This, I wrote several years ago. The first part is autobiographical: it happened in the Birmingham, AL VA Hospital. The second part came to me after watching a TV special about WWI.
This posting is to honor all those who have given “the last full measure” for our country. I offer this in special memory of Frankie Lee Wallace, Felix King and Linwood D. Martin.
Old soldiers from all our modern wars
crowd into the same slice of time,
-in Veteran’s Hospitals,
mutely bonded by losses,
-empty spaces that surround
and define us.
Sitting on an uncomfortable island of vinyl
awash in a surf-rolling susurrus of voices,
cocooned inside my silence,
untouched by misery and despair
swirling in the crowded air like cigarette smoke,
stinging exposed nerves.
I felt the touch of ancient eyes
like a man afraid to look in a mirror
after long, dark nightmares.
How big a man he was, I’ll never know.
He stared out at me from the hillock
his loose white shirt and brown suit made,
stuffed into the seat of a wheelchair,
blue eyes flickering about the ward
like a sparrow watching from a nest of rags.
The woman stood behind him,
thin arms circling the chair,
holding his shoulders
as if he might roll away
He wanted to talk.
Asked which war was mine,
and, without an answer,
told me I would never know real war.
The kind he knew in the Meuse-Argonne,
where artillery stormed
through nights when rain was steel.
The earth, ploughed,
and sown with exploded metal
a treacherous place for man to walk.
They sprinted along trenches
splashing through partly-frozen mud,
and huddled in bunkers,
-fear of crashing shells almost lost
until the silence;
when the big guns stopped.
Ears groped through underground darkness
stretching to know
when slow, soft mortar plops
signaled sliding yellow death
feeling its way over broken ground,
finding edges of the earth where men hid.
Mustard gas, like a living predator,
seemed to find them by sensing their fear
and clawed bare skin,
prying at protecting seals of rubber masks.
held by more than soldier’s courtesy,
due an older warrior.
His images of war,
the Great War,
-pinched in my vision,
superimposed over silent, jerky, black-and-white films
whose soldiers in wool uniforms,
puttees and greatcoats
look vaguely ridiculous;
always smiling, waving to the camera,
holding long, bolt-action rifles.
What did he see,
when TV specials showed his war?
Did the gait of those old films move
with smooth, strong strides of young heroes?
How did that mirror,
those old moving pictures, reflect the man
now shrunken inside a pile of old clothes?
As he held me with his stories,
I was seeing pictures of my war;
old nightly news clips from Vietnam,
color TV with sound,
projected against the back of my brain.
Though these mirrors,
-constant reflections stuck in time,
now begin to look archaic,
looking into them, I find myself again
chilled with the immediate fear
that swirled in battle like morning fog
and coalesced into rage,
forging a weapon
more lethal than simple tools of killing.
But at war’s end, survivors return,
with eyes of old soldiers,
-to insults or parades.
Apparitions that were young warriors
burned in mind’s retina
like lingering persistence of vision;
-portraits stamped on the face of a mirror,
forever the age of those whose names
old veterans read in monument stone.
Like fragments from a looking glass,
slowly shattered by the warp of changing seasons,
these broken pieces of a dead war’s face,
-shards of incomplete reality,
reflect all that my sons will know,
looking back on a father’s war.
Arielle has injected a painkiller and antibiotics in Kalev’s leg and dressed the wound. Her touch is expert—strong and gentle.
“You’ll heal quickly. You’re tough and the bullet didn’t hit bones or arteries. You’ll be sore, but walking within a week,” she says.
“Get him to the aid station we set up in the forest. We still have dangerous work to do here. I’m going to guide Andrus and Nijul in. We’ll return soon,” Adrien says.
Two men open a stretcher and, under Arielle’s supervision lift Kalev aboard.
“I’m going along, wherever you take him,” Freya says.
“You can help with the nursing duties, then. We always need more hands. I’ll tell you what to do. Come along,” Arielle says.
As the group prepares to leave, Andrus and Nijul arrive, accompanied by Adrien and eight other Recondos. They move to the side of Kalev’s stretcher.
“Kalev, you’ve made all of us proud. You have helped us pinpoint a major enemy outpost and, from what I’ve already heard, helped destroy the murderous Decider, Tapja,” Andrus says.
“Sir, it’s true that I struck her with a mental energy bolt again, but I think Freya and Kaja hit her just before I did. We’ll have to talk about it later.”
“Take him to safety,” Andrus says.
Nijul has been silent, but reaches to take Kalev’s hand. “Heal quickly. We’ll need you more than ever.”
He turns to Kaja.
Before he can speak, a muffled explosion, like distant thunder, comes from the mountain above The Hive. As echoes subside, a quiet the city hasn’t known in decades descends like cool evening rain. There is no incessant screeching from the wind turbine.
“I ordered a demolition crew to bring down that tower. It had stood long enough,” Nijul says.
Andrus nods his approval and again addresses Kaja.
“How many Protectors do you think are in the complex?”
“Six or fewer. The people who live here are mostly passive and require little active coercion. The Protectors primarily guard the fabrication areas where sensors and drones are produced,” she says.
“Do you think they’ll destroy the devices now that they must know we’re here?”
“The Protector guards here don’t seem to have much individual initiative. I think they’ll try to prevent entry into the areas rather than destroying anything.”
“Tell these troops where the manufacturing facilities are located. They’ll reconnoiter the areas and try to take manufacturing equipment, sample products and information we can use. If they can take the Protector guards alive, they’ll do so. Those people can give us valuable information,” Nijul says.
“It may be better if I show them where to look. The fabrication plants are in the same areas where people live,” Kaja says.
“Agreed, but you must take extreme care.”
Andrus has been watching as the contingent, carrying Kalev, moves away into the forest. He joins Nijul and Kaja.
“Is there a resident of this city that we should contact?” he says.
“There is a woman that the Deciders appointed to administer the city, her name is Maarika. She is the one whose spies caused my partner to be condemned and burned,” Kaja says.
Andrus motions for an officer to join them.
“Follow those going inside. Once in the buildings, find this woman—Maarika—and bring her to me.”
The group moves from the open ground to the shelter of an open portico fronting one of the immense concrete buildings that backs up to the mountain. Kaja, flanked by two other Recondos and followed by six more, enters one of the buildings. The officer on Andrus’ mission, accompanied by another soldier, follows Kaja’s lead.
Andrus and Nijul wait, talking quietly—guarded by six alert soldiers.
Little sound comes from The Hive. The residents have apparently been frightened into suspicious silence.
A sudden whump interrupts the new quiet.
Two of the guards move away and step into the square. One of them points to the south side of the portico roof.
“Master Andrus, look,” he says.
Following the man’s direction, Andrus and Nijul see blood dripping from the concrete.
“Someone jumped, or was thrown from the building,” the Recondo says.
Looking up, they see one of The Acreage’s people at the lip of the bluff that overlooks The Hive. She signals all clear .
Within minutes, the officer, who Andrus had ordered to find Maarika, appears. He and his assistant have a stranger with them, a man with a shaven head, wearing the Common Clothes of a Hive dweller. His dark eyes flicker from one person to another, never resting.
“Who is this?” Andrus says.
“He says his name is Jaak. He claims to have been the ‘First Assistant’ to Maarika. That’s her body that hit the top of this portico. He claims that, when the Decider was killed and our people began to take charge, she went to the roof and jumped.”
Nijul steps closer to the stranger, who flinches at the intelligence chief’s scrutiny.
“Jumped?” Nijul says.
“She was loyal to the Decider, Tapja, who had appointed her to be the Senior Overseer of Elation City,” Jaak says.
As Andrus and Nijul question the man, the clatter of gunfire from within the city peppers the air. When the lighter-sounding, more rapid sounds become dominant, the men are more at ease. Needlegun fire is quieter and faster than the Protector weapons.
One of the soldiers who accompanied Kalev to the aid station returns. Freya is with him.
“I was going to stay with Kalev, but he convinced me that I’d be more helpful here, with you, Master Andrus,” she says.
“I’m in contact, mentally, with Kaja. She and her group have just entered one of the manufacturing facilities for the tracking bugs. One of the Recondos is slightly wounded, but can continue. Two Protectors opposed them. One is wounded, but stable. The other is dead,” Freya says.
“Kalev was right. We need you here. Stay close,” Andrus says.
“Freya, ask Kaja what else we should be looking for. The Protectors in the base where Kalev was held will be coming here soon, swarming and angry. We need to know what else is in the city, before they get here,” Nijul says.
Freya steps away from the group and turns toward the interior of The Hive. She closes her eyes.
Andrus’ attention has been on Freya, but now he returns his focus to the Overseer from The Hive.
“Jaak, please call a meeting of your subordinate supervisors. We mean the people of this city no harm. In fact, you are now free from the dominance of the Deciders,” Andrus says.
“There are thirty more Overseers,” Jaak says.
“Go get them. Bring them here. They should know their choices.”
Andrus points to a Recondo.
“Go with him and make sure no one delays the meeting,” Andrus says.
As the two enter the city, Freya returns to Andrus.
“Sir, Kaja says there’s an area for manufacturing surveillance drones. She’s interrogating the captive Protector to get the exact location. When they have the specifics, she’ll be going there with the remaining troops to take it. Our wounded soldier will be coming out with the wounded Protector. One of our men is guarding the facility they just took.”
“Does she need reinforcements?” Nijul says.
“No, sir. She says that those with her are enough.”
“Very well, contact Kalev. Tell him to ask Adrien and Arielle to send some of our medical people to meet the wounded Recondo and Protector. They’ll escort them to the aid station,” Andrus says.
Freya turns away to face the forest and carry out the orders.
People dressed in common clothes begin drifting out of The Hive and cautiously approach the group.
One woman steps forward addressingAndrus and Nijul. Her voice is loud, but wavering.
“Sir, Jaak told us to come here. Sir, we are Sub- Overseers for Maarika. The First Assistant Overseer ordered us to come to you for a meeting. Sir, we’ve done nothing wrong. We followed orders of the Deciders given to us through Senior Overseer Maarika. We knew nothing else,” she says.
More men and women, dressed in The Hive’s manner, join the group from the city, staring at the armed soldiers in strange uniforms; clustering close with familiar people.
Andrus looks over the crowd. Tension rises from them like waves of heat on a roadway. He sees Jaak, with the Recondo escort, returning. He delays his answer until they have joined the other Hive residents.
“You are the supervisory core of Elation City. Please take these words and thoughts to those for whom you are responsible. You are in no danger from us. You are free to leave here if you wish. You may elect your own leaders and establish your lives, unencumbered by Maarika and Tapja. Both of them are dead.
For several uneasy heartbeats, the only sounds are birdcalls from the nearby forests.
A tall, skinny man holds up a hand. When Andrus nods in his direction, he speaks. His voice is high-pitched and his expression speaks of a habitually-complaining personality
“Where can we go? Our Lectrics won’t take us far enough away to be safe from the Protectors,”
“Walk,” Nijul says.
The company from the city is silent for long seconds. “We don’t know how to be free. We’ve never lived that way,” a woman says.
She is thin and gray-haired and noticeably older than the rest. Her voice trembles as she speaks.
“Yes, we have everything we need, here. The Deciders make sure we have enough. All we have to do is help them. We don’t want to leave,” a stocky man says.
His tones are confrontational, but his body language speaks of fear.
Freya touches Andrus’ sleeve.
“Sir, Kaja reports that her troops are under fire. They’re trying to take the drone factory. She may need reinforcements. She asks that we not send them until she requests, but would like to have them on standby, ready to go,” Freya says.
The man called Jaak has moved through the crowd and is standing just outside the line of troops that protects Andrus and his group.
“I can show you a way into the drone fabrication area that the Protectors won’t be guarding,” Jaak says.
Andrus looks up at the man and regards him closely for long seconds before he answers.
“Why would you do that?
“I was manager of the drone program. I have an office there that I can enter without going through the guarded door. There are people working there that I care about. I’ll take your soldiers in, if you promise that they’ll not target anyone but the Protectors.”
“How do we know you won’t be leading them into a trap?”
“I’ll personally go with them. The Protectors in that zone are worse than most. They’re arrogant, sadistic fools. Kill them if you can,” Jaak says.
Andrus nods to Nijul, who selects four Recondos.
“Troops, this man will be leading you to a secret way into the zone that’s resisting Kaja and her soldiers. Follow him, but keep him in front of your weapons. If he tries to betray you, kill him immediately,” Nijul says.
A woman from the cluster of Overseers steps forward. Her light brown hair drops almost to her shoulders and shows early signs of gray. Her eyes are deep green with flecks of gold. Her gaze is direct and unflinching. Her lips are full, but held—for the moment—in a flat line.
“You need intelligence about the products Elation City, this stinking place, creates for the Deciders and the machines that make them. I can give you that. My name is Nuria. I’m in charge of the library for the city. Part of my responsibility is guarding the secret plans for the products we create.”
“Where are these files?” Andrus says.
The woman pulls two round black rods, thinner than her little finger and about six inches long, from a pocket. As she does, one of the Recondos standing guard points her pistol in warning.
“Don’t be concerned. These infocarriers are only for storage of data. The only danger they possess is to those who lose their secrets,” Nuria says.
“Why would you give them to us?” Andrus says.
“I want to go with you. I want to leave this city and the bullying of the Protectors. I wish to live free of the arbitrary, murderous whims of Deciders.”
She turns to the guard whose pistol has been lowered, but not holstered.
“Please don’t shoot. I have a downloader device that reads the infocarriers. I’m going to remove it from my pocket.”
She removes a slender, flat object, as large and wide as two of her palms, from a pocket. A reading screen is the prominent feature.
“Along with the technical data on Elation City’s products, I have other infocarriers that record the history of the city since its establishment after the Rift. It will be from the Decider’s point of view, but may be useful. The last ninety years are recorded in detail.”
She hands the downloader and five data rods to Nijul. He pockets the infocarriers and begins to inspect the downloader.
No one has interrupted since Nuria first spoke. Andrus has been scrutinizing the woman.
“Thank you for your gifts, but I cannot make the decision to accept you into our community. Only our Supreme Council can do that. I do have the authority to take you with us to a certain location. You can wait there, safely, until a decision is reached,” he says.
“Master Andrus. Kaja reports that the troops who followed Jaak have taken the drone construction base without casualties. The Protectors surrendered, and are being forced to bring out the equipment our people select,” Freya says.
“Thank God! Tell her to come out with the prisoners and, tell them to bring an intact, completed drone. We need to be going,” Andrus says.
The ratcheting noise of automatic weapons and the deep bass of a rocket grenade punctuate his statement. Half a kilometer away, up the entrance road, an incoming armored troop carrier has been ambushed and destroyed by Recondos waiting in ambush.
“Freya, tell Kalev I’m ordering the withdrawal. Arielle knows our rally point. We’ll meet there. Tell Kaja to hurry and to make sure she brings some of the surveillance bugs and the machines that create them. Stay with me and Nijul,” Andrus says.
He turns to Nuria, the woman from the city.
“You say you want to come with us. You may—under guard, for now. If you attempt to betray us, it will not go well for you.”
Addressing the remaining Overseers from The Hive, Andrus’ face holds an expression of resignation.
“You people go back to your lives. You still, for a short time, have the possibility of leaving, before more Protectors and Deciders come,” he says.
The thinning crowd from the city turns again to the inner gray, dim corridors that wait for them.
When Kaja and her contingent come trotting from the buildings into the sunlight, they bring a disassembled drone and three prisoners, burdened by machines. Jaak and the men who had accompanied them follow closely.
“Kaja, didn’t you tell Freya that there were four prisoners?” Nijul says.
“Yes, but when we captured the guards and the outer doors opened, the men with Jaak reported that, after they disarmed the Protectors, Jaak snatched a sheath knife from a Recondo’s belt and cut the throat of a prisoner. You can see blood all over his clothes. We almost shot him, but decided you’d want to make that decision.”
Contempt radiates from Jaak’s sarcastic smile. He stands, chin lifted, unashamed.
