The Cutting Edge 7

The Cutting Edge
Chapter 7 Draft (02/16/08)

No more admiring the scenery, time to find the others. The locating marker in the inertial display showed she had dropped less than a kilometer away from the IP. By the time she had her gear in place sweat was beginning to drip. Nothing to do but soldier on.

It took an hour, that kilometer was straight line distance and what she had hiked up and down wasn’t that. When she reached the clearing five of the other team members were already their. She had missed seeing the clearing due to her drop order but a very credible performance. They were waiting on Short and Jameson. Short came in– well shortly, by dusk still no sign of Jameson.

With only seven to search for the missing man, and on foot in unknown country, it wasn’t going to happen. If he didn’t show up on his own he was out of luck and would have to make his way to the close in rendezvous much closer to the prison settlements boundaries.

Pvt. Jameson came in an hour after local midnight, a little the worse for wear but all in one piece. Ortega was manning the watch but didn’t bother waking any of the others. They were going to need the rest for tomorrow.

They buried about half of the supplies from the equipment pod, it had been ejected at the midpoint of the drop and came down in the light brush 20 meters outside of the clearing proper, the rest they were going to take in stages and locate closer to their final area of operation. If you have ever worked out one of those problems where a group of a certain size needs to get several of it’s members across a desert without all of them having the water to make it as a group, that’s what it seemed like. But they all were going to make it and with the back and forth movement the 70 kilometers turned into between two and three times as distance.

As well as she had done in training, Leah was by far the weakest member when it came to carrying heavy loads in untracked terrain, so in one sense she had the easiest job; guarding the advanced supplies while the others went back to hump the rest forward. It took two weeks to reach a spot inland of the prisoner occupied area.

“This is it,” Davis said from near the top of a hundred and fifty meter hill from where the plateau to the north could be clearly seen. “Bring up the mortars and ammo.” They had 2 of them, 40mm tubes, not much more than long range grenade launchers but with weight such a constraint, the weapons and and seventy-five rounds for each had been responsible for 30% of what they had carried from the drop point. Personal gear, weapons, com and surveillance items, and food made up the bulk of the rest.

On the march they hadn’t taken time to do any hunting to augment what they brought along with them but Leah had twice shot an example of a 90 kilogram, tusked peccary like creature, that though gamy was edible and so long as they added the right supplements would go a long way to extending their food supply. The plan was to learn from the locals what else might be edible and take things from their.

Perhaps 20% of what they had with them now was going to be for use by the prisoners, once and if they could recruit any.

With the base camp in place the next was a closer scout of the prison area and compound and first contact with one of the prisoners.

* * *
The line of colonists, that’s what they called themselves as did the Calps up on the bluff, at least officially; in private the guards called them prisoners and worse, were already marching towards the fields a hour after sunup. For most it was a breakfast of porridge like mush made from a locally grown tuber and a glass or two of a surprisingly tasty fruit drink, the same meal five days out of six, prepared and eaten in communal dinning halls that greeted them at the start of every day. Then off to the fields for most with a fortunate few staying behind and working at small craft like industries, just the minimum to keep things going.

Taking a page from the 20th century German Third Reich’s book, one that seemed to be a basis for their rule on Marais, even more so than the sacred Qur’an, the Caliphate had learned how to make slavery work in what was in many respects a technologically advanced society. Work for us, doing exactly what we say, when and how we say it, or starve. It was as simple, and as brutal as that.

Over the years the Calps had learned how much abuse could be imposed before it became counterproductive. They went that far and sometimes further. Though that was usually an improvisation by a guard who was bored or thought he could get away with it. The worst abuse, that that went beyond policy, was dealt with in time and the occasional guard was actually made an example of. That had proven good practice as even the Calp hierarchy wished to maximize return. That meant the need to minimize expense and send something of value back to the Caliphate. If a true profit was made so much the better in the eyes of those overseeing the operation from a distance. A profit though was only incidental to the mission.

