"Much water goeth by the mill, that the miller knoweth not of."-- John Heywood, Proverbs
283 - 1122.
The children, four girls and two boys, will be Paul Lee's responsibility, especially since Hunter and Robert aren't really comfortable around small children. These are very quiet, well-mannered, and recently traumatized children though, so they aren't a lot of trouble. They will still have to be taken to some one who can care for and protect them.
Robert is concerned that he's going to a village where the people don't like the man he looks like. The villagers don't necessarily know the man that well, but Robert is still apprehensive . Hunter: "If you like, we can do something about your features so you're not quite so recognizable." Robert declines: "I'll just wear my shades." Mikie: "Oh right, like with glasses on everyone is going to think you're a different person." Robert: "Hey! It worked for Dirk Savage!!" As long as the natives understand Dirk Salamander logic, it should all work out.
The safest first stop for the children, according to Paul, is the mill at Fidelity village. The miller has been a long time member of the resistance, and the mill has been a safe house for some time. It's about eleven hours by foot to the village, but the decision is made to wait until nightfall before going on much further. There's a fair bit of shade from trees, even after moving away from the site of the encampment, so once the water is picked up at the first cache site, the party moves. Paul locates a grotto about an hour's walk away that will serve as cover.
There are no unfortunate encounters en route to the grotto, but along the way Mikie does spot a footprint, and points it out to Paul. It's a human right footprint, but not booted, so it might be one of the villagers. Hunter: "He's five foot ten, right handed, carrying an automatic pistol in a holster on his left ankle." Paul: "How do you know he's carrying a gun on his left ankle, when you've got one footprint and it's the right foot?" Hunter: "It was a joke, son. Don't you people have a sense of humor?" Robert: "In this heat?" Paul thinks the print was made by one of the Irklan, as it is headed away from the encampment. He can't tell if the print was made before or after the assault though.
Robert, although not used to kids, feels compelled to make himself useful (no ship to pilot) so he does make sure the children get enough food and water. The children are polite, and smile at him. Robert takes the time to learn their names. Hunter shares his candy with the kids. Fortunately, the children don't seem to mind the gryphon - it's not from around here, but it's okay. The fluffy Vargr isn't threatening, although these kids don't seem to be clued in to the Barlow or "fuzzy" thing. Thank heavens.
The party stays in the grotto, resting up and eating. Hunter asks the kids when they last ate, and since it was the day before, Hunter drafts Mikie to rustle up something palatable using the rations and whatever else they can lay their hands on (like the Tabasco Sauce Ghaer and Hunter carry).
At nautical twilight, the party moves out. Paul doesn't think Garson's men know the trails around the area well, so they should be safe. Hunter is of two minds, but they both decide that it would be better to take the trails as they will be able to make better time. They'll just have to be careful. Hunter: "Okay, Paul can take point. He knows the trails, and if we run into anyone, he's a local; no one's going to mistake us for locals."
There are no problems at all along the way, except for the fact that Mikie doesn't like being out in the open air. It is just not natural, not having anything to keep the air in. As the party moves towards the mill, Paul explains that the Irklans' usual way to get into the mill is to swim under the mill wheel and enter through a trapdoor underneath a secret room. The mill is downstream from what is now Garson's mansion, and can be seen with high-powered binoculars in the daytime. Paul recommends that the group wait until dark to swim across, as the mill wheel will be locked - not moving (much safer!), and there will be little chance of being spotted.
About a half an hour from the mill is the safest place to hide out during the day, so the group has to move at a fairly good clip to make it safely, as the sun is starting to come up by that time. Paul: "After dark the water will not be difficult to swim across." Mikie: "Speak for yourself." Paul: "You cannot swim?" Mikie: "No." Hunter: "Come on, where would he swim on Up Port?" Paul: "Can you swim?" Hunter: "Of course, I'm a Marine." The plan will be for Hunter to go across first, with a rope for Mikie to use to come across. Paul will come next, then Ghaer and Robert with the children. The gryphon doesn't have any problem with the river, he intends to fly across, land on the wheel and climb down. Gryphon: "If you could fly, you wouldn't have to swim." Mikie thinks of several expletives at this point.
