Sample pages for Traveller Probo by Rob Shackleford
Traveller Probo is the second book in the Traveller Trilogy.
Following the events of Book 1, Traveller Inceptio, the Transporter is actively sought for more countries to complete what is becoming an increasingly political objective; to complete a successful historical research 1000 years into the past.
Read below for more …
The thin rain fell in a chill, shrouding mist that reduced the conscious world to silver-encrusted foliage and black, haphazardly leaning trunks. The warriors were oblivious to the cold and Ruhi simply smiled as he squatted silently in the ferns to revel in the thrill of the hunt. They were not far from the homes of the People, yet from where they watched they could barely see the dwellings or smell the smoke from cooking fires. There, fresh shellfish waited, ready to eat, with yams baked in the coals. Food was plentiful and the men were hungry.
But that did not concern them now.
Ruhi peered warily through the foliage and caught the eye of Tapata, who crouched behind a huge log, remnant of a forest giant felled by a storm some years earlier. Now, in a mantle of moss and fern, it was the perfect place to hide. Tapata returned the glare with a slight narrowing of his eyes and then looked again to their prey.
One of the children had seen the patupaiarehe the day before. The enigmatic forest spirits had not been witnessed for quite some time. The old fathers spoke of long ago, when the People had killed a few patupaiarehe. That was when they had first arrived to this land. Since then, the mysterious people of the mist had left the villagers well alone. The crones around the late night campfires described how the patupaiarehe belonged to the deep forests and mountaintops. But this interloper had all of the villagers confused. For it just sat, barely moving, and simply watched.
Ruhi cautiously peered again over the foliage, scarcely breathing. All knew that albino birds and eels, red flax and red eels were of the patupaiarehe and that trouble befell any who took possession of these. But, after scrupulous scrutiny, it was found that there had been no such transgressions. So for one of the mystical beings to take so much time in watching was too much of a wrong, too insulting for the People to tolerate. Ruhi felt his anger rise as the spirit-man stirred slightly, as if sensing it too was under observation.
The patupaiarehe was not as Ruhi had imagined. Described by their elders as of pale complexion and with white hair, this patupaiarehe was the colour of the forest and could be barely seen unless one knew exactly where to look. It was not one of the People, that was certain, so its forest-colour was put down to magic. If it was not one of the repulsive fairy folk, lovers of darkness and the mist, then what was it?
Ruhi tensed and glanced again to Tapata, who barely nodded as he stealthily began to move forward. Every hunter knew that to remain too long in observation might risk the prey sensing their presence and fleeing.
As two of the People’s mightiest warriors and hunters, Ruhi and Tapata had been requested to investigate this patupaiarehe interloper. Gathered together the night before, the warriors and the elders had said much. Finally, Tehu, he who was first among them, had pondered as ghost-like fingers of campfire smoke coiled about them in the darkness. Ruhi and the others watched and held their breaths. Then, Tehu’s great head nodded. Struggling to hide his elation, Ruhi glanced at Tapata while the others sighed. The decision was made.
The hunters crept silently as heavy rain masked their movements even further. Ruhi could no longer see his friend, but the big man was there, shadowing his every move.
He paused as the watcher again scanned the surrounding forest, another sign that the spirit-man was becoming increasingly alert. Ruhi froze in place and became invisible in the dim morning light, willing himself not to be seen. The patupaiarehe returned to its watching. They heard a thin hum as it talked to itself and chuckled, odd behaviour so beyond Ruhi’s understanding. Was it singing up a strange curse? Was it planning something dire for the People, such as a storm or sickness? Its look, actions, sounds, and even its slight but unmistakable odour were foreign, unfamiliar and detestable.
Ruhi felt a rare pang of fear that brought a sheen of sweat to his face and under his arms and was grateful for the rain. But he could never turn from his task.
They knew what to do.
As agreed, they crept to the shelter of a small clump of trees and rocks only a short dash from the watcher. Ruhi gripped his short club, his mere, tightly. Carefully crafted from whalebone scavenged from the stormy shores, all agreed the weapon was a fearsome work of art. It had been created by his father, the great warrior who had taken long, patient moons to refine this elegant death-bringer. Its power had been further enhanced by the appropriate chants and muttered offerings to the great gods and spirits. Though never used in battle, the weapon’s smooth strength reassured the young warrior. He felt the magic surge, as if it recognised that the glorious work of death was finally at hand.
