That night I left.
I had to abandon most of what I had acquired. I took all the baby clothes and formula I could manage. I grabbed the Dr. Seuss book. One bottle of whiskey would work as trade goods. I had the clothes on my back, extra underwear and shirt. The little remaining ID and a few cash cards would have to do me.
I was in quandary over the food. If I left it, it might be taken as a bribe, or used as evidence against me. If I burned it, it would be obvious. I couldn’t think of another way to get rid of most of it quickly. They might think it poisoned and avoid it. They might be angry that I hadn’t shared before. There was no good answer.
I left it. I closed the door softly and left it unlocked. The food would be useful, I hate wasting resources, and it wasn’t that big a clue. Besides, Mario and Becky deserved it. I turned and walked off, Chelsea tugging at my hair and quietly staring around at the scenery. She hadn’t been outside much; her world had been a four meter box. I’d have to remedy that.
I walked south and east. There was little in that direction, but less in any other at this point. It was slightly less chill. It seemed a warm front was moving in. I looked at the clouds, backlit by an early moon, and saw impending rain in them. Not good. I should have paid more attention to them before I left. On the other hand, I hadn’t had much choice.
Traffic was light. Apparently, cities not hit and farther suburban areas were resuming operation without too much hassle. They were busy enough straightening out their own problems to be able to provide only the barest help to survivors. Earth would be digging out the rubble for a year or more, and not worrying about anything else in the meantime. The UN Star Nations and the Colonial Alliance were grinding their political axes on the husk of Earth. We’d succeeded. Somehow, I still didn’t feel good about it. Perhaps if I knew how bad things were back on Grainne it would be different.
I watched the few cars drive by. None would stop to offer a ride, of course. It might prove dangerous. In the aftermath, they were cooperating with each other, but only close friends and neighbors warranted that help. Strangers were still a threat. Plus ça change.
I was not paying attention. I didn’t notice the police car pull up along the roadside. “Hey, buddy,” a voice called.
I snapped to attention, tried not to show any panic and said, “Y-yes?”
The cop was getting out of the car and asked, “Where you going?”
“Nowhere particular,” I said, and realized it was the wrong answer. Evasion wasn’t the way. “Eventually my folks’ place,” I said.
He looked at me. His driver sat and waited, not getting out yet. That was a good sign. Unconsciously, he heaved at his gunbelt, low on his soft belly. That wasn’t a bad sign; they all did that. “There’s a curfew of dark. Hadn’t you heard?”
I’d heard, but hadn’t seen it enforced. This looked bad. I felt everything around me, from slightly gusty wind to spongy ground to buildings too far away and too separated for cover. “Ah, I guess I forgot,” I said.
“Why are you out in the dark?” he asked, still probing.
“Dunno.” It was all I could think of. Playing stupid often works.
He shook his head, looking slightly bewildered. “Get in back,” he said, turning and opening the door. “We’ll take you to a shelter.”
I did not want to get in that car. I would be trapped and helpless. But if I didn’t, he’d know something was not right. It was almost certain he had an image of me on his gear. That image would go to everyone and might match up with a file from their patrol cameras.
“Wow, thanks,” I said, and stepped forward. There was nothing else to do at that point. I climbed in and sat down, awaiting the sting of a baton that never came. I awaited a high-speed drive to a building with more cops. That didn’t happen either. They actually took me to a shelter. It was set up in that local mall. An old department store had been converted and was lit up from within.
We arrived and he let me out again, then walked me to the door. “I’m fine, really,” I said.
“It’s no trouble,” he said. “I’m supposed to help people.” There was also a hint of “I’m not letting you sneak off again, you loon.” He figured the stress of the events had gotten to me, and he wasn’t far wrong. At least he left after opening the door for me. I’d have to check in then leave out the back in a hurry.
“Here y’ go,” he said to both me and a harried woman running the admissions desk. Then he was gone.
“Name?” she said. It was an actual desk. They had only a portable comm and one data line.
“Uh, Martin Lee,” I said.
“ID?” she asked.
“Broken,” I said. “I have a card, but no chip. Got to get it fixed.” I was still sizing up escape routes surreptitiously. Escaping here wouldn’t be the problem. Not being IDed for file would be.
“We’ve had some of those,” she said without suspicion. “What’s your daughter’s name?”
“Melanie,” I said. She was asleep on my shoulder by this time.
“All we’ve got is cots and soup,” she said, sounding apologetic.
“Oh, soup sounds so good,” I said, sounding relieved.
“Great. Well, Lara here will show you where to go,” she said. A teenage girl came around, all cheerful.
“Hi!” she said. “This way.”
She chattered as we walked. “That is such a cute little baby. Girl?”
“Yes,” I agreed. “About six months.”
“Good! She’ll be big before you know it.”
I said, “She’s getting heavy now,” while casually looking around. Large open area, lots of people on cots and occasional vids. Pillars. Several cops. I’d have to be subtle.
