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chapter nine
Part Three

It took nearly five minutes for Armstrong to wake Sergeant Jones for the shift change. The clock was coming up on oh five hundred: ninety-two minutes to go before sunrise. Having already ducked a few arm flailings of protest from his superior Armstrong was ready to turn this task over to Corporal Lumly, who had been easy to wake, if for no other reason than Jones could be a bear when she first woke and the string of expletives coming out through her half awake mumbles of protest suggested whoever's face she saw first was due for the brunt of it.

When she did wake it was with a start and the gaze off her could cut diamonds as it bore right through Armstrong with a scowl. She grumpily swung out of her cot without another word and readied herself for the shift expediently while failing entirely to let him off the hook.

Private Jimmy Armstrong watched his Sergeant pass through the threshold to the fore cabin without a single word passing between them and knew as he settled in for an uneasy two hours sleep that the next day would find him put on the least pleasant duty possible. He wondered when the septic tank had last been serviced. Probably not since before the trip had began.

Jones slumped unhappily into the passenger seat of the Troop Carrier after grabbing a QuikBrew from the Food-Mat. Even the perfectly steeped cup of coffee couldn't brighten her mood as she peered through the reinforced composite GLAZ™ at darkness.

On the displays below this tableau however were visually augmented images of the entire terrain around them. Lumly, in the Operator's position to her left, shifted forward in his seat when the augments spotted a deer moving quietly across the glen, completely unaware of them. Aside from that and the small critter half a click away on the bluff they were completely alone.

"Eighty-six minutes to sunrise." Jones said with a sigh. She had to wonder about the decision she made to be the one on this shift. She wasn't the best shot on this team, wasn't even in the top three. She wasn't the strongest, or the fastest runner, and she probably wasn't the smartest either.

Her Commander had ordered the "best combo for daybreak" and she'd decided that meant her. She'd have to rethink that decision. Unless there was eminent threat either one of the Corporals would be better suited for this task and if anything Jones was a night owl. Regardless of what she decided some people would have to have their sleep disrupted but with three Corporals and four Privates there was no reason that should include her.

* * *

Horst was a little unsure of Caleb's sense of direction as the posse rode across the makeshift bridge at Miller's Crossing. It seemed they'd already gone too far, but not having a clue himself where Trinity Zimmerman and the great beast was meant he had to trust the boy.

He was a little more relieved when the first glow of sunrise was apparent. The ground was still too dark beneath them, as was normal at this hour, but with each step and each minute the glow in the sky grew brighter and they could more clearly see their way and get their bearings.

Majors looked back at him, she was a strong willed woman, tougher than most men in the village, and she handled her long rifle as though she'd been born to it. Odd because until they'd taken these weapons from the Indies in one of the first attacks a few weeks back none had ever held such things.

Maybe there was something genetic. Majors had it, Caleb sure didn't. Not after blowing off his middle finger that first time. Many of the town folk shied away from even holding the guns after that and fewer more wanted them around. It was tough, Horst admitted, to get these people, decedents of a misguided Back-To-Basics movement, to realize they were in a fight for their lives against people who had no qualms against killing them outright and stealing their land.

Horst broke from his reverie when Caleb stopped suddenly. He looked both ways with a tentative gaze on his face, the tip of his tongue sticking out between his lips.

"What is it, boy?" Anderson spoke, perhaps a little louder than he should have considering they were on a hunt. "You lost?"

Roman Caleb shook his head as he started confidently to the right. "It looks different in the light, that's all."

They broke into a clearing across which they could see a cluster of grass covered mounds, almost like large balls had dropped from the sky, sunk half into the Earth and then grown over with grass. It was odd that Horst couldn't recall ever coming this way before, even though it was only a few miles from the village. Now that they were fighting for their lives it might be good time to get a feel for the land. If nothing else these mounds could be good cover.

Caleb led them past the mounds and then toward a ridge and it was then that they saw Trinity, still perched on the rise, still studiously peering over it. She heard them approaching long before they closed the space and motioned them to keep down and keep quiet.

After securing the horses the group quietly stalked up behind Trinity. It wasn't until Horst could see over the ridge that he finally recognized where they were.