Eyes glaring and legs coiled, Ruhi tensed and then leapt in an explosion of energy that propelled him in a swift dash to his victim. He made only a whisper of sound through the short ferns. In one fluid motion he struck savagely with all of his awesome strength. Whether it heard the whisper of sound or saw a flicker of movement, it was too late for the crouching spirit-man who was in the act of turning. As Ruhi had been taught and endlessly practiced, he thrust his mere at the side of the unprotected head with a twisting flick of the wrist that was designed to wrench the victim’s skull open. In this case he was successful, so the second shattering blow dealt by Tapata was entirely unnecessary.
Blood and brains flew and the spirit-man fell without a sound.
In silent self-congratulation, the warriors smiled triumphantly. With faces splattered with blood they grasped their prey and ran, dragging it quickly to the waiting village.
There they would be welcomed as the heroes they were.
Today, there would be better things than shellfish for the People to eat.
1. 11th Century New Zealand
The most irritating thing about the weather was how, despite every effort, the damned cold and rain caused the binocular lenses to fog. These were supposed to be anti-fog lenses, but that did not seem to help today. Hami removed the rubber cushioned binoculars from his eyes and squinted in annoyance at the lenses’ opalescent hues before he rubbed each with his thumb and cursed the endless drizzle. Rain could affect the simplest action, even in their surveillance. Invisible in the dense undergrowth of the temperate rainforest of New Zealand, Hami attempted to brush a giant, cricket-like weta from his sleeve. The creature clung tenaciously, having hooked its clawed feet into the material of his camouflage suit. Carefully, he unhooked the insect and took great care to keep his movements to an absolute minimum to avoid detection from those they watched so carefully.
There were shuffled movements nearby. Right on schedule, the long beak and bright eyes of a kiwi appeared through the undergrowth, at which Hami had to smile. The kiwi, which he called Kit, was determined to visit him each morning. The curious creature stopped to peer short-sightedly with an expression of astonished curiosity before it snuffed and probed in the soil and wandering off, striding confidently with its powerful, supersized feet.
“Marilyn moving to the food barn,” a muttered voice, almost certainly that of Markus, was fed quietly into Hami’s ear-piece. He directed his binoculars to the cluster of rough log and fern huts that was the object of their surveillance. Hami watched with amusement as the almost naked form of a solidly-built woman shuffled to a small, raised hut to remove some item, most likely a fish, from the chosen place of storage. As she turned back to her shelter he caught sight of her face; blunt, brown-eyed and dark-skinned. Though estimated to be about 25 years in age, she looked much older, with her black hair an untidy frizz, and pendulous breasts that swung almost to her waist. Her broad shoulders and heavy build made her ideal to withstand the chilly New Zealand climate. She was also the perfect antithesis to her namesake, the fifties screen siren, Marilyn Munroe, so named by the wag, Sergeant Steve Elkington.
“I swear she’s getting hotter every time I see her”, muttered Elkington, with a quiet chuckle.
“I agree bro, her old man is probably priming himself for a day in the sack”, snickered Markus quietly.
“I can smell that good old fashioned Maori lovin’ from here,” whispered Hami, setting off a more quiet laughter, clearly audible through his earpiece.
“Gentleman please, let’s keep it tight, we don’t want to offend Elkington’s girlfriend, do we now?” muttered their squad-leader, Lieutenant Jonah Pokere. This was met with more quiet chuckles, especially from Elkington himself, but the message was understood and radio activity once more settled into silence.
Mere shadows in the misty drizzle, the cluster of primitive huts was wreathed in smoke from a few struggling cooking fires, making the settlement impossible to miss. For three days the team had observed the village and named the habitants as directed by the chief researcher, Dr Neil Chow of New Zealand’s Auckland University. While they acted as eyes, ears and if required, protective muscle, Dr Chow coordinated what could be best described as a most unusual research project. The New Zealand native Maori subjects had been discovered where in theory, they should not have been. Or more correctly when they should not have been. Having won the coveted inaugural Helguard Scholarship for International Historical Research, Dr Chow had quite simply received the use of what had become known in media circles as the ‘Helguard Transporter’ for twenty days only – no more, no less.
For the Helguard Transporter, lauded by scientific journals and the popular media alike as the ‘Invention of the Century’, was quite simply best described as a Time Machine.
The Transporter had its limitations, for it could only send researchers or unmanned equipment back one thousand years from the present day. Why the time limitation existed was not understood, but historical researchers now had access to the previously unimaginable opportunity to research, investigate, and learn of an era about which too little was known.
