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Stories from the Verse
Verse Three, Chapter One
Chapter 69: Kondor 23
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Previous chapter: Chapter 68: Hastings 24
Dressed in his green fatigues, Kondor stepped out onto the road under a clear pre-dawn sky. A few stars were still visible, but the dome of the world glowed with an almost iridescent indigo rarely seen at any other time or place. All was in readiness; the last emissary had left the night before. He was on his way.
He had chosen the time. If the enemy truly would not pursue until nightfall, it made sense for him to reach their encampment as early in the day as he could manage. With a little hustle, he could be back in time for a late lunch, and be rested when the enemy assaulted the walls. His suggestion that the day guard be minimal so that troops would be rested and ready for an evening battle was accepted, and the peasants would be brought inside the walls and prepared late in the afternoon.
He had two regular soldiers with him, principally to help carry gear. He didn't wish to be overly burdened, and no one was quite certain how heavy this Vorgo would be. The best description he got was, "as heavy as a good-sized catapult rock, but easily carried by a strong man," and that sounded like it could be a burden.
He had stripped his gear for the trip. His clothing, such as he carried, he left in his room. He took enough packaged food for three men for two days, and packaged juices in addition to water. He carried both of his regular guns as he would going into combat. The extra clip for the half-spent M-16 was in his duffel, along with the partly charged kinetic blaster. The pistol was fully loaded, with two more ten-bullet clips available. The medical kit rounded out the gear. One of the men carried that, the other carried the food and most of the water, so that he carried mostly weapons and ammo, and an empty backpack in which he hoped to stash the object of their mission.
They traveled swiftly on foot along the dusty road, reaching the second crossroad just as the sun rose behind them. Perhaps it was a beautiful sunrise; Kondor never looked. But it did give the world ahead a cheery, hopeful look, which he tried to ignore. They were on a mission, one which the locals would not make themselves, and he needed to stay focused and keep his wits about him. Unrealistic optimism could lead to mistakes, and he already thought this trip not so dangerous as they all seemed to believe. Better to be overly wary than to be caught unaware.
In less than an hour they could see the stone pillar and iron bars which marked the near corner of the enemy staging ground. All seemed quiet, quiet as a graveyard, he thought, remembering a phrase his Uncle Whit had used. Given the thoughts of his companions, he smiled but didn't say it aloud. The gate would not be too far, certainly less than a mile. But as he approached the fence and could see the ground enclosed, he slowed, almost stopped.
It was a cemetery.
Kondor was not superstitious. He didn't believe in God or devils or ghosts. He didn't believe in luck or fortune. He didn't believe in psychics or astrologers. But there was always something about graveyards that made him nervous. He told people that it was the monumental reminder of his own mortality that they represented, but he knew that this was not the reason even when he said it. It certainly could not be the reason now, as he was in some sense no longer mortal. Yet the feeling was still there. The dead were dead, he told himself, gone from existence; but walking amidst their bodies made him uncomfortable.
But this was the enemy camp. The enemy wanted it believed that they were some sort of undead monsters. Using a cemetery as headquarters would certainly enhance that illusion. Heck, it might not even be a real cemetery. How difficult would it be to build an iron rail fence and erect rows of headstones within sight of the road? The superstitions of the locals would keep them out as effectively as any armed fortifications might, and with less expense and effort. Yes, it looked like a graveyard; but it was an enemy stronghold, and nothing more.
Nevertheless, he slowed down as he walked along the fence. He told the men, and himself, he was surveying the ground, getting a feel for the lay of the land and potential pitfalls and traps before entering. It wasn't like cemeteries at home. There was little grass, for one thing, and more trees. The ground was covered in decaying leaf mulch, disturbed in several places perhaps by animals digging for bones. If the care of the cemetery had anything to do with it, the dead would not rest easy here. But he put such nonsense from his mind. He even walked beyond the gate fifty feet, staring through the bars, to convince himself that this was just reconnaissance. Then he announced that they would rest in the brush across the road from the gate, eat and drink a bit to be ready for the return trip, and observe. "A picnic," he said, trying to lighten his own mood a bit. "We'll have a bit of a picnic here, across the road from the cemetery." And so they did.
Don't eat immediately after hiking, he said; and don't hike immediately after eating. With these two maxims he was able to stretch the time of their break quite a bit. He knew he was stalling. He still didn't like the feeling of walking through a cemetery, real or not. But he had to do it. Building his resolve, he stood.
"Pack up the gear and be ready to move when I return. This won't take long."
He walked across the street. The gate was not locked, and swung open easily. A drive extended straight ahead, dividing maybe a hundred yards in, right in front of a mausoleum surrounded by a tiny bit of unkempt lawn. That was apparently the building for which he was bound. With great effort, he stepped forward, one step, two, three. Nothing happened. He bit his lip, and moved further inside. Fifteen steps, and he had covered about ten yards. It was going to be a long walk.
It was only the length of a football field, he thought. In fact, it wasn't even that long--there were no goal posts. He pushed himself to walk a bit faster. For some reason, that feeling was worse than he remembered. He shifted into a jog, and then into a slow run. There was no denying it; fear was taking hold of him. If this was how he felt, it was no wonder none of the superstitious locals were able to do this. He told himself to slow down, to do this reasonably; but his feet kept running. Reaching the end of the road, he tried to stop on the wet grass, and slid forward, crashing into the door of the targeted building.
"Ouch," he said. But nothing happened.
Swallowing hard, and regaining his composure, he fumbled with the latch for a moment, stopping to close his eyes and take a deep breath, and then tried again. It was not locked; he'd just been too flustered to see how it worked at first. The smell of decay wafted out of the open door, but it was not too bad, and he was in control of himself again. He stepped in to the darkness, and waited for his eyes to adjust to the light. The cybernetic one did so swiftly, his own taking a bit longer. He wondered whether he should have brought the flashlight, but the daylight was shining through the door onto a short flight of stairs down into the main chamber. Making sure the door wasn't going to swing shut, he stepped down inside.
If it wasn't a crypt, it was one of the most convincing stage sets he had ever seen. The walls were lined with realistic-looking bodies in various stages of decomposition from skeletal to particularly ghoulish. He ignored these as well as he could, stepping forward toward his objective. As he had been promised, there was a pedestal in the middle of the room. On it stood a sphere, a highly polished ball of marble flecked with glittering bits of what might be mica.
"It's a--" the word which came to his mind brought the memory of the taste of soap to his tongue, and he thought better of it. "A bowling ball! They sent me a dozen miles to a graveyard to get a bowling ball! What is this nonsense?" None of it made sense. This didn't look like a weapon, and it wasn't guarded--it wasn't even in a locked room. Were it not exactly where he was told it would be and quite clearly as described--even so, could it be a decoy? No, there was nothing else around, just this silly round rock. Still, it had been a long journey, and those who sent him attached the gravest importance to it. To him it looked worthless except as a pretty bauble; but he would look the fool if he returned without it. He picked it up.
The bodies on either side of him sat upright on their biers.
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with five other sequential chapters of the novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #47: Character Routines. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter.
As to the old stories that have long been here: