The Favoured Lands - The Story
Part One - The Death Peddlers
Rain pelted continuously over the marshy hills. A lone man splashes out of the brier and into a shin deep puddle. He wears no protective gear, his lungs heaving with exertion.
The smell of fear emanates from him. He is coiled tight, like a trapped animal--deadly and unpredictable.
He senses he is being hunted and that his hunters are close, though he can neither hear nor see them through the ceaseless rain. He sprints over the hill top to an old rotted building at the bottom of the other side.
As he reaches the building, a rotting shack, his blood is pulsing loudly in his ears. He takes one last look around--nothing. He leans in against the wall under the eaves and wipes the rain and sweat from his brow. As his hand moves over his face, he opens his eyes and is confronted by a black masked man staring him intently in the eye.
He springs forward, water splashing all around in his wake. Panicked he stumbles towards the back of the building just as another black form steps into his path. He skids to a halt just in front of the giant.
Breathing heavily he could hear the other approaching from behind. A gloved hand settles firmly on his shoulder and swings him around to stare into the masked face of his death.
He dives at the mercenary, clawing with desperate ferocity, seeking to catch a hold of the rim of his attacker's mask. Another hand tangles itself in his hair and ranks his head back, pulling him backward with such strength that his neck popped back almost separating his head from his body. He had just enough life remaining to see the thin metal cylinder flash amidst the rain drops before he felt it penetrate the thin clothe of his jacket, his skin, sternum, diaphragm, and heart.
He felt his body tighten and contort one last time then blackness engulfed.
A large darkly clad man held a smaller, almost frail, lifeless body by the hair with one hand while twisting a thin silver rod in the body's chest clockwise a full rotation then withdrawing it. He released the dead man's long tangled hair and the body slid from his fingers onto the watery ground.
"You OK?" His similarly dressed companion asked, speaking over loud through his respiratory mask.
The larger man nodded. Raising his head to survey their surroundings.
"Was that your last rod?"
"Yep, unless you got one to loan me."
"No. I used mine on the woman" Shame, he thought to himself, I usually like to hold one back for the trip home. Just in case we come across a high value target, and he didn't like that one had gotten away on the way in.
"Then I suggest we ignore the other one and get back as quickly as possible."
Soldier shrugged non committedly "You been inside yet?"
"No," Koran answered, "But I creeped the windows while we were stalking." He gestured towards the dead man a few feet behind them. "It'll do if you don't mind bunking with a couple of rats!"
Soldier grinned beneath his mask, "don't mind if I do, He lifted the dark respiratory mask back to expose a fair but weathered face, with gaunt edges. He smacked his lips, :"you know I love rat. Let's go get some."
A few hours later they found themselves .warm and satiated. Both men had their respiratory masks and jackets off and were leisurely licking lips and fingers covered with the tasty grease of their dinner. Soldier's companion was his exact opposite. Rather than fair, lean, and lithe looking, Koran had thick dark hair and while his face was fair it was covered with a curly thick beard. He was built thick and strong--brutish. He motioned to the his friend, "Sol, what do you think they would do in decontamination if they knew how much we ate out here?"
Soldier stretched his long legs out in front of him, perfectly built for running and chasing, "I don't know, Koran, Maybe they don't even care." He leaned back, "I mean why would they. Everyone knows Contractors don't live very long.."
"But that's because most die out here. I don't intend to,"
"Some just decide to stay too, just saying."
Koran leaned back against his pack, tilted his head slightly, ascertaining Soldier's seriousness. "Yeah, but we kill most of those." He tapped the side pocket of his pack. The spent retrieval rods jingling quietly.
A faint shuffling noise interrupted the conversation. Both men sat up, instantly at full awareness. They sensed more than saw a rush of movement just inside the doorway of the ramshackle hut.
Koran ignited a small liquid light rod and flashed it over the entrance and into the corners on each side. As he passed over the second corner, something scampered out of the light towards the door.
With a quickness that belied his size, Koran reached out and grabbed one of the creatures by the tail and lifted it to the light in his other hand. Both men winced a little as they surveyed a tine rat. It's little body covered in tumorous growths. Koran quickly swung it against the door jam, crushing it's little skull. Then he flung if from the shack.
