cocijo system? Ring any bells?”
It did, but answers didn’t come instantly. Dewey had to shuffle through all the retained information. It was like accessing the root directory of a ship’s computer systems with all its layers and sublayers. Eventually, anything could be found if the searcher was patient.
The major was patient. SSgt Castro still seemed amused.
“Cocijo,” Dewey said, “was discovered early in the first expansion but not colonized until their second wave. The habitable planet, Juracan, was settled by seven old Earth nations.”
“I’ve never heard of it,” said Capt Gregory. He had his arms folded, and the look on his face suggested doubt.
“Just before the Radial War,” Dewey said. “And supposedly unrelated to it, Juracan had its own war. A nuclear war.”
Major Hughes nodded. “A global nuclear war. They had to evacuate the entire planet.”
“Oh,” said SSgt Castro. She seemed to be the only one enjoying this conversation. “I bet not everyone was evacuated.”
“Lieutenant?” Major Hughes had turned his full attention back to Dewey.
“All the books say it was completely evacuated.” He paused as he sifted more information. “But there was some speculation that the Radial War may have interfered with the evacuation effort.”
“They didn’t have us.” The conversation had been increased with the addition of Master Sergeant Stephanie Hill.
“No, they didn’t,” said the major.
“And that’s where the distress signal is from?” Dewey asked.
“Yes, in a way,” said Maj Hughes. “Oddly, the signal is being broadcast from a modern emergency beacon. And the beacon is telling us that a planet, lost for three hundred fifty years, needs help for its people. People that shouldn’t exist.”
“A modern-day beacon? With a cry for help from a missing planet? Could things get any more interesting?” Capt Gregory asked.
“I certainly hope so,” said SSgt Castro.
Dewey noticed that MSgt Hill was grinning nearly as broadly as Castro.
“Lucky you, Staff Sergeant,” Maj Hughes said. “Things are definitely going to get more interesting.”
“We’ve been directed to investigate?” Dewey asked, even though he was pretty sure what the answer would be.
“We’ve already got our orders.”
“One more time around the galaxy, eh, Lieutenant Tyler?” asked SSgt Castro.
Dewey bit back a groan. MSgt Hill and SSgt Castro seemed to be the only two people on the bridge deck to find amusement in their situation.
“Sergeant Stephens?” Maj Hughes turned in his seat to address the bridge duty NCO. “Broadcast it.”
“Yes, Major,” Sgt Bert Stephens said. He held the comm plunger over his mouth and tapped a button. Dewey heard the whispered click that came just before a ship-wide broadcast. “Unscheduled jump in thirty minutes. Repeat. Unscheduled jump in thirty.”
As if the announcement were the starting gun, the bridge was suddenly animated by the crew at their stations, tapping at screens and communicating with other sections of the ship.
“You might want to brief your team, Lieutenant,” Maj Hughes said. His gaze flicked over to SSgt Castro and then back to Dewey. “That’s assuming they haven’t already been apprised of the situation.”
Dewey looked to Castro, who feigned shock at the intimation just before she burst into laughter.
On the barracks deck, Dewey’s platoon seemed unimpressed by the visual of Juracan on the wall monitors. It had taken them a standard day and a half to reach the Cocijo system. Besides Juracan, there were several gas planets in the system, along with one rocky planet that was between Juracan and the system’s sun.
“Well?” SSgt Castro asked as she scanned the rest of the platoon. “What were you expecting?”
Sgt Stuart Barrett shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe a green glow?”
“It’s not a ball of radioactive isotopes,” Cpl Kristen Chavez said. Chavez was one of the fireteam leaders in Sgt Barrett’s squad. “It’s a planet that had a nuclear war.”
“Nearly four hundred years ago,” added Cpl Victor Garner.
“Still,” said Sgt Barrett, “I figured there would be something interesting.”
“I see something interesting,” said Dewey.
The platoon was sitting around several tables in the middle of their barracks deck. Most of them were facing or turned toward the large monitors. The ship was a unit transport, regularly used for moving entire battalions. As the rest of their battalion was already on station in the Wisakedjak system, they had the space to themselves.
“Would that interesting thing you see be a space elevator?” asked SSgt Castro.
“And it looks to be in good shape.” Dewey knew it was there before they’d even made the first jump.
The message the ship had received came from someone claiming to be a citizen of Juracan. They’d also claimed they were on a space platform used for cargo and that they’d taken an elevator to get there. Along with the plea for help, the Juracanian had given the longitude and latitude for the elevator’s planet anchor. Without that information, all the other coordinates that had been included in the beacon’s message would have been useless.