“Bring him with us, but put manacles on his hands, shackles on his ankles and a gag in his mouth. I want to talk to him later,” Nijul says.
“We need to go now,” Andrus says.
The ranking Officer standing beside him shoots a green flare high into the cooling air and sends runners to all nearby units, signaling them to leave The Hive and assemble at their rally points in the forest. From there, the teams will set up a rearguard, ambushing any of the enemy trying to follow.
“Is sadism a required part of the course to be a physical therapist?” Kalev says.
The stocky woman who has been bending his left leg smiles as she often does at the redhead. He is healing rapidly, but teases her as she helps him.
“If you keep giving me trouble, I’ll tell Freya—she’ll take care of you. Now, I’ve put a weight on your ankle. I want you to straighten the leg until it’s flat on the mat and lift it to a forty-five degree angle–slowly. Do it twenty times. I’ll be counting,” she says.
“No, I’ll do it twenty-one times. One extra for the Recondos.”
“Sir, do you want to count my leg-raise reps?” says Kalev.
Her grin widens, and then she looks up. Master Andrus has entered the therapy room. His warm glow of approval is not unusual. He frequently checks on Kalev. She nods to him and leaves the room, affording privacy between mentor and student.
“No, I already know you’ll do more than they ask. Press on.”
The twinkle fades from Andrus’ eyes as he sits in the chair beside the exercise mat. He focuses far beyond the room. Kalev mentally counts each leg raise, but observes his mentor’s darkening mood. He is silent.
“Kalev, get well soon. We need you more than ever. Your mental touch with Freya and Kaja will be critical. The storms are rolling through the land. Another war is coming faster than we’d expected. It may be even worse than ninety years ago when our civilization was ruptured by The Rift.”
Andrus stops speaking and, again looking into deep distances, shakes his head.
“Two people came with us when we left The Hive. We had both in Caves, under guard. The woman, Nuria, may be an important asset. She was the principal librarian in The Hive. Nijul and I may recommend that she may eventually come here to be a part of The Acreage. The information she has already provided is priceless.”
Kalev ends his silent count and relaxes from the exercises.
“Sir, you said had both in Caves—that was past tense. What happened to the man?”
“The man who called himself Jaak is a traitor. He betrayed his city, murdered a Protector who had surrendered and probably pushed the Senior Overseer out a window to her death. He said he wanted freedom, but what he wanted was a way to learn our secrets and sell them to the Deciders for personal gain.”
“What was the decision about him?”
“He was drugged and taken back to The Hive. The Recondos who took him left him under the main building’s portico at 3 a.m. If the people in that city want him back, he’s theirs. My guess is that they’ll find him inconvenient to keep. He will awaken to his fate at their hands.”
Andrus stands and touches Kalev’s shoulder as a father might. “Get healthy. Stay close with Freya and Kaja in your mind. We’re depending on you, far more than you can imagine.”
Kalev’s eyes give him away. Freya is speaking silently to him.
“Is she here?”
“She will be in a moment, Sir.”
“Then I’ll say farewell as soon as she comes. Tell her the stories I just told you, but know that we have to trust in the Lord for our survival.”
Kalev has been lying on his stomach, trying to sleep. The intense light in his cell makes a mockery of rest for his eyes. It seems almost to sting the skin on the back of his neck
Almost silently, the stairs swing down from the ceiling. Boots clatter down the stairs. Two Protector soldiers, followed by the officer who had accompanied Tapja, enter.
“Immobilize him,” the officer says.
A soldier triggers a device that looks like a blunt pistol. With only the slightest evil whisper, two electrodes streak out and pierce Kalev’s clothing. Pain, like liquid fire burns through every nerve. He cannot move and breathing is difficult. His brain seems to throb and swell.
“Our Decider Lady has instructed me to drain your mind and then scramble what remains. We will possess all you know and then into the empty bucket, inject confusion. You will not die until you are burned, but your mind will report basic survival impulses. You will feel pain well enough.”
The officer nods, and the second Protector steps forward. He carries a black, cubical box with two leads that end in needle-like electrodes. He pinches the skin just behind Kalev’s eyes and inserts the sharp metal spikes.
“Drain him,” the officer says.
As the soldier holding the box begins to manipulate the controls, Kalev’s aching mind seems to form a protective cover. He visualizes a seamless, blue metal ball that appears to be encapsulating his brain.
“Not getting anything on the drain, Sir,” the Protector says.
The officer leans over the soldier’s shoulder, examining the readouts and lights.
“Turn it up. Lady Tapja said we needed to know where the Moles are hiding.”
The technician holding the box adjusts the knobs and presses a button.
Kalev can feel, and almost see the energies rippling through his head. The cobalt orb deflects the attacks, rendering them harmless.
“No good, Sir,” the Protector says.
“Hit the scrambler, then. Better that some of the Decider’s directives are followed than none. This one hurt the Lady with his mind, she says. Probably your machine is not calibrated to deal with extracting information from one like him, but it can confuse his brain.” the officer says.
The technician adjusts the control on the instrument and triggers the device.
The energies that had attacked before, Kalev had visualized as red and orange. The new emissions are a fierce, attacking green. Again, the protective shielding shelters him; they bounce off—harmless, and then dissipate.
As the assault continues, Kalev opens his mouth as if trying to speak, then slumps further into himself.
“I’ve got him this time. Just a shot or two more at high power and this guy won’t even know his name,” the technician says.
“Don’t kill him. The Decider wants to douse him with oil and watch through the portholes of the incinerator as he dances to his burning death.
Although Kalev has convinced the Protectors of his helplessness, the globe inside him seems to glow. It is now absorbing the emerald flames and releasing them back to their source.
“Well, Sir, we must’ve ruined this Stencher. The scrambler shut down.”
“Stand back, with your weapons at the ready. Release him from the immobilizer and be ready to shoot if he attacks. He’s probably like a wild animal now,” the officer says.
The Protector holding the strange gun steps forward, removes the darts and retreats to join the others, who are standing beside the stairs.
Kalev sits up and rubs his eyes and head. He stares at the three protectors and offers a broad grin, but does not move.
“Back to headquarters. I’ll make a report and listen to the Decider lady yell about not getting information she wants. I’ll tell her that the Stencher is totally scrambled. She’ll get over it when she watches him fry,” the officer says.
Alone, but certain that he is watched, Kalev lies back on the cot with his arm over his eyes. Verses from Psalm 91, in the ancient formal language, fill his mind.
“4. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: His truth shall be thy shield and buckler. 5. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;”
What happened? Did the impulses from the gun that immobilized me cause the protective orb to form? What is it? When I close my eyes I can visualize its shielding glow. What if I try again to contact Freya? She must be back in The Acreage.
“Freya, where are you?”
Aware that he might give himself away again, he initiates a telepathic call.
As he reaches out with his mind touch call, the surface of the cobalt globe extrudes a thin, seamless pipe. His thoughts seem to flow inside the tube, hidden across forest distances, to The Acreage. Tapja will not be able to detect his mental activity.
“Freya. Freya. Can you hear my thoughts? I am in a building near the gate we saw. Do not let anyone try to follow me, there is an energy field around the facility so powerful that it can kill.”
To those watching Kalev on their monitors, he appears to be asleep, lying on his back with an arm over his eyes. He continues to call through the shielded tube that extends from the globe in his mind.
“Freya, Freya, please answer,”
The response he receives, almost physically jolts him.
“Kalev, this is Kaja. Freya is healing but not yet ready to touch your mind with hers, over long distances. When whatever happened to you occurred; she was so closely linked with you in her mind that she was hurt, too. Where are you and what has happened?”
“Kaja, I’m in a building across the Decider’s Roadway from the gate we found, Arielle and Adrien know where. Please tell Andrus and Nijul that the Deciders and Protectors are launching drones, trying to find The Acreage and the other villages of our people. They call us Moles. The Protectors have an energy barrier that I hit. It apparently surrounds the facility. They’re surprised I wasn’t killed. They plan to take care of that tomorrow. Tapja is here, weakened but furiously vengeful. She plans to burn me in that incinerator, at The Hive, tomorrow.”
For long minutes, there is no reply.
“ Andrus and Nijul are here. They say, ‘Have faith, we’ll come.’ Are you sure Tapja won’t know you’re contacting us?”
Kalev gives Kaja a brief description of the phenomenon that protected him from the draining and scrambling assault. Then concludes with his guesses.
“My mind and body must have reacted to their electronic immobilizing device by creating the shield. I think that the reason that our conversation, at this moment is so clear, is the thing I visualize as a pipeline comes from the shielding mechanism, works at both ends. Also, your mental voice is stronger than I’ve known.”
For several moments there is no response, then, in a voice calculated to comfort, Kaja says.
“Rest now, Kalev. Trust in God. We’ll be there to protect you. Good night.”
Silence fills the night as Kalev, in spite of the bright light, tries to sleep.
His attempt to relax is shattered by the sound of the staircase swinging down from the ceiling, followed by heavy boots clanging down the steps. Two Protectors arrive.
“On your back, Stencher. We can hit you with the immobilizer if you need it,” a Protector says.
As Kalev sits up, the second Protector triggers the pistol-shaped device and the two electrodes flash out, stinging his chest and stomach.
Although untouched, he slumps and feigns paralysis.
As the energy flows into his body, it is absorbed by the globe Kalev visualizes it absorbing the energies and throbbing with a deeper blue glow.
One protector holds the immobilizing device as the second strips him bare, and then locks him—by his wrists and ankles—face up on the cot.
“Now, Stencher, we’re going to give you a little preview of tomorrow’s fun,” the Protector says.
The two retreat up the stairway, the sound of their snickering follows them until the door shuts into the ceiling.
Kalev tests his bindings. Secure and strong. The light seems to be getting brighter and hotter. Closed eyes are little protection.
A quick glimpse confirms what his ears have told him by a light grating sound. The ceiling is moving down.
“Lord, please stop this torture. Make the machines stop.”
The heat increases. Obviously the Protector’s sniggering threat meant that he is to be painfully stung as with severe sunburn, increasing his eventual agony in the incinerator.
The ceiling halts movement about three feet above him. As the radiation begins to sting his skin, his prayers become more urgent.
“Lord, please blank out the light and radiation.”
The light and radiation continue—but like a slow cascade of mountain spring water, he is covered with a cooling flow from the orb he visualizes in his mind. Healing darkness slides over his eyes.
God didn’t stop the machines. He simply made it possible for me to keep from harm.
“Thank you, Lord.”
The ceiling door opens again. The officer he saw before is accompanied by the two who stripped him and bound him to the cot.
“Well, look at our toasted Stencher. He’s parboiled; ready for cooking today. Make him dress and bring him up for transport. We’ll meet the Lady at the city,” the officer says.
When he is able to sit up, Kalev sees that his body appears sunburned, but he feels no pain. He groans and moves stiffly though, staring blankly at his reddened skin and at the Protectors.
“Shackle him with his hands behind him and hobble his ankles. Use bindings that’ll melt in the heat. Our Lady Tapja should enjoy watching him hop and sizzle,” the officer says.
After securing him according to the officer’s orders, the two protectors drag Kalev up the steps to the hallway and to a door where the open back gates of a transporter wait.
The metal floor of the vehicle rasps his cheek as the Protectors throw him in the back. When the slamming of the doors bangs his ears, a locking bolt jams home with the hollow sound of finality.
Kalev visualizes the orb with its extended tube going to The Acreage and sends a message.
“Kaja. They’ve put me in a transporter vehicle to go to The Hive. They plan to burn me for the entertainment of Tapja. Can you receive my thoughts?” Kalev.
Except for the sound of the transporter’s wheels on the roadway, nothing answers his call.
“Oh, Lord, keep me strong. If I must die today, may I do so as a true warrior, holding to my faith in your will.”
His prayers are interrupted.
“Kalev, I am here. Kaja, Arielle, Adrien and twenty more Recondos are just outside The Hive and there are more teams on the cliffs above. We’ve been here since dawn. I’m strong enough now to reach you with mind touch through the portal you’ve been given. Have faith in God, we’ll be together again soon,” Freya.
The feeling of her presence in his mind, after an absence they haven’t known since their early years, is like surfacing from the depths of a fetid swamp in a nightmare and gasping at clean air.
“Freya! I don’t know how close we are to the city, but I think we’ve been traveling for nearly an hour. There are two armed Protectors in the transporter. I don’t know how many are with Tapja,” Kalev.
“There are seven with the killer woman. They are already in the open square and have commanded the Overseer to begin focusing the incinerator lenses to build up heat. We are watching and waiting.” Freya.
Kaja and Freya are hidden in the deep grasses that border the south side of the entrance road to The Hive.
Adrien and Arielle are hidden with them near the spot where Kalev and Freya rescued Kaja.
“Remember, we wait for the troops on the bluff above The Hive to fire on the Protectors. When they do, Tapja’s car will head this way to escape. We’ll ambush the vehicle, eliminate the Protectors and force the woman to order Kalev’s release,” Adrien says.
Freya and Kaja nod in unison, then exchange glances — they’re tempted to use telepathy, but fear that— although wounded and weakened—Tapja might detect their presence since they don’t have the secure conduit that exists only with Kalev. Their eyes, though, speak agreement in their private plan.
In the silence, distant shrieks of the broken wind turbine are like the agony of a dying giant.
“Down. Stay low. A transporter is coming in,” Arielle says.
The blocky black, six-wheeled vehicle powers past the spot where the four lie concealed. As it approaches the city, bellowing rises from the throngs gathered in The Hive’s open courtyard.
A strident, amplified voice cuts like a sharp blade through the babble.
“Watch and listen. A man from the forbidden caves, a Mole, has pretended to be one of you. For that he is condemned to die. He also challenged me, a senior Decider, and caused me injury. For that, his death will come in lingering, scorching pain!” Tapja says.
The masses thunder their approval and excitement.
The transporter stops in front of the Decider’s vehicle and the two Protectors drag Kalev out.
“Bring him and make him stand there.” Tapja says.
She points to a spot about three meters in front of her. She is dressed in a black gown trimmed with silver, that reaches her ankles. The satin-lined hood is thrown back and her hair streams down to cover it. She stands like an empress on the bow of a slave ship, looking down on the rowers.
Kalev envisions the blue globe and a probe, reaching out to test the Decider’s mind, tentatively searching for a flaw in her defenses. He encounters a smooth shield, as black as her clothing, impenetrable—for the moment.
“I know his brain is muddled, but he can feel pain. Before we throw him in the incinerator, you will douse him with oil. He will begin to roast in minutes as it catches fire. I have one more pain to give him, personally. I’ll let him hop around as he burns, on one leg.”
She turns to the Protector officer.
“Give me your pistol.”
“I’m going to blow your kneecap out, Mole.”
Kalev stands, trying to look the part of a man whose mind has been shattered, silent, with a quizzical expression under the Decider’s incandescent dark glare.
He feels her mind, reaching to his, clawing like a frenzied animal trying to find a breach. The protective orb deflects her furious energies.
To the watching crowds, he appears calm and unconcerned.
As she begins to take aim, Kalev focuses all his mental energies into a sharp, scarlet spear—holding, anticipating.
The moment comes when Tapja begins to pull the trigger. The shield she had been holding to guard against him is dropped. Her mind is open hoping to thrill in the pain she is about to inflict.
She jerks as if jolted with a massive electric shock; her mental screaming is echoed by howls of vocal agony.
Two strikes of psychic energy hit her as soon as her shield was down—Freya and Kaja.
Now! Like a crimson lightning bolt Kalev’s psychic weapon strikes.
The Decider shrieks still louder and claws at her skull, but the pistol fires as she falls and a bullet rips through Kalev’s upper left thigh.
He drops to the pavement, blood flowing and pain tearing at him. As he falls, though, he recognizes that the two unexpected mental blasts that struck the Decider came from his friends.
Tapja is writhing on the paving stones, pulling at her hair, and screaming unintelligibly—blood flooding from her nose and ears.
Protectors from her retinue pick her up and rush to the vehicle.
