23rd of 9th Month, 281st Year of the Triumvirate
I spent the next few days in the wilds south of Point Hammond. They provided me with enough of what I needed to treat my wound, and the thick underbrush and gnarled trees offered plenty of places to hide from Cartographer hunting parties.
It wasn’t the hunting parties I was worried about, however. It was the mad woman with the rifle. At that point I still had a notion in the back of my mind that I recognized her, but it still hadn’t dawned on me from where.
In between bouts of hiding and picking berries, I went over what I knew about the circumstances surrounding Professor Martine Babin’s recovery. I knew he’d been found south of the town, in the woods I now found myself hiding and searching in, near a dried out river bed. That had been in the early springs months…from what I knew of the area what I was actually looking for now was a creek.
Over the course of the next few days, I found no trace of either a dry bed or a creek. I did find the over grown remains of an abandoned motor carriage. Inside were the remains of the carriage’s driver, little more than a skeleton wearing the tattered scraps of what looked like a hospital orderly uniform. I examined the vehicle itself, but found no markings. The driver’s side door was off, and the passenger’s side was wedged against a tree and over grown. I had a poke around the area and found the missing door at the foot of another tree fifteen feet away. I flipped it over, leaves and dirt rolling off as I did.
On the other side, in painted letters barely visible beneath a coat of dirt and rust, were the words “Point Hammond Behavioral Studies and Corrections Facilities”. What an ominous sounding name, it was. Was there some sort of asylum out here in the woods around Point Hammond? And if so, what had happened to this fellow?
A chill came over me, as I realized that the woods had gone silent. I looked up from the door and scanned the area around me. It might sound unoriginal, but I truly did have the sense that I was being watched.
A group of birds took flight from behind a thicket nearby, and I heard a harsh whisper.
“Goddamit!” a man’s voice said. Then a woman replied.
“Nice going, Brick. How the hell did you ever make it as a hunter?”
I recognized the woman’s voice.
“Ronnie?” I said. I relaxed my hand, which I now realized was hovering over the gun I’d taken from the Cartographer in the alley.
“Y-yeah…who are you?”
“It’s Pixie Sinclaire.”
Veronica Trenum stood up from behind the thicket. She looked like she hadn’t had a meal in days, but otherwise looked in good health.
“Pixie? Oh, thank the Man. Is there anyone else with you?”
“No. Just me. I’ve been looking for you guys for months. Is Adella with you?”
Silence, and then, “No. None of the others are, except for Brick, here. You know him, as I understand it.”
I frowned. Yeah, I knew him alright. He stood up with his rifle.
“Mister Mackay. Been a while. I think the last time I saw you was…at the battle of Fargeon LeDois, high tailing it away over a hill.”
“That’s…it more complicated than that.”
“Whatever, it doesn’t matter. What happened to you all? Where have you been the last year?”
Veronica explained to me about what happened in the swamp, about the automaton that attacked them and scattered their group. Ronnie and Mckay had found their way back to Lelina, where they found the town abandoned. They spent the next several weeks searching for Adella and the others.
Eventually they packed up and left, deciding that the search had gone cold. They’d intended to return to civilization and report what had happened to authorities, but a few run-ins with the Cartographers convinced them instead to stay low.
“But we weren’t hiding,” Ronnie said. “We started investigating them. It took us awhile to get any information…these guys have a tendency to off themselves whenever they’re captured. Eventually we found one too craven to do his duty to the order or whatever nonsense and he spilled the beans.
“He told us the Cartographers are interested in Pre-Rift technology that’s supposedly stashed in old bunkers around the area.
“Like that automaton you told me about.”
“Precisely. Remember our expedition with Rigel to the Blackwood Grove?”
“How could I forget?”
“It was just like that, only…this one showed signs of self-repair, Pixie. It had used the skull of a deer to replace its head, and heartwood to repair an arm. That’s not just following programming. It’s problem solving.”
“What about the bunkers?”
“The site in Lelina was one. There’s another somewhere around here, in Point Hammond. They’re working out of an abandoned hospital not far from here.”
“That must be where this fellow was headed to,” I said, nudging the corpse with my foot.
“What do you know about it?”
“Not much,” Ronnie said. “But enough to know that the place was bad news, even before the Cartographers took it over. We also believe it may be where Adella and the others were taken. We’re headed that way. Join us?”
“Lead the way.”
As we walked, Ronnie filled me in on how they came to believe the hospital in Point Hammond was the ultimate destination for Adella and the others in the expedition. She told me that after the camp had been scattered, Mister Mckay and herself had done a quick search. McKay had followed their trail, and they very nearly caught up. Ronnie claimed that she even saw Adella through the underbrush, but before she could call out several people dressed in blue uniforms popped out of hiding and took Adella prisoner.
McKay had held her back, citing the fact that they were outgunned. After a brief exchange of words, Adella, Rothery, and Meriam surrendered and were led away, heading north.
“The only other settlement nearby was Point Hammond,” Ronnie said. “Seemed as good a place as any to start.”
“So, you’ve known for a whole year where they were being held?”
“Look, Pixie, I see where you’re going with this. Just stop. I already told you we’ve been dogged by these Cartographer people the whole time, and we have no idea how far their influence reaches. I mean, come on. You’ve heard the stories. If they’re true, that influence is pretty far.”
“It just seems unlike you to leave someone in jeopardy for so long,” I said, my eyes focusing on McKay. “And it doesn’t explain why you’re making a move now.”
