Final Days | Chapter 14 of 39

Author: Gary Gibson | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1003 Views | Add a Review

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ELEVEN

 

Flathead Lake, Montana, 29 January 2235

 

By the time late afternoon of the next day rolled in, there was still no sign of Dan returning. Missoula wasn’t much more than a couple of hour’s drive away, and the spring floods had abated, leaving the roads clear. When e.

He had packed only those items he considered essential into a light backpack he normally used for making short treks. Anything else, he abandoned in the cabin’s bedroom. He passed Dan’s wand over the contents of the backpack several times, listening carefully with satisfaction to the device’s monotone beep every time it fried another locator chip. After that he pulled on his hiking boots and stepped outside to stare across the lake, which was spread out below him like a great dark mirror, bringing back unpleasant memories of Site 17. The sun had finally slipped below the horizon, staining the upper slopes of the mountains across the valley a fiery red. It occurred to him that this might be the last time he would ever set eyes on Flathead Lake.

Whatever might happen next, he wanted to fix this memory in his mind.

Jeff listened to the sound of birds calling to each other across the waters and wondered what he should do next. Besides the crude car-jacker gear Dan had left him with, he had a spare pack of contacts he hadn’t yet registered. He could get by with those for a while, but Dan was right in one regard: they’d never be enough to get him past Array security.

He realized, with a start, that the lights of a car were now moving along a highway running parallel to the far shore of the lake. He watched for a few moments, then activated his UP for maybe the hundredth time, to see if Dan had left any kind of message.

Bright lines of text floated before him, suspended in the night air. There was a message all right, but it wasn’t from Dan. It was, he realized with a shock, from Mitchell Stone.

Jeff swallowed hard. He hadn’t seen or heard from him since Mitchell had been medevaced back to Tau Ceti, disappearing into the ASI’s maw as mysteriously as he’d reappeared in that chamber of pits.

He opened the message and read it: Need to speak with you and any other members of TC sci-eval teams urgently. Am in North Dakota. Where are you?

Indecision flooded over Jeff. Mitchell Stone had been . . . if not exactly a friend, at least someone who had sided so strongly with the sci-eval teams that he’d run the risk of court martial. But he was also part of ASI Security, the same people Dan was sure were trying to kill them. So who to trust?

Jeff hesitated a few moments more, then made a decision.

Near Flathead Lake in Montana, he sent back. Then added, I’m here with Dan Rush.

He waited, but an immediate reply clearly wasn’t forthcoming.

He glanced back down at the lake below, and saw the car had now taken the turn-off from the highway and on to the narrow road that circled the lake, coming his way. Maybe, just maybe, this was Dan.

Jeff tried to follow the progress of the car’s lights as it appeared and disappeared between the tree trunks crowding the slo of the hill beneath him. He could just make out parts of the sharply winding road that switched back and forth up the steep incline towards his cabin. He watched with mounting tension as the headlights approached the nearest switch back turn.

Hope finally gave way to a desperate paranoia. After all this time, the chances were good that this was anyone but Dan.

Jeff pointed his index finger towards the car, thumb cocked, and quickly drew a circle in the air with the moving car roughly at its centre. His contacts responded by projecting a bright pastel circle against the dark outline of the mountain slope, moving along with the headlights despite the intervening trees, while retrieving whatever public information might be available about the vehicle’s occupant or its registration. Nothing came back, but he hadn’t really expected it to.

The best thing to do was not to take any chances, so he hurried back inside the cabin and grabbed hold of the backpack. He could always hide out somewhere nearby until he saw who got out of the car. He hoisted the rucksack over his shoulders, remembering to pick up the car-jacker chip only at the last moment.

The fireplace still glowed fitfully in one corner. He’d added wood to it in just the last hour. If there was anyone inside that car looking to hurt him, they weren’t going to have too hard a time figuring out he’d only just departed. There wasn’t much he could do about that, so he quickly pulled on his gloves and ordered the cabin to turn its lights off, before stepping back out into the frigid evening air.

Jeff jogged along the gravel path fronting the cabin until he reached a flight of steps leading towards the summit of the hill. After ascending the first few dozen steps, he stopped and looked back in time to see the vehicle pull into the driveway.

As two figures got out of the car, Jeff felt a tension at the base of his spine. He reached out again, drawing a circle with them both at its centre. This time he enlarged a single frame of the two men at maximum magnification, until he could see their faces more clearly.