The two who drove the transporter carrying Kalev lift him and begin dragging him toward the open doors of the incinerator, yelling at The Hive’s residents to stay back, waving their pistols.
The guards force Kalev to stand, then pour oil on his shaven head. The liquid is already warm from the sun, as it gushes down his face and shoulders like a precursor of the scorching to come.
As they approach the dark metal furnace, waves of blinding heat wash from the open door like a burning surf.
The Protectors lift their arms over their eyes to protect themselves. Kalev’s face, as the three approach the fiery open door, stings as if scalded.
The Protector who has been dragging Kalev by his left arm abruptly drops to his knees, then face down and his hand releases the Recondo’s left arm. The man holding his right arm suddenly stands more upright—stiffens—and then, while trying to aim his pistol, drops to the stone pavement, bleeding from multiple wounds. His pistol drops, unfired, to the pavement.
Scores of needlegun flechettes fired from the cliffs above the city have found their targets.
The crowd, which had been anticipating an entertaining execution, has already begun to retreat into the buildings. Now, their soft shoes beat the concrete in a faster tempo as Recondos on the cliff throw flash/bang grenades into the open center of the city.
Kalev, still bound at the wrists and ankles, lies alone —bleeding.
As the car carrying Tapja and the Protector escort speeds towards Adrien’s ambush spot, he triggers a rocket grenade. The explosive device hits a front wheel, flipping the car on its side. Recondos swarm from both sides of the road to eliminate the occupants. The vehicle suddenly bursts into savage flames, forcing them back.
Freya, backing away from the intense heat, turns to face The Hive, knowing that Kalev has been wounded, but determined to fight on with her assigned troops.
“I am here, Kalev, coming to you. Kaja and Arielle are with me.”
“Come soon, I’m wounded, but I don’t think she hit an artery or a bone.”
In less than a minute, the three are in the square with Kalev. More Acreage soldiers appear from the surrounding woods and form an armed circle around their wounded comrade. Freya and Adrien pull him away from the blistering furnace.
Freya wipes the oil from his face and head.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t prevent you from being hurt.”
Her silent words are more intimate than audible speech.
“I’ll live. Thanks to you and Kaja, we may have destroyed that evil woman.” Kalev
“If our mental bursts didn’t destroy her, Adrien’s rocket set her car afire and she was consumed. Rest now, my dear one.”
“Your psychic strikes hit her first and destroyed her ability to shield against mine. This time, I think she’s gone forever .”
This segment properly begins with Chapter 22. When I posted yesterday, I inadvertently included Chapter 21 and missed it in editing. I am copying from the paperback version, because of the good layout and pasting here in the blog, editing out headers, footers and page numbers. Sorry for any confusion. The story is intact.
“Kaja will prepare you. We’ll help. Our target for your mission is two days from now. We pray you’ll not be seen and be able to return within hours, but at the same time, you must be ready for any contingency. We’ll leave you in her hands for now.” Andrus says.
As Andrus and Nijul head for the door, the spymaster turns back.
“Kalev, please give me your Seeker. I’ll keep it safe until you return. We cannot take a chance that the Protectors or their masters could use it to find our Caves and Entryways,”
Kalev hands over the precious device with reluctance, although he understands the necessity. It has been like another limb since it was personalized to him at the beginning of Recondo School.
Freya stays behind, with Kaja.
“Now, Kalev, you’re not going to be happy with several things that happen next,” Kaja says.
“We’re going to cut your hair and shave your head. Probably we should shave your face, too. Most of the men in The Hive have no facial hair. Before you go over the fence, you’ll have to change into the gray Common Clothes and the fabric boots that residents of The Hive wear. Sorry to say, but they’ll be impregnated with the stale, sour aroma you smelled when you were close to Elation City. The Deciders named the foul place that, probably as a joke.”
“Why?” Freya says.
“Cynical, I guess. They demand all the residents use the term. If anyone is caught using other names, they can be punished. The person turning them in is given the guilty party’s food ration for two days.”
“Living there must be awful,” Kalev says.
“Worse than I’d imagined when I volunteered to go in. People there are always fearful and hungry. They’re told how to act, what to eat, when to eat and what they must think and say.”
She slowed and caught her breath.
“The people in there aren’t free.”
During the preparation process, Kaja instructs Kalev on subtle language nuances and mannerisms common to The Hivers, but different from The Acreage.
“All this for a cover story I hope and pray I’ll never need?” Kalev says.
“No one ever plans to use a cover story, but it could save your life,” Kaja says.
Adrien and Arielle spend nearly four hours instructing and practicing with Kalev in the use of the river crossing device.
At the close of the second day, Kaja takes Kalev’s left hand.
“You’re missing something,” she says.
She holds up her left hand and points to a small, barely visible scar above the web between her index finger and thumb.
“This is where the doctors took out the microchip within an hour after you brought me here. They’re going to make an incision in your hand and close it. We want it to look like you removed your microchip.”
“Is the chip a tracking device?”
“Yes, it’s one of the monitoring products made in Elation City. All residents have them. It’s illegal to remove them, under penalty of death”
“I hope you won’t find too many more things that I need to do for my cover story.”
“Hopefully, you’ll be in and out within a day. Since you can’t get images to bring home, you’ll have to send them to me by our mind touch,” Freya says.
“Let’s go to the surgeon’s office and get a little nick in your hand. It won’t have to be deep, probably no one will ever look—we hope,” Kaja says.
“We’d better get moving, Adrien hopes to be in place at first light, the day after tomorrow.
Freya and Kalev have limited experience in night movement, but they emulate Adrien and Arielle, slipping through the woods silently, towards their objective.
Most Recondo teams find Caves and wait out the nights inside, unless there is a compelling reason to be in the open forest.
Tonight’s movement is for one of those purposes. Kalev will go over the fence at dawn.
“Are you ready?” Freya.
“Yes, I’ll be in contact with you constantly,” Kalev.
“I hate to tell you this, but you don’t look right with no hair. I was just beginning to like your beard, too.”
Even though they were silent, Kalev can detect the teasing tone. Beneath it there’s anxious tension.
“They’ll grow back.”
“Nijul and Andrus think you’ll only need to be on the ground over there for less than a day.”
“I’ll be back when I find what’s on the other side of that gate. Remember, when we made out first recon, hardly anyone had seen a Protector. Now, the vermin are constantly in the forests. Now, they swarm like ants and we have to know why.”
Adrien halts and gathers the four into a tight huddle. His voice is calculated to be barely in the hearing range of the group, but go no farther.
“We’ll wait here until there’s enough light see our target on the other side. Arielle and Freya, relax. Kalev, be ready to change into your Common Clothes immediately when the line is in place. Start assembling the boat now.”
Adrien removes his backpack and takes out a device that looks like a rifle with an unusually fat barrel opening, like a small water pipe. He opens the breech and inserts a steel bolt three inches long, trailing a thin, almost-invisible wire.
Kalev, aided by Freya and Arielle, assemble the parts of a one-person boat, shaped like a wedge. In the middle of the craft, a steel post rises—topped by a pulley. The passenger will sit, straddling the upright shaft. A hand- operated brake rests against the pulley’s rim. The vehicle is constructed as a boat, since its design is for river crossings. For this mission, it will be withdrawn, back to the eastern side of the wall, when Kalev gets out, on the other side of the fence.
The sun, at the back of the group, begins to light the tops of the taller trees on the western side of the fence.
“Ready, Recondo?” says Adrien.
Adrien aims the apparatus and fires the bolt. It flies with a sound that’s little more than a brisk wind in tree branches, and buries deep into a thick oak tree about seven yards on the western side of the barrier. He checks the strength of the bolt and line by tugging and jerking. The angle from the their current location to the target tree is a gentle slope of about fifteen degrees.
“Attach the line to a tree on this side after running it through the pulley,” says Adrien.
Kalev changes into the Common Clothes and assists in preparing the boat for its airborne slide.
As he climbs into the vessel for his short ride, Adrien claps him on the shoulder.
“Have a quick, safe, ride, we’ll get you back soon.” Arielle steps forward and gives Kalev a quick hug. “We’ll have special prayers for you,” she says.
When Freya moves to Kalev’s side, she is silent. She touches the bald head and lightly kisses his lips. Her farewell is spoken only to his mind.
“Stay safe. Come home to me.”
Kalev releases the pulley brake and the triangular vessel, beginning slowly, but gathering speed with every yard, glides along the wire with a bare hissing sound.
When he is about ten meters from the tree’s trunk, he applies the brakes as he has been taught. His boat slows and stops before hitting the end of the line and the tree.
He immediately swings out, clutches a limb and drops his pack to the ground. The boat begins a slow return to the eastern side of the wall. Once it has reached Adrien and has been retrieved, Kalev unties the wire and only the head of the bolt, stuck deep in the tree, remains—almost invisible from the ground.
Kalev is inside the fence and has little besides the Common Clothes he wears and a meager blanket made from the same material, rolled into a pack.
He has never before been so completely alone.
Freya touches his mind.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes. I just got down from the tree. Everything looks the same over here as it did over there. There’s no sign to tell me that I’m in enemy territory.”
“Good. Adrien says we should move parallel to each other, along the wall. Will the terrain over there allow you to do that?”
“Yes. The ground along the wall is either flat or only gently sloping for about eight to ten meters, then there’s a steeper drop-off to the west.
Kalev begins his northward trek. Inside the rolled blanket, he has a brown clay bottle of water and a small paper bag of dried bean curd. Thanks to Kaja, everything is realistic, as if it had come from The Hive.
He extends all his senses to maximum sensitivity and walks with care. As he continues onward, he keeps mental contact with Freya. She is paralleling his progress with Adrien moving ahead of her and Arielle behind.
“There’s a trail here, next to the wall. It’s about a meter wide and makes the going easy. ”
Besides keeping in touch with Kalev mentally, Freya records his observations, on her Seeker, to use for reporting to Andrus and Nijul.
“If the going is that easy and it’s a well-traveled trail, it must be used by Protectors. Stay aware and safe, for me.”
The group progresses steadily north, finally approaching the gate in the fence.
“Kalev, what do you see now?” Freya.
“Trees and underbrush have been cleared away from the trail. Ahead, there’s a slight bend, so I can only see about fifty meters north.
Adrien calls a halt.
“Freya, tell Kalev to go slowly and be extremely cautious. The gate we saw is only about a hundred meters ahead and remember, there was a guard waiting for the Protector patrol when we were watching the gate earlier,” he says.
Freya relays the message and nods to Adrien, who signals them into a careful march forward. Kalev, on the western side of the wall, glides forward as lightly as the others.
“Can you see anything at the gate? It’s just ahead of us,” Freya.
“No, I…wait. There’s a booth ahead, a one-person structure. It’s made out of the same metal as the fence. It must be on the north side of the gate. That’s where the guard must’ve been waiting, for the patrol we saw,” Kalev.
“Tell him to use even more extreme care and make sure the shelter isn’t occupied and then go west to find where the Protectors in that patrol were going.
Freya whispers Kalev’s message to Adrien.
After Freya relays the message, for long seconds Kalev doesn’t respond. She has been holding her breath waiting for contact.
“The shelter was empty, but there’s a broader trail, paved with crushed stone that leads downward, following the slope directly west. Because of the overhanging trees and underbrush, I can only see about fifty meters, to the point where it levels out. I’m going down there, I’ll report in soon,” Kalev.
Freya relays the message and long minutes crawl by. As Adrien and Arielle watch her for a reaction that would indicate a message from Kalev.
“Now I know what they were hiding and where they were going. I can see a double roadway of paved lanes leading directly north and south. It’s the Decider’s Roadway. The lanes are about twenty yards apart. Across the Roadway, about a hundred yards farther to the west is a broad tan building. It has only five levels and has wide, covered porches.”
As Freya whispers Kalev’ words to Adrien and Arielle, their eyes widen, but they’re silent.
“Some people are on the roadway’s western lane, the one nearest the building. They aren’t dressed as Protectors, they’re wearing tan uniforms and have a small aircraft on the pavement. They must be preparing to launch it. I’m going to get closer.
Silence upon silence weighs on Freya. She has been prepared for the fact that her ears will not detect Kalev, but even the telepathic link between them is fading and often mute.
“Freya, they’ve put the drone aloft. It’s going northeast and will probably go over The Hive. I don’t know what else they’ve done along this trail, but I sense something odd and there’s a low humming…”
Adrien and Arielle are dumbfounded as Freya covers both her ears and drops to the ground.
As Kalev is speaking silently to Freya, his body is snatched off the ground and dropped to the graveled roadway by an invisible force. His mind is closed, as if turned off by a huge hand slamming a switch to the down position.
When consciousness returns, his surroundings come into view like morning fog clearing under a weak sun.
The narrow cot under him has no sheets or blankets over the thin mattress. He is lying facedown.
His hands are bound behind him by inflexible restraints, but his feet are free.
He rolls to his side and puts both feet over the edge of the cot to sit up, then stops.
A mistake. Probably better to lie still until the change of position won’t feel like I’ve been dropped from a tall tree and landed on my skull.
Eyes closed, Kalev replays what he saw as he sat up across his visual memory.
There are no doors or windows. How do people get into this place, and more importantly, how do I get out?
Part of the answer comes in minutes, with a whirring sound from the ceiling across the room. A trapdoor swings down and metal stairs slide down to the floor, stopping with a thump.
The first feet down the steps are encased in the black boots of a Protector. Following are the feet of a woman, wearing soft, black shoes with silver trim.
“So this is the little stinking maggot that hit the energy barrier. I’m surprised he’s still alive. Pull him to his feet,” she says.
The Protector pulls Kalev to a sitting position, and then jerks him to his feet, while aiming an unfamiliar weapon in his face.
“Kneel, worm, before your betters, then stand,” the Protector says.
Flashing lights from inside his skull fill his vision and, like lightning, foretell the coming thunder of pain as he obeys the command.
After kneeling and bowing his head, he lifts his head and stands to face the Protector and the woman.
She is as tall as the Protector and…
She is the one who, Nijul said, calls herself Tapja, the Killer. She’s the one I hit with the mental spear. I’d hoped she died.
“By the Decider’s Code, this one stinks. I’d almost forgotten how sickening these Stenchers smell,” she says.
Contempt drips from her tones like venom from the fangs of a viper.
“Great one, you need not be concerned. This filthy slime should not trouble you. I await your command on his fate,” the Protector says.
“Take him to Elation City tomorrow morning. Order all the filthy ones out into the square, and then shoot him. Command the creatures there to burn his body for fertilizer,” Tapja says.
As she turns to ascend the stairs, the Protector pushes Kalev back on the bunk with the point of a weapon.
“Sleep as well as you can. It’s your last night, so you’ll not need much, but I’ll send food and water,” he says.
The Protector follows Tapja up the stairs. The stairs retreat and the door closes into the three-meter high ceiling.
Got to get in touch with The Acreage. They need to know what’s here and who’s in charge.
“Freya, Freya, please talk to me.”
“Freya, I need to tell you where I am and what’s here. Answer, please.”
Kalev is persistent. His silent calls fall into a void as deep as the largest of stellar black holes, disappearing into the emptiness.
The door in the ceiling drops again. A Protector enters the cell. He is a different man and wears no gold braid.
“Well, I guess this is your last meal. Make the most of it. I’ll release your wrists in a few minutes so you can eat. I’m putting manacles on your ankles, though and they won’t be freed until later. I’ll do that as I go back up the steps,” the Protector says.
He leaves a tray on the floor, next to the cot and, as he
starts back up the steps, actuates a device that releases the cuffs on Kalev’s wrists, then his ankles.
The food, a casserole of some sort, is tasteless and offensive in color and texture, but hunger drives Kalev to eat it all. The water, though tepid, is even more welcome.
“No, I will not fear. If God means for me to come home to Him now, His will be done. I will never give up.”
He begins calling to Freya again. More than an hour passes with no audible sound and no response from Freya.
The door from the ceiling drops again. The woman, Tapja, led by the Protector officer, descends.
