His short legs just barely keeping him in-pace with his partners under the slowly-setting sun, the boy took out his flashlight and scanned the map in front of him. A beaming smile spread across his face. “Should be just another hour til we’re there!”
“We kind of figured that, Tarren,” said a woman in front of him.
If his hands weren’t already weren’t full of cartographic equipment, he probably would have folded his arms at that comment. “And how do you already know that, Bertha?”
One of the travelers in front of Tarren looked over his shoulder. “She knows because there’s a lake in front of us.”
If his feet weren’t already on autopilot, Tarren probably would have paused. “Oh…oh! You’re serious?” He held his breath for a moment. “I swear, Faust, if you’re playing with me again – ”
Faust interrupted Tarren with a chuckle. “Yes, I’m serious – it’s just over the edge here.” Unable to wipe the smile off his face, he looked forward, glancing down at the orange light shimmering on the lake’s surface, casting a gold glow on the trees nearby. Suddenly he felt bad for Tarren; being the youngest and shortest of the group certainly had its disadvantages.
“Don’t be too hard on him,” a deep voice from up front said – and just as the man called out to the three other sujourne, the lot of them flicked their gazes up ahead, with Tarren poking his head from Bertha’s side. “The fact that he was able to guess an hour from the map alone shows he’s better at this job than you two have been giving him credit for.”
Again Faust chuckled, sensing a grin from the boy behind.
“With that said,” the chief began, “I think we should take a moment to rest soon. There should be a stopping point nearby. Tarren?”
Practically whipped up into a frenzy by the chief, Tarren buried his nose in the map as if he were analyzing the insides of ancient scripture; the fact that he didn’t bump into one of the others while searching was practically a miracle. “If we go southeast once the trees fully cover the lake again, we should find a station.”
From up ahead, Rouken nodded. “You all know the drill.”
As soon as their chief had said that, Faust reached into his pocket for his knife and Bertha searched her belt to make sure she had all the rounds she needed.
It wasn’t long before the family of four made their way down to where the station was.
Nobody else seemed to be there. That was to be expected: not the fact that nobody was there, but that no one seemed to be there. For all the knew, someone could have buried a land mine in the area since they were last here. They could have set a trap for them right where they stood – perhaps a tripwire to send them into a spiked pit. If there was any foreign influence here, it needed to be eliminated before they could carry out their usual operations.
So close to Kortrik, this station that the sujourne had set up was bound to have some problems – and this had definitely been the case. There were multiple times where Chief Rouken had attempted to send a message or receive a message on his MDA, only for the connection to break – and likely it was due to some interference from something in this area. He and the other sujourne had chalked this up to so-called “highwaymen” – and along with the other bits of evidence they had found of these people, they had reason to believe that they existed. As to what capacity they existed, none of them could be too sure.
As they all neared the perimeter of their station, witnessing the human-sized beacon that stood in the middle of an otherwise cleared-out area, the sujourne kept themselves completely quiet, hanging their heads low as they approached.
Being the smallest yet also the one with the heaviest burden to bear, Tarren felt a great rush of relief to take off his backpack before setting it under some foliage. The others, meanwhile, did not bother to remove their loads, yet still managed to move about quicker and quieter than he could.
For the most part, Rouken was still for the operation, opting instead to watch Faust and Bertha take care of things for the rest of them as Tarren kept watch from his own point in the woods. Knife in hand, Faust hid behind several trees as he and Bertha closed around an open circle – the likes of which may have once served as a camping ground, but had since deteriorated partially back to its normal self. With the land already chilled by autumn’s bite, he had to be more careful than usual – careful not to step on a twig or reveal himself because the normal greenery he would have otherwise had to cover himself with was no longer there.
He came to a point where he could no longer see Bertha – not her or the barrel of her single-shot rifle. By most accounts, this was a good thing – so on he went.
Rouken and Tarren had told Faust that there might have been a tree-mounted switch panel somewhere nearby if somebody had tampered with their equipment, but he couldn’t see anything like that from where he crouched. It would have been easier to tell if any of the campground’s buildings were still intact, assuming they had built any at all once upon a time.
Peering beyond the dried foliage that littered the place, Faust spotted their beacon sticking out of the ground from a still-decent distance away. There didn’t seem to be any drones or anything of the like hovering around it – and if there were, Bertha would have likely shot them down by now.
On he continued circling around the grassland, hoping to see something unusual – something he could use his paracorded knife on, but still nothing. In time he found himself the closest he would ever get to the beacon without outright stepping away from the foliage. Looking up, there was nobody; looking left or right, there was nobody: nothing but the normal foliage and noise of the autumn forest. Realizing everything was probably okay, he stepped out from the shadows and made a run toward their station.
