Jiro retraced their path toward the Malsain cave, then turned east. On the march, he scanned the forest for trouble. The light fog had remained steady throughout the day, but now that the sun plummeted toward the horizon, he was forced to slow down to avoid rushing headlong into the Malsains’ shotgun-fire.
Occasionally, a bird squawked from its nest, as if to warn him away. Their alarms would also draw the Malsain. Unfortunately, the only way to stop them was to shoot them. Worse than the birds’ complaints.
What if the indignant cries weren’t birds at all, but instead the Malsain communicating? He hoped that was nothing more than fear talking.
Mini drones with tranquilizer darts. That’s what he needed!
Once they got off Herne, he would suggest those to his father.
The ground rose steadily as he traveled east. No hiking trails to follow. He had to zigzag around clumps of trees and bushes until the way forward was blocked by a swift-flowing river twenty feet or more across.
Approaching the shore, Jiro touched the water. It was icy and shocked him. The river looked deep, but that might be deceptive in the fading light. Either way, the last thing he needed was to freeze as the temperature dropped. He had no warm clothes to change into on the other side.
His best option was to follow the river to find a way across. Upstream or down? The longer it took him, the more his father suffered and the greater risk that he wouldn’t survive. Either of them, really.
The forest behind him was clear, no visual signs of pursuit. But the fog obscured so much.
Jiro closed his eyes and listened, tuning out the river current. He ignored the rustle of wings as a bird took flight.
No unusual noises. The Malsain weren’t close. Yet.
Hopefully they hadn’t followed his original tracks to his father.
Jiro shoved that fear away. His sole means of helping his father right now was across this river.
He headed upstream.
The uneven slope was filled with dips, tree roots rising out of the ground, and rocks that slid underfoot. Five minutes passed, then ten with no sign of a way across the river. He started to worry that his instincts had been wrong. He was wasting time, but his father in greater danger. He was about to turn around when he finally spotted a large fallen tree up ahead. It spanned the river. He nearly laughed out loud in relief, but caught himself.
With renewed energy, Jiro jogged to the wide oak trunk spanning the river, then tight-rope walked to the far side. Noboru had taught him that skill as well. Faster than wading.
The crack of a snapping twig split the forest behind him. Jiro dropped to a crouch, using the fallen oak as a shield. He could barely see the river’s far shore now. The Malsain were hidden, but they were close.
How far to the outpost?
He leapt over a fallen log and the tree behind him ruptured. He ducked, heart racing. A second laser shot struck the trunk he had just cleared. Shards of bark flew in all directions. A few pieces nicked him.
Jiro didn’t wait for a third shot. His best chance was to stay ahead of them. Movement caught his eye in every direction, giving him the sense that he was surrounded. The darkness and fog so obscured his vision that he felt like Izanagi running through the underworld with monsters encircling him. He wished he had a hat to throw on the ground behind him from which a grapevine would sprout to distract the Malsain. A childish desire, but in that moment he would have taken a myth if it helped him escape.
Jiro topped a rise. Down a short hill ahead was the outpost.
The outpost was a round building not much larger than a single room cottage. Out front was a large black box which probably held a generator. At the front door Jiro found a security box that required finger prints. He slammed his open right palm onto the box. A dizzying burst of pain in his arm made him weak all over, but the door mercifully opened.
His father had entered him into the outpost’s security then.
He hurried inside. Lights near a glass ceiling switched on automatically, momentarily blinding him. He shielded his eyes and blinked rapidly, letting them adjust. Then he rammed the butt of his rifle against a black button on the door and it closed behind him. The Malsain would not get through that locked door easily.
The outpost held a small kitchen in the back right corner behind an overturned cot. Next to the kitchen were several shelves filled with supplies inside a locked steel cage that ran from floor to ceiling. The glass ceiling was covered by steel bars.
Along the left wall, a simple wooden table held the emergency communication computers, three in total, but one look at them left him stunned.
“No. No, no, no. No.”
The smashed computers lay in a garbage heap along with shattered glass from part of the ceiling. Who had destroyed–
The rogue Malsain. They had found the outpost, though from the partially broken ceiling, they probably hadn’t gotten inside. It made sense that they would want to prevent visitors from alerting anyone on Wodan; hence the reason the Malsain blew up their ship to ensure they could not leave the planet or contact anyone for help.
Thankfully, the Malsain had not simply blown up the outpost as they had the ship. Probably because of the stocked shelves inside the locked cages. Boxes and cans of emergency food rations and other supplies filled the shelves. Jiro noted, with some satisfaction, that the Malsain had failed to break into the cages. They could probably blow them up, but not without destroying the supplies.
A long gray pole with a stop-sign-sized satellite dish at the back caught Jiro’s attention.
Is that what I think?
His father had saved them! Jiro moved over to the cage doors – locked by another handprint pad. Jiro silently prayed that his father used the same access list for the lock that he used for the door to the outpost. He placed his hand on the pad, then exhaled in relief when the lock clicked and a door slid open.
Jiro pulled the door wide, then rushed to retrieve the satellite. Marked on the pole were the letters LCS. He grinned. The Laser Communications Satellite was a project completed two years ago that allowed the packaging of data onto laser beams, which could be transmitted to a receiver. The lasers beams greatly increased the amount of information that could be transferred versus what radio waves sent. The LCS had drastically improved communications between PSA and the alien races on foreign planets.
And on the shelf next to the LCS was a tablet!
How much time before the rogue Malsain attacked?
Jiro switched on the tablet and got a loading screen.
“Come on. Hurry.”
Thirty seconds later he searched for the LCS app, entered a short message requesting immediate help, then sent it to all of the lodges on Wodan. A single burst of white light shot from the satellite through the glass ceiling. If it worked, the message should reach Wodan in the next ten seconds.
From the back of the room, a softball-sized silver device came rolling across the floor.
A light grenade!
Jiro grabbed his rifle and ran for the door, hammering the emergency release with his fist. At the last second he realized this was likely a trap and dropped to his knees. A laser shot flashed through the opening door, exploding into the steel cage behind him. Jiro scrambled through the door on both knees to the shielded generator.
The light grenade exploded, rocking the outpost.