It took a second for his contacts to process the data, and he studied the faces of the two men, who were now approaching his cabin. He recognized neither. One had sandy hair that flew about his forehead when the wind caught it, while his taller companion, thin as a rake, clutched a lightweight suit jacket around his shoulders. Neither of them was dressed for the freezing weather.

Jeff’s teeth chattered, not entirely from the cold. He watched them confer for a moment, before they stepped up to the door of his cabin. The shorter one held in one hand what might be a weapon of some kind.

Jeff continued watching as they stepped inside, light flooding on to the gravel a moment later. With a sudden terrible lurch, he remembered that the contacts containing the stolen database were still hidden in the tool shed behind the cabin.

He gripped the wooden hand railing running alongside the steps, and swore quietly. How could he have been so stupid?

He saw the cabin door swing open once more. After a moment, the bright beam of a torch flicked first across the driveway, then up towards the path on which he stood watching.

Suddenly galvanized, Jeff hurried further up the steps, taking them two or three at a time. After ascending a short way, he came to another trail encircling the summit of the hill. He jogged along this second path until he found another clear view down through the trees, to where he could see a tiny wharf jutting out into the waters of the lake, where some of the local residents kept their boats moored.

He pulled himself up and over the low wooden railing, whose purpose was to keep summer hikers from tumbling down the hillside, and started to make his way down the steep slope, navigating between dense clumps of pine and fir. He could make out the dark masses of granite outcrops to either side, while far below him lay a relatively smooth grassy slope extending most of the way down to the shoreline. Assuming he didn’t take a tumble, he could make it to the wharf in about ten minutes, or fifteen at the outside.

Voices called out to each other from above and behind. Jeff started to move more quickly, grabbing hold of tufts of grass or branches to keep from skidding too fast down the steep gradient. The air smelled of barbecue smoke drifting across the lake from cabins on the far side, as he slid down occasional stretches of snow on his butt.

The clouds passed away from the face of the moon, illuminating the slope beneath him and making the going easier. The ground began to level out, and Jeff started to run. Suddenly a point of red light was visible on a patch of snow a few metres ahead of him. A second later, a thin plume of snow erupted from the same spot, followed by the sound of a gunshot echoing across the valley.

Jeff threw himself towards the relative cover of some bull pine, in his terror almost colliding with a granite boulder. Manoeuvring his way past the boulder, he caught sight of the lakeside road, maybe only forty or fifty metres away. His shoulder blades tingled as he imagined that red dot alighting between them next.

He stumbled over a root, just as the trees began to thin out, and hit the ground hard. He staggered upright, despite the pain, and forced himself to keep moving, pushing through a tangle of brush until he reached the edge of a steep incline overlooking the road. He came to a stop briefly, then darted along the upper edge of the slope until he came across another flight of stone steps leading steeply downwards.

Shit. Jeff stared across the roadway towards the wharf, and suddenly realized there was nothing moored there – nothing he could use to try and get away to safety across the lake. A derelict hut, once home to a diving outfit, stood right next to the wharf, the side of it facing the road adorned with a crude illustration of several divers swimming amidst cartoon bubbles.

As clouds passed across the moon, Jeff grabbed the opportunity and ran across the road, desperate to avoid becoming target to another sniper shot. Glancing to one side, he nearly cried out in relief when he spotted a dinghy pulled up on the shore, quite close to the wharf but just far away enough for him not to have noticed it from the top of the incline. He hurried towards it, the gravelly sand crunching underfoot, and also saw that the dinghy was equipped with a small outboard motor.

He pushed the craft out into the freezing water, getting his ankles thoroughly soaked before he pulled himself inside and settled on the single narrow wooden bench. Jeff touched the engine’s interface, and a menu rendered in softly glowing panels superimposed itself against the night sky. The dinghy was fully juiced up, enough power stored in its battery reserves to keep it going for several days.

At the sound of someone splashing through the water towards him, he reached out in a panic to activate the motor. Just as he began to pull away from the shore, a dark shape threw itself halfway inside the dinghy, making it rock wildly.

Jeff didn’t even have time to feel scared, but he grabbed hold of the bench on either side of him, and used it for leverage as he kicked out with both feet. He heard an oof, and kicked again, as the dinghy began to turn in tight circles. His assailant staggered upright, and Jeff fell backwards against the outboard motor as a fist connected with the side of his head.

His assailant, the tall thin one, had a gun trained on him. Without thinking, Jeff grabbed hold of the tiller and twisted it frantically. The dinghy slewed wildly to one side, and the thin man staggered. Light and sound exploded from the gun, and Jeff felt something hot sear past his cheek. There was a yell, then a splash, as the other man lost his balance and fell back into the freezing water.

