Forerunners of Bosk

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

 

 

“If they had only given us the coordinates,” Asimov said in exasperation.

“How many known destination coordinates through this stargate?” Wilma asked.  

“Twenty-three,” Crichton answered definitively. 

“List them,” Wilma ordered. “On a print-out where I can study them.  I also want the nearest base, world, whatever, listed for each,” she added. 

“Of course, Colonel,” Crichton responded stuffily.  

“What are your thoughts, Wilma,” Asimov asked. 

“Buck didn’t use the vid-communicator, even though the shuttle was fully operational.” 

“Nothing unusual in that,” Asimov said.  “And they were chasing a fugitive.” 

“Did the sensors pick up anything on that craft?” Wilma asked.  Her instincts were raging alarm bells right now.  There had been missions where things had gone wrong, where plans had gone awry or changed at the last minute, but this had the feel of something gone terribly wrong.   And she didn’t think she was being paranoid.  

“Only the make, Colonel,” Devlin said, his fingers flying over his surveillance and navigation panel.   “It was a Vega class starfighter, similar to ours.” 

“How many on board,” Wilma asked.  

“One.” 

“Why would Buck and Hawk try to outrun a starfighter with a shuttle?” Wilma mused out loud.  “Unless they had the starfighter’s designation coordinates.” 

“And if that was the case, why didn’t Buck or Hawk transmit those coordinates?” Asimov asked thoughtfully.  “But then Buck has been known to act first and then think later.” 

“That’s true, also, but not that often, Admiral,” Wilma replied.  “And why did they wait.  Hawk could have piloted while Buck sent the communications.  Something just doesn’t seem right.”

“With twenty-three possibilities, it’s going to take time to check them all out,” Asimov said.  

“We have no choice, do we, sir?” Wilma asked.  

“No, we don’t.  Not unless they contact us first.” 

“Twiki, Crichton and I can study the twenty-three destinations and rank them in order of probability,” Dr. Theopolis said helpfully. 

“In the meantime, I’m going down to Neckar and see what I can find out,” Wilma announced.  

   

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Hawk gazed at the “cannon” sitting benignly in its rack.  It was not very big, but he knew from the training session he had just completed, that it was heavy.  With a mental shrug he pulled it off the rack by one of its two handles.  The guard handed him a pack, which Hawk knew was filled with small but deadly cellenite charge canisters. He gently slung the pack over his shoulder and picked up the cannon, centering its weight under his arm.  The guard beckoned and Hawk and another forerunner followed.  His partner appeared to be of human stock from Ssrillin.  The large yellow-gold eyes studied him intently before returning his gaze to the guard.  Ssrillin, from what Hawk had learned in his recent travels, was a dark world, covered with clouds, wet and humid.  The darkness down here would suit a person such as the Ssrillin, but it did not suit him.  While he had lived in caves in Throm, he and Koori had always spent as much time out on the cliffs as they could, where the wind blew their feathers and the air was clean and pure.  Ah, Koori. Stay close in my heart.  I think I will need your touch near me.  

From the time he had awakened in the room where he and Buck had been brought, Hawk had looked for weaknesses, something that would give him hope for escape, but so far nothing had presented itself.  He would not give up, though.  Perhaps he and Buck would be able to compare notes at mealtime. 

At the entrance to a rough hewn corridor, the guard handed Hawk a dust mask and said, “Eight twenty-nine, you are expected to do a full day’s quota.  So you’d better get in there and get to work.  And just because I am not watching over you does not mean that I have no control over you.”  He paused and then pulled out a small device.  “If I even think you are contemplating an escape, I will bring the tunnel down around your ears.” 

Hawk only nodded.  He felt bitterness and anger in his heart but right now his anger was best if held in reserve for a time of escape.  His focus now had to be directed on the work ahead.   It would do neither him nor Buck any good if he lost his life before he could affect an escape.  

The corridor, which the guard had pointed out, appeared to be more of a natural landslip, rather than a man-made tunnel.  It went about twenty feet before it narrowed to a solid rock face.   A single glowing light hung overhead and Hawk took a moment to study the wall before doing anything.  It didn’t bother him as much that his time was limited as much as having a serious accident did. 

He laid his cannon against the wall and then pulled off the pack, taking it back nearly to the entrance to this little corridor. He pulled out one charge packet and returned to his ‘station’ where he gently laid it to the side.  Picking up the cannon, Hawk placed the end on a likely weak spot and pressed the pressure release button.  Inside the cannon, the mechanism freed the pressure rod, which shot through its tube and slammed against the rocky surface.  The kick bucked the cannon back against his chest and Hawk staggered momentarily before he braced himself.  Again he pressed the release button, this time holding it down.  Hawk had his balance now and let the cannon work against the rock wall until there was a large enough hole for the cellenite charge.  It was then that Hawk remembered the dust mask and goggles hanging below his neck.  He put them on and then carefully placed the charge packet into the small crevice.  He pushed a tiny button that activated the little packet and then grabbed the cannon and hurried back up the narrow corridor.   As he rounded a corner into the main tunnel, the cellenite exploded with a booming roar, shaking the ground beneath his feet.  Dust and grit blew out of the little corridor and Hawk let it settle a bit before he went back in.  Rubble littered the tunnel, but he stepped over it and surveyed his work.  He had taken down several feet of the wall.  There was the occasional glitter of some kind of gem, crillite, he supposed, but Hawk ignored that, only studying the wall again before picking up the cannon to drill another hole for another charge.  