Her voice echoes in the cell like frozen steel bullets bouncing from the walls as she points a long, quivering index finger, topped by a crimson nail like a bloody spike, at him. She aims it like a weapon.
“You! You’re not a common stinking drone from the foul city. I felt your mental voice. You are the one who hurt me! I am Tapja! I am a Decider and executioner. You will die a slow painful, burning death and I will be there to watch and listen to your howls. You have tonight to consider the pain that awaits, while I gather strength to attend your execution. I will delight in your misery!”
She spins to go up the stairs, but trembles in weakness. Silently, the Protector officer helps her ascend the stairs. The door closes without a sound. The ceiling is almost seamless but the light increases until it is painful to look up.
After an hour’s lunch break, as planned, the debriefing teams swap.
The new debriefers, another anonymous female and male team begin much like the first team, but with a different attitude toward Kalev.
In this instance, the debriefers ask Kalev to begin telling the story. When he begins to relate the rescue, they stop him and ask Freya to describe what happened to her. Her description is virtually identical to what she narrated the first time.
The story Kaja told them of the mental thunderbolt that released her from Tapja’s clutches is a major focus.
“Can you do that again?” the man says.
“I don’t know. In my mind, the foul tentacles coming from The Hive were visual. I sent the weapon up the path they created, to their source,” Kalev says.
“We’ll have to devise some sort of test to discover the nature and limits of your power. You could be quite a weapon,” the woman says.
The debriefers, again, inquire about the telepathy between Freya and Kalev.
“We’ve had access to your records that include when you began schooling. You’ve been together since that time, shortly after evaluators identified your unusual mental gifts. Freya is described as having a genius-level IQ with Kalev only slightly behind. Do you think there is any connection between intelligence and telepathy?” the man says.
Freya and Kalev exchange glances. Kalev nods. She will answer.
“No, as we told the other debriefers, it’s as natural to us as breathing. By the time we were eight, our teachers wouldn’t allow us to take exams on the same subject, on the same day,” Freya says.
The female debriefer switches subjects.
“Please give us your observations of the Protector group you ran into just before you reached the Entryway on your return,” she says.
“I was the one who realized the patrol was near. Freya was still feeling the effects of the mind control attempt and Kaja isn’t as mentally sensitive,” Kalev says.
“In what direction were they moving when you saw them?” the man says.
“It was odd. They were coming from the west and heading directly east. I have no idea where they were coming from or where they were going. They were on a combat patrol, though; moving fast and ready to fight,” Kalev says.
Lifted eyebrows and hard-set mouths from the debriefers are ample proof that they too, are puzzled.
After another hour of repetitive questions and answers, the debriefers take their leave to huddle with Andrus and Nijul. The two are told not to speak of the mission or debriefing with Kaja, until all three meet with their mentors.
There is nothing anyone can do, however, to prevent mind touch discussion between Freya and Kalev.
“Where do you think the Protectors were going and where did they come from?” Freya.
“I’m as baffled now as I was then. They were prepared for combat, though—they carried their weapons at the ready. The first two were out on point, as early warning. I also think I saw some of the larger group carrying rocket grenades.”
“It isn’t necessarily where they were coming from— although we need to find out soon—it’s where they were going. There’s a connection no one has made yet. The spy bug you found on my vest,” Freya.
“We told Andrus and Nijul about it. They were interested, but moved on to other subjects—rescuing Kaja occupied everyone’s thoughts. Let’s check a map. I think those Protectors may have been on a straight line of march toward the spot where we buried it.”
When Freya and Kalev locate the proper map among all the others on the dark-paneled walls of the empty briefing room, she is the first to find the approximate location of the ruins where they spent the night. She lifts the map from the wall and spreads it on a table then puts a finger on the area.
“Because of the time it took us to get there, the Cave in which we stopped and used the emergency exit must be in this vicinity,” she says.
“Probably. We’d only been walking south for about two hours when I felt the bug vibrate and we stopped under those cedars to bury it.”
He touches the map at a point north of the spot where Freya guessed that they’d camped.
“Let’s say that we’re close in our guess. Where do you think we were when we were on our way back with Kaja and saw that big Protector patrol? My mind was not in top form when that happened,” Freya says.
Kalev taps the map again.
“We went in the direction where the Protectors came from, west, for about a kilometer and turned directly south to reach the Entryway here.”
“Okay, an imaginary line between those two points is a direct route for the enemy,” Freya says.
“Somehow, they woke the mechanical spy and were going out to find it. They hoped it was attached to one of our people. We need to tell Andrus and Nijul what we know and guess,” Kalev says.
When the pair find Andrus, he and Nijul are leaving their meetings with the briefing teams and are walking along the hallway toward the dining room.
“Sir, Master Andrus, we need to talk with you and Mister Nijul,” Kalev says.
“Hello. You made quite an impression on the debriefing teams. Do you want to join Nijul and me for dinner?” he says.
“We need to talk to both of you, in a secure place. I think it’d be better if we could do it soon and on a map in the briefing room” Freya says.
“I hope this is good, I’m hungry,” Nijul says.
Following Freya’s suggestion, Andrus and Nijul accompany the couple back to the map room.
Kalev and Freya alternate their explanations. Their briefing takes fifteen minutes. Andrus and Nijul are silent for long seconds, staring at the map.
“Obviously, the thing was not completely deactivated when you turned it off,” Andrus says.
“How can it be turned off?” Kalev says.
“Let’s ask Kaja. This is Top Secret information, of course; she told the debriefers that The Hive is building tracking devices—like that mechanical wasp—and drones to follow them, for the Deciders.
Nijul is silent for several heartbeats, then focuses a laser pointer on the spot that Kalev has identified as the point at which they encountered the Protector patrol.
Your rescue of Kaja and mental strike on Tapja was like poking a hornet’s nest with a stick, but they didn’t directly follow you through the river of grass. The other teams set up ambushes for them but no Protectors came from The Hive. Why?” Nijul says.
“I think I know. After looking at this map and the line between these two points and knowing what Kaja told the debriefers, I can only guess that the Protectors sent out a drone to find you and it somehow woke the metal wasp you buried,” Andrus says.
Nijul moves closer to the map as if it will whisper more and deeper secrets.
“When the bug revived, the Protectors assumed they were going to find their target at the little spy’s location,” he says.
“Yes, but they didn’t come from The Hive. They came from the west. We need to know where they came from and why,” Andrus says.
Freya and Kalev join Nijul and Andrus for dinner, in the private dining room. They’ve been reminded that the conversation they just had is not for general discussion.
The pork roast, from wild pigs, is hearty, savory and satisfying but the young pair can hardly eat. Excitement at having analyzed a tactical mystery dulls their appetites.
“I’d wondered how those Protectors were coming at us from the west,” Kalev.
“I was still a little in the fog at the time, but I wondered later,” Freya.
As the two carry on their silent conversation, they are careful not to lose the thread of conventional, audible exchange with their mentor and Nijul.
“We’ll need to send out at least two teams to backtrack the Protector’s trail and find where they came from. No one has done a recon in that area in some time. Would you two like to be paired off with a more experienced team? If you take them to the spot where you almost ran into the Protectors the task will be simpler.
“Sir, that doesn’t require a question from me, and I’m sure the same is true of Kalev. We’d be honored to work with another team,” Freya says.
“Nijul and I will select a team tomorrow. They’ll be a senior team. You two have performed superbly, but I think you may still learn from them,” Andrus says.
“Since you’ve been to The Hive and witnessed, first hand, the cold brutality of the Deciders, you understand how vital this mission is,” Nijul says.
The Entryway doors close with only a muffled thump. The two teams immediately began moving west. The team accompanying the young pair is composed of Adrien and Arielle—legendary in the elite community. They were also instructors in the Recondo school. Freya and Kalev are proud and awestruck at the opportunity to work with the team.
By mutual agreement, Kalev stays closest to Adrien, while Freya is more closely linked with Arielle.
Adrien guides the group with his map and compass. He is in his early thirties, slightly shorter than Kalev and just as slender. His hair is light brown and his eyes—that seem to miss nothing—are pale blue. After moving through the underbrush and trees for more than an hour, he lifts a hand to call a halt and speaks in a whisper so quiet that the women can’t hear.
“Kalev, from here, should we turn north?”
“Yes, we’ll be close to the spot where we saw the patrol, or cross the trail they used.”
“Good. Will you please use your telepathy to alert your partner and Arielle?”
“Freya, we’re moving north to try to find the spot where we stopped to avoid the Protector patrol.”
“Yes, I’ll tell Arielle. These two are so quiet and sure in the woods. I thought we were pretty good, but it’ll be a while before we are as professional as these,” Freya.
They slip through the forest like a faint summer breeze. No breaking twigs betray their boots. Birds have even continued to sing, so natural are they to their surroundings. The four have shifted into a line. Adrien leads, followed by Kalev, then Freya. Arielle protects the rear of the column.
Kalev touches Adrien’s sleeve. The older man stops and lifts an eyebrow without speaking.
Kalev nods and tries to mimic the quiet with which Adrien spoke to him.
“I believe that’s the trail the Protectors were on.”
Adrien nods, touches his temple and points to where Freya and Arielle are waiting and then he points down.
Kalev drops to the ground and calls to Freya.
“Stop. Wait, Adrien signaled a halt.”
When Freya turns to Arielle, she’s surprised to find that the older woman has already dropped to the grass and is turned to cover the rear.
These two do not have mind touch, but their experience together and their natural talent makes their tactical communications instinctive. The fact that they’re a married couple, not unusual for male/female teams, strengthens their ties.
Kalev turned to face Freya as he mentally spoke to her. When he turns back, Adrien has disappeared.
It is midmorning; the forest is still alive with birdsong and a light wind caresses the tops of hickories and oaks.
Nearly ten minutes pass with no sight or sound from Adrien, then Kalev senses a presence nearly beside him. When he turns, hand on his pistol, the older Recondo is there.
“Call Freya. Have her bring Arielle. It’s clear for at least a kilometer and we’re going to explore,” he says.
The four had been moving for less than five more minutes when Adrien again holds up a hand and drops the hand, palm down. The woodland has gone silent.
Kalev drops to his belly and automatically speaks silently to Freya.
“Down! Adrien senses something.
Kalev hears and sees nothing for at least a full minute, then the hushed sound of boots, careful on the trail, touches his ears. The forest is silent.
“Kalev, I can sense their emotions, but can’t translate their thoughts. They’re Protectors and they’re tensed for combat,” Freya.
Adrien positions his Shopper, pointing the projection end toward the trail. He nods to Kalev.
“Freya, you and Arielle use your Shoppers! Point toward the trail and stay hidden.”
When the green-camouflaged Protectors come in sight, Kalev has his needlegun in his right hand and the Shopper in the left. He stays, motionless with his chest in the deep underbrush, while holding the projector toward the trail.
A glance at Adrien shows that the older man had done the same, but is kneeling to watch the patrol, holding his Seeker camera—instead of a needlegun—trusting the Shopper to keep him invisible.
After the Protectors pass, Adrien signals Kalev to stay down, then holds up ten fingers. Again, he passes the instructions to Freya.
“Stay down. We’ll wait ten minutes before moving.”
After the ten-minute security pause, normal forest noises have resumed. Adrien’s hand signals take them in single file again. He is still at the point as they slip through underbrush paralleling the trail, heading west to locate the starting point for the Protector patrol.
After moving for more than a half-hour, placing each foot down in silent steps, the slow pace brings the four to a spot where the trail widens and is blocked by a fence. A gate wide enough for two people walking abreast, centers the section of fence that sits astride the trail.
The teams stop about ten meters before they reach the barrier, but examine it as closely as they can with magnifying viewers.
The fence is smooth brown metal with expanded slots to allow airflow. The openings are too small to provide hand, or footholds. Openings in the slots bend toward the ground. A person on the other side of the fence could see through, looking at the feet of one approaching, but the visitor could only look up. The fence appears to be about twelve feet tall.
After staring at the unexpected blockade for long seconds, the patrol—following Adrien’s signals—retreats and assembles in a circle in the middle of heavy undergrowth cover, out of sight from the trail.
“They came through that gate. No one from The Acreage has been in this sector for months. We didn’t know about the fence. It seems that the Deciders have had their work crews busy,” Adrien says.
“Should we check the gate?” Kalev says.
“No. The Protectors probably have one of their own on the other side of the fence waiting for their return. Since there were nine in their patrol, it would be reasonable to assume that they left someone behind to guard the gate,” Adrien says.
“We need to know what’s on the other side of the fence. What is its purpose?” Arielle says.
Except for the silent mind touch with Kalev, Freya has not spoken since they left the Entryway.
“Are they trying to keep someone out, or someone inside?” she says.
“Maybe both. If the Deciders want to keep people channeled in directions they wish, the fence will do that. If they want to keep what’s on the other side private, the fence will accomplish that purpose, too,” Adrien says.
“We need to be able to report to Andrus and Nijul. They’ll want to know more than just the fact that there’s a fence,” Arielle says.
“I could climb a tree and see over the thing,” Kalev says.
“Yes, but first let’s wait for the patrol to return and go back through the gate. You shouldn’t be in a tree when that happens. You’d make an obvious, easy target. Look at the images I got when they passed by. They aren’t planning to be away from their base overnight,” Adrien says.
He pulls the flexible viewing screen out from the cylindrical camera and scrolls through five pictures, pointing as they appear on the screen.
“None of them are carrying loaded rucksacks. They have weapons and communications equipment, along with tactical canteens. They’ll be back before sunset and that’s about three hours away. We’ll back away from the trail but keep the gate in view.”
They move farther away from the trail, but Adrien stops them on the north side of a hillock, on a level space, clear of all but short grass. From this position they will be difficult to spot from the trail, but will have a clear view of the gate.
“When the patrol is going through the gate, they won’t be looking anywhere except behind and ahead. We’ll be using our Shoppers, in any case. When I left you for a few minutes, I put a Chirper on the side of the trail. We can relax until the Protectors come along the trail. When they do, the Chirper will alert us and we’ll know to sharpen our surveillance.
Kalev and Freya nod and prepare for the wait. They’ll take the first watch. They begin mind touch conversation.
“What does a Chirper do?” Freya.
“It’s just a tiny sensor, made to look like a rock, when someone passes within two meters, it sends a short- distance radio signal and then self-destructs. Don’t you remember that from school?” Kalev.
“I remember now, I thought of it as an electric stone. Maybe I was watching that little brunette who was trying to flirt with you.”
A reddening flush spreads, going upward into Kalev’s temples. His tentative smile says more than words.
“But now, she’s paired with someone else, and I have you… I mean, as a partner—my Recondo partner.”
It’s Freya’s turn to blush, although her eyes never leave Kalev’s and hold him like a light embrace.
Adrien and Arielle are relaxing on the other side of the clearing. They’ve spread a camouflage poncho on the ground and one over them as they lie down to wait.
Kalev wears the receiving earbud to listen for the signal from the chirper.
“How long do you think it’ll be before the Protectors come back?” Freya.
“I would guess three or four hours. As Adrien said, they didn’t appear to be equipped for an overnight mission. They’ll probably be here before sundown,” Kalev.
The younger team has swapped watch duty with Adrien and Arielle when the last of the day’s sunlight filters through trees beyond the wall. They sit huddled together, almost asleep, under a thermal poncho. Freya’s head rests on Kalev’s shoulder.
Arielle touches Kalev’s arm. She speaks with her lips only a few inches from his ear.
“They’re coming,” she says.
Kalev’s tensing muscles immediately alert the drowsing Freya.
Dark forms, in a column on the trail, approach the gate in the fading light. Adrien focuses his night vision scope on the scene as the silent Protectors stop at the barrier. Seconds later, the gate slides aside and the patrol passes
through. A brief flash of light, just as the portal closes reveals a man who was waiting for the patrol’s return.
“Something nasty happened while they were gone,” Freya.
“Just a vague picture. I think one of them shot a puppy.”
“Why would they do that?”
“Frustrated. Callous. Mean.”