Jeff heard another shot, then another, from the direction of the shore. Crouching low, he twisted the tiller back again. Clouds were passing back in front of the moon and, in the pitch darkness, he was unsure where the far side of the lake now lay.

The dinghy jerked, and spun half around, as it smacked violently into something. For one heart-freezing moment, Jeff wondered if he’d somehow run himself aground somewhere alongside the wharf.

Instead, the dinghy continued on its way, its prow cutting cleanly through the water. He saw a dark shape slip past, arms spread out and motionless, and guessed it was the same man who had attacked him.

As the clouds cleared from the face of the moon, he caught sight of another wharf on the far shore, now only a few kilometres away. Shots rang out again, splashing water up on either side of the dinghy. Hoping to make himself a more difficult target, Jeff twisted the tiller frantically from side to side.

He glanced down to see water trickling through a hole just below the waterline, which he was sure hadn’t been there only seconds before. There were further shots behind him, but then no more. Assessing the trickle of water pooling around his boots, he decided it wasn’t likely to become a serious issue before he reached the opposite shore.

Jeff shivered as the wind cut through his soaking-wet clothes. It froze him to the marrow, and he wondered how long he had before hypothermia set in.

He was going to have to find some kind of transport soon. If he tried to hide in the woods or make it to Lakeside on foot, he’d only wind up dead of exposure.

As he sailed on, the dinghy’s motor emitting a barely audible hum, lights became increasingly visible through the trees above the far shore, and music drifted across the still waters. Several minutes later, he finally ran the dinghy up on to the shore, alongside a luxurious-looking motorboat moored to the wharf. He looked back across the lake and saw some headlights suddenly come on close by his cabin. Jeff watched for a few seconds as the same lights headed back down the long switchback road, and he realized he was far from being home and free.

Crossing the road, he soon found himself at the foot of another steep switchback track leading to a cluster of cabins he vaguely recalled were owned by some rental agency in Missoula. He jogged a short way up the road until he came to a cul-de-sac, where he found several private vehicles parked together, some of them busy chewing on bales of leafy biomass. The rear hatch of one car had been left open, revealing the shrink-wrapped cartons of beer stacked inside. Judging by the music, a party was currently in full swing.

Jeff glanced through the trees, and back across the lake, in time to see the headlights descend the final switchback bend in the road. He had five, maybe ten minutes at most, before it circled the lake.

He stepped forward, lifting the cartons of beer out of the rear of the car and dumping them on the grass verge, before crawling inside and pulling the hatch shut behind him. He manoeuvred himself into one of the front seats and tugged his backpack off, dropping it on to the adjacent seat before reaching out to touch the expanse of black glass that constituted the dashboard. He was far from surprised when nothing happened.

He fumbled around inside the backpack until he found Dan’s car-jacker, and pressed it against the dashboard. After a few moments the glass flickered, random lines of code scrolling by at speed. For one awful moment Jeff wondered if he’d managed to fry the car’s brain, but before very long a standard set of options appeared in place of the gibberish.

He closed his eyes in silent relief and let his head tip forward, as if in prayer, before reaching out and tapping the dashboard to select manual drive. The wheel unfolded before him, optional virtual menus materializing to either side.

He heard someone yell and glanced through the rear windscreen to see a figure running down the road leading from the cabins. Clearly, the car’s owner had returned for the rest of his beer.

Jeff gripped the wheel and put the car into reverse. A rear tyre hit a tree root, and one side of the vehicle slammed upwards as he turned it in a tight circle. Fists beat against the door next to him and he found himself staring at an angry face. Jeff hastily engaged the locks before the man could yank the door open, then hit the accelerator hard. The car shot forward, sending its owner tumbling away.

It bounced as it came off the switchback and hit the main road. The wheels spun as Jeff floored the accelerator, the lake sliding past at an ever-increasing speed.

With luck he could reach Lakeside in just another twenty minutes.

He turned up the heating as far as it would goeraut the car back on automatic. The wheel folded itself away again while he stripped off his sodden clothes, throwing them on to the rear seats. He’d stowed a spare change of clothes in the rucksack, but unfortunately it wasn’t waterproof, so he climbed into the back and dug around until he came across an oil-stained T-shirt that at least had the virtue of being dry, even if maybe three sizes too big.

Jeff glanced behind, but couldn’t see any sign of his pursuer’s headlights. The only thing left now, he realized, was to try and find Mitchell. So he accessed his UP and placed a call.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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