He continued in this manner for what seemed an eternity.  Sometimes when he came out of the tunnel, the guard was standing there watching him, sometimes not.   After his second charge, the guard checked his work and nodded.  “Come.  There is another tunnel that needs opening.”  And the work began again.   After what seemed an interminable time, the guard, this time with the Ssrillin forerunner, motioned for him to follow them.  Hawk gathered up his equipment, the nearly empty cellenite bag and followed, suddenly realizing just how tired he was.  His anger smoldered in his heart, though, feeding his resolve that he would get out of this place, which greatly resembled his people’s version of hell.  

He turned in his pack and cannon and received a bowl with some kind of hot gruel, along with a chunk of what appeared to be a type of crusty bread.  The guard beckoned him and Hawk followed.  After a short walk, the guard pointed to a small indentation in the rock wall and he entered.  A barred door closed behind him and Hawk almost cried out in his anger and frustration.   He gazed balefully at the guard who just shrugged and walked away.   Hawk sighed and turned to look around his cell.  He had hoped to be able to see Buck at mealtimes, but even that was to be denied.  

There was an extension of the wall of his cell, fairly flat and almost long enough for him to lie down on.   Presumably that was his bed.  On it lay a blanket and a lumpy thing Hawk figured passed for a pillow.  A small cistern carved out of the wall held water that trickled down the wall.  Setting down his dinner, Hawk went over and dabbled his hands in the small bowl.  The water was frigid.  He tasted it and found it refreshing.  After taking a long drink, Hawk washed his sweaty face and dirty hands, careful to let the dirty water drip to the floor rather than back into the stone bowl. The trickle of water appeared to be only enough to satisfy minimal needs and Hawk was not about to dirty what was probably his only source of drinking water. 

He turned back to his food and seeing no utensils, used some of the bread to scoop up what he realized on closer examination was a thick stew.   It was filling, Hawk determined, not being able to give it a more praiseworthy designation.  When he had finished, the birdman realized just how weary he was and setting aside his bowl, lay down, trying to get comfortable.  Finally, after much tossing and turning and thinking, he was able to fall into a fitful sleep.

 

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The tall black man led Buck into another fairly large room, one whose walls were lined with equipment. 

“You’re going to be using one of these, forerunner,” the trustee said, pointing to several machines that reminded Buck of jackhammers.  He assumed their purpose was the same.  “And don’t think to get chatty.  This session is monitored.”  

“Okay.  Fair enough.  Is it permitted to ask questions about my job?” Buck asked, not wanting to get the other prisoner in trouble. 

“Yes.  It’s your life that’s going to be depending on how well you learn to use this cannon to get the crillite.” 

Buck gazed surreptitiously around the room and saw where one video camera was installed.  With a shrug, he turned his full attention back to his teacher.  

“This is the rock cannon you’ll be using.”  The black man pulled one of the jack hammers down and began showing Buck the parts, how to use it and how to take care of it.  

An hour later, Buck had a pretty good idea of what he was up against and he didn’t like it at all.    “Dante must have visited this place,” he muttered. 

“Who?” the privileged asked, then he shrugged and said,  “Be careful.  Forerunners don’t live very long, but those that live the longest are the ones who are careful even after they have gotten used to their jobs.” 

Buck gazed deeply into the man’s eyes.  He saw sadness there, and resignation, but beneath it all, there seemed to be a strength that no amount of time could destroy.  “Are you trying to cheer me up, friend?” Buck asked, a wry smile on his face.  

Now the privileged gazed thoughtfully at him and then bent close.  “Do you fully understand this mechanism?” he asked, pointing to the pressure release.  “Barney,” he whispered.  

“Yeah, I understand,” Buck said aloud.  Then he pointed to a button on the handle.  “You did say that this would give continuous pressure, right?” 

“Yes,” Barney said.  Behind them, the door opened and a dour-faced guard walked in.  

“Thanks,” Buck said meaningfully, frustrated that he couldn’t even tell this man his name.  

“Come on, forerunner,” the guard said.  “Get your cannon.” 

Buck hefted the cannon, and feeling a perverse sort of irritation taking hold of him, turned to face the camera lens.  He slapped his free hand to his chest and said mockingly, “We who are about to die, salute you.”  As he turned to follow the guard, he grinned at Barney, who just gazed at him in bemusement.  Buck walked through the door after the guard, cannon resting heavily on his shoulder.  The smile faded and he felt the additional weight of his situation settle on him.  Unless something almost miraculous came up, he was afraid that his and Hawk’s only hope would be the Searcher.  But how in the world could Asimov and Wilma find their trail through at least one stargate, possibly more? 