The cylindrical little tower in the dirt stood barely any shorter than Faust. It took him a moment to analyze if there was anything inherently wrong with it. Deciding to bite the bullet right in front of his chief, he jammed his knife near the tower’s cap and started prying until the top came off with a satisfying pop – at which point he let out a sigh, realizing there wasn’t a bomb under the cap.
“Alright, come out,” he shouted to the others. “Coast is all clear.”
“Oh, thank God,” Bertha joked. “I almost fell asleep before I heard that pop noise.”
Faust rolled his eyes, then looked back down at the tower. “There’s supposed to be a light on, right?” he wondered, using the flat side of his knife to move some wires out of the way, practically shuffling them as he as stirring through a bowl of unseasoned pasta.
“The light is not on?” Rouken asked.
“No it isn’t,” Faust replied, shaking his head. “I think somebody must have deactivated it.”
“Let me try anyway,” Rouken demanded, gesturing Faust to step away before reaching for the MDA in his holster – after which he set the device in the cradle at the beacon’s side. No power.
The chief took his device back out and put it back where it was. “And it does not seem as if there’s any way to find out who or what might have done this.” But even as they spoke, the sujourne already had their suspicions.
Highwaymen: so-called due to how they seemed to always travel back and forth down the same highways. The sujourne had studied these people for the past several months, but still had yet to find them. Even with the limited amount of technology at their disposal, they had managed to pick up signals from underground and map out where these men seemed to be going, but still there was yet to be a crossroads mapped anywhere.
Coming in on cue, Tarren pulled out his map of highway etchings and laid part of it out on a board before proceeding to write something down – likely just a note of what had happened at the station and how this would help them find the highwaymen’s location.
Faust and the others gathered behind Tarren as he scratched some notes with the little ink he had left in his pen. “Still not enough to make a map,” he murmured, practically cursing at himself. “But it’s close.”
What he called close looked like a bunch of mostly-disconnected lines pointing in several different directions – some thicker than others, but not following a general flow. It was obvious to Faust that their youngest recruit had not made any assumptions of where the highwaymen could have been going – because if he had done that, these lines would have been connected by now. Faust realized he was probably the only one among the four of them who actually would have Tarren to make assumptions when he saw Rouken nod and watch close as Tarren layered his highway map over the terrain map.
“Where do you suppose it all leads?” Bertha asked.
“Where I had suspected,” Rouken answered.
The rest of the sujourne each exchanged nervous glances. Again Bertha spoke up. “And where was that?”
The smirk on their chief’s face made the rest of them feel a horrid sense of unease; it was the face he made when he knew they were about to dive head-first into danger.
Daylight burning out, the sujourne decided to set up camp around the station after making one last trip to see that everything was safe. Faust gathered wood, Bertha kept the fire going, and Tarren and Rouken set up the tents before heading out to capture the group’s dinner somewhere in the woods.
Faust took a longer time with gathering firewood than he had intended.
Before meeting the other sujourne, Faust had had his palms and feet wrapped in tape as he was set to be put to sleep. Years after his cryogenic stasis had began and only a few months after being awoken, here they still were, plastered to his hands as if he still needed them. Beyond protecting his palms whenever he touched something that might have splintered them, they served no purpose. He almost asked why he didn’t cut them off with his knife right now.
For some reason he felt as if he could barely see in the dense forest, as if he hadn’t been traversing this kind of landscape for the past three days with minimum amount in the way of proper nourishment. He started to wonder if the full effects of dehydration were starting to kick in. Not wanting to take a risk, he took a drink out of his canteen – and by the time he felt sustained enough, it was still half full anyway.
Again he looked down at his hands – not to view the bandages, but to view the nothing he had in them. Whatever sticks he had carried in his hands a moment ago were now on the floor, though he didn’t remember ever dropping them. He also didn’t remember setting his knife back in its holster. Reaching down, Faust was careful with one of the sticks, as one of them was pointier than the others, reminding him that he had sharpened one out of complete boredom.
Realizing this, he started to worry that he was taking too long gathering wood. Faust picked up the sticks he had already gathered and proceeded to go around the area for more.
Once he returned to the others, he quickly got some form of answer as to how long he had been out when Bertha sighed.
“Jeez, man!” she commented, standing on her knees as if groveling for a stronger fire with the few twigs and weeds she had. “Another minute and I might have thought you were either dead or taking a dump out there.” When he didn’t respond to her joke with a laugh, smirk, or even a roll of the eyes, her demeanor vanished. “What’s up?” she prompted.
He dropped his forest findings in the pile with Bertha’s twigs as if that were supposed to be an answer. “The usual.” As if that response implied anything good.
Bertha immediately saw right through him. “Hey, c’mon,” she prodded further. “You nervous about Kortrik again?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Nervous?” he muttered. “What would I have to be nervous about? It’s not like anybody I know is there. God’s sake, from what you guys have told me, that place has been empty for years until recently.”
