Forerunners of Bosk

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

 

Ril Mentua, guard in the mines of Bosk, wealthy on paper, but virtually a prisoner himself, escorted a recently recovered forerunner to a newly discovered ‘slip’ along with two other, more veteran forerunners.   He had been in the mines for almost six years, the last one without any kind of off-world leave.   While he was free to come and go on the days that he was not working, he had discovered that his activities off Bosk were carefully watched.  He had been told that his communications were monitored, probably, even his very conversations.  It wasn’t worth it.   His contract had cost him one relationship.   Perhaps if he had known ahead of time just what this job would have entailed, he would never have taken it.  Perhaps.  Now, he liked the relative peace that he had when not on duty.  Ril had become a loner and it didn’t bother him that much.   

What did bother him, though, was the increased mortality rate among the prisoners.  It wasn’t a great increase, but it was enough for him to notice.   He had tried not to become emotionally attached to anyone that was sent to the mines, they all died sooner or later, definitely sooner than their natural life spans.  That was the only thing that was really hard about his job-- the pain he felt seeing them lose their individuality and then become sick and despairing ciphers. Was there anything that could be done to make these men’s lives a bit more humane?   No, not really, he had decided at the offset.   It had taken him over two years to do it, but he had built an almost impenetrable mental shell against the suffering he saw in these caves.  There was nothing he could do about the situation anyway, so he might as well become oblivious to it.  But when he was sometimes sitting alone in his quarters near the surface, trying to read, or when he was writing, one or the other of the prisoner’s faces would come into his mind and haunt him.  Sometimes he would see them in his dreams, their eyes would brand his wall of indifference.  He knew that some of the prisoners were simply here because they had made some very rich and powerful person extremely angry with them.   No crime, except crossing the wrong entity.   Others had been slaves, sold by masters who were tired of them, or tired of continued efforts to escape or revolt.  The mines here on Bosk were great neutralizers.

Now he was escorting three men toward a dangerous assignment that had the potential to bring this part of the cave system down around all of their ears.  They were going to try and uncover a rich source of the crillite with a simultaneous blast in three close sections of the cave.   But why?  There was never a problem in the past with doing this with just one forerunner.  Sure, it took a bit longer, but it was also less dangerous and the crillite wasn’t going anywhere if it took a week instead of a day, Ril thought.  Shrugging, he realized that there was really nothing he could do about it. 

He looked at the notes on the three men.  None were shirkers, all seemed to have the instincts to be relatively long-lived and successful forerunners.   The newest one, though, seemed to be something of a risk taker.  Not careless, by any means, but still….   “You, prisoner twelve-sixteen,” he said.  The forerunner stopped and waited, his eyes slightly inquisitive.  “Be extra careful on this one, forerunner,” Ril said pointedly to the tall man in front of him.  Then he said to all of them, “You are going to be working closer together than is customary.  The company wants to uncover a particularly rich deposit of gems and single charges aren’t doing the job.”  He paused for effect.  “Get your charges in place and then wait for my signal.  I’ll give you the time for the charge, then you will hightail it back here to this safe corridor.  You understand?”

The newer forerunner raised his hand.  “Am I permitted to ask a question?

Ril nodded.  

“What happens if someone’s off?” The prisoner, number twelve-sixteen, asked.  He had a slight smile as though he suspected the answer. 

“You and maybe the rest of us have cheap funerals, forerunner.” 

“What’s the hurry, then?  There another shipment of slaves coming in that you have to find cells for?” the forerunner asked sarcastically. 

Ril was taken aback by the bitterly caustic question, but he saw the same kind of resentment in the eyes of the other two forerunners and he paused.  Knowing the fate that all forerunners faced; a fate that they didn’t even know until the end, he couldn’t really fault the man his anger.   But still, comments like that could cause this man serious punishment.  

“Be careful, forerunner,” he said warningly, referring to the prisoner’s tone of voice.  “As to the hurry, the company is wanting what’s in this cave and they want it sooner than later.   That’s all I know and all I can tell you.  Just be careful.”  

The newer forerunner nodded.  “Thanks.” 

Ril pointed out their positions and the three men went to work.  When all were ready, he gave the time signals and retreated to the main corridor.  Within seconds, the first forerunner joined him, then the second, the younger one.  Then there was a cry back in the corridor followed almost instantly by two cracking booms of cellenite going off.   Before the dust had billowed into their corridor, twelve-sixteen was rushing back down to the blown cave site.  After a slight hesitation the other forerunner followed.  Ril knew there was an undetonated cellenite packet in there somewhere; he had only heard two explosions.  “Wait,” he called out.  He caught up with the one forerunner and ordered him back out.  The younger man was furiously digging through the rubble, flinging smaller rocks out of the way, moving larger ones to the side. 