After the gate closes, sounds of the Protector patrol moving away on the other side of the fence diminish. Adrien moves away from his vantage point nearest the trail. His voice carries only to the three with him.
“We’ll stay here for about fifteen minutes before we move. There’s a Cave to the east. We can rest there for the night, but we’ll have to come back to this fence. We must find out what the Deciders are hiding on the other side,” he says.
In the Cave, after Adrien has sent back the day’s report, the group relaxes and has dinner from the standard rations. Their discussions are centered on the wall and what it might mean.
“I sent a message to Andrus and Nijul. They’ll answer tonight, I’m sure. I’ve asked if we can try going over the wall,” Adrien says.
“How?” Kalev says.
“If they approve it, we’ll use an emergency river bridging system to go from a tree on the east side of the wall to a tree on the west side.
“I’m sorry, but again, how?”
“I’ll show you, if the plan’s approved. It’s not without risk, but this mission is, I think, critical to all the Villages,” Adrien says.
As the four prepare for the night, a soft tone from the bathroom signals a message. The operation, as proposed by Adrien, has been approved and the group has been ordered to return to The Acreage for preparation.
The sleeping arrangements for the night have Adrien and Arielle sharing one of the bunks. Arielle watches the younger couple with an almost-hidden smile.
Kalev and Freya play the timeless game of rocks, scissors and paper to decide who sleeps in the bunk.
Kalev unrolls his sleeping bag on the floor.
Before finally preparing for sleep, the four link hands and recite from Psalm 91, the scripture adopted by the Recondos, The Warrior’s Psalm. They use the ancient King James translation.
“1 He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say of the LORD, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.
3 Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.
4 He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
5 Thou shalt not be fraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
6 Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
7 A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.
8 Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.
9 Because thou hast made the LORD, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation;
10 There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.
11 For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.
12 They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.”
After the recitation, in a short prayer, Adrien asks for God’s blessings and protection on their return home and the upcoming mission.
At dawn the four move swiftly back to the closest Entryway into The Acreage.
Once inside, they are greeted by Andrus and Nijul, who hurry them off to a secure area where they are fed and asked to present their initial reports.
“Adrien, your plan to go across the wall is audacious and, of course, risky. Give us more specifics, please,” Andrus says.
“Kalev and Freya are essential to the concept. They can communicate without fear of interception. One of them will go over the wall to the western side and follow it to the gate we observed. That person will report on his or her observations. The other will stay on the eastern side and record the intelligence,” Adrien says.
“Who goes over?” Nijul says.
“I will,” Kalev says.
Freya is outwardly silent, but touches Kalev’s mind.
“Why you, not me?”
“I’m the stronger transmitter and you’re the more sensitive receiver.”
After their meal, Kaja is waiting with Nijul. She is there to assist and offer advice no one else in The Acreage can.
“Since you, Kalev, will be the one to go over the fence, you will be going directly into enemy territory and must not be identifiable as a member of our community. We are not yet prepared to confront the Deciders and Protectors directly,” Andrus says.
“How can I do that?”
Silence holds the group for several heartbeats.
“You’ll have to go in without equipment or a uniform.
You’ll infiltrate as a man who has managed to run away from The Hive,” Nijul says.
The next three days are a blur of planning, practicing and preparation. The three teams that will be supporting the mission are all composed of seasoned men and women.
Freya and Kalev had expected that, as the newest and youngest members of the elite society, their status would be questioned. Andrus, anticipating a possible problem, thoroughly briefs the teams on the unique talent the young couple possesses. Their support from the elite regiment is unreserved.
Firstday night, all the teams stay in Caves close enough to make their approach to The Hive a reasonable pre-dawn march. Movement to the target begins in the early hours on Secondday. The plan is for all teams to be in place as the sun rises. The supply train normally arrives two or three hours after dawn. They will use it as cover for their plan.
“Are you scared?” Kalev.
“No, are you?” Freya.
“The only thing that scares me is the possibility of failure. We’d not only let The Acreage down, Kaja could be killed.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you and we’ll take care of Kaja together.”
They are sitting at the table in a Cave only an hour’s hike to their target. Her smile is a mixture of challenge and affection.
Kalev’s expression is his acceptance of both.
“Better go to bed in a few minutes—we’ll need all our faculties to be fresh. Let’s read Psalm 23 together. It’s appropriate for our mission. They begin reading the passage and speaking it silently together.
When they reach the fourth verse, by unspoken agreement, they read it aloud, together in the ancient King James version.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
They stand, holding hands.
“I’m coming to your bunk with you. We’ll stay chaste and fully clothed, but I need you to hold me and I think you need it, too,” Freya.
The silent vibration of Kalev’s Seeker wakes him in what seems only moments after he got in the bunk. Freya is stirring. She’s been nestled, back-to-back with him. Her device is waking her, too.
A careful look through the periscope shows only blackness and no rain.
After a quick breakfast and prayers for protection for themselves, the other teams and Kaja, they leave the cave in moonless darkness.
The Cave is on a gentle slope that leads northwest to the broad river of switchgrass, ending at the narrow road between The Hive and the Deciders Roadway.
The first reds, coloring the bellies of high clouds, are becoming brighter as Freya and Kalev reach their goal. The deep grass has made their trek tiring, but they have about two hours to rest before the action begins.
“I hope the other teams are in place,” Kalev.
“They will be. They’re all experienced troops.”
“I’m glad Nijul armed everyone. The other teams have two pistols and a rifle. We each have our pistols and one for Kaja. I hope we won’t need them.” Kalev.
“We can move faster without the rifle, speed is going to be important if Protectors come after us, even though we have an ambush team behind us to block a chase. I’m glad Nijul thought to send boots for Kaja, she couldn’t go far in the outdoors with the fabric shoes The Hivers wear in their city.”
The straight, black ribbon of pavement that leads to The Hive is only a few yards away from where the pair hides in the grass. As the sun begins to clear the mountains, a heavy, mechanical growling from the west announces the train turning from the Roadway. As it rumbles by, Freya begins the call.
“Harvester, Harvester, Harvester,” Freya directs the mental call.
Nijul had theorized that, although Kalev is the stronger transmitter of mind touch, the agent inside would feel more secure sensing only one mental voice saying the codewords and directing her movement.
“Moonlight, danger here. Keep back, Protectors.” Kaja’s response.
“My codewords are ‘Nesting Ospreys.’ I’m starting a tone for you to follow. Come as far from the gates of The Hive as a Lectric will go. Drive to the south side of the train. How soon can you start?” Freya
The train is rolling its ponderous way toward the city.
“Within five minutes. Prepare to cover me. Protectors are here.” Kaja.
Freya starts the mental music tone for following that Kalev knows well. He’s mentally hearing the silent conversation, as directed, without participation. From the narrow road that leads from The Hive to the Decider’s Roadway, he hears the whine of a Lectric’s motor. He partially rises, keeping his head below the grass. A tiny, one-person car is rolling past the train, on the south side, trundling toward the spot where he and his partner lie. Soon, it is alone on the roadway, painfully slow and pitifully small.
The vehicle slows, pauses and stops. A small, dark- haired woman dressed in loose, gray pants and top leaps out, runs into the grass and drops to her stomach.
Freya sits three feet away from Kalev, tailor-fashion—her eyes closed—concentrating on keeping the tone steady and strong.
Kalev watches the fugitive as she crawls toward him. She’s the woman from the pictures Nijul has shown them. Her hair is cropped closer to the scalp than in the images. He also monitors the paved road for any sign of Protectors following her.
As she approaches, Kalev—hand on his needlegun— slides forward on his belly and speaks the whispering challenge:
“Warm winter,” he says.
“Spring water,” she answers.
Kalev begins to relax—she has verified her identity.
A sudden shudder from Freya coincides with a shrieking voice in his head.
“Not bad! I now have two. One is the vile little spy from our facility and you, meddler, who came to get her. I sensed you on the mountain days ago. Both of you must stand up and walk to the road. You cannot refuse me. I am Tapja. My will cannot be overcome.”
To Kalev, her voice echoing in his mind, not only has a sound, it has a visual path, like a thick, black, stretched rope, braided from hate and evil. It comes from the top of a Hive building on the near side of the city and splits; one tentacle envelops Freya, the other, Kaja.
Freya does not move. She has fallen on her side and lies in a fetal position, shivering. Kaja is struggling to keep hidden in the grass, fighting to keep from standing.
Kalev is untouched by the executioner’s psychic reach.
She doesn’t sense me!
He focuses—concentrating all his psychic transmission power and energy into a savage weapon he visualizes as a long, red spear, with an exploding tip.
When he feels the power has built to a peak— throbbing in his mind—he blasts the silent, invisible missile, tracking the pulsing black path, back to its source.
Hellish agony erupts in silent mental screams. Kalev visualizes blood and exploded brain matter.
Kaja crawls on hands and knees to him. She speaks in whispers as he is bent over Freya’s comatose form.
“She’ll be okay. She’s just not used to the Nasty One’s evil mind. Protectors will be on us like a swarm of wasps, soon. We can talk about it later. Great strike on the witch! You’ll have to show me how. Let’s go,” she says.
“Put on these boots, then head directly south, using this compass. Lead us on a new trail through the grass. Anyone following may not know which path brought us in and which we’re taking out. When we reach the end of this deep grass, we’ll need to turn directly east. I’ll give you more direction, then. We’ll link up with our people at a Cave in the foothills of the mountain range,” Kalev says.
Although Kaja is mentally sensitive, she cannot carry on a dialogue with Kalev as Freya does; they whisper. He hands Kaja a compass, her boots and a needlegun, then points the initial direction.
She leads the way, as Kalev lifts Freya. He wraps her left arm around his back, holding her wrist with his left hand. She has begun to rouse, as from a drug-induced sleep, but her legs aren’t steady and she is silent in voice and mind.
The group has been moving for about ten minutes when a rattle of automatic weapons fire comes from the direction of The Hive. The popping sounds echo from the city and mountains, muted by the deep grass. The thump of a heavier explosion echoes from the mountains, then silence returns.
After more than an hour, the heavy grass begins to thin as the ground becomes rockier. Freya still has not spoken, but is partially supporting herself with stiff, clumsy legs as the three turn east toward the hills.
Kalev signals a pause. He and Kaja drink from canteens and assist Freya in drinking. Kalev checks his compass.
“We’ll meet the other Recondos at a Cave that’s about a kilometer from here. Let’s move as quickly as we can, with caution,” Kalev says.
“Do you want to lead? I can help your partner,” Kaja says.
Freya’s eyes are focusing more clearly and her sense of balance is nearly normal. For the first time since the encounter with Tapja, she speaks, but in a hoarse whisper.
“Kalev, I can make it with just a little help.”
“It isn’t far,” Kalev says.
Although she cannot follow their silent conversations, Kaja hears the whispers.
“Lean on my shoulder, I’m stronger than I look,” Kaja says.
Although Freya is several inches taller than Kaja, she accepts the older woman’s shoulder for support.
Kalev has been following the tracking signal from the Seeker into dense woods when a voice stops him.
The male voice is quiet, but firm. A man and a woman step on the trail; one in front and the other behind the trio. Their needleguns emphasize the order.
“I can see you now, Kalev and Freya. We’ll lead you to the Cave.”
The man and woman, Recondos who were trained alongside the young pair for the mission, emerge from the trees. They had been ready to ambush any enemy following the trio. They lead them to a nearby Cave. The room is larger than Kalev and Freya have seen in such a facility, but cramped by the presence of other teams. There are three people waiting inside. There should be four. The curtain is drawn across one of the bunks.
Tears shine in every eye.
One of the older women steps forward, to Kaja, her mouth held in a tight, grim line. She speaks for the somber group.
“You must be the one we came to rescue,” she says. “Yes, I’m Kaja.”
“I have some fresh clothes for you, sent by Nijul. He said you’d want them.”
“Thank heavens. The smell from those clothes was beginning to turn my stomach, even as she helped me walk,” Freya.
It was the first mind touch voice she’d used since Tapja attacked her.
“You are obviously stronger and more sure of yourself. Thank God,” Kalev.
What Kaja receives, with a bleak, grateful smile, is the uniform of a Recondo.
“It makes sense,” Kalev.
“Yes, just volunteering to go into that place took guts.” Freya.
“Will everyone excuse me? I need to spend a few minutes in the shower. I need to get this awful stink off my skin. I’ll dispose of the filthy, gray clothes as quickly as I can,” Kaja says.
As she closes the bathroom curtain behind her, the woman who brought the uniform to Kaya turns to Freya and Kalev.
“Congratulations on your success. Our mission to rescue her was successful, but the price was high. We lost a fine Recondo, our sister, Kadri. She killed four Protectors before a rocket grenade took her down,” she says.
“We mourn her loss with you, and will pray for her family’s comfort.” Freya says.
Kalev nods, but adds nothing to his partner’s words.
The older woman glances at the closed bathroom curtain and then waves Kalev and Freya to the table, and then points to a spot on an unrolled map, tapping with a forefinger.
“When Kaja comes out, take her and go directly south. The Cave where you’ll spend the night is here, closer to The Acreage. The rest of us will keep watch in case Protectors have followed your trail through the grass,” she says.
She pauses and, after touching—eye-to-eye—each of the others, resumes.
“I do hope we can meet a few of them.”
It is almost dark by the time Freya, Kalev and Kaja reach the Cave where they’ll spend the night.
“I haven’t stayed in one of these places since my qualifying recon. I thought, then, they were bare and didn’t care for the food. After living in The Hive—the people there are supposed to call it Elation City—this place seems luxurious,” Kaja says.
The three have just finished a meal they made from the rations in the facility’s cupboard.
“What can you tell us about The Hive?” Freya says.
“I can only tell you that each person is allotted an extremely limited amount of living space. Those at the bottom of the hierarchy have less space; those at the top have much more. The quality and quantity of food provided follows the same pattern. I can’t say more before I’m debriefed,” Kaja says.
“We understand, any detail may be useful but kept confidential,” Kalev says.
“I don’t have the ability to carry on silent, mental conversations as you two do, but I understand what happened to you, Freya. I’ve felt the slimy tentacles of the monster’s mind before when she was trying to find me. When we get to our village, The Acreage, I’ll help you develop the barriers you need to prevent her, or anyone, from touching your mind without consent,” Kaja says.
“I’ll be grateful. When that woman’s screeching mental voice came into my head, I was open—unprepared. It was as if she was pulling my brain out through the top of my skull. When she suddenly stopped, it was like being picked up off the ground and dropped,” Freya says.
Kaja glances at Kalev then back at Freya.
“Don’t you know what stopped her?”
Freya shakes her head.
“Your partner, Kalev, hit her with a mental burst like a lightning strike. In my mind, I could hear her scream. He may have killed her, but I doubt it. She’s too evil to die so quickly.”
“How did you do that, Kalev?” Freya says.
“I don’t know. I sensed her attacking you and Kaja, but she wasn’t aware of me. I just shaped all my mental power into a weapon and sent it up the black pathway that led to where she was, as she reached for you. It worked.”
“We’ll have to include that in our debrief, it may be useful in the future, even though few can use it,” Freya says.
“We need to get some sleep. I’m exhausted and we still have a long trek tomorrow,” Kalev says.
There are only two bunks in the Cave. Kaja looks from Freya to Kalev, with questions in her eyes.
“Don’t worry. You can sleep alone. Kalev and I have been chaste bed partners, from time to time, since we were children. We’ll bunk together,” Freya says.
“Not tonight. I’ll just use my sleeping bag and bed down on the floor,” Kalev says.
Freya shakes her head slightly. Her smile is private.
They check the emergency exit procedures and send a Safe signal, adding to the standard text, “Kaja is safe, too.”
The next morning, the three are on their way to The Acreage. Freya is leading the way; Kaja follows, with Kalev guarding the rear. Their pace is as swift as security will allow. Freya and Kalev are communicating in silent mind touch.
“Freya, stop! Down!” Kalev.
Without questioning her partner, Freya drops to the ground and signals Kaj to do the same. Kaja cannot follow their dialogue, but she understands the silent mental shout and drops to her stomach, drawing her needlegun.