When enough of the planets land area was cleared, planted and otherwise readied for regular citizens to take over, and that would be soon, a final solution to the prisoner problem could be arraigned. This was a new decision that had been under consideration ever since decided upon along with Muhammad Al-Gamrawi Bey’s expansionist policy.

Hatim Karim walked in front of the sixteen colonists, the path was new, less than a month old, but well beaten down and easily passable. He carried a lightweight single shot rifle, not for protection from his charges, but on the off chance they might run into one of the rare animals that were a threat to humans. The workers were armed with axes and shovels, some carrying seed or makings for the noon meal. Karim had little fear that they would turn on him. He was no better nor worse than the run of the mill guard and the price paid for disobedience, much less a physical attack was such that the colonists policed themselves in such matters.

As was inevitable when overseer and subject both hated their situation and the same authority was responsible for both being in that situation, they did not always look at each other as enemies, merely as unfortunate occupants of the same trap. At least Hatim’s time was bounded, another year and he was getting out of this hell hole. He made certain to do nothing that would interfere with the blessed event.

“So Dean Messmer, how long before we clear all the way to the creek would you estimate?”

“A week and then a week of burning the brush and this plot will be ready for follow up and planting.” Dean had resisted talking or having any dealings with the guards at first but like the rest saw the futility of that kind of action and so instead had started to cultivate whatever contact he could with any of the Calps who seemed the least bit human in thought and behavior. “Has the next area for expansion been located yet?”

“Indeed it has, we will start on other side of the stream and start clearing there as soon as we finish where we are at.”

“A long way to travel each way every day. Will a new outpost be started.”

“I am sure it will be started immediately, we want to get these fields in production as soon as we can and having the farmers living on site will aid in that.”

“What’s the rush,” Messmer asked?

If there was any kind of real sense of the need for security Hakim would have seen the impropriety of the question and refused an answer. As it was he didn’t think twice before replying., “We’ve got a new Inspector General due in and the Commandant wants everything to look as good as possible. Unlike me, he is looking to hold on to his job and remain on Marais for a few more years.”

“Graft must be really good, eh?”

Even Hakim knew better than to answer that question so he turned away and picked up the pace.

This particular field was smaller than what they usually worked on. Only eight hectares, twenty acres in the measuring unit still used in the country back on Earth Dean was born in. It was bordered by low rocky untillable hummocks on two of the sides that didn’t face the stream. Now the clearing of such a small field made sense. It was the best access site for the large lowland floodplain on the river’s other side. The Calps liked to have large fields so that one guard could oversee the largest number of farmhands.

Marais grew three crops for export. The most important was a large root growth related to the tuber the breakfast mush came from. It was called sweetroot for reasons obvious to anyone tasting it. A second crop was a low growing vine with nutlike berries that dried and ground became a spice that complimented the flavor of many foods grown on off world planets. The third was the Almost tree, a tall succulent, that the fruit their breakfast drink came from grew in clumps high above ground level. This they called Parson’s bluefruit

Of the three the sweetroot was most important. It was easily processed into a form indistinguishable from common sugar and just like all such plants was convertible to a rum like drink which when combined with the bluefruit had a ready market outside of the Caliphate and a black one inside. It was supposed to be made in one location, the brew building at the foot of the cliffs, but was made in small quantities thought the colony; wherever the prisoners thought they could get away with it. There were crack downs on the illegal stills every time a new Commandant was set in place but soon things returned to normal. Too many of the guards soon developed a taste, and because the official production was off limits to them, the had an incentive to look the other way.

All but one member of this work party were male. Usually there were more women involved but clearing fields was back breaking labor. The female would tend the brush fire and prepare the midday meal. In the Caliphate that kind of labor division was as good as it got. It would have interested the woman in question greatly to know that a couple of kilometers away, on the other side of the creek, was another woman who had speent the last several weeks feeling as she did all the time.