"Hey," Soldier consoled his friend, "there are still those that would consider that a good dinner." But he couldn't hide his own shudder of revulsion.
"Someone already did," Koran countered.
Neither wishing to discuss the subject further, Soldier began pulling on his respirator mask and jacket. "I'll take the first watch. "Sleep friend."
But Koran was already spread out lifelessly on the dirty floor snoring soundly,
Soldier took one last deep and free breath, then slipped his respirator mask over his head. The musty taste of constant dampness settled in on the back of his tongue and mingled with the tasty cooked grease from his dinner. He savored it for a few seconds before swallowing and taking a long hard pull through the respirator testing the air flow as it passed through the filters. He hated having to make such an exertion for each breath, Of all the climbing, and chasing, and sheer exertion he and Koran had to put out to live each day, breathing was the most exhausting, But, breathing the tainted air in the outside for any amount of time meant and early suffocating death. He sucked hard drawing his diaphragm in then released and took a deep pull trying to let his breath flow as naturally as possible, even if the taste of the air was filled with the chemical plastic smell of the mask.
He stepped away from the building where Koran lay sleeping. The wood was old and slowly rotting. Fifteen meters on the other side of the knoll, and near the top of the next hill top there was an Aspen tree with a perfect view of the building. To Soldier's amazement, it even had a few leaves. He walked over and climbed into the lower branches to settle in for his watch.
Morning found the men making fast tracks in the dull grey twilight that comes slightly before the twilight preceding the sun's rise.. They traveled a good distance before taking a reprieve. Just as the fuzzy lighted glow of the sun that beat heavily down through the constant low cloud cover was at it's highest point directly above them.
There was no tree cover, only brambles, muddy patches and brush so they used the two large wooden sticks that each carried across their backs to erect a lean too which provided both shelter from the heat of the sun and escape from the constant drizzle.
There would be few dry patches between here and the Omeless city domes where the two men lived between out-of-dome excursions. They would keep to the edges of The Great Shallows and a if they continued at their current pace they would sleep in the relative comfort of a cache and hidden refuge they had left behind on the way up into the northern passes.
After the afternoon's rest, the water grew gradually deeper and deeper until it seemed that an endless shallow ocean had swallowed the land. Koran trudged out in front, keeping a keen eye out for eels and using his wooden stick to strike them when they came too near. Some scurried off. Most lay stunned for a few moments while the men passed. One, particularly tenacious creature refused to stay still after several blows to it's head.
Every time Koran struck it, it would quickly slither away and return a few moments later from another direction until finally, Finally, Koran skewered the creature at the base of it's skull, then dragged it up and out of the water.
Soldier smiled, "dinner!"
Koran laughed and slung the eel over his shoulders to keep it away from the other hungry creatures in the knee deep water.
Just as the sun, an obscure ball of light through the cloud cover, began to reach the western horizon the depth of the had receded to no deeper than their ankles.
As dusk began to settle, the two men briefly let their guards down. The territory was becoming more and more familiar. They had finally reached a shore as shallow water ways gave way to first a short span of sinking, sucking, mud, which the men knew well to navigate around--albeit slowly in water deep enough to give them buoyancy. As the terrain began to turn into rocky shale, sand, and finally firmer ground the eased their way closer and closer to land until the came to the place where a wall of thorny wall of black berry bushes and underbrush began and the ground was firm enough to hold their weight without their feet getting stuck in the mud. Here there was also sparse grasses sprouting up replacing the sucking mud. The open water of the vast wetlands lapped gently at the edges of the land, like a sea.
Soldier and Koran typically kept several caches hidden across the western territories both north and south of the Domes, as well as some deep into the east. Some even had small little hidden refuges where the men could rest without too much bother of setting up camp or scrounging to around to set up a security perimeter. They were drawing closer to one of the later now, which put both in good spirits.
The high thorny wall black berry bushes dripped heavy with wet berries. The men ate the sweet fruits greedily as they followed the high wall along a south easterly descent. It wasn't far before they came across the first small but brisk brook appearing from under the forest of vines and thorns and running into the great shallows a few dozen meters away, They stopped to capture and filter water for their canisters and gut the eel.
Koran made short work of the task, leaving the guts where they landed; rather than wash the area and throwing the guts into the creek. He and Rusk had just spent a good portion of the day crossing and working around that vast shallow lake and he needed to conserve his energy.