“If it’s in good shape, that means it’s being used,” said Sgt Christine Maxwell. She and her squad were new to the company and Dewey’s platoon. They’d been picked up along the way to Wisakedjak.
“Someone’s strip-mining the old cities,” Dewey said. That information drew the attention of more of his platoon. “Someone found Juracan a few years ago. The message we received said these ‘invaders’ were stripping the old cities of metals and minerals. And that they were forcing the Juracanians to work for them as slave labor.”
“The probe couldn’t have been old,” said Sgt Barrett. “And the tech to launch it would have to have been advanced.”
“Or, they could have snuck aboard an elevator trunk,” Dewey said. “And once there, they could have snuck aboard a ship and then used one of their probes. Which is what they did.”
“Lieutenant Tyler? Do we know who these ‘invaders’ are?” asked Sgt Marion Parks, the last of the three squad leaders.
“We don’t. And the Juracanian who sent the probe didn’t seem to know either. He did say it wasn’t a government entity, that it was some sort of company.”
“So it’s illegal,” said SSgt Castro.
“Right.” Dewey’s comm beeped. It was Maj Hughes. Dewey stood and said, “But since the planet never aligned with any of the planetary organizations during or after the Radial War, the current ones, A.P., U.P., Freeworlds, aren’t interested in what’s going on here. The major has commed me. I’ll let you know more when I get back.”
There was a rustle of clothes and the sound of dozens of boots scraping the deck as Dewey’s platoon stood to attention.
“As you were, Hospitallers,” said Dewey before turning and leaving the barracks deck. He made his way to the bridge but was interrupted by the major’s voice from an open hatchway.
“In here, Lieutenant.”
Dewey paused and then turned to his right, entering Maj Hughes’s ready room. He stopped, snapping to attention. “Lieutenant Tyler reporting, Major.”
“Right, right, grab a seat, Tyler.” The major was pouring hot water into two cups. Next to the cups was a still-open jar of Insta. “Haven’t had time to restock my coffee canisters.”
“I’ve never said no to a cup of Insta, Major.”
Maj Hughes laughed and picked up a cup, setting it closer to Dewey. “Neither have I, Lieutenant. Neither have I. Drink while it’s hot.”
They both sat in silence through several sips of the steaming Insta. It tasted nothing like coffee and was one of many things the Hospitallers had invented for themselves. Most of the Hospitallers in the Orphan Corps had been drinking it since they’d turned thirteen. Most of them liked to joke about how awful it was, but they still drank it. There were too many memories in a cup of Insta to turn it down.
“I sent off a request,” Maj Hughes said after a fifth sip. “This situation really needs more rank.”
Maj Hughes laughed. “Seems a major is all the rank we’re going to get. There’s too much else going on around the radial arm right now. We’re just supposed to pop in and say hello, tell the bad guys to stop being bad, and then get back on the road.”
“So, easy stuff.”
“Right. Easy stuff, Lieutenant Tyler.”
Which meant that it wouldn’t be easy. Dewey had a hard time recalling when it was ever easy, and he rarely forgot anything. “So we should overpack for the journey.”
“Just tell your NCOs to think paranoid.”
“After our experience on Wenshen, I don’t think that’ll be a problem.”
Wenshen had been a fluke. The planet was inhospitable to humans. The system had been declared a dead system. Yet, they were attacked soon after entering the system to rescue some faux-smugglers. The attack had forced them to land on the planet and live in their evac suits for weeks until help arrived.
“Read the reports,” said the major. He downed the last half-cup of Insta and stood. “Quite honestly, I’d like the chance to see Wenshen and its citizens for myself. Anyway, you’ll want to get everyone geared up and ready. I want you all on the planet in twelve.”
Dewey knocked back the last of his Insta and stood, too. “Will do, Major.”
Nine hours later, Dewey’s platoon, distributed among three dropships, were buckled in and ready to drop into the Juracan atmosphere. Normally they could have used two dropships and even gotten away with one if they didn’t have a lot of gear to carry. But they were packing for trouble which meant a lot of extra ammo, med supplies, emergency supplies, and more ammo.
As this was intended to be more an aid and comfort mission than a defend mission, they were bringing along the usual food supplies, clothes, shelters, medicines, and several large crates stuffed with toys and treats for any children they might encounter. Depending on where they were and who they encountered, each Hospitaller would be sporting a T-n-T bag filled with toys and treats for the children.