“There are other elements in play now,” Ronnie said. “Some other group. We’ve seen them in Point Hammond, and a few other settlements we’ve taken to ground in. Women, wearing leather jackets, and heavily armed. At first we saw them by themselves, individually. But then we started noticing them in groups of two or three. Then we started recognizing them. One of them stands out like a sore thumb. Tall, like over six feet, with long black hair. We saw her meeting with two others. Seemed to be giving orders.”
“I’ve seen her, too.”
“In any case, I don’t think they’re working with the Cartographers. In fact I’d say there’s some deep seated animosity between them. That meeting I told you about? It was on a thoroughfare in a town nearby. A couple of Cartographers rode through. They weren’t doing anything, I don’t even think they meant to stop in town. The big one and her cohorts just pulled guns and blew them away.”
“That’s what I said. That’s not all. The Cartographers seem restless, distracted. We’ve heard them fighting amongst themselves, debating in harsh whispers in dark corners of saloons and hotels. Some sort of internal rift in their code, or philosophy or whatever. The group is starting to show it cracks, to splinter. I don’t know the details, but it seems to me that now might be our chance.”
I quietly mulled over this information as we approached the hospital. It wasn’t much longer before we arrived. McKay called a halt near the edge of a clearing. At its center was a single, four story building with barred windows, its formerly white walls gone green and black with moss and mildew.
“What now?” I asked.
“We wait,” McKay said. “For cover of night. We’ve been watching the place. It doesn’t have any power that we can see, and a group leaves at dusk, with no replacements. They must rely on a skeleton crew.”
“Sounds like they’re pretty confident,” I said.
“Isolation and long stretches of nothing happening can do that,” McKay said. “I’d think you’d know that, of all people.”
I ignored his jab. What had happened at the battle of Fargeon LeDois had been the result of a number of people proving craven, not of complacency.
The day stretched on, and we took turns napping. I was in the middle of mine when Ronnie shook me awake to find the world much darker than when I drifted off.
I wiped the sleep from my eyes and sat up, joining them at the tree line. McKay was studying the front of the hospital intently.
“Come on, come on!” he was muttering.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“They’ve usually left by now,” Ronnie said.
“Your hijinks the other day probably put them on alert,” McKay said. “Damn it.”
“This doesn’t change anything,” Ronnie said. “We still go in tonight. We’ll just have to deal with five more people.”
I looked back at them. “Five people? That’s it?”
McKay shot me a look that could melt a glacier. “Five people that we know of, who leave every night. I don’t know how many stay. Could be five is all they have guarding the joint. Could be there’s a hundred more. Either way, I was hoping for any advantage.”
“Well, if it’s only five, we can take them,” I said. “If it’s one hundred, we’re screwed either way. Let’s go.”
“Right,” Ronnie said, and we stepped forward out of the trees. McKay balked.
“Hold on a sec,” He said. “Let’s think this thro-“
A gunshot drowned out his voice. Ronnie and I both threw ourselves to the ground. I drew my pistol and aimed it at the hospital. Another shot rang out, but I saw no muzzle flash from anywhere in the building.
“Behind us!” McKay said, turning with his rifle. Another shot, and the bark of the tree next to him exploded. McKay cursed and threw himself down into the underbrush.
“Go on, then!” he shouted. “I’ll try to keep whoever this is occupied.”
Ronnie and I stood up and started running. We didn’t head toward the front door, however. We saw no sign of life from the hospital, but I didn’t want to take any chances. Luckily, there was a window on the west side of the building where the bars were hanging by a single rusty fastener.
Behind us, the woods erupted with the pops of rifle fire. Our attacker would fire, and McKay would answer.
The ground directly in front of me sent up a spray of dirt and grass. The shooter in the woods wasn’t even bothering to engage with McKay. The shooter was taking aim at me.
“Shit!” I yelled, realizing who the shooter must be. “We need to get to cover now!”
I started weaving wildly from side to side. We were almost at the building. Blood rushed through my ears and my lungs burned. Almost there…
I didn’t slow down as we reached the side of the hospital and ran at full speed into the wall. The loose window bars hung one foot above my head. I jumped up and grabbed them, wrenching them from the wall.
The gun fire had stopped, for the moment. Either our attacker was reloading or taking up a new position. Either way, we needed to take advantage.
“Ronnie, up on my shoulders,” I said, kneeling. She stepped up and I stood.
“Um, I don’t have anything to break the window!”
I handed the revolver up to her. “Use this. The butt, not a bullet.”
“Thanks, but I know how not to waste resources,” she said.
“Just break the damn window!”
I heard glass break. Then a gunshot from the tree behind us. The bullet hit the wall two feet from my head.
As I said her name, her weight lifted from my shoulders.
“Give me your hand,” she said. I looked up to see her hanging from the window, holding her hand out. I jumped up and grabbed it, scrambling up the wall as she pulled. A bullet struck the wall where my leg had just been as I went up and over, into the relative safety of the hospital.
“Well, that was thrilling,” Ronnie said.
“Eh, just a typical Tuesday.”
“Still humble as ever, I see.”
I stood up, keeping a wide berth of the window, and brushed myself off while looking around. The room was pitch black.
“I can’t see a damn thing, and I don’t have a torch,” Ronnie said. I reached into a pouch on my belt and pulled out two glass tubes. They contained liquids that when mixed cast out a sickly green light. I mixed them and shook the solution, and it slowly got brighter.
“Fancy,” Ronnie said.
“Thanks. I’m thinking of filing a patent…”
I trailed off as I took in the room. Rust eaten, over-turned beds littered the space. The walls and floors were covered in blood and other things. In some cases, the blood had been used as ink to write rambling diatribes. In the far corners were large metal cages hooked up to what looked like electrical generators.
“Adella,” I heard Ronnie whisper. “If you’re here, I’m so, so sorry.”