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chapter eleven
" KEEN "
Part Eight

They'd made good time, Alexei Podarkin thought. An hour and a half out and already they were entering the tree line. It would slow down from here on as the even, hard ground of the brush gave way to the uneven soft terrain of woodlands.

As a child at his Grandpoppy's Dacha, Alexei experienced anxiety in the woods. Too many scary stories, camp fire tales and vengeful monster stories had been told to the impressionable imagination of the young Alexei by his cousins and uncles and for years the shadows thrown by trees in heavily wooded areas had triggered his flight mechanism.

But a quarter century of summers in those woods burned off those fears like the Sun on a morning haze and Gregory now felt as safe in a forest as one possibly could, even though he still preferred to rough it in the manufactured climes of the West.

Their insistence at remaining masters of the environment was the only reason the Network triumphed over the New Soviet. Certainly their system was more corrupt, their much vaulted Network had holes that anyone in need typically fell through. The only poor and hungry on the planet were in Network controlled territory.

These people, despite their technological savvy and dispersion had no real sense of stewardship. A crying shame, Alexei thought, considering the wealth of wilderness they controlled.

No doubt, if they weren't successful, the land that nature had reclaimed in the years following the Eco-Crisis would be overrun with the same sprawling commercialism he enjoyed in his cover, his legend as they called it in the spy-trade. Damn them, Gregory thought, their corruption was like the fruit of the tree of knowledge, too tempting for an innocent to resist.

He picked up his pace, redoubled in his determination to have this mission succeed, but only made it a few steps when the oddest harmonic laced itself into the background soundtrack of the forest. Alexei stopped and cocked his head sharply listening. His move was so sudden that Yuri noticed.

“It's just the bugs.” Yuri was referring to the electrical humming sounds the cicadas made.

Alexei ignored him and moved toward one of the taller trees in the grove, which, after slinging his rifle over his shoulder, he began to climb with the ease of a primate.

Yuri moved to the tree trunk and called up to the rapid scaling Podarkin, “We're already late!”

Alexei pulled out a pair of Micro-Binocs and began scanning the horizon behind them intently. “I think we were followed.”

Yuri looked at the others communicating clearly his thoughts on Alexei's mental state. “It's the bugs. They get like this in the heat.”

Alexei knew it wasn't the bugs. Amidst their hum he'd distinctly hear the growl of a high-powered hover vehicle idling into the region. It might be a distance off but that growl was unmistakable, it was the sort of noise only serious power and refined engineering could make, the type frequently relied on by Aerocars in the service of Network Police.

Sure enough, as soon as he tracked on the Starbus he spotted the front corner of an Aerocar jutting out from behind it. He looked around quickly, trying to see if there was anyone from the Aerocar snooping about. He couldn't see clearly from this tree.

Alexei stopped peering through the micro-binocs and looked around for a tree that might have branches with a clearer view. There was one, fifteen metres over.

Without paying any mind to Yuri's protestations Alexei climbed down quickly, moved to the next tree and scaled it like a cat. From this perch he had a clear view of the Starbus, a better view of the brutishly overpowered Aerocar hovering beside it and then sight of someone walking around the Starbus.

Alexei's stomach knotted as he realized it was Joules. She'd recovered quickly and despite her part in this drama had risked arrest by bringing the authorities into things. Or did she? The Aerocar was more powerful than any Police cruiser he'd ever seen, much sportier, possibly even more luxurious.

Podarkin paused at that. He'd never thought that Joules might have some pretty powerful friends, possibly those much farther outside the Law than she was. This could be trouble. What if Joules had connections to organized crime? What if she had strong connections to the more ruthless elements of the underworld?

Alexei had no experience with mobsters but he'd heard the stories and seen the dramas about them. They and they alone would execute a version of justice without balance, without appeal and without mercy. That lack of foresight might have put the entire mission in jeopardy.