Giggling, she said, “Well, we’ll put you right here in the middle. If you need help, just let me know. I’m roving around helping.”
“Thanks,” I said. I tried to sound grateful.
I lay down and snuggled Chelsea, trying to act as if I was resting. Had Mario made that call yet? Would I get associated with the description? How would I get out of here?
A bathroom break seemed like a good idea. I stood and looked. None were immediately visible. “Restrooms?” I asked in the general direction of a family nearby. I shouldered my bag. I wasn’t leaving anything lying where it could be swiped.
“Up the escalator,” I was told. “Sucks.”
Nodding, I wandered that way and up. There were lots of side rooms and staff offices down here, but all were in use as nurseries or such. None of them appeared to have outside doors.
Near the escalators, I met Lara again, as she was coming the other way.
“Need a hand?” she asked.
“Just going to the restroom,” I said.
“Oh, okay. I can hold her for you. What’s her name?”
“Melanie,” I said. “I’ll be fine. Really. I hate putting her down.”
“Oh. Okay,” she said, looking crestfallen but not suspicious. “Well, let me know, huh?”
I turned and rode up, along with a couple of other people. Upstairs was about the same, but more open. There were lots of back passageways. I hit the stinking, overused restroom first, then started to patrol.
Yes, indeed. Lots of exits. All three roof hatches near the restrooms were locked with padlocks. I might be able to kick one open, especially Boosted, but where would I go? There were three other roof hatches at corners, behind “MAINTENANCE ONLY” doors. There was a service conveyor that went down at an angle. It was locked off. The warehouse areas were dark and guarded by cops. Without lights, they were deemed unsafe.
I wandered downstairs. I’d have to sneak out one of the two regular sets of doors. Easy enough. Fresh air or some other excuse should do it. I grabbed some soup as I passed, needing food.
I’d reached our cot and sat down, Chelsea starting to stir a little. I mixed her a bottle and sat back to consider. Then I stopped considering, because the choice was made for me.
A news load came on one of the channels, showing a flashing “TERRORIST ALERT” at the top of the screen. I couldn’t hear and tried to move closer, then realized that might not be too bright. I was just close enough to hear, “—suspected terrorist may be traveling with a baby. Everyone should be alert for a young Caucasian male adult with an infant—” The rest was lost in a stir of voices.
Sometimes, sheer gall is your best weapon. “H*ll, that description could be anyone!” I said aloud.
“Even you,” a man replied, looking levelly at me.
I replied, “Yeah. Even me. Watch it. I’ve got a loaded baby and I’m not afraid to use it!”
Laughs scattered across the area, including the man who’d been momentarily suspicious.
But it meant I’d have to stay here tonight. Leaving now would be a clear sign. I sighed. It would be a long night and I wouldn’t dare sleep.
I lay there under the lights, dreading every passage of the security, cops and staff. When would they swoop in like vultures and take me?
I knew they’d get me sooner or later. Every time a guard trudged by, staring at faces, I cringed inside. When would it happen?
As soon as it was light, I grabbed one of the offered breakfast pastries and checked out. “Leaving already?” The current staffer asked.
“Yeah, got to find my folks,” I told him, trying not to seem too eager.
“Was your stay okay?” he asked.
“Oh, sure. Warm, dry, fed. I can’t complain, can I?” I said.
“You’d be amazed how many do,” he said, shaking his head.
I muttered a goodbye over my shoulder and headed out.
It was another long march. I was getting used to them. But with Chelsea on my back, curled up deep in the new ruck, I had one less thing to worry about and her radiated heat was a comfort to me. The tools I had were wrapped in the ubiquitous blanket to hide my intentions, except the small shovel I carried through the straps.
Far south of the metroplex, I sought a cache that had been hidden for us when we were only in the prep stages. It would have more than I’d need for this problem. The trick was to get there.
Outside the cities, there are grids of roads, unlike back on Grainne where we have only a few. They’re paved too, rather than being fused. I found the mark I needed at the edge of the southernmost suburb of Preston. Now I would head four squares south and three east. 11,200 meters.
The dark was a comfort, as it closed out visibility. Operatives live by night. Of course, criminals do, too. I slipped down into weeds the three times vehicles came by. I might cadge a ride from one if I looked helpless enough, I also might be questioned or attacked. It was still chill; spring comes late to those latitudes, and the environment was still a mess. Every time I lay down, I could feel the cold seeping through the wet spots on knees and elbows and eventually chest. It didn’t matter. This trip here should set me up.
My ears were on automatic, picking up the occasional bird amid the rustling, sighing, whispering trees. What did the trees make of this? They had CO2, a cool environment, and were being left alone out here, but stripped to the ground in their few remaining camps in the cities. Above, or below all those natural sounds was the pervasive, muted and barely audible soft rumble of the city. Even this far out, the omnipresent reminder of humanity intruded. How could one live on a planet like this?