Hospitallers had a special affinity for children, which was likely due to their having grown up in orphanages where they were treated so well.
“Kids all buckled up and ready for the trip?”
Dewey looked up to see the dropship’s loadmaster, Sgt Kent Thompson, coming down the aisle. The aisle here and on the other side of the dropship’s bay was narrow, the central section being packed with crates and boxes. Thompson paused and looked down at Sgt Christine Maxwell, who was sitting to Dewey’s right.
“All right there, Maxwell?” Sgt Thompson asked.
“All right, Thompson.”
“New with Lieutenant Tyler?” Sgt Thompson nodded in Dewey’s direction before speaking directly to him. “Hey, Lieutenant, making life interesting for us, I hear?”
Dewey chuckled and nodded.
Sgt Maxwell said, “Just transferred in. Missed all the earlier excitement.”
Sgt Thompson snorted a laugh. “‘Excitement’? Is that what they call it? I, for one, am happy without the excitement.”
“How’s that working out for you?” asked Dewey.
“It was going great until now, Lieutenant Tyler,” said Sgt Thompson. “But, hey, that’s what being a Hospitaller is all about.” He turned toward the rear hatch and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Unlatching in sixty!”
“Double check, squad,” Sgt Maxwell said. Her voice carried without the use of her hands. “Then check your neighbors.”
Dewey checked over Sgt Maxwell’s restraints.
“Fifteen, people!” Sgt Thompson was securing his own restraints. Next to him, a light on a panel went on. He set the last latch on his seat harness and grabbed a headset, settling it onto his head.
“Thank you, Sergeant Maxwell,” said Dewey as Maxwell checked his harness.
“No problem, Lieutenant.”
“Listen up,” Sgt Thompson bellowed.
“Get ready,” Dewey whispered just loud enough that only Sgt Maxwell could hear.
Maxwell responded in a similar whisper, “Ready?”
Dewey nodded as Sgt Thompson continued, “There’s been a delay.”
“A delay?” someone in the back asked.
Dewey bit his lip to stop the encroaching smile.
“Why’s there a delay?” Sgt Maxwell asked Dewey in a whisper.
Dewey didn’t have to answer as the gravity suddenly cut out and the dropship lurched. Several people shouted in surprise. Sgt Thompson laughed heartily. “Just kidding,” he said.
The gravity came back online a moment later, causing a few more shouts of surprise. The Hospitallers on the other side of the dropship bay laughed at Sgt Maxwell’s squad’s confusion.
“Lieutenant Owen and Sgt Thompson do this every time someone new is on their dropship.”
“That’s what you meant when you said, ‘get ready’?” Sgt Maxwell asked.
“Everybody comfy? Everybody ready?” When no one answered, Sgt Thompson looked in Dewey’s direction and winked. “Let’s go kick some dirt, Lieutenant Tyler.”
It wasn’t as easy as just dropping into the atmosphere and flying into the landing zone. Dewey had known that fact from the briefing. He was pretty sure that when Sgt Thompson suggested they were going to go kick dirt, he’d purposefully left out the big piece in the middle.
The ions in the atmosphere, specifically in the region where the troposphere and stratosphere overlapped, interfered with the electronics of any ship cutting through. It also seemed to affect communication. All of which they hypothesized as the reason the visitors had installed a space elevator. With the elevator, not only could they easily move stuff from the surface to space, they could also use it as a communication tether to the rest of the galaxy.
So, when the floor dropped out of the dropship, and everyone found themselves floating in their restraints, it was only Sgt Thompson who laughed.
“Did I forget to mention we were doing a Hi-Ho?” Thompson clapped one hand over his mouth and then said, “Oops. That one’s on me.”
High insertion, high open was a common method for dropping down toward a planet surface. It was used more often for worlds still in the terraforming phase. Those planets also had a lot of disruptive ions in the troposphere/stratosphere boundary. Just not as radioactive.
“Anyone pee their pants?” asked Sgt Thompson. “I warned you to go before we left.”
Sgt Thompson’s comment drew more laughs. Dewey knew it was a reaction to the relief in knowing they weren’t all about to smack into the surface of Juracan. The number of times that it had happened during the Hospitallers’ history could be counted on one hand. Still, the idea made even Dewey a little nervous.
His nervousness was quickly justified as the dropship lurched to one side and then seemed to slowly spin around an off-center axis.
“Thompson,” said Dewey. He kept his voice steady.
