CHAPTER NAVIGATION BAR
TALES OF BUFFALO COMMONS
" JOULES "
The troop carrier continued along the remains of the interstate with Valerie Hreha at the controls, her usual spot, the place she was most comfortable.* * *
Nature had reclaimed much of this space. The hardy grass of this region had sprouted through the decaying concrete and the trees and brush along the borders had done their bit to re-bed. In fact unless you stood back and took in a panoramic view of the region it was easy not to see the pathway for the trees.
This was the relaxing part of the mission. The long drives along gorgeous tree lined paths and through the splendor of a reblooming region. Hreha hadn't been on a mission so peaceful in years, and yet, she was reminded of their recent loss. Perhaps that made this mission more dangerous than the others. At least in the Sudd you knew someone was gunning for you, you could prepare.
Here you go weeks without seeing any opposition and then the guy with the gun might be nothing more than a local out hunting dinner. Hreha decided that the conflicts where the sides were better divided and more easily recognized were the preferred ones.
Meanwhile she drifted off into an auto-pilot dreamlike state as the endless vista failed to change and the only skill required was to make sure the glide controller didn't veer the craft off into the brush.
Then her eyes played a trick on her, as they were want to do when something up ahead moved. Hreha blinked twice and leaned forward and then called up the imaging system to get a closer view of it.
Almost a kilometer ahead a large box, covered in a collapsed sail, was gliding along the same path they were traveling. On closer inspection the box appeared to be a Network Lower Deck cargo container on a Grav-Bed. That wasn't right.
Hreha looked over her shoulder, hoping to get someone else's attention. Failing that she called, “Sergeant! Could you come up here a moment?”
Joules' legs had long since gone from cramping to sleeping. She pushed on. Her night vision was so poor, even under the full moon in the sky that she'd lost nearly six hours after veering off the roadway and nearly driving off a cliff.
The container bed was nearly long enough for her to lay down in, but there was only one position she could take that she could steer from and she fatigued of that in the first hour. Then it was a mix of crouching, kneeling and sitting while she pressed on.
Thankfully she'd come to the remains of this highway, although that was a generous term from her half-metre altitude.
She was abandoned in this Pete-forsaken wasteland for almost seventeen hours. She recalled the path of the highway during approach, hadn't thought it was as far as it turned out to be and that meant that the distance to the village she'd spotted was going to be greater as well.
She was grumpy, hungry, thirsty, aching, and fatigued. The few hours of immobility had been fitful, having never slept outside before, the cacophony of nature sounds were disturbing and overwhelming. She'd even pulled the leaves of the container together with a yank of the canvas cover when she thought she'd hear something growling and prowling around her last night.
She was dirty, her Phendo top had stretched out, she'd actually cried at the realization it was ruined and only stopped when the further reality of her situation leapt upon her.
The creek she'd refreshed in at sunrise had the coldest water she'd ever been in and she still felt the ache of a chill in her spine because of it, though at least the shivering had stopped.
The only thing keeping her going was the driven hunger for revenge. She'd scream if she saw the weathered drying effect and wrinkles that were setting in on her perfect skin.
Now, some idiot in a recreational vehicle was coming up behind her. The remains of this highway were several lanes wide, Joules wished there was a side hatch to this container so she could lean out and waves them to pass her.
* * *
Sergeant Sherona Jones hadn't wasted any time. The moment she'd seen the odd tableau before them she called Lieutenant Finnegan up. Now he was leaning against the dash of the Carrier and peering out at the lone figure in the canvas covered cargo container gliding a half-metre above the remains of Interstate 89 at a leisurely 17 clicks an hour.
“Any sign of weaponry?” It was Finn's first concern, particularly after the loss of Cummings.
Jones had done as much of a scan as she could without closer proximity, “She might have something concealed, but I doubt it.”
* * *
Without stopping or slowing down Joules had peered behind her long enough to realize she was being pursued by a Network team.
“Tabernac!” She swore. She didn't need the attention of a Network team for although they could affect the fastest rescue and return to the Station, on discover of what had happened they would detain her and then go after her Starbus which, consider the New Soviet mercenaries probably wouldn't hand it over without a fight, could see it's destruction. Under no circumstances could she turn to these people for help.
But they weren't about to pass her.
* * *
“Launch the HALES and pull her over. Cautious approach, assume she's dangerous.”
Finnegan turned for his Command Cubicle. Despite barking orders as though he was sending them out alone he grabbed his gear and started readying himself for excursion.
Hreha hit the switch and the High Altitude Live Eye System detached from the top side mount on the Carrier and rapidly shot upward to ten thousand meters. The HALES, a simple one-metre wide, flatbed micro satellite instantly linked with the onboard systems of the Carrier and began feeding multiple streams of localized scan data.
Sitting in the co-pilot seat, Jones reached forward and flicked the switch to activate the external speakers.
* * *
The external speakers on the Troop Carrier came to life with surprising volume and clarity. “Pull over for inspection.”
The phrase was repeated in two other languages but despite Joules' wide ranging talent in that field she didn't recognize either of them.