I was suddenly alert. Something was wrong, but what? Bird sounds stopped. Threat, but what and where? Footsteps in soft ground, behind and to the right. About fifty meters. Closing. Run, or engage? Engage. My brain, trained as a battle comm, sorted through what it needed almost without me thinking about it. The ripple of natural adrenalin was followed by the surge of Boost, and I turned with the short shovel in hand.
My attacker was surprised as I spun. He’d been sure he had the edge. The tape-wrapped chunk of cable in his hand made him a threat, not a supplicant, and I struck, the edge of the shovel batting his crude sap aside before shattering his right shoulder as I brought it down. “No!” he yelled in denial. Scream. He collapsed. Whimper. “Damn you, you shoulda been mine.” No hope of salvation in this piece of filth. Cock back for a lethal blow to the skull…
…turn and keep walking.
I couldn’t do it. He was no threat mentally or physically. He was a waste of my time and his death would serve no purpose.
Behind me, there were animal cries of pain. I was used to them by now. I kept walking. Shortly, I turned east.
From the mark I’d sought, I followed a buried hydrogen line by its markers for 150 meters. From that bend in the line, I continued ten more meters. It was a dangerous spot, so close to a farmer’s field, but northern wheat didn’t grow that deep. The harvest I sought was far below.
I dug. Digging is meditation for a soldier, because we do so much of it. I kept Chelsea in the ruck, and had it on the ground next to me, always at hand. I stopped periodically to refill her bottle, check her diaper and drink a few swallows myself. Then I returned to digging. The small shovel, E-tool really, made it slow work, as did the need to keep the fill pile low. I acquired blisters right through my gloves, but at least I was warm from the exertion.
Then she started fussing. Baby cries travel a long way, and I had to stop them. I picked her up and she clung like a monkey, heels and fingers clutching my jacket. She quieted down at once.
But I had no luck in giving her a bottle and putting her down. She wanted held. One cannot argue with an infant, they have no higher functions. I couldn’t have the noise. I had no way to sedate her and would be reluctant to do so anyway. So I turned the blanket into a sling and placed her under my right arm, a hindrance but not an incapacitance. I just hoped the digging wouldn’t take much longer.
Two meters should be my depth. I was at two meters. Nothing. I hoped I wouldn’t have to try again another night, or dig laterally. Perhaps additional soil had been laid above by the farm.
That was the case. At 220 centimeters, I struck crate. Eager now, frantic even, I cleared away one corner. There were stress lines that could be broken in an emergency. This was an emergency. I snapped off the corner.
Riches! I had more clothes. I had at least four IDs that would work passably. I had weapons. I looked longingly at a Merrill Model 17, the brand new 11 mm killer. Lovely, but a dead giveaway. My weapons were my wits, these mere tools. I left most of the tools where they were, except for a good folding knife. I took the clothes, the IDs and risked a double armful of battle rats. I took cashcards and credchips that matched the IDs. I wanted a standard military shelter, but that, too would reveal me if found. I settled for the plain but adequate inflatable civilian tent within. I abandoned the cheap backpack for a better grade of camper’s ruck. The whole process took minutes.
Then it was time to exfiltrate. I rigged fuses to a five kilo demolition block and shoved it far back into the case. I rigged fuses on three magburn incendiaries, the proprietary mix that was evolved to cut titanium struts, hardened concrete and weaken structural whisker composites. It had been so long since I worked with professional explosives, but my fingers were sure in trained muscle memory. Insert fuse to detonator, butt, crimp, insert, place. Rig a second detonator for every charge as a backup. Uncoil fuse. I couldn’t test burn the fuse, but it should be 300 seconds per meter. I’d have to rely on the estimate, and I’d need approximately twelve meters of fuse for each of eight detonators.
I climbed out, piled the dirt back in as fast as I could, using it as quick fill and not worrying about compaction. There was no visible fill pile to indicate anything, and hopefully no one would look for yet another few weeks. There was bare gray in the east when I finished. Looking around for observers and seeing none, I spoke aloud, the textvid safety formula now a ritual to remind me of who I was.
“I am ready to strike. The area is clear. Fire in the hole. Strike." As soon as I confirmed them burning, I pulled the igniters free with the tip of my knife. I scooped them up and wrapped them in a rag, still hot. Then I began walking.
An hour later, I was five squares east. I glanced at my watch. Right now. In that cache, the magburn was melting the unused explosives, the crate, the weapons and the ammo. The ammo would be sputtering as its matrix decayed in the heat. And right now, the explosives to the side would be blowing the molten pool into slag mixed with dirt. Should anyone find it, they’d assume it had been caused by a gas leak. The hydrogen utility would check, see it wasn’t their problem, and ignore it. If they recognized signs of explosives, they’d call in experts. After some days of checking, the experts might deduce it had been a cache. That would tell them there were infiltrators on Earth. Which they knew. Very careful checking might show the possibility that the cache had been used after the attack. That would tell them that at least one Operative might be alive. Which they knew. I reminded myself again that I was safe. Then I turned and kept walking.