The two hadn't gone much further when a coyote stepped briefly out from the sharp, clinging briar. It scooped up the guts and quickly disappeared into the impassable wall .
The event rattled Koran enough that he forced Rusk to stop, "I think we should avoid the refuge tonight," His typical, I don't give a fuck demeanor, couldn't disguise his unease. Rusk sighed inwardly.
"I am not up for a hammock tonight. You got the lions share of that floor last night."
"Most hunters and contractors like us die in the comforts or near their own safe zones,," He reminded Soldier.
Soldier shrugged began walking in the general direction of the cache.
Koran made an exaggerated gesture of defeat and followed. The blackberry briar was high, even though the lands were relatively flat. It made visibility poor and seeing around any corner uncertain. Koran's attention was on super alert.
When the coyote appeared a second time--this time stopping several yards in front of the two men and staring at them defiantly as if sizing them up, Koran felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle.
Soldier quickened his pace towards the cache. Koran reluctantly followed. As twilight set in, the two spied the tell tale signs that they were nearing their hiding spot. As they approached, Koran could not shake the feeling that everything was obvious and vulnerable. Someone had stopped here recent. He sensed it. He knew it. Someone had taken note of the carefully placed sign of woven thorns that he and Rusk had taken such care to conceal on their way north.
There, of course were a few such signs left as markers or communications. In some places, entire areas of the thorn wall were dedicated messages openly left weaving the live bushes together into beautiful and intricate patterns. Koran and Soldier had gone to great lengths to make theirs blend in with the natural contours of the wall. One hundred or so meters ahead, Soldier pulled back what looked like a large door made up of thorns and vines. When closed it looked like part of the wall, but actually opened into a short tunnel that lead into the maze of trails throughout the black berry bushes, one of which lead to their cache.
Soldier was already shrugging out of his pack and gear when Koran caught up to him, taking up a guarded position. Soldier felt for the small wooden case tucked safely away in his inside shirt pocket next to his chest. He looked at the case and felt anticipation building.
He quickly retrieved his energy sourced navigation helmet and respirator out of his pack replacing the laborious manual respirator mask he had worn throughout the day. Fitz, the Artificial Intelligence unit, in the wooden box began to jostle around inside making the box vibrate and bounce in Soldier's hands. As soon as Soldier lifted the lid, the little creature flew free of it's confines making a fast escape. So quick was Fitz in flight he was almost too quick to be seen.
"It has been a long time since our last conversation my friend," Fitz communicated to Soldier via the video console inside Rusks navigation helmet; speaking in their own personal language.
"Yes," Soldier answered. "I apologize my friend, I realize your battery life is very low, but I have an important request of you, then I fear it will be not be long before I must ask you go back into the box and i will not be able to release you and communicate with you again for some period of time."
Fitz was registered as a Flying Audio and Visual Recording Device, FAVRD,-R2D2. In reality he was a banned artificial life form with flying, audio, video, iterative AI with massive data Recording capabilities. He accepted Soldier's words in stoic silence. He accepted these long captive dark, silences as terms of his existence, but he didn't like them and described the experience of being in black nothing. "Fine then," He easily weaved in between Soldier and Koran. "What is it you require?"
"My friend, Koran here, is having some distress about our cache. You remember? The last one we left here in the Maze."
"Awe, I see, don't want to crawl in there?" He Teased, buzzing near Soldier's head.
Koran, tried to ignore the interplay he knew was happening between the two of them. He always felt uncomfortable when Soldier communicated with the AI as if we was being left out of something special.
"Fine, I will have a look and report back."
"Excellent, Go as deep as you can, please, beyond the cache, and before dark. Don't draw any attention to yourself." Soldier instructed, turning his attention back to Koran. "We might as well get comfortable as it will be a little while before he clears the passage.
"Go deep," Fitz buzzed up high over the two warriors. From this vantage he could see the maze of thorn walls that lined the shorelines off into the distance on one side and a seeming endless ocean of shallow dirty water on the other. Slowly, lazily he circled back towards the ground and the tunnel entrance. Being about two times the size of a live bee, Fitz could only penetrate the vines so far without risk of being damaged by larger insects or even rodents.