Paul <to Hunter>: "The miller, Brian Jurgensen, is a large man in his early fifties." Paul doesn't know if the miller will show up before Paul comes across, but he wants Hunter to be able to recognize the man just in case. Paul also tells Hunter how to find the trapdoor, and what the room it opens into looks like (about 15' square, with some machinery on one side).
Yet another day passes, waiting around doing pretty much nothing. Hunter checks his weapons. Ghaer checks his weapons. Hunter has gotten a bit red, having forgotten to reapply his sunscreen, but that's the extent of the excitement in camp. Hunter does spend part of the day in recon mode observing the comings and goings along the road, and to and from the mill and Garson's estate. There is quite a bit of activity of a paramilitary nature - evidently the guys in the jumpsuits (black with red piping) riding in the jeeps, along with the men in BDUs, are looking for the snipers that hit their men. The men in red and black are doled out one to a jeep, and are apparently the officers. No long arms are visible on the men. There are guard towers and concertina wire around the upper walls of the estate.
Hunter makes it across to the mill, and ties off the rope below the water level. Mikie then crosses over using Hunter's waterproof pack as a flotation device, as well as the rope. A couple of the kids are not good swimmers, but all get across safely. Robert isn't happy about getting all wet though, and on a desert world. How annoying.
The trapdoor opens up into the small room directly below the miller's bedroom. Hunter takes up a position guarding the rickety wooden stairway leading up. Just after the last wet person is pulled in, the miller comes through the door with a lit candle. When Jurgensen sees who it is, he expresses surprise and delight at seeing Paul and the children alive. He brings down blankets, towels, fresh brewed beer, fresh bread, milk, and cold meats. People get dried off and fed. The miller admires the gryphon briefly, but it's very dangerous looking so he stays away from it.
Hunter asks Jurgensen what's going on currently. Jurgensen: "The word is that the clonemaster's troops have wiped out the Irklan." Hunter: "And has word gotten out about what we did to his troops?" Jurgensen: "Not really. He is unhappy, and has his people out looking for you." There's been more movement on the road past the mill in the last day and a half than in the previous month. Garson has not let a lot of information about the attack out to the public though, since it makes his mercs look bad.
The miller leaves to make arrangements for the children to be moved to safety, back with family members. The miller's family has been faithful to the Irklan for three generations, so he has the contacts for this, and Paul trusts him.
Just after midnight, Jurgensen returns with three men in cloaks. The men will take the children immediately, off to safe homes and their families. Hunter passes out the remainder of his candy and chocolate to the kids before they leave. A few of the children are reluctant to leave their new friends, but they understand they have to go.
Once the children leave, Jurgensen tells the party that there will be a meeting of the resistance that evening. Since the attack on the shrine, the locals have figured that it won't be long before the situation escalates, so it's time to take action. Jurgensen thinks somebody from the party should go to the meeting. Hunter: "Look. You don't tell anyone how many of us there are, or how well we are equipped, or anything. If we're going to the meeting, we'll need cloaks or something so we're not recognized." At first Hunter and Ghaer discuss which party members should go and which should wait, but then come to the conclusion that it's not such a good idea to split the party up. Hunter: "Can you get us some cloaks that will conceal our faces?" Jurgensen: "Not a problem. I can get you cloaks like Paul's. Is there anything else you require?" Hunter: "No, we have everything we need." Jurgensen has to go to bed, as he will have to get up at the crack of dawn to do the mill work. Jurgensen does mention during the conversation that he used to work, indirectly, for Garson but that was some time ago.