Sgt Thompson had yanked the headset back on the moment the ship had done its non-normal maneuver. He had his hand cupped over the mic, but he seemed to be listening more than talking.
Finally, he pushed the mic boom away and said, “We lost one of the drop chutes. It’s going to be like this for a few more minutes until we can power back up.”
Several people groaned, clearly unhappy with the current situation.
“Look on the bright side,” Dewey said. He spoke loud enough that his voice carried through the dropship bay. “We’ll be first on the ground.”
“Too right!” Sgt Thompson laughed and flashed a thumbs up to Dewey.
For his part, Dewey bit the inside of his lip to keep from smiling.
Down the row, one of Sgt Maxwell’s squad, PFC Marc Webb, popped open a lunch bag. Lunch bag was the nickname the Hospitallers used for the barf bags occasionally deployed during a drop. Right before clapping the bag over his mouth, he said, “I knew I should have skipped seconds on breakfast.”
As it turned out, the dropship Dewey was on landed ten minutes ahead of the others. The squad exited out the back, securing the perimeter in minutes. Dewey directed Sgt Maxwell to push them out further to clear the space for the other two ships.
While they waited, Dewey took some time to examine the terrain around them.
Based on what little Dewey had read, Juracan had been a thriving planet, even with its seemingly regular disputes among the nations that had colonized it. There were two continents and dozens of would-be-continents. Where Dewey’s platoon had landed, following the directions given in the beacon, they were just west of the eastern coastline of the continent, Montego, and south of what had been a national capital, Atacama.
Dewey knew only about the history he’d read. He knew nothing of the current situation. All they had were a set of coordinates. As they’d come through the upper atmosphere, the dropship had collected images of the area below. In them, Dewey had seen several small towns with crop fields around them. The area they’d picked out for landing put them several kilometers away from the nearest town and several hundred meters from the nearest fields.
Had the people of the nearby villages noticed the dropships coming in? Would they come out to see who landed? Or would the people go into hiding? If the latter, Dewey’s people would have to hike into town and hope someone was willing to open a door.
A beep from Dewey’s comm distracted him from his thoughts.
“This is Lieutenant Tyler,” said Dewey after tapping his comm to open the connection.
“Was that cheating, Lieutenant?”
“Of course not, Staff Sergeant Castro. Unless accidentally losing a chute is cheating.” Dewey looked up. He could see the burners of the other two dropships as they slowly approached the coordinates. “But look on the bright side, the area’s already secured.”
“So, cheating and having all the fun,” SSgt Castro said and then laughed. “Nothing from the towns?”
“Nothing, yet. Once you all get down here, we’ll decide what to do next.”
Dewey tapped the comm, closing the connection. He scanned for and located Sgt Maxwell. He pointed skyward, saying, “Heads-up.”
Sgt Maxwell acknowledged with a nod before turning to warn those near her to be aware.
Dewey went inside the dropship bay to check in with the pilot, Lt Horace Owen. He and Lt Maxine Walters were looking into several overhead hatches. Sgt Thompson held an electric torch to light their view.
“Sabotage?” Dewey asked.
Lt Owen laughed as he lowered himself from the hatch opening. “Ten drops away from being replaced and it retired early. Sorry about the surprise.”
“I’ve been through worse,” said Dewey. His mind automatically recalled the landing on Wenshen.
“Right,” Lt Matthews said, apparently making the same connection. “You got to ride a spaceship into atmo. At the risk of sounding crazy, I’d like to experience that.
“I’ll definitely never forget it,” said Dewey. Then, shifting the conversation, he asked, “The lost chute won’t affect the rest of your dropship systems? That right?”
Sgt Thompson was securing the overhead panels as Lt Owen replied. “No. But there will be a big red light on the ready board when we get back on the Graevya.
“And we won’t be cleared for launch until the ship gets a full systems check.”
Outside, the whisper of approaching dropships was building to an angry growl as they drew closer to the ground.
“We’ll send you up as soon as we have information to pass along to Major Hughes,” said Dewey. He paused as outside, leaves and other debris swirled past the open ramp at the rear of the dropship. Several leaves had made it into the safety of the bay and were drifting down to rest on the deck. “Right now, we need to find a local to make contact with.”
“You want us to come with you?”
“No, Lieutenant Owen. I think you all can button up and hold fast here. Comms are working, so I’ll communicate instructions and information to you when we know what to do next.”
Dewey nodded and exited the dropship. Outside, the dust and micro-debris were settling to the ground. The back hatches of the other two dropships were slowly lowering.