“Ok, Leah, Mullins, and Leach, you come with me. Ortega and Jameson, get familiar with the ground around us and set out a couple of relay points closer in. But do not cross the river and do not make any contact if you happen to come across a local. Sgt. Short, you and Petty both stay here and keep digging in. We want to be totally underground as soon as possible. Slow and silent, I want to observe some before we try and do anything else. We’ll talk this thing out tonight after we see what’s what.”

The trip to the stream went rapidly. They were traveling light. Not more than Their weapons load and some surveillance gear; not 15 kilograms total and a welcome change. No need for more as the would return to base before dark. On the ridge above the floodplain the view towards the river and beyond was spectacular and unobstructed but what caught the eye at once was a plume of smoke on the other side rising from a spot a short ways to their north. Davis had them stay on the reverse side of the ridge until they reached a point opposite the activity and once again got into position to observe.

A forested screen hid the work area from direct view but they could see in the distance the lighter colors and dark areas that showed new and working fields hacked out of the surrounding jungle.

“This is what we do… Leach…” Davis said to the private. “Go back in the direction we landed in. I am going to go north another hundred meter and do the same. I want every hill, pit, cut, in fact anything that might be a place to hide, found and noted.“

“Leah, you watch. If anyone, or anything makes it to the river you alert us and Pvt. Leach and I will beat it back here. If not we do out mapping and return in about eight hours. We probably head back to base then. Let’s do it!”

Leah spent the next eight hours watching the river. About a mind numbing job as could be imagined. Leach returned first and Davis a half an hour behind. And Leah’s lack of news. Along with the and the new ground view maps were studied. Davis made a change of plan.

“This is important. Leach, I want to leave you here for the night so you can find out what is being done on the other side of the river. I’ve got,” and he pulled an extra ration pack form his carry all, “One meal, I know you must have another, and Leah…If we taught you right you have some stuff too.”

Davis had that part figured and Leah produced another ration pack. “What you do Kenny is wait till it’s dark and go across the river. Scout the area and find a place to watch from in the morning. Make sure you won’t be detected and have a clear shot away if anyone gets close. Wait till tomorrow night and cross the river and return to base camp. Not much to ask is it private?”

“Damn Sarge, I thought you were going to make me keep humping twice my weight up and down hills for another month. I can handle this without blinking. So long as you remember about payback. But hey that’s what we do and are here for anyway. I’m your guy and see you both two days from today. Remember me Leah, as a natural hero. I dedicate my life to you.”

Leah didn’t know what to say to that so she said nothing. She smiled and helped Davis load up again for the return to the base camp.

The return trip was uneventful and though Leah didn’t enjoy the march up to the top of the hill to base camp, she could see it’s necessity. Short and Petty had done a hell of a lot of digging and they could have retired underground. But with no know reason to do so they spent a few hours and then split the watch until morning came again.

The next morning Leah stayed back at camp and Petty went with Davis. Sgt. Short and unranked Radom would keep digging in. Davis and Petty would work some more on the maps then hit the ridge and wait for Leach to cross back over the river later at night. Leach had with him a standard anti-IR poncho so even if the overhead satellites were looking when he crossed the floodplain he should be unnoticeable. Depending on what Leach had to say the three would return at once or send Leach send him back to the other. They were bringing along extra provisions in case that was what needed doing. Ortega and Jameson were to continue with what they had been doing with the sensor net and a couple of spots to to fall back on if it became necessary.

Shortly after dusk Leach uncovered himself and went back to recross the stream.

A trace of a pale green glow, still there in the sensor picture after hundreds of years development, showed up on the false color view of their IR scanners, and in this case the highlighted haloed Leach, but thats all they could see. It was just a small blob of light being noted only because he was moving against the background as he kept his poncho closed to eliminate his IR signature while he made his way across the river and floodplain. Davis lost him in the trees as he mounted the ridge to where they were waiting. It wasn’t long before they saw him again as he tripped one of the sensors a hundred yards in front. A few moments more and they saw him in person. A greeting and then, “What did you see? Any problems?”