She had only one option, it was sad how often she exercised it but it rarely failed her. Joules pulled over, preparing to play stupid.
* * *
At the instructions of the well-armed squad Joules stepped out of the confines of the container, and as best as her tingling limbs could, moved a fair distance from the makeshift craft.
Half the squad immediately closed the distance to the box and began inspecting it and running the serial number of the container through their database.
Surmising a local wouldn't know what the unit the senior enlisted person held was for Joules held back any reaction, although she did worry they'd find her deactivated Comm-Badge inside, which would quickly identify her and lead to a flurry of unwanted questions.
The only officer among the group, an overly formal powerhouse of a man in his mid-thirties with the most piercing eyes she'd ever gazed at stayed with her. He stood ramrod straight, tense, as though prepared for any sudden moves on her part.
Joules looked around wild eyed, confused. Covering both her curiosity with what they were doing and whether they were seeing through her act; while reinforcing the image of a rattled innocent that she knew would ring true to them.
Joules quickly tried to recall what accent was native to the Commons. She wished now she'd paid more attention to the thousands of news stories posted since this crisis began. She decided to go with the twang of a Tennessee native, for although she was thousands of kilometers from that state she was pretty sure that accent would raise fewer questions than the francophone dialect of a Vichy native.
“What's going on?” She asked, “Who are you people?” She fought back a cringe at the thought of the contraction she was about to use, “You gonna' mug me?”
The officer, a Lieutenant, seemed surprised at the thought. “No, miss. But we do have questions.”
Joules tried not to melt in his gaze, she fought that instinct and instead continued trying to look rattled and frightened. “Questions?”
Finnegan didn't ask them, which was frustrating. He broke her gaze and looked at the two inspecting her container. Had they found something?
“I'm just heading into town for supplies.” She offered. The silence was disturbing; she needed to fill that vacuum with sound.
His head returned back to her sharply, “Supplies?”
Joules knew this could be where she blew it. Depending on how well they knew this area she might now be able to carry this much further. She opened her mouth and continued, “Yes, sir.” Never hurt to stall. Make him ask the question.
“What sort of supplies?”
She thought about the area where she was dumped. It was a field, but it wasn't wild grass. It took her a bit to recognize that it was wheat and rye crops, intermingling but there was a definite delineation between fields. Thinking about it now Joules realized there were probably subsistence farming going on out here. The ground was quite fertile, that would make sense.
“Stuff for our wheat crops.” She pointed the approximate direction she'd come from. It was forty-five degrees off where they'd come from.
Finnegan looked at Jones with a raised eye-brow. It hadn't occurred to him there were farmers out here. He just figured everyone grew only what they needed.
Jones met his eyes and nodded to the container. Finnegan excused himself from Joules and moved off for a quick private chat with his Sergeant.
While they talked another Trooper came close to her, a tall Asian fellow with a scanner in his hands and the name 'Livingston' on his badge.
Joules flinched at this and then she squinted at him, tensing only her lower lids as he ran his scanner over her. It was something Gilmore had taught her to do and she hated the idea of it. More wrinkles, she thought, I'm going to be an old hag by the time I get back.
But it was supposed to distort three key points in her face, which should keep the bio-metric comparison file from obtaining a match. And seeing as nearly everyone they would meet in the Commons wasn't on the registry that shouldn't raise the alarms it would in downtown Chicago.
Sure enough he shrugged and lowered the scanner. He looked more curious than suspicious and seemed to linger. Then his head tilted oh so subtly in her direction and Joules knew he was interested in her, ready to flirt but positive he'd be chastised for it. She took this as her cue and looked up at him with doe eyes, she let her bottom lip falls slack and as they made eye contact she licked her lip, just slightly.
“Where are you from?” she asked with a questioning gaze.
Livingston looked at her and saw her eyeing him. He was Asian and there probably weren't many of them in the Commons, at least he figured that was the source of the question. “I'm from Tokyo, Nippon.”
It wasn't what Joules was going for, she motioned to the rest of them, “All of you?”
Livingston looked around and almost laughed, he was the only Asian. She didn't mean him personally. “We're with the United Network Command Authority. Buffalo Commons Peacekeeping mission.”
She pretended to be impressed by that string of words. It was in fact typical for the largest bureaucracy in history to come with unwieldy strings for even the simplest of missions. Joules pointed to the east again, “I'm from over there!”
Remembering the orientation briefing on “Winning the Locals” Livingston decided to continue the conversation. “Where were you going?”
Joules pointed up the road, to the township she'd spotted on the way in that she hoped would have some connection to the outside world. “That way. I'm heading into town for stuff.”
“What sort of stuff,” He asked.
Joules almost swore at that. She didn't know the slightest thing about farming so didn't have a clue what to answer. Play dumb, she remembered, she's just a kid to these people.
“No idea. Uncle Thomas…” She almost said Henry or Robert, but didn't trust those names to come out without her French accent. “He ordered some things and told me to pick them up today.”
She looked over at Finnegan and Jones wishing she could hear what they were talking about. It had something to do with her container, she knew that.
* * *