So as part of the New Zealand Historical Research Team, Hami sat, or crouched, each day, almost one thousand years before he was born, in 11th Century New Zealand. Stone Age humanity had established a tenuous foothold in the lush, rugged landscape and appeared to be prospering. Dr Chow described them as one of a few small settler groups that were likely to be blood-related. If the other groups were anything like this settlement, it meant that up to a thousand souls could live around the fifty extinct volcanic peaks that would one day become Auckland, modern New Zealand’s largest city.
With a perfect view of the western harbour with rich fishing and shellfish grounds, the pre-historic inhabitants were being carefully monitored and studied because they lived some four-hundred years earlier than most historians commonly accepted they should be.
When this project was first mooted, like many in his regiment, Hami volunteered to become part of a select New Zealand SAS squad to research his home nation. As proved in the Saxon Traveller project, the awesome skills of local Special Forces made them the most qualified when sending researchers one thousand years back in time. In the New Zealand Traveller team, all but Doctor Chow were of Maori descent. Hami had made what he considered to be the life of the military his own. Good looking, well-muscled and tall, he had served his country for seven years before being accepted into the elite New Zealand Special Air Service. Superbly trained, tough, and capable, the men were deservedly recognised as some of the world’s finest soldiers. So when the opportunity arose to serve as support for a local historical researcher, he had naturally jumped at it.
Like many missions, Hami and his fellow researchers soon found the Traveller project to be surprisingly mundane. Each day, the team of six was Transported to the destination time in the early dawn, and each day fortune favoured them as the weather was chill and drizzly, making their movements easier to disguise. All were dressed in full camouflage gear and, except for Dr Chow, were lightly armed with SAS special issue sub-machine pistols and other usual personal arms typical for a Special Forces surveillance mission. One of their first tasks had been to install a series of tiny digital cameras about the area. This meant that academics back in the 21st Century could act as silent witness to the activities of the surprisingly large community of eighteen men, twenty women, and an unknown number of skinny children. The men were described by Dr Chow as warriors, including an older man they dubbed as “Elvis”. He was a mostly toothless but still daunting senior whom the academic described as the alpha-male or ‘King’ of the group. Each of the men had the heavily tattooed face iconic of the Maori warrior, even the thinly bearded youth dubbed as ‘Junior’, who looked to be only seventeen.
The settlement included an assortment of women of various ages and children, most of whom ran about completely naked. A few scrawny black dogs completed the group. Dr Chow described them as the extinct kuri that occasionally were heard to give a yelp rather than a bark. The team had been concerned about their detection by the animals, believed to have been brought with the original human settlers from the Polynesian Islands. Thankfully that had not happened. The group eked a simple existence through harvesting the bountiful fishing grounds or trapping the numerous plump birds that ran and flew around the area. The villagers had also established a garden of sweet potatoes and yams that grew in the rich volcanic soil. Chow suggested that the villagers would also eat the occasional kuri when the desire took them.
Hami had especially enjoyed his ¬¬few days in New Zealand’s distant past. While engaged in his observations, he was in contact with a bewildering range of insects and flightless birds, most no longer living in modern New Zealand. While the discovery of people in New Zealand’s past met with significant media attention, there had also been intense public interest in tracking down extinct species, especially the Moa, a giant, flightless bird that was like an ostrich on steroids. Known only by bones and shell fragments, there had been calls from some in the scientific community to preserve or even revive extinct fauna, a goal considered of low priority by the researchers. While the men had collected quite a few insect and other fauna samples, their prime mission was of reconnaissance; to learn more about the original human inhabitants without interaction or harm.
Besides, they had seen no sign of a moa.
Time was short, with only one more day of observations possible. Hami knew that Dr Chow’s research team had already gathered enough data, because every image and sound had been collected by an automated data collection system at the Area of Convergence. Cleverly camouflaged to look like a rock, the system was collected twice each day. With additional personal observations collated from debriefings each evening, the mass of data was stored for future analysis. Dr Chow told the team that they already had enough data for a set of seminal academic works on the Maori settlement of Aotearoa, the traditional name of New Zealand and the last substantial land mass to be colonised by humans.
So the researchers crouched in the morning drizzle and watched the primitive settlement in its cycle of daily life. The Village looked different from the traditional Maori settlement as taught in New Zealand schools. The more familiar fortified fort or Pa would be a development for future centuries and would typify the warlike Maori the European settlers of the eighteenth century came to know.
Thankfully, there was no evidence that the villagers thought they were being watched, so their infamous warlike nature remained untested. Each day, the team was extracted by the end of their shift at precisely four p.m. During their observation time, they remained in constant contact via personal headsets, complete with a head-mounted camera. The threat of any personal danger was considered remote, but like any recon mission there was no time to relax. To remain invisible and undetected was paramount.