“Welcome to Juracan,” Dewey said as SSgt Castro and Sgt Parks exited the second dropship.
“Not exactly what I would have chosen for vacation,” said SSgt Castro.
“You ever been on a vacation?” Dewey asked, amused because he knew the answer.
“What’s a vacation?” asked Cpl Donald Mitchell as he moved past with his fireteam.
His comment earned a chuckle from everyone, Dewey included.
“So, what now, Lieutenant?” Sgt Parks asked.
Dewey turned to face the direction of the nearest town. He noticed as he pointed roughly north that MedTech Jasmine Chambers was making her way in his direction. “Soon as everyone does a gear check,” Dewey said as he lowered his hand, “chokes down half a ration bar and some water, there’s a town that way. We’ll start there.”
“Usually, we get a welcome committee,” said SSgt Castro. “Or an unwelcome party.”
“No one knew we were coming when we did,” Dewey said. “And if they’ve dealt with invaders already, they might be concerned enough to stay hidden.”
“Anyone hurt, Chambers?” Dewey asked.
“Not yet,” said MedTech Chambers. She held up her tablet, which was strapped to a device about four times as thick. “But if we don’t get blockers in everyone, we’re all going to be dealing with radiation poisoning.”
“We didn’t do this before coming down,” said Sgt Parks. “Was that also because of the interference?”
“What interference?” It was Sgt Stuart Barrett who asked. He was approaching in the company of Sgt Maxwell. They both saluted Dewey before Sgt Barrett added, “We have two squads on perimeter, Lieutenant.”
“Good work, Sergeant Maxwell, Sergeant Barrett. We were just talking about radiation sickness.”
“No thanks,” said Sgt Barrett. “We getting an injection to help with that?”
“We are now,” MedTech Chambers said. “Now that I have a more precise idea as to the rad levels we’ll be absorbing.”
Chambers opened up the front of a satchel she was carrying. Inside was a small machine made of plastic with numbered buttons, a small screen, and a window in which Dewey could see the small dispensing bottle. He watched as MedTech Chambers tapped in several strings of numbers and then the green button.
“Four hundred plus years,” SSgt Castro had been saying. “You’d think that all the radiation – or at least most of it – would have dissipated or broken down. Something.”
“A lot of it probably has,” Dewey said. Then, “Arms or butts, Chambers?”
“Butts for this one.”
“Right.” Dewey started setting aside his gear. He planned on being first. Not because he was selfish or worried for his own well-being, but so that he was an example just in case anyone felt an urge to hesitate. “Undoubtedly, the radiation levels are lower than after their war. But there wasn’t anyone to do remediation afterward, either.”
“I don’t understand why none of the interplanetary governments stepped in to offer,” said Lt Owen. “They could have gained another system.”
“No one saw the profit in it, Lieutenant,” SSgt Castro said. She had dropped her gear and was unbuckling her pants. “And apparently, the Radial War distracted them.”
Dewey waited while MedTech Chambers pressed the inoculation gun to his glute. There was a hiss from that direction. He felt a spreading of cold from the point of contact. Then the pressure was gone. After resetting his pants and buckling them, he said, as SSgt Castro stepped over to MedTech Chambers, “Someone felt it was worth the risk to come here now. Enough to set up an elevator.”
Dewey pointed with his chin. He heard the click and hiss of SSgt Castro’s inoculation. Those that turned in the direction Dewey’d indicated could see a dark, straight line that seemed to cleave the sky before disappearing into the clouds.
“Next,” said MedTech Chambers as Castro walked back to her gear, buckling her belt along the way.
“Parks, you’re up,” Dewey said. He pointed with his thumb toward Chambers. “When you’re done, relieve Maxwell’s squad. Maxwell, you’ll relieve Barrett’s squad.”
“Yes, Lieutenant,” the three sergeants said as one.
“Lieutenant Owen,” Dewey added. “You and the rest of the dropship crews go after Sergeant Parks’s team.”
“No problem.” Lt Owen turned to Sgt Thompson. “You want to pass that information along?”
“Will do.” Sgt Thompson turned and jogged up the dropship ramp to comm the other ships.
SSgt Castro, now back in her gear, clapped her hands together and rubbed the palms vigorously against each other. “All right,” she said. “Let’s get these shots done and do some sightseeing.”