As the miller leaves, Hunter goes over to Mikie. Hunter <to Mikie>: "What do you think of him?" Mikie takes a psionic look at the miller's surface thoughts and is able to tell that the men who took the children are not villagers, but some of Garson's men, and the miller doesn't know where they're being taken (and doesn't really care). Mikie <to Paul>: "How well do you know him?" Hunter: "What's wrong?" Mikie holds up a hand to Hunter. Paul: "He's always been a resident of this village, he inherited the mill from his father, and he's always done whatever the resistance has asked of him." Mikie, after glancing uncomfortably at Robert, tells the group: "The men who took the children are Garson's people." Hunter: "That son of a bitch miller. He'll pay for this." Robert is confused at this point. Robert <indicating Mikie, to Hunter>: "How does he know that?" Hunter: "Mikie's a teep." Robert: "He's a what?! Oh great, you shanghai me.." Ghaer: "We didn't shanghai you." Robert: "And now I'm running around with a psionic." Hunter: "You came along willingly enough." Robert: "I did not agree to this trip - it's all your fault." Hunter: "What are you blaming me for? For all we know he <Mikie> influenced all of us into coming along. After all, he is a powerful psionic. Who did you used to work for, Mikie? Oh right - a powerful SolSec psionic. <to Robert> Don't you read the Tattler?" Hunter shouldn't have made the SolSec comment. Mikie goes off, hits Hunter psionically (giving him an instantly splitting headache and a nosebleed), then lunges for him. Ghaer grabs Mikie to keep him off Hunter and vice versa, Robert is panicking because the psionic has turned on them, and Paul steps in the middle of this to try to pour oil on the troubled waters. Paul: "Excuse me gentlemen, I believe we have other problems..." Robert is backing up, going for his gun, although he's not sure who to shoot. Hunter has also drawn his gun, and is glaring at Mikie. Paul: "Everyone just calm down, and put the guns down. Put your gun away, please." Robert: "If Hunter puts his gun away, then I will too." Hunter reluctantly re-holsters his weapon. Paul: "Okay, we're two thirds of the way there." Robert backs into a far corner to protect his back. Ghaer: "Michael, Hunter doesn't know. Do you want to tell him, or should I?" Mikie disengages and backs off to slump down against the far wall, where the upset gryphon stands between him and the others. Hunter lights up a Galoise, and Paul asks him to step outside. Tobacco is a poison after all. Ghaer follows Hunter outside. Ghaer: "Hunter, there's no subtle way to work up to this. SolSec murdered Theresa, and then killed her family in front of Michael. They made him watch. They dug up her body and desecrated it. " Hunter: "Jesus <expletive> <expletive>." Ghaer: "That's why he went off on you like that. What if it were Angela? How would you feel? Michael was in the hospital afterwards, and he hasn't had a chance to deal with things." Hunter: "The hospital, or the hospital?" Ghaer: "Both." Hunter <flipping his cigarette into the water>: "Fuck." Ghaer starts to tell Hunter about SolSec acting to retaliate for Mikie's involvement in Blaelok's death, but Hunter stops him. Hunter: "Hey, that's getting into areas I don't need to know about." Ghaer: "The point is there's no way for Michael to strike back. The men who did it are either dead or out of reach." Hunter: "Fucking Solomanis..." Hunter hears the sounds of jeeps approaching on the road from the village.
Back inside, Robert is still seriously bent out of shape about having a psionic in the group. Robert: "...I don't know if I came here on my own, or out of something he did to my mind..." Paul: "You're here because you got drunk with Hunter. He <nodding towards Mikie> didn't do anything to your mind." Robert: "How do you know!?" Paul: "If he'd put it into your head, he would have done a better job. You would be much better motivated." Hunter and Ghaer return to the room. Hunter: "All right you people, get your shit together." Robert: "This whole thing could be his plan!" Paul: "Michael has come along because of a matter of honor." Robert: "SolSec has no honor." Paul: "The people I'm talking about are the Sengi, the big guys in the park." Robert: "He's SolSec!" Hunter: "Look people, we don't have time for this. We've got jeeps on the way, so we'll settle this later. Better get iron in your hands and make sure you've got one up the spout." An uneasy, maybe temporary truce settles.
There's the sound of a single set of footsteps upstairs. Hunter carefully stealths up the ladder, knife in hand. Mikie checks for signs of people upstairs, and can sense three people in the main area above and more outside. He signals Hunter that there are three. Hunter comes back down. Hunter: "I don't like this. <to Paul> First your friend hands the kids over to Garson's men, then jeeps show up, now Mikie tells me he's not alone upstairs." Paul: "Wait here, I'll go outside and check. If they see me, they won't think it's anything unusual, just a villager." Paul slips out through the trapdoor.