He watched carefully the route the guard was taking him, trying to find something, anything that he could use for escape.  Soon, however, they were at a rough hewn corridor where he was handed a backpack with cellenite explosive packets and a dust mask, and then he was directed into a crevice barely wide enough to accommodate him.  Quickly, Buck studied the rock wall, hammered a hole large enough for the explosive and then set it.  He barely squeezed out of the crevice before the explosive went off.   Buck picked himself off the ground, dusted off his clothes and glared back at the crevice. 

The guard chuckled derisively.  “You gotta be faster at this or those bombs are going to take your head off, forerunner.” 

Buck had a ready retort but a look at the guard’s face reminded him of the no talking edict.  He nodded.  

“You check and if there is plenty of crillite lying around, then we go to the next new area.  If not, you lay more cellenite until there is enough of the ore for the miners to get full baskets.  And there won’t always be a guard standing around waiting for you, but we do have ways to know if you are trying to escape or use the cellenite bombs as weapons.”   He paused and gazed intently into Buck’s face.  “If you try either, you will be blown to bits.”  He held up what appeared to be a small detonating device.  “Either way, there will be enough of the crillite for the miners to gather.” 

Again Buck nodded.  He entered the crevice and checked.  By the one light, he was able to see that there was need for at least one more charge, probably two.   Studying, he laid the cellenite into a crack that the last charge had made and then set it.  This time he was able to get out with a few seconds to spare.   Even before the dust had cleared, Buck readjusted the dust mask and goggles and was back in the now slightly wider crevice studying the results of the two explosions.  It took some jack hammering and one more detonation before there was enough of the crillite for the miners to gather.  

The guard led him to another area, which had been worked out by the miners.  This time he had to take down more of the wall to get to what was believed to be a large vein of crillite lying behind the gray surface.   Examining the wall and remembering his geology from high school, Buck placed two charges, ten feet apart.   He set the detonator on one, dashed to the other one and set it on the run, then with the pack bumping against his hip, Buck ran toward the entrance of the corridor, colliding with the guard as he reached the opening.  “Hit the deck!” he called, diving to the ground.  The words had barely left his lips when the first, then second cellenite bomb went off.  The ground trembled and rocks crashed.  Dust flew everywhere and Buck coughed, even with the mask. 

“What did you do in there, you idiot?” the guard demanded as Buck got up from the ground.   

“Got the job done,” Buck said tersely.  “I’ll show you.” 

“Just see if there is enough crillite to gather,” the guard said, not moving to follow.  

Shrugging, Buck walked into the rubble filled area and saw with satisfaction that there was plenty of rough gemstones lying everywhere.  He gathered up his cannon and walked back toward the guard.  “It’s done.” 

The guard nodded.  “Come on.  There are a lot more of these to do.  And no talking.” 

Buck sighed and followed.  He was led to another new corridor, which he blew quickly, then to another.  The hammering and detonation of explosions continued seemingly forever until he was surprised when the guard led him, not to another wall to blow, but to an equipment room where he was told to leave his cannon and explosives sack.  By the time he had hung his cellenite pack in its designated area, he was so exhausted that he could barely pick his feet up.  He was handed a bowl of stew or something similar, a hunk of bread and led to a cell carved out of the bare rock.  He sat down on a rock bench, ate most of his meal and then collapsed.  

He woke up later, shivering from cold and Buck pulled the one blanket over his body and tried to go back to sleep.  It was difficult.  The stone bed, the cold, his aching muscles all combined to keep him awake.  And when he finally did, something that looked like a cross between a lobster and a tarantula crawled across his body, causing him to jerk up with a startled shout.  

A guard appeared at his cell door.  “You are to remain silent!” 

“Couldn’t help it.  Some creature….” 

The guard opened his door and before Buck even was aware of what was about to happen, the guard had shoved him against the stone wall, the stun prod at his throat.   Buck reached up and felt an immediate and burning shock.  

“You will keep silent until your probation is over, do you understand?” 

Buck could only nod, biting his lip against the surge of electrical energy that accompanied the guard’s words.  

“Good.  Now go back to bed and keep quiet.”  The guard left, pulling the steel barred door shut behind him.  

Rubbing his throat with one hand, Buck made a derogatory sign with the other.  There were some signs that Jennifer didn’t teach in her class, but he had learned them anyway.  However, it didn’t really make him feel better and with a sigh, he laid down, trying again to get comfortable.  All too soon, he was awakened by the guard’s shouts.  Slowly, painfully, Buck got up and stretched, washed his face and hands in the small stone catch basin that was also built into the wall of the cave.  Then his door was opened and he was led out to another day of endless, mind-numbing digging, hammering and explosions.  And thus the days went, with no variance and no respite.  And each day brought more bitterness and added despair.

   

 

 

Chapter Five
Forerunners of Bosk Prologue
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