“You’ve got to leave.  There’s an unblown packet in here somewhere,” Ril said tersely. 

“It would have blown by now if it was going to, wouldn’t it?” the forerunner asked, still heaving rocks out of the way. 

“Maybe, maybe not,” Ril answered.  “If the forerunner set it, anything could make it blow, because I set my detonator.”  

“Then we have to work quickly, don’t we?” 

“He can’t still be alive,” Ril protested. 

“I thought I heard him moaning,” the prisoner said, his hazel eyes gazing at him meaningfully for a second before going back to moving rocks. Sparkling bits of raw crillite winked everywhere, but Ril ignored the king’s ransom lying at his feet as he began helping the forerunner.  

“It’s impossible,” Ril murmured as he dug through the debris. 

“Impossible or not, I’m going to find him.  I won’t leave anyone down here to die alone,” the forerunner declared fiercely. 

Ril saw the determination in the man’s eyes and responded to it in a way he had not done since his first days in the mine.  He reached over and began helping the prisoner move some of the larger rocks.  “Where do you think he is?” 

“Right here,” the forerunner said, pointing to a mound at the base of the wall, near their feet. 

Side by side the two men worked, joined by the forerunner who had been ordered to stay back in the safer corridor.  Ril heard a soft sound and then a louder sound.  It was a moaning sound. 

“Hear that?” prisoner twelve-sixteen asked, his voice excited. 

“Yes!” Ril answered and the three men redoubled their efforts.   Soon the still form of the fallen forerunner was exposed and the younger man knelt beside him, checking for a pulse.  

“He’s still alive,” the prisoner declared.  “But he needs medical attention immediately.  I don’t know if he has serious head injuries, but I don’t think we can wait for help to find out.” 

“I doubt they’d be in a great hurry to come here anyway,” Ril said matter-of-factly.  “Still dangerous.” 

The prisoner snorted derisively and as gently as he could, picked up the injured man.  “What do they usually do?  Leave this as a burial cairn?”  Then he looked around and laughed bitterly.  “No, eventually he’d have been uncovered.  Too much crillite laying around.” 

While Ril knew the prisoner was right, he felt the man was going into dangerous territory with his sarcasm.  “Prisoner twelve-sixteen….” 

The forerunner had the man securely in his arms and had straightened up.  “My name is Buck Rogers.  I am not a number,” he said softly, but clearly.  “And I will not die a slave!”  He began walking out of the site of the blast. 

Ril nodded and walked at his side.  “Be careful, forerunner.  We will soon be where they can monitor us.” 

Only for a second did the forerunner pause and look at him and then he nodded.  His eyes had lost their fierce and angry edge.  “Which way to the medical facilities?  I’m not sure.” 

“I have to gather collectors.  I will go with you part of the way,” Ril said and then turned to the other forerunner.  “You gather the cannons and follow.”   The guard slung the cellenite packs of all three men over his shoulder.  

They passed several other groups and as they did so, all of the prisoners stopped momentarily and bowed their heads.  Ril saw the depth of each man’s caring as well as their desperation for the first time since he had built his ‘wall of immunity.’  Rogers, no twelve-sixteen, Ril corrected himself.  I have to think of this man as a prisoner, not an individual, he thought frantically.  It’s better that way, much better.  Because twelve-sixteen will eventually die, just as the man in his arms will die, and there will be no one to mourn either man’s passing.  Except me, Ril thought sadly.  

In the week that followed, Ril could not forget the little scene.  It was in his mind when he wasn’t concentrating on other things and it was in his dreams.  It was almost like a culmination of all that he had seen and shoved out of his consciousness, all that he had tried to ignore for the past decade.  He realized that he was dangerously close to becoming too affected by all of this but he wasn’t sure what to do about it.  Without actually planning on doing it, Ril checked on the prisoner’s data.  Twelve-sixteen was overdue his release from probation.  Ril figured that would be a small thing he could do to assuage his conscience.  At the end of his shift, he approached his supervisor, a pasty white-skinned, dark-eyed Brufixal man of short stature, but gigantic ego.  “Leader,” Ril began. 

“One of the prisoners giving you problems?”

“No, Leader, just the opposite,” Ril replied.  

The Leader just raised one dark bushy eyebrow in query.  

“There is one on my roster that was due termination of probation a month ago.  Twelve-sixteen.” 

The Brufixal just snorted in derision.   “That one is on special probationary status.  Indefinite.   Heard he was a troublemaker.” 

“He has done exemplary work,” Ril pointed out. 