Alexei climbed down, his face was so visibly ashen that the anger drained off Yuri in a second and was quickly supplanted by concern. “What is wrong, Comrade?”

Alexei was caught off-guard by Yuri's respectful reference to him. It had been the first in their entire history. He shook it off and quickly decided what he could, and would report, “People are at the Starbus.”

Yuri shrugged it off, false alarm, “They'll open the hatch and end our problem.”

“They're not doing that. And the vehicle they came in. It's not police, it's more powerful than that.”

Tepu stepped forward, “Network?”

“I don't think so. I think they're professionals, dangerous professionals.”

Yuri paused at that, “What makes you say that?”

“They've inspected the Starbus and are climbing beneath it.” Alexei paused hoping they would come to the same conclusion he did, “Is it possible there's another way inside?”

Although Yuri was still sure any attempts to enter would trigger the explosives he wasn't sure enough to want to risk the mission. He turned as though he was going to instruct everyone to return to the Starbus to engage the new arrivals.

Alexei blanched at that. He immediately stepped forward, “I'll head back and take care of whoever it is. The rest of you continue on to the rendezvous point!”

Yuri stopped him, “What of you?”

Alexei was suddenly faced with an emotion he didn't think Yuri was capable of, friendship. Was it possible the animosity between them had been nothing more than professional competition? He put his hand on Yuri's shoulder, “I made initial contact remember. I know these woods and will return shortly.”

Podarkin started to move off, heading back the way they came when Yuri called out, “Viktor, Golov, go with him!”

Alexei stopped hoping his fast beating heart wasn't as obvious to them as it seemed in his ears. Viktor Lexamsky had been standing beside him when he pulled the trigger 'killing' Joules. He couldn't see that she was still alive.

“He should stay with the group.” It was a weak offering and one that Alexei knew Yuri would shoot down, but he needed the time to think of something better. “Let me take Karsla and Ipovich, they've got more woodland experience.”

Yuri couldn't argue that. Viktor was an excellent soldier but were he separated from the group he'd be lost. Yuri nodded to Karsla, a stocky short haired blonde with the wiry strength of steel worker, and Ipovich, the quiet Siberian who never smiled because of the looks of horror his grimace elicited.

Satisfied that both of the assigned soldiers coming with him boarded the Starbus after Joules was put off, and therefore wouldn't know her from Tereshkova, the three of them turned and headed back the way they'd come while the rest of this New Soviet company continued for their destiny.

* * *

The air beneath the Starbus was oppressive and Joules was thankful for Bruce's insistence that she drink something before climbing under the craft. The pod hatch was just fore of the engines, which were still radiating residual heat. A fact only made worse by the complete stillness in the air.

When a soft breeze did rise Joules almost shivered from the relief it provided. She was sweating profusely and the moisture was causing every molecule of dirt to cling to her. The grit felt like it was shredding her skin, an extreme form of exfoliating for sure.

But she could see the underside pod hatch now and it was only a metre further, which gave her the energy to push on.

With a hard swallow she exhaled so she could squeeze between the shallow ground and the pod hatch rim. If she became stuck now there was nothing Bruce could do to help her, she'd remain here to dehydrate and die, killed by her baby.

Her hips stuck and the more she struggled to pull herself between Earth and Starbus the tigher she wedged. It was hopeless, her ass was too big and she'd die because of it. After repeated struggles which seemed to move neither her nor the universe Joules let herself flop to the ground. She was gasping for breath in the tight confines, she was aching, raw, cut for sure and sore all over.

And if that wasn't enough she could feel creepy crawling things making their way across her skin, she could feel blades of grass prickling into the small of her back. Joules reached down to try and dig some of the dirt away from her hips, enough to get her ass between her ship and the ground.

Something brushed her cheek and she jumped. Whatever it was had leathery wings and made some sort of buzzing noise as it flew off her and past her ear. Joules screamed. She hated nature and in the dark confines beneath her Starbus that hatred was rapidly blooming into paralyzing fear.

* * *