The old main road, broken into slabs which Horst and the others would compare to a broken up ice flow in the Arctic, had they any clue what the Arctic was, had a well worn carriage trail weaving around the most disruptive chunks and was the main route out of the valley and over to the other communities, particularly the Fall Gathering location where most of the seasonal trade occurred.

Horst had ridden this path many times over the years, but never knew there was such a beautiful and open glen just above it. He looked back, in some ways this field was a better spot for the village than what they had, although he couldn't recall if there was any water up this way.

He looked back down at the route, what had once been a State Highway, and paid keen attention to the small modern house that sat in the middle of it.

Horst looked back at Caleb, "I thought you said it was floating."

* * *

By Oh-Seven hundred Finnegan's Squad was up and the interior of the vehicle was alive with shuffling bodies, closely pressed and trying to get started with the day.

Livingston and Wallace took the cab and sat munching on their Breakfast packs while lazily monitoring the surrounding area. Jones and the rest of the squad, except for Finn, had each grabbed their Breakfast packs and were heartily enjoying them as they chattered amongst each other and kibitzed with an informality that only reared itself in the morning.

Finn remained in his command alcove. He wouldn't partake of the Breakfast packs because he found nearly everything the Astral Meal Corps packaged to be repugnant. Instead he'd pull some slices of bread from a personal stock in a storage slot of the alcove, spread a little scotch cut marmalade on the corner of it and then quietly ingest the minor sustenance over a cup of very hot, very black coffee. Eventually, but not yet.

First he needed to shake the bad mood he was in. He loved being an Astral and usually looked forward to each mission but increasingly he found the ambiguous nature of this one troubling. It bothered him that no one had given him any clear direction and he suspected that he'd just crossed into an area of responsibility where it was going to be up to him to decide what was important and what wasn't.

It's not that he couldn't do that. He did it all the time in a tactical situation where the bullets were flying and one didn't have the luxury of calling base for instructions. But usually he had goals assigned to him by someone higher and those goals were actionable. Finn didn't like these goals so much, he wasn't fond of camping and increasingly he was seeing this mission as a make work exercise with very little value. Worse still he was starting to worry that this mission was some sort of career limiting move and being off the radar for too long, particularly with his recently earned special operations skills was a bad idea.

Perhaps, he thought, Ethan had been right. Perhaps he was being punished for not taking the bait and joining whatever super secret spy organization had been trying to recruit him. But then, even now, with these doubts firmly planted, Finn wasn't sure he'd ever been approached. In the context of the claims that exchange on the Rescue Shuttle sounded like an approach. It could have as easily been a come on for other purposes.

Finn chided himself once again for missing the subtext of something. He was always forthright with people, why couldn't they be the same in return? It was enough to make him paranoid about people's motives.

He keyed the seats in the alcove from their bed setting to the day setting and sat upright, if anything his mood had worsened, but he was confident now that remaining sequestered like this wasn't going to improve anything. Finn quickly changed into a fresh kit and then keyed the door open where the smell of pre-processed "foods" assaulted his senses like an Astral pre-dawn ambush.

* * *

Although he had a hard time believing it even after viewing the recording Trinity had made with the scope of her Long Rifle, Horst could at least imagine the odd shaped rectangular box sitting in the middle of the highway floating. It didn't change his impatience.

"It hasn't moved?" He asked Trinity even though he already knew the answer.

"Not an inch."

Anderson chimed in, "What about the people inside, have any come out?"

Trinity shook her head again. She was tired but not as bad as she thought she'd be. She wouldn't tell anyone else but she suspected she might've dozed off a couple times during the night.

She wasn't too cold either. The "Out Suit" they took off that Indie had done a great job of keeping her warm even with the hint of frost on the grass and the steam off each of their breaths. Thankfully for the rest though the Sun had crested and the place was warming up quickly.

Majors tilted her head, as though trying to work out a kink in it as she spoke, "Odd that. You'd think someone would've come out to pee if nothing else."

They all nodded at that. The Sun was fully up now, enough that the thing on the highway was even casting a shadow. It was another one of those great spring days, if the bugs kept sparse it might stay way.

* * *