"Tell him, that he is leaving all of the hard work for me, The big jealous thug!" Fitz chided as he circled Koran's head and whizzed into the tunnel's entrance.
" Fitz says good morning, Koran," Soldier smiled.
Fitz zipped in low and through, what was to him, a long tunnel that lead to an opening between two high thorn walls of the short narrow trail on the other size of the wall. Just around the corner there was from a fairly long narrow passage way. He buzzed down the corridor at top speed almost too fast for the human eye to seem but landed easily and gently onto a thick vine just a little ways inside the wall on the inner side of the passage. He settled close to a large wide thorn. Even though, he was almost twice the size of an organic bee, the thorn was still large enough to do serious damage. He took note to adjust himself accordingly.
His body was almost an exact replica of an Asian murder hornet. He had four legs and two arms, which ended in tiny three digit hands, and, of course, his four wings that made him so maneuverable. He navigated his way in and out of the briar with ease.
Where he was small in stature, he made up for in ego. His not so humble opinion was that being insect sized was the perfect form for an AI life forms. Bodies the size of humans could never process information quick enough to navigate at the speeds that he was capable of. No Fitz found most human conversation banal, especially Koran's.
A few hundred meters centimeters farther in he settled on another vine next to a large sparkling spider's web glimmered its dark funnel waving in the gentle winds. Fitz made a mental note of the hazard, then hastened along in order to take advantage of the fading twilight. After which, his visibility would be limited. He also preferred to be closer to Soldier after dark.
Fitz quickly zipped the further along until he came to another small hidden door behind the highest point of the wall lining the zigag path he had come. The entire maze was a massive natural structure more than 50 square kilometers of thorny black berry bushes that stood between Koran and Solder and Omeless to the west.
"We might as well get comfortable." Soldier began looking around for a good place to settle in while Fitz has his look around.
"I think it's dark enough that I am not going into the Thorn Aggregate tonight, and I got dinner right here." Koran lifted the eel from his shoulders. "There is no good reason that I can think of that I need to start out in there after dark."
"The cache is only a few hundred meters in," Solder dismissed Koran's worry as paranoid. Something second nature to Koran, although admittedly it had kept the two alive more times than Solder could count . "Hand me your rod." He got on his knees and used both his and Koran's sticks to reach in through the open door and tapped around the edges of the short tunnel through the walls in front of him. It wasn't long, two meters or so,
Knowing that Fitz would have already alerted them had there been some danger in the entrance tunnel, he slowly pushed his way through the Aggregate entrance in slowly and carefully. Using both his hands to grab at the earth and drag himself through.
On the other side he stood up and adjusted his nav helmet.
"What, are you doing?" Fitz's voice suddenly called out to him in their own language through the head set. "Get back." The cache has been compromised."
Soldier quickly scrambled back through the entrance tunnel with none of the carefulness he had used on the way in. Fitz buzzed along behind him as if to guard his rear. Once on the other side, Koran greeted both with his lazegun and taser drawn.
Fitz followed Soldier out of the entrance tunnel flying in erratic circles-his version of a full belly laugh. "It's not that bad," he laughed. "Just some big dog nipping at my heals around the corner. No sign of people, but the cache has been pillaged completely. Looks like it is eels and blackberries for your dinner tonight!"
Soldier sighed, "what was all the fuss then. You really scared the piss out of me there."
"I know. I know." Fitz continued his erratic circling. "But you know better than to follow in without checking with me first. It's against protocol. And the cache was breached. Besides you lucky that big dog didn't chase me too far."
Koran impatiently watched what to him was a silent exchange. "Well, what's he going on about?"
"The cache has been compromised. Fitz says there are no signs of people, but our supplies are gone."
"Well then, " Koran put his weapons away and returned to where he had been slicing up the eel. "Guess it's a cold dinner for us tonight then."
Soldier got to his feed and Fitz settled onto his shoulder. "We should probably move further downward from the entrance." He advised.
Koran shrugged that shrug that told Soldier he wasn't moving and continued to slice up the eel into long even slivers of pinkish grey meat. He offered a slice to Soldier who sighed inwardly and sat down.