Kalev crawls to Kaja and Freya and then motions for them to face outward so that they form a three-pointed star with the deadly weapons covering their perimeter.
“What is it?” Freya.
“I got a sudden picture of two Protectors coming from the west. Fast,” Kalev.
“Where did it come from?” Freya.
“I don’t know, I could almost hear, but not understand, alien, hostile words,” Kalev.
Kaja is unable to follow the silent conversation, but she understands immediate danger is near. When Freya slides closer to her she sees the woman is prepared to fight. Her brown eyes are narrowed and her lips are tight and hard.
Rather than risk even a whisper, Kalev projects “Protectors.” Kaja nods and slides the safety switch on her pistol to the FIRE position.
“They’re coming. They’ll probably pass just to the north of us; if we wanted to ambush them, they’d have no chance,” Freya.
Kalev holds up a hand, and then points to the ground.
“Wait! Stay low! No sound!”
Kalev rises aa much as he dares and using the shopper, points it at the trail the enemy is following. The two Protectors move past the three hidden Recondos, within twenty yards. They continue, without slowing.
Freya lifts her head and begins to rise.
“No. Stay down. Stay quiet! More are coming,” Kalev.
Seconds later, twelve more Protectors follow the first two. They sweep the forest two abreast, weapons at the ready, dark visors down. The closest comes within five yards of the three and sees only forest.
When they have passed and are out of sight and hearing, Kalev rises to his knees. He touches an index finger to his lips and points.
“Our Entryway is south and west of here. Let’s go directly west, where the patrol came from and then cut back straight south to avoid the possibility of running into the bad guys,” Kalev.
“Yes. I agree. Lead on” Freya.
When Freya, Kalev and Kaja open the doors for the Entryway in mid-afternoon, they go through the rigid identification procedures. When the inner doors open, Andrus and Nijul are waiting.
Andrus gathers Freya and Kalev in his embrace, while Nijul holds Kaja with both arms. Both she and he show obvious tears.
“You three need food and rest. All you’ll need for the night is waiting for you in the shower rooms and the dining room. Nijul and I will meet you in the secure briefing room area tomorrow morning at eight o’clock, then we’ll talk,” Andrus says.
The three are still devouring huge servings of their breakfasts when Nijul and Andrus arrive. Accompanying the Recondo Commander and the Spymaster are four strangers, two women and two men.
“Neither Nijul, nor I, will participate in the debriefs. We’re too close to you. Be assured, though, that these professionals will help you remember the scenes you confronted, better than you could do otherwise,” Andrus says.
“Two debriefers will go with Kalev and Freya and two with Kaja. We’ll break for lunch and exchange teams. I hope we can complete the process by four this afternoon,” Nijul says.
The debrief team that accompanies Freya and Kalev is composed of a woman and a man. They are neither friendly, nor unfriendly. They seem determined to be anonymous and neutral. They call themselves by names the pair assumes are false.
“Freya Dimsevics and Kalev Bervins, may we call you by your first names?” the woman says.
The pair nod simultaneously.
“Lets just call them ‘him’ and ‘her’ between us as we get through this.” Freya
Kalev doesn’t change expression.
“Yes, we’ll find out how much they know about our mind touch soon.”
“We’ve been told that you two have a gift for silent communications, telepathy, and that you used it extensively on your recent mission,” the man says.
“Yes, that’s true,” Kalev says.
“Are you using it now?” the woman says.
Freya maintains a neutral expression.
“It’s like breathing to us, why?”
“We simply want to get the story of your mission in as complete and raw manner as we can,” the man says.
“Sir, we are soldiers of The Acreage, Recondos. We will cooperate and help you with your task as much as we possibly can. We will be honest,” Kalev says.
As has happened all his life, his redhead’s coloring betrays him—fire rising in his cheeks.
“Yes, Kalev Bervins. Master Andrus has briefed us well on you. We are aware of your quick temper and stubbornness,” the man says.
Freya’s secretive smile can’t be totally hidden.
“We were also told about your extreme protectiveness for Freya. Whatever happened to the little boy who pulled her braids when you were eight?” the woman says.
Kalev’s expression changes from challenging and combative to a deeper embarrassed blushing.
“We were eight years old. That tooth was probably about ready to fall out anyway,” he says.
“I remember that. I loved you even more when you punched that bully, but I could’ve taken him out.” Freya
Mischief lights her eyes.
“Okay, now that we’ve sparred around a bit, let’s get to the debrief. We are intelligence agents, but we’ve been through much of the classroom Recondo training, we just haven’t gone on a recon. By the way, do you know the name Recondo comes from a special unit created more than a hundred and fifty years ago. It was from the American Army during a war in Vietnam. The name was created by combining the words, ‘reconnaissance’ and ‘commando.’ Please don’t take our questions as demeaning. Freya, will you tell the story first,” the man says.
“Yes, but there’s a point at which I can’t. When we get there, I’ll have to ask Kalev to pick up the report. You’ll understand,” Freya says.
Him and Her, the debriefers, exchange glances, but say nothing.
Freya’s story is vivid and detailed. There are only a few instances when she is interrupted. She takes the narrative to the point where the couple was hidden the grass, waiting for Kaja.
“I was sending Kaja a tracking tone so that she could find us when something—a mental shock—hit me. I was being summoned. My mind was almost not my own. I had been open, trying to help Kaja find us when this piercing, foul mind attacked me, demanding that I stand and follow her path into The Hive. I lost consciousness. I guess it was a protective reaction. Kalev will have to explain the next couple of hours,” she says.
The debriefers turn their attention to Kalev. With only a baffled, silent, eye-to-eye look.
When he describes the psychic vision of a throbbing black path with grasping jaws, Him and Her instinctively lean forward.
When they hear about the mental weapon Kalev forged to attack Tapja, Him holds up a hand.
“You did what?” he says.
“I sent a mental missile to the source of the evil,” Kalev says.
“What happened then?” the woman says.
“If you can mentally hear a scream, that’s what I sensed first. Then it was as if the power had been switched off. Freya and Kaja were released. Kaja was not as affected as Freya,” Kalev says.
“How did you do that?” the man says.
“I don’t know, exactly. Freya had been hurt and I realized that the source of the malicious summoning was not aware of me, I instinctively hit back with the only weapon that could reach her.”
“Protecting me again, huh? Don’t ever stop,” Freya.
No, the colors are wrong.
Not a wolf.
The pictures Kalev has seen of wolves are notable for glittering amber or yellow eyes. The color of this creature’s eyes is dark brown in the moonlight. Its coat is a deep tan with a black saddle. A dog.
Answering the creature’s query, Kalev directs a mental message the dog.
“Who are you?” he says.
Quick pictures of the animal running through the forests, drinking from streams and hunting small prey flash in answer.
“Are you hungry?”
A vision of the dog, unsuccessful in catching a bounding rabbit, is the answer.
Kalev opens a food packet and throws a hefty chunk of dried venison to the animal.
It immediately consumes the offering and sits back on its haunches, cocking his head to one side.
Like a short, intense video, Kalev sees a female dog with three nursing pups.
Kalev tosses another slab of dried meat. The creature snatches the gift from the air and vanishes.
When it’s time for Freya to stand watch, Kalev tells her about their visitor.
“Is he dangerous?”
“I don’t think so. I can see images from his mind and there’s no hint of deceit or violence. I gave him two chunks of jerky. He ate one and took the other to his mate and pups. He planted their picture in my thoughts.”
“You think he’ll come back tonight?”
“Listen for him with your mind as well as your ears.”
The couple is awake and moving before full dawn. The dog hasn’t returned. Freya, the better with maps and compasses, estimates that they may reach an Entryway into The Acreage by midday.
Although a slower route—much of the morning is uphill—she sets their path through the birches and oaks rather than the broad meadows that open on the west side of the mountain range.
She pauses to watch a game trail and clearing before crossing, a dog appears between Freya and the open area.
“Kalev. Is this the animal you saw last night?” Freya.
Kalev has been walking two or three yards behind her. As he catches up, he sees the dog in full light for the first time. It’s apparently the same creature.
“Hello fellow. You want more meat?” Kalev.
The dog’s growls rumble deep in his broad chest, then he lies on his stomach and whines. He looks down the trail to the south, but becomes silent.
“What’s wrong?” Freya.
“Be very still and quiet. Open your mind to what he’s trying to tell us.”
Freya backtracks into a heavy growth of ferns, in deeper concealment, beside her partner. The dog follows, keeping himself between the couple and the clearing.
“I saw a flash picture of four men with weapons. One of them aimed at the dog, but he ran before he was shot. Did you see that?” Freya.
“Yes. Protectors. They’re using the trail. Listen and be ready.”
They draw needleguns and drop to their stomachs, hidden by the greenery. The dog lies down between them and the trail, his ears flicking as he searches for sound.
Low, sporadic talk breaks the forest silence, too quiet to be understood from the distance—about twenty yards— from where the pair lies with the dog. Although words can’t be discerned, the four-man patrol is alert and searching.
“They’re looking for us,” Freya.
“They are. I wonder if that mechanical bug drew them this far from The Hive.”
The Protectors pass the hidden couple without slowing, moving up the trail, northward, toward the city.
happened to cause deployment of so many Protector patrols. The Deciders probably don’t consider two of their soldiers a great loss, but they’re angry that it could happen so close to them. They have to know who killed them. We are the only ones who use needleguns.” Freya.
“Harvester said there was danger. Something has alerted the deciders,” Kalev
They wait in still and watchful silence for fifteen minutes.
“I’m going to try something with the dog,” Kalev.
Freya watches her partner as he closes his eyes and relaxes. After about thirty seconds, the dog gets up and slips through the grass and scrub bushes, low to the ground. When he reaches the trail, he is inching along on his belly. He waits, then rises—sniffing the air and cocking his ears, and returns to Kalev.
“Concentrate on seeing images,” Kalev.
Freya closes her eyes for seconds.
“I see nothing but an empty trail and clearing,” F.
“That’s what he sent. It’s clear. Wait…”
“I got the picture, too. I see his mate with pups. I see him catching a rabbit. He’s telling us he has to leave,” Freya.
Kalev digs in his backpack and finds more jerky. Freya follows his lead.
Again, the dog devours the initial offering, and then takes the additional food as it’s offered and melts into the undergrowth.
When the duo opens the trapdoor entrance to The Acreage, their greeting is different. They’ve barely regained their footing in the secure entrance room when a door slides open. Nijul and Andrus are there to welcome them.
Andrus opens his arms and pulls both young people into his embrace.
“Thank God you’re safely home,” Andrus says.
“We expected you nearly two days ago. We got your ‘safe’ signal from the Cave and then silence,” Nijul says.
Andrus leads the couple and Nijul to a comfortable room only a few yards down the hall from the reception chamber.
“Master Andrus, Nijul, we have more to tell you than you expect,” Freya says.
“First, get refreshed, you have time and you’ll be more comfortable. Fresh uniforms are waiting for you. We’ll have food delivered to a secure debriefing room and you can give us your report,” Andrus says.
An hour later, Andrus and Nijul wait until the pair has almost finished dessert before asking questions.
Kalev and Freya have already discussed their report. They will alternate in their telling of the story. Freya will speak first.
When she begins to describe the mental exchange with Harvester, Nijul holds up a hand, asking her to pause.
“Please repeat the response you received to the question about Harvester’s partner,” he says.
“The response was, ‘Partner is dead. Executed. Burned.’”
The spymaster’s shoulders sag. He works at maintaining a neutral expression as he lowers his eyes.
When Freya reports that the man was executed because of a Bible. Nijul and Andrus shake their heads in unison.
“Did I know the deceased?” Andrus says.
“Yes, probably, from years ago. He was under deep cover for this assignment. Few knew Harvester was there, fewer still knew of the other agent. I will arrange memorial services for him. Harvester is in serious jeopardy. Deciders believe in guilt by association. She’ll have to be an extremely good actress to survive,” Nijul says.
“One more thing. Harvester said extra Protectors were stationed in The Hive. She emphasized danger,” Kalev says.
Andrus and Nijul exchange glances, but remain silent. Andrus gestures to Freya asking her to proceed.
Freya continues the story, describing the aircraft that flew over them.
“They’re committing more resources than I’d have guessed. Harvester was supposed to report on the nature of The Hive’s products. The Deciders must consider them critical,” Nijul says.
Kalev picks up the narrative, describing how they eluded two Protectors but were confronted by two others.
“They were shocked to see us and slow to raise their weapons. We weren’t slow. Our training and the needleguns worked. They died so quickly they didn’t get off a shot. The flechettes blew through their body armor,” he says.
Andrus expression flashes from pride in his young Recondos to a sort of frustrated anger that Nijul has armed them.
“You knew my policies on firearms, but you wouldn’t have survived if Nijul hadn’t given you the weapons. We’re going to have to reconsider the situation. Now go on,” Andrus says.
Relief and awareness that standard procedures must change soften his grumbling tone.
Freya’s account of finding the mechanical bug prompts raised eyebrows.
“Elaborate, please. Once you found the thing, what did you do?” Nijul says.
Kalev describes the steps he took to deactivate the device and then wrapping it in foil to block transmissions. Andrus and Nijul nod silent approval.
When Freya describes how the couple used the emergency exit, Andrus interrupts.
“Just in case, Nijul, have someone check the Cave and emergency exit. Prepare nasty surprises in both places if Protectors are able to get in.
The spymaster nods. His grin, anticipating the booby traps to be set, would chill the heart of a potential intruder, but he doesn’t address the matter aloud.
“Harvester may have meant danger to herself as much as to you. If Tapja is psychically sensitive, as we now guess from your earlier report, she may already suspect our agent, but can’t identify her,” Nijul says.
“How can we get Harvester out?” Andrus says.
Freya and Kalev have the same question. They’ve sensed deep grief and fear in Harvester’s contact. Though they are silent, their question to Nijul is the same as Andrus’.
“Her name is Kaja. I sent her, to join the male agent, to learn what The Hive is manufacturing. We know the facility is not self-sustaining. What do the people there create for the Deciders, to make it worthwhile to pay for the city’s logistical support? The agents have been in place long enough to learn, but haven’t been able to get the information out. We’d hoped she could tell you two,” Nijul says.
“Can we help? Can Kalev and I bring her back?” Freya says.
Kalev is surprised, but nods. Nijul and Andrus exchange glances. Pride in the young warriors mixes with apprehension—a complex mix of emotions on their faces.
“I may be able to approve the mission, but you two will need rest, preparation and backup. Nijul, how many teams do you think we need to make a rescue?” Andrus says.
“Let me do some planning. I’ll give you an estimate of the resources we’ll need, and an operations plan within twenty-four hours.”
“Very well. Freya and Kalev, spend time with your families. We may have to move you back into isolation quarters soon. Nijul will tell us what his proposal is tomorrow. We’ll meet here for dinner and planning tomorrow evening at five o’clock.”
“You surprised me, but I’m willing to go. Harvester, or Kaja, sounded pained and scared,” Kalev.
The couple is walking down the hallway to the elevator that will take them to their parents’ apartments. When they stop, neither touches a button. Her right hand is still in his left hand.
“I hoped you’d back me. I trusted you would. If not, I’d never have volunteered,” Freya.
They have chosen silent communication. Somehow, it’s more intimate.
“I’d never let you go on a dangerous recon alone.”
Freya touches a button for the elevator. When it stops and the door closes behind them, she embraces Kalev and kisses him more deeply than ever before.
When the car stops and the door opens, no one is there to see the two—with blushing faces and shy smiles—still holding hands.
When Freya and Kalev meet Andrus, Nijul has not yet joined their mentor.
“Hello, sit down. Our friend will join us soon. I asked him to bring a special map you’ll need to see.”
Silent servers have begun to bring in food and place it in steaming warmers as the two join Andrus at the table.
“I ate so much for lunch with my family that I didn’t believe I’d be hungry, but this food smells so good that my stomach is snarling,” Kalev.