Two and three-quarter hours later, standard time, the platoon was approaching the first houses. They’d passed several farms earlier, but a quick examination through magnified face shields showed buildings rotting from neglect. Here, though, the images had shown houses straight-standing and clean. Curtains fluttered in several windows, and at least one person had been seen ducking as Dewey looked too long in their direction.
“How’s it look on point?” Dewey asked Cpl Merle Fleming. His fireteam had taken over less than a half-hour before.
“It’s quiet, Lieutenant Tyler. We’ve glimpses of several people. It’s weird, though.”
Dewey signaled to SSgt Castro. She nodded and tapped her own comm. Several seconds later, everyone came to a stop and took up defensive positions.
“What’s weird, Fleming?”
“The people we’ve seen,” Cpl Fleming said. “They’ve either been kids or really old people. I’d expect they’d keep them safe and out of sight.”
“Unless there was no one to look out for them,” Dewey said. “Have your team pull back ten meters. Find a good place to hold up. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
“Will do, Lieutenant.”
As the comm went silent, SSgt Castro joined Dewey.
“What’s going on?”
“More of the same,” said Dewey. He was looking around to see who was closest as far as fireteams. “Young people. Old people. No one of military or middle age.”
“Could this be some kind of trap? Pretty clever if it is.”
Dewey shook his head. Then, seeing Cpl Victor Garner, he signaled for the squad leader to join him and SSgt Castro before saying, “I think what we’re seeing is people either too old or too young for hard labor.”
“Lieutenant.” Cpl Garner saluted as he greeted Dewey.
“Garner. Check in with Sergeant Parks and let her know I’m borrowing you and your fireteam. Then, pick up your team and report back to me. I want your company to the front.”
“On it.” Cpl Garner saluted once more and then trotted off in the direction where Sgt Parks was watching.
“You’re going to try and make contact?” SSgt Castro asked. She sounded doubtful.
On the other side of the road, Cpl Garner and Sgt Parks had finished talking. Garner was now moving along the road, drawing three people with him as he did.
“They know we’re here,” said Dewey. “And even if the children don’t realize it, the adults have to know we know they’re here. And we came here in response to a distress signal one of them is responsible for.”
“Could we collect some data with a dozen eyes?” asked SSgt Castro. “Just to make sure we aren’t being played?”
“Let’s hold off on that,” Dewey said. “Let me see how things look on the point. Then I’ll let you know if we should.”
Dewey clapped Castro on the shoulder as he moved past her. He motioned with his head and signaled for Cpl Garner to join him. Garner’s fireteam joined Dewey, boxing him in as they each scanned their side of the box. When Dewey moved, they stayed with him.
Ten meters from where Cpl Fleming waited behind two narrow trees with drooping branches, Dewey paused to look at a sign. The sign was a series of wide planks strapped to uprights. Carved into the sign were the words, “Welcome to Puchuncavi.”
“Not much of a welcome if you ask me,” said Cpl Garner from behind Dewey’s shoulder.
Dewey nodded in agreement. “Let’s hope this is the worst of it.”
“Don’t sound so pessimistic, Lieutenant.” Garner grinned and then added, “I’m sure it’ll get worse.”
“Thanks for lifting my spirits, Garner. Spread your team out and watch for anything that could make this worse.”
Cpl Garner saluted and then turned to his people, signaling for them to spread out and keep watch. Dewey moved across the road and knelt beside Cpl Fleming.
“Nothing, Lieutenant Tyler,” said Cpl Fleming. “I was thinking we should pop some eyes up and get images of the area ahead of us.”
“You and Staff Sergeant Castro,” Dewey replied.
The three dropships had collected data and images on the way down. That was part of the reason they knew the rad levels in the area. But even at maximum magnification, some of the imagery was fuzzy or missing. It also didn’t take into account moving objects. That was part of the reason the eyes were so popular.
Over the decades and centuries, Hospitallers had developed many proprietary supplies, from the Insta they all drank to the eyes and hands used to collect data on the ground. The eyes had been around for decades but with improvements every few years. If enough data was collected from enough eyes, it was possible to create a virtual model of the scene. But even one eye was capable of collecting plenty of images that could be beamed directly to a Hospitaller’s helmet for examination.
As they weren’t sure what was ahead, but having been alerted by the few young and old faces Cpl Fleming and his team had seen, maybe Fleming and Castro had the right idea. A few more eyes to collect intel wouldn’t be a bad idea.
“Wait,” Dewey said. He’d been about to give the go-ahead to Fleming when he heard something.
“I hear it, too,” said Cpl Fleming. “What is it?”