"He is such an oaf," Fitz buzzed at Soldier through the helmet, "A big stupid thug. Why do we even hang out with this guy? I keep telling you and telling you. We don't need him. We never did. He's a bastard, a creep, a dirty mother fucker who would step on me if he could!."
"The knatt can expand the watch," Koran said as if he had heard the conversation.
"Indeed he can." Soldier answered ignoring Fitz's tirade inside his helmet.
The two settled into their dinner of eel and blackberries in silence, at least outwardly silence for Soldier. Once Fitz's rant had burned itself out, the two continued their private conversation with Soldier explaining the need for Fitz's help with the watch.
"Fine, I'll work with the stupid thug, but only until my energy gets low."
"Fitz says he'll be happy to work the first watch with you." Soldier told Koran, who grunted in reply.
As they drew closer to Omeless, the domes began to look take the shape of great glass mountains. They lumbered up to the first of many farmsteads of sorts. Here the earth was dry enough that sparse homes were dug into the earth with moss rooves, and blended with the surroundings.
A short distance further they ran into a Military Genetic Issue , who asked to see their passage token that allowed them to travel the area outside the main domes, lesser domes, and territories immediately surrounding the domes. Here there were many small hovels constructed from various discarded materials tin to old canvas to cardboard -- the home stretch.
Military hated contractors, like everyone else, but contractors worked for the same political system that they did. Military rarely killed contractors, especially Genetic Issue. Contractors sometimes killed military. Contractors sometimes killed contractors. It was a tough business, but the pay was good of you had the stomach for it.
Soldier and Koran never killed military. They never killed inside. It was a good way to die.
As the hovels turned into sturdier homes with streets surrounded by a legacy of low rise apartment blocks crumbling with decay, small clusters of houses in the middle of shared garden, Koran perked up a bit. These were the streets he had grown up on. The tall stature and confident grate of the two men distinguishing them for the other darkly clad and masked bodies moving about.
There was the odd gesture of recognition as they passed.
Finally they reached the tunnel entrance to the smallest of the three Omeless domes. There was the main dome that housed the city and the two smaller domes on the east and west sides. They passed the military patrol guards and unmasked under the long awning at the front gate. It felt good to get out of the constant rain.
The line up for those seeking entry was short today. It was barely an hour before they were announcing themselves, and having their full face and body scanned.
"State your business," a small round man who was wearing pair of small, round, gold-rimmed spectacles asked?
Koran lifted a ring full of retrieval rods and shook them a little nervously. As an out-of-domer he always felt a little anxious when entering the gate.
Recognition, then disdain flashed across the clerk's face just as their clearance came up on the large screens behind the scanning box. "Proceed."
"You know they've had the tech to fix those eyes," Solder observed; only a hint of irritation showing in his voice. The point was clear, a lowly clerk such as the man in front of them could never afford such a procedure.
The clerk snorted, "check you weapons, decontamination chamber eleven." then turned back to the bank of monitors in front of him.
They checked their weapons and walked through the second set of body scans, then stopped as the machine arms extended from the walls on either side of them and took a blood sample. Once through security they walked the 500 meters of underground passage into the decontamination chambers.
As they walked they passed many silent genetic issue (GI) soldiers, as well as civilian service models. Most of the main passage at the lower level was dedicated to intake and decontamination of both people and goods. Some military GI were housed down here as well as some of the service GIs, though many of the latter remained above in the main domes with their civilian owners.
They reached their assigned chamber and stood in front of the security scanner for verification and entry. Once both were scanned the door slid open. It was a small bare chamber with white walls.
"Please disrobe, and place garments on the clothing racks provided," a familiar sensuous voice instructed.
"Man, I'd like a piece of that." Koran said as he began by unbuckling his large security vest.
"You say that every time we come into the dome." Soldier teased.
They peeled off the layers of armor and protective gear that had kept them safe, and warm, and dry these past weeks releasing the smell of unwashed skin and hair; and placed each item with care onto the clothing wracks that had extended out from cubby holes in the walls. These items would be disinfects and repaired a mandatory servicer that would be automatically debited against their financial accounts.
Once the clothing wrack retreated back into the wall, the chamber filled with warm mist. It gave the skin a tingling sensation and carried the faint aroma of disinfectant. The two men stretched out on the floor, enjoying the deep steam cleansing the outside from their pores.
TO BE CONTINUED