“Not, a bit, It went like this…As soon as I’d waded the crick, she’s deeper than she looks, almost a meter in the middle, but warm, I got over into the edge of the jungle. From the river edge to the scrub and trees was only about five meters but five meters of muck. Damn near sucked my boots off. There is a low bank just inside the treeline and things are pretty dry once over it. Sixty meters of trees and underbrush, the stuff right alongside the stream is a cross between a cane and a palm, and I could see the fire all that smoke was coming from.

“No people in sight. But we were right about it being a field being cleared with the fire for brush removal. What’s being cleared is roughly rectangular wider away from the river and narrowing as it gets closer. You couldn’t tell from an overhead cause of the vegetation, but the sides are low rocky ridges. Boulders interspersed with just enough soil to keep a good cover growing.

“I found a place to watch from close to the river end and made sure It was clear behind me to bug out to if I needed to. I caught some sleep and felt the alert vibration that one of the motion sensors had generated about two hours before dawn. It took me a while to figure what had triggered it. A couple of the peccary things were out but none close enough that I should have been alerted. Then I took a close look at some streeks out in the field.

“Worms, biggest damned worms I ever saw. Half a meter and longer and big around to match. Were hundreds of them out there, so close to surface temp that it was the motion the alerted the sensor. As the sun was coming up they disappeared underground but I could see hundreds of little mounds where they went below. Never saw any in the rocky area but I couldn’t get back to sleep either.

“An hour after sun-up I saw the people. One guard and fifteen prisoners. Though they didn’t act much like any prisoners I ever thought of. The guard lounged around or slept most of the day, occasionally helping the one old woman who was watching the fire. Looked like he was doing that purely out of boredom. The men worked pretty steadily all the rest of the day but for an hour for a midday meal and a short nap. No powered equipment, axes and crowbars. The tree trunks were a lot smaller than what we have seen on out side of the river. My guess is they burned the place down a few years ago and are cleaning out the new fresh growth. They gathered all their tools up and left in the direction they came in from an hour before dark.”

“Uriah, you stay here and keep up the watch. I’ll send someone back to relieve you at daybreak. Right now Leach and I are heading back and we will show the data to the rest and figure out what comes next.”

When they reached the base of the hill the camp surmounted Davis sent the recognition signal, got back the all clear and they made the ascent. After a meal everyone gathered round to watch excerpts from Leaches data store. He had dug in as far as he could manage from the clearing so no distinct individuals were identifiable and Leah had no idea that her Dean Messmer, by a curious twist of fate, was one of those working in the field. When Leach was through with his narration Davis gave him a thumbs up and started speaking.

“This is about how we thought things would be except I am a little surprised that one guard was enough and was so sure of his position that he was able to ignore watching the laborers and spend half the day napping. What I think we need to do next is this. I want to male up two recon teams to cross the river tomorrow night and get a closer look at the prison compound, town, or whatever it is. Tomorrow morning Jamesson and Ortega will go and take over for Petty at the river. I want you to take a mortar with you and get it setup to cover the rivers other side. I don’t plan on needing it gut we play it safe. Swap out sleep time so both of you are rested for the night.

“Ortega you will stay with the mortar, Petty, you stay here on the hill and monitor things, and the rest of us try and see what we can see. Enough for tonight. Leah you have the first watch, Fader your up next and I will finish it up. Let’s get some rest people.”

“Remember,” Davis said, “no IR leaks till we are across the river and under cover. Leah you can hold up your weapon and get the rest of you and your clothing throughly soaked in the stream. It’ll help you cool down now and the wet clothing will help manage the heat buildup later.” The temperature hadn’t dropped much just a degree or two, so if they needed to move rapidly heat build up was going to be a problem. It only took ten minutes and they were all in the cane on the rivers other side.