Hunter <watching Paul leave>: "You know, it's getting so I don't know who to trust any more. Mikie, what do you think about Paul?" Mikie doesn't immediately respond. Hunter: "Look Mikie, Ghaer told me. I fucked up, okay? I'm sorry." Mikie: "Paul's legit." Hunter: "Right. If Mikie says he's all right, that's fine with me." Robert isn't convinced about that. Hunter: "I'll tell you one thing, if Garson's men are coming for us, I won't be the first to go - that son of a bitch miller will be." Ghaer points out that if some one gives Mikie a boost, he's small enough to be able to get up into the gap where the machinery goes up through the ceiling into the main floor of the mill, and may be able to catch the conversation upstairs. Hunter: "Good plan. Hey, Bob, cover the trapdoor - if anyone that's not Paul comes through, shoot 'em." Robert: "Well, what if it's just a hallucination?" Hunter: "Well, shoot it any way."
Hunter boosts Mikie up to where he can listen. Jurgensen is talking to another man. Man: "The children will be executed in the town square at midnight tomorrow night." And that's not the worst part - soldiers are currently rounding up anyone who is suspected to have any kind of connection to the resistance or the Irklan, and they'll be locked up as well. Man: "Tomorrow night, everyone's name in the village will be put into a box, and forty names will be selected at random. Whoever's name is chosen will be executed on the spot; one villager for each man of ours killed in the attack." Jurgensen <nervously>: "Am I going to be part of the lottery?" Man: "We are going to take you into town, to make sure nothing else happens, but you won't be part of the lottery." Mikie senses more people approaching, so he taps Hunter's shoulder to come down. Mikie relays the information to the group below. Hunter: "Shit. We need a distraction." After some looking around, Hunter and Ghaer decide to break up some of the boards in the wall and set a fire going.
Hunter: "You know, there's something romantic about a fire...Ready people?" Robert starts to go upstairs. Hunter makes sure he realizes that this would put him on the wrong side of the fire. Upstairs are sounds of rooms being searched. The trapdoor opens, and Paul sticks his head in. Paul: "This way, quickly." Hunter: "We were just about to leave." They start to leave, Robert included. Hunter <to Robert>: "Don't worry, it's just a dream." Robert: "Don't even start with me!!" Robert wants to go directly to the square, which is fine with Hunter, who likes the direct approach. Everyone leaves through the trapdoor, Hunter last. Just before Hunter leaves, the upper door opens. The man in BDUs is surprised, since he wasn't expecting smoke and fire. Hunter goes down and out, waits for few moments, then joins the exodus downstream.
Paul takes Mikie (the non-swimmer) into the water with him; "Just float". They travel a half a click or so down the stream before getting out onto the shore. Paul Lee makes sure everyone gets out of the water at the same place. Hunter: "You're a damn good swimmer for a guy from a desert world. Damn. My cigarettes are wet!" Well, some of them are. Hunter: "To the village?" Paul: "Now? They're not going to shoot anyone until tonight." Robert: "We have to at least go after the kids." Hunter: "Yeah." Paul: "There's a garrison nearby." Hunter: "Hey, that's right. They're off rounding up people, so all those men will be in the village and not in the garrison. Maybe we can take the opportunity to get into Garson's place, bust the place up a bit at least. Let's take the fight to him for a change."
Suddenly it becomes obvious that someone's missing - Ghaer. He didn't pass the group downstream, and Paul and Mikie were the first ones down. There were no shots fired, and Paul says there is nothing carnivorous in the river, so Ghaer (who can swim) is probably fine. Maybe he sensed some one sitting too close to a well or mine shaft and went off to help. Ghaer is well able to take care of himself, especially with his 'magic shield', so the group decides to continue on and assume Ghaer will catch up when he can. Mikie isn't thrilled with this, but Ghaer will most likely be safer on his own anyway.