“Dr. Beros’ orders.  You going to counter them?” 

Ril was taken aback.  “No,” he said quickly.  “Any others I need to know about?” 

“Yeah, a birdman.  He is on extended probationary.”

“Troublemaker, too?” Ril asked.  

“Yes.” 

And that, thought Ril, was that.  

                    

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Hawk began to feel closed in.  More than the dim, gray walls, his mind began to feel as though it were enclosed in a tiny box, one where the sun, wind, sky and stars were just figments of his imagination.  He sat on his stone bunk and held his head in his hands.  His bowl of gruel dinner sat untouched next to him.   Koori!  Koori, where are you?  Come to me, my love.  Come to me and take me with you to your place of peace and softness and tranquility.  But there was no answer.  Nothing.  Nothing but cold, hardness and unremitting despair.  He was stripped of all that he was, everything but his soul and even that felt as though it was being eaten from within as with a cancer.   His mind burned with anger, his heart with longing for freedom.  He had signaled to Buck his dedication to escape and to obtaining that freedom, but several weeks later, he was no closer to that goal.  There seemed to be no way to get out, the leaders of this prison had seemingly thought of everything.   

Now all he longed for was to die and be reunited with Koori, his beloved.  He found himself wishing that he had stayed with the Tane-rapanui on Mendalis.  He found himself wishing he had been put to death by the tribunal.  Anything but this unremitting cold hell that was life in these mines.    

Suddenly, Hawk threw back his head and cried out the ancient challenge of his people, the challenge that would either frighten his enemies into submission or let them know that a warrior was ready to battle to the death.   The bars ignored him, but the guard did not.  With a growl, the burly human unlocked his cell door and grabbed him by the front of this shirt.  And Hawk responded.  All of his pent up frustration, his anger and bitterness, along with the increased strength that working in the mines had added to his arms and shoulders came into play as he broke the guard’s hold and then shoved the human head first against the door of his cell.  With only a soft groan, the guard slid unconscious to the ground.   Hawk glanced into the corridor.  He had cast his lot to chance and had to accept that whether there was the possibility of escape or not, he would have to try.   Reaching down, he grabbed the human’s stun pistol and then stepped out of his cell.   Seeing no one, Hawk dashed in the direction that he felt would lead him toward the entrance to the mine.  

As he made it down one corridor and into another without being detected, Hawk began to feel the slight stirrings of hope.  He stopped abruptly when he heard voices ahead of him.  They didn’t seem to be coming any closer so he quietly slipped to the end of the corridor and peered around the corner.  Two guards were deep in conversation, but they would still easily see him if he tried to go down the other way.   Although Hawk felt he could overpower the two humans, he did not want his escape known until it would be too late for them to do anything. 

But what about Buck?  Where is he?  Hawk took a moment and pondered that dilemma.  To find Buck and then get out undetected would be next to impossible.  Better to get out, get help and return and find Buck.   But Hawk couldn’t leave his friend behind in this place, impossible or not.  And Buck may possibly have a better idea of where things were in the mines, especially the exit.   With that decision made, Hawk turned back toward the humans.  He would have to get the information from one of them in order to find Buck.   Carefully he peered around the corner and saw the two men totally engrossed in something that one of them held.  Their backs were to him.   

Silently, Hawk slid around the corner, staying close to the rough rock wall.   As he approached them, one of the humans straightened up, as though sensing something.   And in that moment, Hawk struck, knocking the first guard against the back of the head, grabbing the second one as the first fell unconscious to the ground.  Hawk hissed into the man’s ear even as his arm squeezed around the human’s neck and forced him into submission.   When the guard struggled, Hawk shoved the stun pistol against his side.   “Where is the human named Buck Rogers?” 

The human wheezed softly as he struggled to suck in enough air.  “Prisoners . . . don’t have names….” 

“This one does.  Tall, only been here a month, a forerunner.” 

“Don’t know.  Don’t work . . . in that section.  Only . . . a birdman came into this section then.” 

“Where is the other section where forerunners are kept?” Hawk asked, jabbing the man’s side with the pistol for emphasis.  

“Down that corridor, then . . . left,” the man gasped.  “Continue left.” 

Without another word, Hawk struck the human against the side of the head, and as the guard fell across his unconscious compatriot, he went in the direction indicated.   At the next juncture of corridors, Hawk listened and then peered around, his eyes taking in every corner and shadow in the dimness.   Then one of the shadows detached itself from the wall and before Hawk could duck back, the shadow fired a laser pistol at him. 

 

 

 

Chapter Nine
Forerunners of Bosk Prologue
Buck Rogers Contents
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