“We’re gonna do this leapfrog fashion. Leach and I jump off first and go a hundred. We will halt and signal back for Jameson and Short. They pass us by and go on another hundred. Radom and Mullins follow behind checking the rear and setting out relays. I doubt we will have to go very far till we run into something so we take it slow and quiet. Leach, you got the point. head out.”

They stayed on the edge passing through the cleared field and kept the trail leading into it on their side. Not risking the chance that detectors were set up to watch it. Wasn’t likely but they had all night. It was an hour and a half later when they reached a point to look into the prison compound.

The ground cover was much thicker and all the trees larger now this far from the river. They were looking across a large field of low leafy plants, they didn’t know it yet but these were the leaf tops of the tuber called sweetroot. All of six hundred meters away were four buildings, two large, that looked to be barracks and two smaller. There were a few lights on poles and what would have been a dim light from some of the windows stood out clearly in their low light gear. Mullins had lugged the 3 kilo teleoptic along with his other gear and before long had it high up in a tree with a view of the compound. A few minutes of covering all but the lens with netting and draping it with a few strands of vine and he was back with the rest.

“Mullins, you and Radom fall back and get a line of sight relay link set up between the optic and the rest of the net. Short you and Fader take the north. Leach and I will go south. Lets circle this camp so we see it from all angles and then we go home. Four hours ought to do it. No one sees us, no one knows were here. We need to keep it that way.”

They were all on their own side of the river long before daylight and taking Ortega, but leaving the active sensor net, returned to the hill.

The next day was spent in finishing making the hilltop as defensible as possible and then comparing the weeks old views they had taken on the shuttle that dropped them off to the relayed view of the compound they were seeing now. No trouble locating the compound and nothing obvious inside it had changed. The large fields around it showed the growing season had progressed. The new one being cleared showed only as a small speck, perhaps 10% as large as the area that was open now. By the rate of progress shown It seemed it was only going to take another couple of days and that field would be cleared all the way to the rivers edge.

It was sometime after midday when it became Leah’s turn to watch the viewscreen, she took over from Mullins, who showed her the note file and how to mark anything she thought exceptional for the common review.

“I’m about as sure as I can be that the two large buildings are barracks like we thought they were the next largest is a kitchen dining area. The other must be admin. We can’t see them from the video feed but like we said last night, there are six more buildings about as large as a ground car sheds behind what we can see here. So one of the things to do is watch for people to go in that direction and return with something they didn’t have before.”

“From what I’ve seen so far there is about a 70/30 male female ratio and I would guess between 50 and 70 for the total population. That would be a good number to get firmed up.”

Using the teleoptic to feed clothing size and facial details, it was that good, Leah set up a database and started filling it in. The first seven entries were easy. Thats how many people were tending the field crop almost directly in front of the camera. Four women and three men dressed in kahki colored shirts and shorts with a broad brimmed hat. Their original skin colors were indeterminate but all had a very dark tan from working outside

All but the one doing the collecting used hoes to weed between the plant rows. Each took the weeds they pulled out and placed them in a pouch like apron at their waist. When the pouch got full they dumped it into a wheelbarrow which was the highest tech item anyone had yet seen here with the exception of the rifle on the guard from the night before. The woman with the wheel barrow took it to the edge of the field and dumped it when full. Evidently these weeds would re-root if not removed

All of this group stuck together working in the same section of the field, so that’s probably how they managed the schedule of what was done on any given day and where they would pick up next. There were another three groups, equal in size and widely separated doing the same thing, and by the time her stint was near finished Leah had them all catalogued in the database.

She decided to make a start on the work party clearing the remote field and pulled up the file made when they walked out in the morning. Leah entered the guard first, he was only the second one she had been able to capture, then turned to the prisoners and got a shock. The very first one she zoomed in on was Dean Messmer, the man she had come so may lightyears to find.