Hunter: "You know, the thought comes to mind...<indicating Robert> walking into the town square." Robert: "I already thought of that, but it wont' work if he's already there. And we need to find the kids first. " Hunter: "The most logical is to keep them in the estate." Paul: "That might be, but there is a garrison in the town, a building that was converted to a barracks. They might be there." Hunter: "Well hey, we're your hirelings Paul. What do you want us to do?" Paul: "We do need to get the children." Hunter: "The problem is we have no intel." Robert: "So let's get some. Find somebody who can tell us what's going on." Paul: "With the fire you set there will still be people around the mill." Hunter: "Right." Robert: "Let's get one of the mercs."
They head back up the river, to the mill. Apparently, the fire was mostly put out, and the mill has been saved. Which is good. There are pairs of men searching the area around the mill. It's still very dark, and with the shadows and flashlights, the searchers wouldn't be able to recognize people unless they're up close. Robert decides to see if he's recognized by the men, and to distract them while Hunter and Paul take out two of them. Hunter: "I'll take the bigger one. Remember Paul, we need one of them alive." Paul: "Which one?" Hunter: "Doesn't matter." Paul: "Do we want to do this quietly?" Hunter: "That's the idea." Paul: "Then maybe you should not use your gun." Hunter: "I wasn't intending to use my gun, I'm going to use my shovel." They eventually get set up, and decide that Paul will take his man alive as Hunter isn't good enough to call his shots.
Robert goes crashing through the bushes, and is caught in the flashlight attached to an SMG. Robert: "Get that out of my face!" Soldier: "Sorry sir!" Robert: "Have you caught them yet?" Soldier: "No sir!" Robert: "I've got all you mercenaries here, and you can't find four off-worlders?!" Soldier: "We've just started looking, sir. We had to put the fire out at the mill first." Robert: "I suppose you're right. Give me your flashlight." Soldier: "It's attached to my gun." Robert: "Then take it off."
So, one of the men is hunched over working on detaching the flashlight from his SMG. Not exactly a hard target for Paul Lee, who comes up behind him, grabs him around the mouth, and elbows the wind out of the poor man. Hunter hits his target with the flat of his shovel, aiming for the head (trying to not kill him). What actually happens is that Hunter hits the guy in the back of the neck with the e-tool, killing him deader than a smelt with the 'death whack'. Oops. Oh well, one dead, one subdued. Hunter removes everything of value, then goes to drag the dead guy to the river, but Paul asks if Hunter has duct tape for the conscious man's mouth. Paul: "If this guy yells for his buddies, we'll end up staked out over an Arcturan ant hill." Good point. Hunter hands over the tape to Robert, then disposes of the other body. So the dazed soldier gets to have his bosses' boss, apparently, taping him up. <???> Robert: "We've got a sergeant up that way with a jeep, but I want to interrogate this man first." Hunter suggests Paul come up with somewhere to take the man for interrogation, but Paul points out that "the only places I know, have been used by the Irklan or the resistance, so they may already be known." The man is taken off into the woods, and Robert tries to find out where the children were taken, and where the troops are really garrisoned. The children have, in fact, been taken to the cell blocks of the garrison in town. There are also other prisoners, Irklan clan members. Robert: "Who's in command of the garrison?" Soldier: "The colonel, and your security guys." Robert: "Good - now I'm going to tell you what's going on, because you're a smart man. One of my clones has usurped me. And you're going to help me get back to my proper place." Soldier: "I'm just a grunt sir, I don't think I can be much help." Robert is also able to find out that the soldier's unit consisted of one hundred men, now down forty thanks to the ambush. Hunter ties the man up in such a way as to allow him to get himself free in about an hour; the soldier will wait at least an hour before he starts trying, just to make sure he doesn't run into those people again.
Off to the village, which is not large, by off-world standards. One hundred residents, three hundred more on outlying farms, about fifty techs and servants around the mansion now, about one hundred of the black-suited men and two hundred mercs from off planet (including the one hundred from this guy's unit). The square has an uncovered stone bandstand, and at the other end a recently erected marble statue of Garson. The center of the square is used for the market where the locals can sell their meager crops. Around the edges of the square are a small church and parsonage, a town hall, an inn, an infirmary, a general store, the mayor's house, the barracks, and a commissary. The latter is where Garson has his propaganda posted. "Honest labor brings rich rewards" is the current missive.
Now all that's missing is a plan.