Ch. VII, p.2

. . .

The dark night and its vast multitude of twinkling stars grew hazy beyond the growing light of an early morning sun. Dominic looked skyward and saw a gleaming object, bigger than the stars but much smaller than the moon, slowly beginning to disappear. “They must be doing work on the gate,” he said. “You can see it again.”

Sherrad followed his gaze to the object, hovering in the distance. “I wonder how they keep it up there. I heard that it’s not in Earth’s orbit…” he paused, licking his dry lips. “Kind of like it’s almost not there at all, but we can just see it. Like a mirage, or a hologram.”

“Who knows… Just one of those mysteries, I guess.” Dom turned around and looked far into the distance, back they way they came.

Sherrad knew immediately what he was thinking about. “Think we should go back and look for her?”

He took a moment to reply. “We will.”

They continued forward into a sparsely populated forest. There was no use talking it out—Sherrad would inevitably want to go look for Maria immediately; some ancient sense of chivalry no doubt demanded it. But the young man’s wound wasn’t getting any better. In fact, Dom realized, checking a fresh set of scans, it was quite a lot worse—whatever was on that creature’s claws, it wasn’t natural.

Their feet padded through the duff created by fallen pine needles and dirt softened by growing plants and scurrying animals. It wasn’t far now to the column of light they had seen, bright white and radiant in the empty night sky.

They had seen this kind of light before; usually, it was employed as a distress signal. Sometimes, smugglers would flash it briefly, allowing a manually driven airplane to pinpoint their location for a drop. Dom thought it was likely the second thing—hours earlier, while he was sleeping, his gear had detected a propeller driven vehicle in the sky, as well as the thud of objects crashing into the earth in the distance. It made sense, then, that it was smugglers. But why would they have left the light on?

“Could be their operation was cut short. Maybe government agents got to them, or scavengers, ” Sherrad had suggested earlier. “Maybe they left something good behind… You know, whatever wasn’t confiscated or stolen.”

He had agreed at the time, but now, as they grew closer to the abandoned light, he began to feel a sense that something twisted had occurred. Just my imagination, he thought, treading on.

Presently, they were emerging over the top of a soft hill, a gentle rise in an otherwise flat area. The white light played skyward, just on the other side and… Oh…

“Definitely smugglers,” Sherrad said, eyeing the clearing in the trees not too far below. Two large metal boxes lay in the center of the clearing, still glistening with a heat-deactivating gel.

“Impact Dispersion Systems…” Dom said, noting the ends of the boxes, fanned out like open satellite dishes where a bursts of heat had been released to redirect the force of the impact. “Not your common criminals.”

They proceeded carefully towards the site. From the looks of it, nothing had been taken. The lids on the boxes had been disengaged, but, even from a distance, it was plain to see that the contents were still intact, filling the containers up to their silver brims. That, coupled with the light, still on, was troubling.

“Wait… this could be an ambush,” Sherrad said, stopping him with a firm hand on his shoulder.

“It’s something else.” He pointed, “Look.”

Sherrad did. And suddenly, things made even less sense. Not too far away from the boxes were four bodies, lying nearly in a row. Dom raised his rifle and went to examine them, leaving Sherrad with the smuggled goods.

From what he could tell, all four of them were men, facedown and half-naked in the dirt. And all wore the same type of jacket—bright red with a gold band encircling the upper arm. It seemed familiar, but he couldn’t remember where he had seen something like that before.

He crouched down next to one of the bodies and examined it carefully: Bullet wound to the back of the head… Large caliber… He lifted the dead man’s arm, which covered something black and metallic looking; M7-A, pulse-acceleration rifle… Looks like it was put down intentionally. He craned his neck to look at the other dead—they all had the same rifle, lain parallel to their bodies. He lifted the body to roll it over, grimacing as he noted how the back of the head was mushy and caved-in beneath the man’s dark hair, soaked in blood.

And there’s the exit wound… he thought, greeted with an indistinguishable face. What used to be a face, anyways.

He unzipped the man’s red jacket and examined his bare chest. Fitted for Astreya... He paused, examining a series of attachment-points, indicated by circular arrangements of black dots, X701 body armor... That’s better than what I’m wearing. Behind him, he heard footsteps approaching.

“Scavengers?” asked Sherrad.

“No,” he replied grimly. “Scavengers wouldn’t have been able to handle a force like this. We’re lucky we didn’t find them alive.”

“Looks like they gave up without much of a fight.”

“Looks that way... But this fellow here was shot twice—once in the gut, once in the back of the head. It’s strange though, he wasn’t wearing the jacket when he took the first bullet. See?” he said, pointing to the wound in the man’s gut and then displaying the overlapping section of jacket.

“There’s no hole.” Sherrad crouched to get a better look.

“Which means they were dressed to be executed.”

“Or undressed, depending on how you look at it.”

“Yeah. Plus, whoever did this took their body armor, but left their rifles.”

“Why would they do that?”

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