The low atmosphere sediment count had become spectacular as we approached the target site, west of Lost Hickory. In the slanted light of late afternoon, I had mistakenly thought we were slashing our way over the remains of a hill that had split, half collapsed and gone overgrown.
Our squad was moving through the jungle in reverse pentagon formation, with Lieutenant Rollie calling the shots from rear center. The Loot carried the heaviest metals, both in terms of rank and wave engines. I held right forward, clearing off half of our path by running a machetefire arclight from the powered navel of my dropsuit aura; my wave turned the thorny underbrush to instant ash. Serena was at left forward, running machetefrost. We cut a clean swath. Lazy blades could trash the mission, because we had to rely on the plants and their forms just as much as we had to rely on our engines and their waves to locate what we had already come to call “Isis X.”
Rollie thought first when the red floodlight projection flared eight feet from the ground in our peripheral vision. “Yes: allowing for the predicted Madrid shifts in location and direction, this ought to be the place.”
One flood triggered from the left, directly in front of Sherelle, at point guard, then a second rose from the right, in front of DeJuan at shooter. Between them, silver glinted from the weathered burnish of an old pine plank and cut through a wall of kudzu ten yards dead ahead. Sunlight—dumb luck itself—could have told us the same thing that the millions of yuan and body hours’ worth of spotlights, arclights and optic implants had told us had we thought to see what our eyes saw. This wouldn’t be the last time we missed a free message, and it was the last time it cost us nothing to miss one.
As Rollie empassed the adjusted fluid maps into our right lenses, I thought to him, “No need for that: I can feel it now. At least a piece of Isis X is behind that wall, possibly under the floorboards behind it.”
Sherelle stepped forward and reached into the cascade of vines, but—in a flash of brass—a shakersnake flew out of the foliage and latched onto the left hip of her dropsuit before the bladeform wave could break from her body.
“Gas chariot, Serena,” I thought. But she was well ahead of me, and had converted the frost projection over into a narrow stream of high-velocity mist, aimed precisely at the reptile’s shining head as it tried to swing its prehensile tail behind Sherelle’s right buttock and thigh. Instantly covered from a diagonal angle, the beast was dead in seconds. Sherelle kicked its verdigris-colored husk into the shrubs to her left, then dissolved the shrubs by machetefire.
At such moments, I was grateful for the coolant effect of our auras. Temperatures east of the Northern Corridor and scarcely north of the Western Crossway could easily reach 52 degrees Celsius, especially as sundown approached.
Then we were back to work. DeJuan broadthought, “Loot, I’ve already got a quad of fingerforms set at gentle and combing over the right side of what looks like an old wall. Honorey, can you work something like that around to my far right?”
I looped a violet wave over his right shoulder and off to his right, then bowed it back toward the silvery wall in front of him, coaxing out six tines before it made soft contact with the leaves: “A six-pronged afro-pick, passing you now.” I gently raked the wall, trying to gauge the firmness of affixation of the barbed runners of hundreds of vines. We didn’t want to pull what was likely to be a fragile structure apart until we knew more about it. For all we knew, the ancient outhouse could have been reduced to tissue-thin paper, its walls held upright by centenarian vegetation.
Booby-traps, too, don’t improve with age, and all of them don’t necessarily defuse by degeneration. In the year preceding the date of our landing, more than three dozen members of other search parties—none of which had been on our assignment or one similar to it—had been killed or maimed by mines left over from long-forgotten local conflicts. The Zone didn’t matter. Anywhere could have been wired for death, and that included the immediate area in which we hoped we had located at least some Isis X, our pet name for the so-called DeBoonerating Reconstructulator. The Reconstructulator was the last great work of Esteban Hampton-Bueno, the last great inventor from this region and a man infamously obsessed with secrecy; one of his favored security techniques, we understood, was the comic mask.
But enough of this.
Anthony E. Hoyle, Spring 2009