The drizzle increased slightly as the sun struggled to penetrate the heavy grey cloud while a stiff breeze blew from the ocean only a kilometre away. Hami raised his face to the morning light and smiled to himself, enjoying the breeze on his camouflaged face. The villagers had been very still this morning and, as he resumed his watch, two children ran around the huts, their lithe, naked brown bodies seemingly unaffected by the cold. They hopped about, laughing together as they played with one of the scrawny kuri pups when one, a young boy, looked in Hami’s direction, as if he knew Hami was there. Hami knew the impression was ridiculous, but he paused from his observations to cast a cautious glance about him, just in case. The ferns and undergrowth were undisturbed and he paused to listen a moment, feeling with all his senses alert.
He reminded himself to be more vigilant.
There was a short burst of static in his earpiece, but no-one followed up with any comment.
After waiting a few seconds, he asked, “Did you hear that?”
“What?” asked Elkington.
“Squad Alpha request radio check,” muttered Hami quietly. Though he was not in command, the team members had worked and soldiered together enough to recognise the professional approach of each. If anyone suspected or feared a squad breach or technical error, they were free to take the initiative, their instincts respected.
“Pokere here,” muttered the squad leader. “You have something Hami?”
“Just checking boss,” muttered Hami as the team checked in.
“Elkington on line.”
“Neil Chow here.”
“Ngawa here,” muttered the squad junior Rewai Ngawa. Although two years younger than Hami, he was a veteran of action in the Solomon Islands and Afghanistan.
With the other members of the team, Hami had been ticking off the confirmations mentally and one, Markus, hadn’t responded. Because of their communications, weaponry and the passive nature of their mission it had been considered safe enough to split into individual monitoring stations about the village. Pokere was the only one who was not alone as he was personally responsible for the care of Dr Chow and therefore acted as the operational centre for orders and communications. However, each of the team were respected recon specialists and knew their bush skills. There was no way they would be caught unaware.
Pokere muttered, “Markus, we didn’t receive your verbal check. We’re assuming a technical error. Key your mike to confirm.” Keying the mike would permit a short burst of static, safest practice just in case locals were close-by and a spoken-word deemed unsafe. As Markus was the closest to the village, this could be possible.
There was silence.
Pokere spoke again. “Hami, you had best check on Markus’ position.”
Hami was a scant thirty metres to the right of Markus and best positioned to check on his squad-mate with the least disruption to the covert nature of their research. “Sure boss, but it might compromise the operation,” he muttered.
“Understood,” was Pokere’s reply.
“Roger, moving now,” Hami responded. He sighed quietly as he packed the binoculars and made his weapon ready. The MP5 was loaded and locked. It was assumed that in the unlikely event that any of their weapons were fired, the noise of the unsilenced three-shot bursts would terrify any potential assailant into fleeing. There was no desire to kill anyone, especially an erstwhile ancestor.
Silently, he merged back into the forest and then, keeping to cover, crept in the direction of Markus’ position. He knew Markus had established this morning’s observation post close to a giant kauri tree to which a couple of miniaturised digital cameras had been attached. Like the others, Hami assumed the salt air had done what happens in most operations that involve either the sea air or desert sand, which was stuff up communications. He paused and knelt in the undergrowth by a large log near Markus’ kauri tree and watched. It took a moment to identify a tiny camera attached to the thick trunk, but he could not see Markus, which was hardly surprising. Markus wouldn’t want to be found by any casual observer, especially his own squad mate. Hami sniffed the air and there was the usual musty smell of decomposing vegetation, and something else.
“On location, looking for Markus,” he muttered quietly.
“Roger,” responded Pokere.
Hami moved ghostlike through the vegetation, his camouflage making him virtually invisible. Noises from ground birds were an indication of safety and normality that surrounded them for most of the day. But here there was silence. The various calls and clucks were not to be heard, leaving a stillness that immediately made his nerves strum to the familiar tune of danger.
Something was very wrong.
Eyes wide, willing himself to see details, Hami controlled his growing disquiet with slow, deep, calming breaths as he carefully examined the area where Markus should be hiding. He finally noticed a slight scuff in the wet soil and realised with growing alarm that a patch on the ground looked to be a splash of blood that had soaked into the soil. As he scanned the surrounding vegetation, he spotted a daub of bright blood on a small clump of fern, then more splatters, almost black on the green ferns. His closer inspection identified a grey blob of what could only be brain-matter.
The village was silent. No inhabitants were to be seen.