“Don’t be coy, Faust,” she insisted. “You and I both know what’s up.” Seeing as he took a seat in the dirt, she got off her knees and sat down as well, at which point she proceeded to rest her cheek on her palm. “It’s okay, man; any of us would feel the same if we had the same experience with Kortrik that you did.”
He really didn’t have a rebuttal to that.
“I promise nothing bad will happen there,” Bertha continued. “We’ll work with the guys there, help set things up, and it basically won’t even be the same by the time we’re done with it.”
Cringing at how much Bertha had missed the mark, how she’d missed the thing that truly was bothering him, Faust resisted the urge to shake his head. “You think maybe someone could figure out cryogenics again once we get it set up?” he asked, his voice so monotone one might have mistaken him for an Autorian unit.
Bertha hesitated, clearly realizing that neither yes nor no was the correct answer to his question. Holding her breath, she pursed her lips in contemplation, then sighed. “You were frozen once, man. Just one time and you’re hooked on it like it’s a drug,” she tutted, folding her arms. “Sure, dude – I suppose if someone manages to reinvent cryogenics, you can freeze yourself until hell itself freezes over, too. Or hell, Autorise might even have cryogenics at this point for all we know, but good luck getting any of the officials there to cooperate with you.” As she spoke, she absentmindedly shuffled the wood around with a stick of her own, barely paying Rouken and Tarren any heed as they came back from the woods, a rabbit slunk over the boy’s shoulder.
The others gathered around altogether for a somber night, no wind to blow the smoke anywhere but directly up into the cloudless sky. From there the rabbit was properly skinned and roasted that night. By the time the fire had nearly died out, they split up in their groups of two and slept in their tents until morning.
Rouken was first to wake, rising out of bed just before the break of dawn. Realizing they had a chance to find out if the fish were edible around the area, he woke the other sujourne up and prepared them for a trip down to the lake. With twice as many people to work on the tents, the four campers cleaned their site twice as fast as it had taken Rouken and Tarren to set it up – and from there, they continued their trek down.
In the morning fog, it took Faust a moment to notice just where the water began and where it ended. He heard geese honking overhead, indicating to him that there was active, growing wildlife at the lake – though the amount of toxicity flowing in their blood would remain to be seen until the sujourne retrieved a reading from a sample fish. Until then, they were content with taking a chance on the morning fish if it meant a chance to get something to eat this morning. Likely those at Kortrik wouldn’t have much in the way of a real meal.
Things continued to look good for the sujourne as – three-fourths of the way there – Tarren’s Geiger counter had not gone off yet. It figured that everything Autorise had ever touched – Kortrik included – would have only improved with time away from Autorise.
Faust witnessed as Bertha readied her harpoon. Without proper fishing rods, this was the best they could do – but it wasn’t like any of them knew how to use fishing rods anyway.
With no beach to speak of, the sujourne were left to watch their fish from a ledge – one high enough that they could just barely reach their arms into the water if they stretched far enough. Being that she was the first one to bring a harpoon out, Bertha was the first to find a spot for herself, at which point the rest of the group split up.
As Faust found a point as far away from the others as possible while still keeping them in sight, he desperately hoped Tarren would be able to contain himself this time. He didn’t want a repeat of last week when Tarren kept hurting himself and scaring the fish away.
If there was any danger of contracting radiation sickness, Tarren or one of the others would have shouted about it right now. That in mind, Faust kept his harpoon at the ready. No fish in sight yet. He could see a turtle, but no fish. If he was lucky, maybe he could drive his harpoon through that turtle shell; if he were even luckier, the others would decide out of nowhere to not go to Kortrik at all.
It felt as if ten minutes had passed and still there were no fish to be found. Judging by the lack of activity on the others’ end, they hadn’t had much luck, either.
Nearby he noticed a large tunnel that drained into the lake – likely the remnants of Kortrik, the realizing of which made a shiver run up his spine. They were definitely close – and the fact that he hadn’t noticed until now made him want to scream.
The morning fog covered up two ducks flapping about in the distant waters – perhaps trying to find fish for themselves, as well. They made a lot of noise splashing about: too much noise for so-called waterfowl. It probably wouldn’t have been long before they died of starvation.
At the same time one of the ducks extended an inproportionately-long arm, a faraway voice – distinctly human – called out.
“Hey, um – there’s someone out there!” Tarren called from his point.
Bertha groaned. “Tarren, for God’s sake –!”
“No, wait,” Rouken spoke. “He’s right.”
The faraway voice called out again. “Help us!”
Well, that was fun. Yep, we’re introducing some new characters — the last ones we’re gonna see for awhile, most likely. It’s the legendary (or maybe not legendary) sujourne!