Freya steals a quick glance at him, hiding a smile.
“Sorry I’m late. Please tell me there’s still some of that venison stew left,” Nijul says.
He enters, carrying a rolled map about one yard long. He smiles at the young couple and nods to Andrus.
“No, old friend, join us. We wouldn’t start without you,” Andrus says.
After saying grace, the four eagerly attack their meals.
When the plates are taken away and the servers have closed the door, Nijul unrolls a color map made of thin plastic and spreads it on the bare table.
“Although you’ve seen The Hive from the top of a mountain, the immensity of the buildings in the complex and the surrounding trees, prevented a fuller view. This map is as accurate—and to scale, as we can produce. It has been drawn from a number of recon missions. Although the chart is a drawing, Kalev and Freya are engaged by the detail presented.
“What is this broad, white line to the west of The Hive?” Freya says.
“Let me get to that in a few minutes. I know that the two of you were here, on the mountain above the city,” Nijul says.
He touches a spot on the map above the warren of high-rise buildings with a forefinger.
“From your report, you saw a massive, black vehicle take the Deciders and Protectors away on this road. It runs west from The Hive for nearly four kilometers and joins the Deciders’ Roadway, here.”
His finger traces the narrow black line until it joins the broad white bar that runs north and south. He looks up at Freya.
“The Deciders’ Roadway is a massive path, denied to all but selected vehicles. One of the ways inhabitants of The Hive and other cities like it are restricted, is the Lectrics they are forced to use. Those little cars are powered by electricity broadcast from the center of the city. They will only go about three kilometers before the power is too weak to drive them. They could never reach the Deciders’ Roadway.”
“I understand, but how will this help us rescue Kaja?” Kalev says.
“I’ve been wondering where you were going with this, too,” Andrus says.
“Every week, on Secondday, a train comes to the city we call The Hive. It usually consists of a pulling vehicle and four cargo trailers. Sometimes the cargo trailers are fitted out for people. That’s how Kaja and her partner got inside. We managed to take two people off the train and substitute our agents,” Nijul says.
“Can’t you get her out the same way?” Freya says.
“No. That had been our plan, but our agent who worked the trains disappeared. We fear he may be dead, too.”
Nijul turns back to the map, again tracing a fingertip on the plastic.
“The trees that border the access lane on the north and south are thick until they reach this open area.”
He taps the map at a point where the green, representing the trees, ends and a tan, open area begins.
“This is an open area. Here, the grass is often taller than Kalev. The Deciders demand no cultivation or management in the area. Instead, as you’ve seen, The Hive has gardens on building rooftops; the stench you reported was from the fertilizer they use, night soil—human excrement. They are required to recycle even that.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever get that odor out of my memory,” Freya says.
“Kaja and her partner lived with it, wearing the recycled gray clothes for nearly six months, in her case before you saw the ceremony of his execution. We still don’t have the information Kaja had volunteered to find. We’ve got to get her out. We need the intelligence, but we must protect her life, too.”
Silence cloaks the room. Freya and Kalev even keep their mind touch still.
“So tell us your proposal for her extraction,” Andrus says.
Over the next half-hour, the spymaster outlines an audacious plan to bring their agent home.
“When do you propose to execute the plan?” Andrus says.
“The next time a train comes to The Hive. That gives us five days to prepare and get our teams in place. If Freya and Kalev can be ready, we’ll have three more teams to support the mission,” Nijul says.
The young couple exchange glances and silent words.
“Will you be ready? “Kalev.
“Of course, so long as you’re with me,” Freya.
The senior officers haven’t noticed the exchange.
“I’ll get three volunteer teams for you, Nijul, but I want to be a part of preparing them for the mission,” Andrus says.
“One more thing, my friend, each team member will be armed with a needlegun pistol and one of each team will have a long-range rifle,” Nijul says.
“I anticipated that when you gave us your plan. The armorers will begin preparing the weapons tonight. I don’t want an open war with the Deciders right now, but this mission is critical.
Shortly after dawn, they leave the Cave and follow their compass headings to the southern beginnings of the mountain chain that ends in the ragged limestone cliffs standing over The Hive to the north. The sky is cloudy and threatening.
They begin using their silent speech.
“How far can we keep in contact with mind touch?” Freya.
“At least several hundred yards. The day you spoke, on our first recon, to tell me about the Protector patrol, we were at least a half-mile apart.”
“Your voice becomes weaker with distance, it’s true, but like words spoken aloud, I can usually make out the sense of them even when the inflections aren’t clear,” Freya.
“I think Nijul wanted us to get close because his agent is not as strong as we are. He’s hoping that closing the distance will improve our chances.” Kalev.
After a brief pause at midday for travel rations and water, the Recondos follow the mountain chain north. When exposed limestone becomes as frequent as grass and hardwoods give way to evergreens and scrub bushes, they know The Hive is near. A breeze confirms their proximity —carrying the city’s foul stench over them.
The wind also brings intermittent howls from the ruined wind turbine.
They find shade in an outcrop near the base of a huge pine tree. After sipping water from their canteens, their eyes link.
“Are you ready to call?” Freya.
Kalev smiles and nods.
“Harvester! Harvester! Harvester!”
He projects all his psychic energy into the silent shouts.
Freya watches her partner concentrate and shields her
mind like a person would cover her ears, for protection. She sits straighter, a questing expression in her eyes. In her mind, a faint voice—as from far away—comes.” “Moonlight.”
“Harvester, what can you tell us?” Kalev. “Partner is dead. Executed. Burned.” “Why?”
Like a weak radio signal, the mental voice fades, words become unclear. Emotions choke off clarity of thoughts.
“Harvester, are you under suspicion?”
Freya’s eyes are closed to focus all her attention to Harvester’s transmissions. She holds up one finger signifying she’s received a message.
“Tell her to repeat what she said about Deciders,”
“Harvester, I could not understand your message about Deciders. Please tell me again.”
“Moonlight, Deciders … stationed four more Protectors here. They…unclear…unclear… spies. Tell…unclear…send no one until I leave sign. Go now. Danger!”
The voice is gone. Freya shakes her head and raises empty palms.
“We’ll discuss all this when we have time to think. She said, ‘danger’ I think we’d better move. Wait!” Freya.
She grabs Kalev’s hand and pulls him as deeply into the rocky crevice as possible.
“Take out your cooling sheet and pull it over your entire body, and be very still,” she says.
After long, silent, immobile minutes, Freya sits up.
“There was a drone. Almost silent. If it had sensed heat, we’d have been targets. Protectors would have come. Harvester said,‘danger,’ we’ve got to get away from The Hive.”
“We can go now, if we stay in the thicker forest off the side of the mountains,” Kalev.
Aware that every step could be a signal to a listener, the couple makes their way into denser woodlands along the lower slopes of the mountains. Freya is leading them, paralleling a game trail, heading southeast. When Freya signals a halt, she points ahead of them, about twenty-five yards away.
Almost invisible, through the dense greenery, wearing camouflage and standing on the trail are two heavily armed Protectors.
One of the soldiers is a man, one a woman. They hold their weapons at the ready. Dark visors from their helmets cover their faces.
“We can bypass them if we swing east, back toward the mountain—let me lead,” Kalev.
After slipping through the underbrush for about a half- mile, Freya touches Kalev’s shoulder.
“People ahead. I can hear voices. They’re trying to be quiet.”
As if materializing from a nightmare, two different Protectors, both males step into their path. Shocked to see Freya and Kalev, they begin—too slowly—to raise their weapons. Their momentary hesitation is lethal. Hours of practice and quicker reflexes give the Recondos an advantage over the Protectors, who wear hindering armor. Both needleguns fire with less noise than a mountain stream rounding a rock. Both men drop without triggering their firearms. Their bodies twitch and spasm their last in seconds. They were both hit numerous times by the penetrating, expanding rounds.
As Freya pauses to check, Kalev takes her arm.
“They’re dead. The flechettes stopped them immediately. We’ll pray for the comfort of their families. We have to get back to The Acreage before the other Protectors come this way.”
“I don’t have a problem. They were waiting in ambush to shoot us. We have hurry back and report. Let’s go,” Freya.
They make their way along the western side of the long ridge line threading their way through aspen thickets, hickories and oaks, startling an occasional deer and scurrying rabbit, to the Cave they’d plotted in their mission planning. Except for the surrounding forest, the facility is identical to the one they used the night before.
Inside, they immediately check instructions for the emergency exit; wash away the travel grime and warm their rations from the cabinet. Their words are silent and scant.
Over the bare, wooden table, they hold hands and ask a blessing for their food and pray for the families of the two dead Protectors.
“It’s early, but let’s go to bed. We’ll need to be moving by first light tomorrow,” Freya.
Kalev agrees, but doesn’t speak. He stands and opens his arms. Freya steps inside his embrace. For long moments, the two are still. Comfort and affection flows between them.
As they begin to part, Freya still holds Kalev’s left hand. She leads him to her bunk.
To his silent, questioning eyes, she smiles.
“As we did when we were children, we’ll cuddle to sleep,” she says.
The two take off only their leather vests. As Freya is hanging her vest on a chair, she spots a new ornament clinging near the bottom hem. The thing is the size and shape of a wasp and colored brown. It is made of metal.
She steps back as if the apparatus will attack. Kalev sees and senses her alarm.
“It’s some sort of tracking device. It must’ve latched on me when I was checking the Protector’s bodies,” she says in silent speech.
Kalev nods and takes a multi-tool from his vest pocket. Using the small pliers, he removes the metal bug without damaging it. Examining the device, he discovers a tiny indentation. Visible inside is a screw head—the power switch. He turns it off.
“No sounds. The thing may have a backup function,”
Still holding the metal bug in pliers, Kalev wraps it in metal foil from the food cabinet and places it in his pocket.
“We have to get out of here. Do you remember the instructions?” Freya.
“Just to be sure, let’s take a look again,” Kalev.
After another look at the directions from the tablet’s Psalms, they begin to prepare to leave. They check their clothes for more metal bugs. There are none.
Kalev, following the directions for emergency evacuation, drops to his knees and twists the leg of his bunk at the foot of the bed, nearest the wall.
With barely a sound, a door, about three feet square, slides open beneath the table. Inside, a faint, green glow reveals a ladder. Freya points to her chest, then the ladder. She disappears and Kalev follows.
Another twist, counterclockwise, and he feels a tiny release snap. He’s broken the seal. He turns the leg a quarter turn.
At the bottom of the ladder, Freya is waiting, holding her Seeker.
“Yes, let’s get moving.”
She triggers the Seeker and the door above them slides into place, closed. A solid clicking indicates the portal has locked.
The light is barely adequate, so they use tactical flashlights. The air is musty and the floor is coated with fine dust. Obviously no one has been here in many months. They follow a corridor about six feet wide for a hundred paces, as Freya counts. At the end is a metal door. Kalev points his Seeker at the door without effect. Freya mimics his actions—again without results. They are beginning to be frustrated and concerned when, after several tries to open the door, Freya shines her light back down the tunnel toward the ladder where they’d entered.
A door has opened in what appeared to be part of the corridor’s blank wall as they passed it. Inside the opening, a ladder leads upward. The instructions did not mention the exact location. Security. The Seeker’s signal, however, activated the portal.
Kalev leads the way. He climbs in the dimness until he reaches a shelf that opens into a small room. The space is less than eight feet square and is furnished only with a sleeping bag, dry rations, water and an electronic tablet. A periscope hangs from the ceiling in a corner. Kalev can barely stand upright.
Freya joins him, her eyes assessing the tiny space.
“I guess emergency means just that,” Freya.
Kalev uses his Seeker and closes the door to the ladder. They maintain silence. When they check the twenty-third Psalm on the tablet they learn that, when they trigger the door to leave the shelter, it will open in a cavern on the east side of the mountain.
“‘Opening on the mountainside.’ That probably accounts for the fresher-smelling air in here,” Freya.
“Yes. I’m grateful for that. These Caves and emergency exits have been here for many years. We’ll have to ask about the details when we get back to The Acreage,” Kalev.
“We’d better get some sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be a tough one,” Freya.
They open the sleeping bag. Kalev lies on one side and Freya, the other.
“I don’t think we should have tried to sleep together in the cave. I care too much for you, and our bond, to risk breaking its purity because of our stress. Here, we must be close, but we’ll simply sleep,” Kalev.
Freya says nothing, but her mental sense is like a nod.
As they enter the embrace of sleep, he lies on his back and she curls around him, her head on his shoulder. His arm enfolds her as it did when they were children.
Freya wakes first. She rises and checks the periscope. Dawn has broken on a foggy, drizzly day.
She goes back to the sleeping bag and wakens Kalev with a shake, holding a hand over his mouth.
“Stay in mind touch. We don’t know how much the Protectors found out from the bug.”
“Let’s get away from here!” Kalev.
“I agree. I just checked, it’s dawn and raining.”
“The exit door is supposed to open inside a cavern, what did you see outside?” Kalev.
“The periscope must be hidden in a tree. There are branches and leaves in every direction, all dripping. The rain will slow our movement, but should help shield us from drones.”
They take mission rations and replenish their water supply. After they check their packs and weapons, Kalev surveys the scene presented by the periscope, inch by inch.
When he signals with his eyes and hands, Freya uses her Seeker to unlock the exit door. As it opens, by sliding downward into the floor, Kalev steps through the narrow exit, leading with needlegun and flashlight. Freya is immediately behind him; her pistol at the ready.
Only cool, rain-washed mountain air and the fresh scent of pine needles greet them.
“When the tablet told us we’d exit into a cavern, I’d anticipated a long tunnel. This is barely more than a shelf, or an indentation in the side of a mountain,” Kalev.
They stand on the edge of a flat rock, sheltered from the rain by an outcrop of limestone, standing about twenty- five feet above the base of the mountain. Below them, about a hundred feet away, is the forest floor, sloping gently through pines and hardwoods.
“Look, there are steps,” Freya.
She points to a set of notches cut into the hillside’s rock. Though, in many cases, grass has overgrown them, they are usable.
“Those are probably ancient. Hunters probably used the little cleft for overnight shelter in the days when they took their game with spears and arrows. We’ll use them, too. Just step carefully.” Kalev.
Freya doesn’t answer except for an almost-silent snort. She scrambles down the carved rock steps like a mountain sheep. At the bottom, she looks up as Kalev, one-foot-at a time and facing the mountain, follows. If he looks around, he will see her wide, affectionately-mocking smile.
When they check their compasses and maps, they verify that they must go south and cross the lower foothills of the mountain chain going west before they can reach The Acreage’s territory.
“I hope we don’t have to spend another night in that Cave,” Freya.
Worries about vindictive Protector patrols and spy drones keep them uneasy. They are wearing lightweight ponchos, but their feet and lower legs are wet from rain and walking through deep grass. The drizzle is steady.
“Wait. Stop. Let’s get under those cedars. I need to check the spy bug you found. It just vibrated,” Kalev.
They form a shelter between them with ponchos held out in front at arm’s length, then Kalev drops to his knees. As Freya shelters him, Kalev unwraps the foil covering the apparatus. It vibrates intermittently as if alive. A tiny light, where the right eye of a wasp would be, glows in time with vibrations. He rewraps the device.
“Something is trying to waken the little spy. I don’t know if it can be done without physically turning the switch. We can’t take the chance,” he says.
With his sheath knife, Kalev digs a hole about eight inches deep at the base of a tree. He buries the foil- wrapped bug and circles the base of the tree with rocks. Freya stands silent guard as he completes his task, her pistol at the ready.
“I didn’t want to destroy the thing. We may be able to come back and retrieve it for study. I doubt it can be completely awakened, wrapped in metal foil and buried.”
Freya slips her pistol back in its holster and rearranges her poncho.
“Probably true, but the fact that it got on my vest and rode there into the Cave makes me cautious. Knowing that someone’s trying to energize it gives me shivers.”
In late afternoon, the rain stops, but clouds hang low as they, heading into the setting sun, realize an Entryway into The Acreage will not be in reach before night covers them. Their Seekers cannot locate a Cave.
“Guess we’re going to get a chance to practice the woodland survival skills we learned,” Freya.
“Yes, let’s start looking for some relatively high ground. The rain may come back at any time,” Kalev.
They continue west but swing south toward a pass in the mountains.
Just inside the tree line, to the north of their track, the straight edges of a manmade structure are highlighted by the last rays of the setting sun. Kalev touches Freya’s arm and points.
“Let’s find out what that is.”
Twilight has almost completely darkened the ruined structure, but the remains of a “V” shape formed by two stone walls opens to the north.
The broken gray, fire-scorched walls reach a height of about eight feet where they join. From the apex, they slope down, unevenly, to a floor of cracked, dirt-covered concrete.
“Looks like our home for the night. Probably a victim of bombing during the Rift wars.” Freya.
“Better than having to build a shelter from tree branches alone. We can snap our ponchos together and, with a few pine branches, on the floor make a decent cover from the wind and rain and a fragrant bed,” Kalev.
They finish constructing their shelter just before final dark. They’re in mind touch communication, exclusively and will use no lights. After a quick meal of cold, rehydrated travel rations and water, they decide on the night’s schedule. Freya will sleep for the first two hours while Kalev keeps watch.
Within minutes, weary from two days of stress, Freya is breathing the sounds of deep sleep, as she is curled in the stone corner of their shelter inside her sleeping bag, on a bed of pine boughs.
The moon, though not yet full, throws intermittent swaths of silver light on the open floor outside the couple’s makeshift shelter as wind-driven clouds cover and uncover its face.
As Kalev watches, movement catches his eye. He adjusts his grip on his needlegun and silently begins to reach and alert Freya.
In answer to a call he has not made, a wordless thought —curious—but benign—forms. It is almost as if someone asks, “Who are you?”
Eyes and ears show first, silvered by moonlight.
The intruder is a wolf.
Kalev and Freya demonstrate their thorough training. They hold impassive expressions, even as the bellows of massed voices from The Hive echo in their memories.
“Why?” Andrus says.
“Old friend, I trust you. If you trust these young Recondos with a deep, special secret, I’ll explain in a few words,” Nijul says.
Andrus’ only visible reaction is a lift of eyebrows and a bare nod.
“Freya and Kalev, what I’m about to tell you is a highly guarded secret. You may not discuss it with anyone except Master Andrus or me. Discussing it between yourselves is only permissible when you are using your mind touch. Do you understand and agree?”
The pair nods.
“Yes,” they say aloud, together.
“We have an agent inside The Hive. A person who is unusually sensitive, psychically. One or both of you may be able to communicate with the agent by telepathy. If so, we can keep track of The Hive’s activities without endangering our source.”
Andrus leans back in his chair, touching his beard with steepled index fingers.
“Nijul, this couple just returned from their initial recon. When do you propose to send them back?”
“I understand, but when they feel they are ready, I need them.”
“Will you volunteer to go?”
Kalev speaks to Freya soundlessly, with no change in his expression.
Freya flicks a glance at her partner.
“Yes! This is the kind of mission we were trained for!”
“Sir, Mr. Nijul, we will go. Give us as much information as you can and tell us how you think we can contact your agent. We’ll prepare and present our ideas on the mission plan to you and Master Andrus. If you approve, we’ll launch,” Kalev says.
Nijul looks from the pair to Andrus.
“When do you think we can start preparation and briefings?” Nijul says.
“This team appears to be ready, so we can start this afternoon,” Andrus says.
Freya and Kalev leave together, going to spend as much time with their families as possible before going into isolation.
“Who do you think Nijul is?” Freya
“He’s obviously an important man, and since we haven’t seen him before, there must be a reason he’s been invisible.” Kalev.
“He must be the legendary Spymaster. I think Andrus was surprised that he introduced himself as Nijul. Maybe that’s his real name.” Freya.
“We’ll know from the briefings, and by the level of information he has.”
They hold hands in the elevator, but drop them as it stops.
“True. This new task will not be routine. See you in a couple of hours,” Kalev
Freya and Kalev meet with Nijul in one of the briefing rooms. A soundproofed facility that is routinely checked for spy devices.
“I am more than pleased that you two have agreed to run this operation. I’ll tell you everything I know about the agent inside The Hive and how we propose to make contact,” Nijul says.
The meeting goes on for more than two hours. Kalev and Freya, absorbing all the detail they can, glance at each other occasionally—Nijul has more information about The Hive than they suspected.
“It’s five o’clock, let’s break for the day and start again tomorrow morning at eight o’clock,” Nijul says.
The couple has been moved into isolation quarters. They are completely segregated from everyone but each other. They have access to the ultra-secret materials from which Nijul briefed them. Silent servers, with whom they are not allowed to speak, bring their food to them. They have separate bed and bath facilities but spend all their waking hours talking about their mission—planning and praying for success—together and separately.
When they meet the next morning, Nijul begins with a surprise.
“I’ve read Master Andrus’ files on your testing and training. He and The Acreage identified you early and began to prepare you. He did not press you into service, but hoped you’d volunteer. You fulfilled his hopes.”
The two smile, but are silent—to Nijul’s ears.
“I wanted to be a Recondo from my earliest days, like my dad. I don’t think Andrus and the trainers had to push me,” Kalev.
“I never doubted it. Besides, I wanted to be with you,” Freya.
Kalev’s blush seems to coincide with Nijul’s comments about Andrus’ hopes.
“The records don’t show, however, which of you is the more powerful transmitter and which the more sensitive receiver. I’m sure you’ve worked with others who, though not as gifted as you, can receive your thoughts and others who can send you silent messages. Which do you think?”
Freya and Kalev’s glance at each other affirms that they are not worried about discussing facts they’ve never shared with anyone else.
“Kalev is the stronger transmitter of thought. I am the more sensitive receiver,” Freya says.
“Good. We’ll have him call out to the agent, and you’ll both listen for a response,” Nijul says.
The spymaster pauses. The information he is going to give Kalev and Freya has been guarded so closely, it’s difficult to share, even now.
“Kalev, when you are in position on the mountain above The Hive, call out for Harvester. Just speak that word with your mind, nothing else. Freya, listen for the word Moonlight as a reply. Unless you sense that word, say nothing. If other words come through, especially at the beginning, leave quickly and cover your trail,” Nijul says.
“How long should I call for Harvester,” Kalev says. “How long should I listen for Moonlight,” Freya says. “No more than an hour for both. If the agent can’t make mental communications with you, we’ll try our contact by other means.”
Additional work, in preparation for their assignment, includes briefings on their route to the mountain overlooking The Hive; the locations of their planned overnight Caves and issuance of special supplies.
“You leave at five-thirty in the morning, first light. I’ll meet you at five o’clock for final preparations before your launch,” Nijul says.
“Are you ready?” Freya.
The couple is sitting at the table in the common room separating their quarters.
“Sure. Do you have any doubts?”
“No. Hold my hand as I read.”
She turns the electronic Bible pages to Psalms 27 and begins to read aloud:
“The Lord is my light and my salvation—so why should I be afraid? The Lord is my fortress protecting me from danger, so why should I tremble?”
As the words of David, the warrior king and poet, touch his ears and soul, Kalev’s confidence in the mission, and in his partner, grow.
When Freya completes reading the Psalm, she frees her hand from Kalev’s and stands. He is just beginning to stand when she brushes her lips across his.
“Good night. The Lord will take us through this mission and we will be safe,” she says.
As they go to their separate quarters, Kalev can still feel the warmth of her lips on his.
“Andrus will be here at five-thirty to see you off. I didn’t want to argue with him, but I do want you to have these.” Nijul says.
Reaching inside his soft-sided deerskin briefcase, he withdraws two pistols. The weapons are about eight inches long. Their plastic grips are ergonomically shaped and textured for a sure grip. The metal barrels are a non- reflective black. The open sights have luminous dots and their holsters are made from soft, oiled leather.
“You’ve practiced extensively with something similar to these before in your training, so they shouldn’t be completely unfamiliar. These are fully automatic and suppressed. They fire extreme high-velocity flechettes, tiny arrows, made of tungsten and steel. Some call the weapons needleguns. They’ll penetrate Protector body armor and instantly expand to cause fatal damage. If I could’ve given them to you earlier, it would’ve been ideal. Take them, stow them in your packs and, tonight, study the tutorial I’ve loaded on your reading tablets. I pray you won’t need the pistols, but I’ll take the chance by arming you even when it might not be necessary. Put everything away, Andrus will be here shortly.”
True to Nijul’s prediction, Andrus arrives within minutes.
“Are you ready for another mission, Recondos?”
His voice is hearty and encouraging, but often his eyes betray worry. After he leads them in prayer for the mission, he embraces Freya and Kalev in turn and leads them to the launch room.
“God will be with you,” Andrus says.
He closes the steel door, signaling the exit portal to open.
Freya and Kalev are on their second mission sooner than expected. This one carries greater hopes and blacker fears than the first.
They reach their overnight Cave well before sunset. Freya, using her Seeker, locates the entrance, but they scout the area foot by foot before going inside.
They spend the evening learning more about their needleguns. These small pistols are fearsome weapons. Each firearm is loaded with a twenty-round magazine and two full spares are provided.
“I’m going to shift my sheath knife to my left side and carry this pistol on my right,” Kalev says.
“I agree. If I need this thing, I’ll need it fast. Fumbling a draw could be fatal,” Freya says.
The two prepare their evening meal and, after blessing their food, enjoy the special rations Nijul packed for them. True to their training, they double-check the Cave’s Bible for emergency instructions, Kalev yawns.
“I’m going to make it an early night,” Kalev says.
“Good, let’s read more from the Psalms before we go, though. A lot of people are depending on us,” Freya says.
She shifts the tablet reader on the table to the beginning of Psalms 23 and begins reading silently. When she reaches verse four, she reads aloud,
“Even when I walk through
the dark valley of death,
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me…”
She reaches across the table, takes Kalev’s hand and continues reading. When the Psalm is complete, she momentarily tightens her grip, then releases it.
“Good night, sleep well, my partner.”
She goes to her bunk and closes the privacy curtains without another word, silent or otherwise.
F reya and Kalev have never been to Andrus’ office, down on the fifth level. He’s always worked with them in the training rooms on the second level, or in the forest.
The two meet outside Andrus’ door ten minutes early.
They speak in mind-touch.
“Your night with the family good?” Kalev.
“They wanted to keep me up all night talking,” Freya.
He smiles, nods at the door.
“Me, too. Ready?” Kalev.
“Yes, let’s go.”
Kalev knocks on the thick door.
“Come in.” Andrus’ voice.
When Freya and Kalev go through the door, they are surprised. No one sits at the reception desk and the door to Andrus’ private office is open.
“Come in and sit down,” Andrus’ says.
As the two enter, their surprise increases. A man they’ve never seen is sitting in one of the chairs facing the Master’s desk.
Andrus stands and waves a hand toward the visitor, who is also standing.
“Freya Dimsevics, Kalev Bervins, meet…”
The stranger holds out a hand to Kalev, offers a slight bow to Freya and interrupts Andrus.
“Call me Nijul,” he says.
Andrus offers no contradiction, but Kalev can see, in his mentor’s eyes, that the man is not always called Nijul.
“He’s giving us a false name,” Freya says in mind touch.
“Could be his true name and Andrus is surprised he told us,” Kalev.
Kalev takes the man’s hand and smiles. The grip is strong and dry. The man is a little less than medium height and slim. His hair is dark brown, cut short and his eyes are sparkling dark. He wears a small, neat goatee.
“Right. I saw Andrus’ eyes. Since he didn’t correct it, there’s some reason why,” Kalev.
“Sit down and join us in a cup of coffee,” Andrus says.
When Freya and Kalev have settled into comfortable visitors’ chairs, Andrus addresses the pair while glancing at the visitor.
“Please, Recondos, tell Nijul about your first recon mission. Start with the point at which you first detected the Protector patrol,” he says.
Freya begins the story and the reporting shifts to Kalev and back as the narrative unfolds. Nijul’s eyes flick from one storyteller to the other, following each revelation.
Andrus is silent until the descriptions reach the involvement of the Decider woman. He holds up a hand. Kalev stops his account.
“Nijul, do you know who that woman is?” he says.
“Possibly. Kalev, then Freya, I want you to please give me as complete and detailed description of her as you can,” he says.
Though there is no visible evidence of recording devices, both Freya and Kalev know that recon reports are routinely recorded. Their answers are as careful and accurate as they can make them.
As the pair searches their memories for details in describing a person they saw for less than a minute Nijul’s expression begins to reveal a kind of bleak pleasure.
“Thank you. Yes, Andrus, I think I know who the Decider woman is. Her chosen name is Tapja. It means killer.
Silence fills the room like cotton stuffed in the ears. “Is she a Decider?” Andrus says.
“Yes, she’s one of their executioners. Fire is her favorite method of torture and killing. The solar oven was her tool, in the case you’ve described. Most likely, the victim was incinerated alive,” Nijul says.
Kalev and Freya hold their expressions as neutral as possible. Andrus’ eyes flash like lightning foreshadowing a violent storm. Freya holds up a hand.
“We didn’t mention it before, but just before the woman Decider, this Tapja, got in the car she looked up at the mountain where we were lying. It was almost like she had scented us,” Freya says.
Nijul’s eyes open until the iris is surrounded by white, then they close as if the office lights are too much. He lowers his head slightly, but then raises it and directly addresses Freya and her question.
“Freya, I don’t think she saw you. If she had, she’d have sent the Protector patrol after you. It was good that neither of you stood. She may have sensed your presence because you’re so different from the people in The Hive. She also may be much more mentally sensitive than we’d thought.”
“Andrus, you know the nature of the enemy. Kalev and Freya, you need to be aware of who and what we are facing. You didn’t witness the execution, but you saw cheering from The Hivers rather than remorse. Many years ago, those people wouldn’t have reacted that way. Now they’re little more than tools for the Deciders—human machinery. Thank you for a thorough debriefing. I have other questions, though,” Nijul says.
He looks to Andrus for approval and receives a nod.
“Master Andrus, please help me in learning about this young pair.”
Again, Andrus nods, but says nothing.
“Freya and Kalev. I’m told that you’ve developed complete telepathy, or mind touch communications.” Nijul says.
Andrus’ expression changes, a flash of pride smooths his brow.
“These young Recondos have been selected and then trained, since early childhood, to communicate with each other by mental connection. They have been an inseparable duo since then. From what they tell me, their silent conversations are as natural as speech,” Andrus says.
Nijul leans forward, focusing on Kalev.
“Young man, can you show me?”
“Certainly, Sir. What do you want me to do?”
“Step out in the hallway and close the door. Ask Freya to tell you, telepathically, what I’m doing and then follow her instructions.”
Kalev does as the man asks. When he closes the door, he speaks silently.
“What’s he doing, Freya?”
“He has a small knife, he opened it and is trimming a fingernail. Wait…”
In seconds, Freya’s silent voice speaks again.
“He handed me a note asking that you knock four times on the door and enter when you hear my voice —audibly.
Kalev complies by knocking on the door. Freya answers the knock aloud.
As he enters, Kalev looks for the knife. Nijul sits with both hands in his lap. His expression is a mixture of eagerness and skepticism.
“Now, Kalev what was I doing while you were out?”
“Freya told me you were trimming a fingernail with a small knife. I suppose you put it away. She also said you handed her a note, instructing me to knock four times and wait for her audible voice to enter.”
Andrus has the look of a proud parent whose child has just passed a major test with ease. Nijul looks like a man who has been panning for gold dust and discovers a huge, pure nugget.
“Excellent! I’ve been told that your talents are remarkable and I agree,
If Master Andrus approves, I have another mission for you.”
“These are fine young soldiers, Nijul. They’re young, but have talents that most can only know in fantasy. But, before I commit them to a new mission so soon, I must know the details,” Andrus says.
Nijul has been focusing his attention on Andrus. He now turns to Freya and Kalev.
“I want you to go back to the mountain above The Hive.”