His training took over. Hami crouched in a defensive position, using ferns as cover as he scanned the area for enemy while directing a burst of communication through his headset. “On location! There’s blood and brain matter. Markus may be down. None of his gear is here and there’s a drag mark through the undergrowth leading to the village. There are bare footprints.” He felt calm and alert. It looked as if Markus had been spotted and, as an outsider, attacked by the warriors. Hami recalled the stillness of the village and the glance from the children just moments ago.
“Boss, the mission has been compromised. They know we’re here and may have us all spotted,” he murmured quietly.
“Roger,” replied Pokere. There was a pause. “Travellers, form up at my location with Doctor Chow. Take defensive action as needed,” he ordered curtly.
Mission guidelines stressed the safety of each research team member. The risks taken by the now-infamous Saxon researchers were not to be duplicated. If compromised, they were to abort the mission and leave the final observations to the numerous, strategically placed, on-site cameras. With a knot in his stomach, Hami turned to head in Pokere’s direction when a sudden burst of gunfire tore through the forest. Not as loud as some weapons, the MP5 still sounded like a death-knell that was out of place in this ancient land. With the need for silence obviously unnecessary, Hami silently cursed and double-timed it carefully through the rainforest. The last thing they needed was for some fool to blunder into the fire of one of his mates, or slip and twist an ankle. Slippery mud and protruding roots made the footing treacherous, so care was vital. He was deeply concerned for Markus and his anxiety quickly turned into anger. Markus was a good mate and they had served together for two years. Damn if he was down. He hoped he was wrong, but doubted it.
The gunfire sounded as if it was from Elkington’s observation post and he heard Pokere mutter, “Gunfire marked at Elkington’s position. Elkington are you good?” There was no reply.
The heavy rainforest suddenly seemed to close in about Hami. Where the ferns and ancient, moss-covered trees had been a snug location to hide, they suddenly transformed into a place where hidden eyes watched carefully, as if to strike him down. Hami paused and crouched and looked back the way he had come, knowing that any attacker would be armed with ancient clubs or a spear-like weapon called a Taiaha which was used like a hardwood sword. Hami now had no doubt that the villagers had identified their observers.
They obviously didn’t like to be watched.
2. 11th Century New Zealand
The team had often joked that traditional Maori were cannibals and Hami had no doubt that these ancestors would indulge in the time-honoured Polynesian tradition of devouring any stranger who fell onto their path. They wouldn’t find Markus. He knew it. The realisation made him furious. They could never barge into the village, guns blazing, to reclaim his body for his family, as such an action was prohibited by their rules of engagement. So, as he jogged to Pokere’s position, he experienced a hollow feeling of loss. In the last metres he warned of his approach and heard Ngawa do the same.
But of Elkington, there was no sign.
Hami sprinted across the clear ground that separated Pokere and Dr Chow’s position from the forest, knowing that as he ran he would be seen. He dropped to the ground near the pale face of Dr Chow while shifting his weapon to cover their position. They watched in relief as Ngawa ran from the opposite direction, his jungle boots making his progress almost silent. Of pursuers there was no sign.
“What the fuck happened?” asked Ngawa. His tone was conversational but his eyes were everywhere, missing nothing as they scanned the surrounding forest. Through it all, the village remained ominously tranquil.
“We’ve been spotted,” exclaimed Pokere. “They look like they’ve ambushed us. What can you tell us Hami?” They looked to Hami as he told them what he had found.
Ngawa’s eyes narrowed. “Fuck me! Anything about Elks?” They shook their heads and were silent and grim. Through it all, Chow sat wide-eyed, shocked at the sudden explosive violence and stunned more at what was not known, only implied, imagined, guessed. Pokere thought a moment. It was his call. “Elks is only about thirty metres away. If we make an open run to recover him, he may still be there. I suggest we make a quick recovery and if he’s not there we head for the extraction point and wait for extraction.”
“But that’s hours away at least,” exclaimed Chow, who looked terrified. Hami understood how the thought of waiting so long for safety could be distressing. The academic had made it plain how he had cherished every moment of this momentous research opportunity, but now he looked like he wanted to leave.
“I suggest Hami and I move to Elks’ position, check and report,” confirmed Ngawa quietly. Hami could tell he, like Pokere, was shattered at the thought of any of the team not returning, but they had to approach this as the professionals they were.
Hami added, “We can’t take Dr Chow, so Pokere will have to stay.” He looked to Pokere for confirmation. Their squad leader pursed his lips and nodded. Pokere had played Rugby for New Zealand in their famed All Blacks and was known as a furious, calculated player. Like the rest of them, he would never give up. Only his eyes betrayed the urgency of their situation. Here they were, on a lonely windswept hill in ancient New Zealand, one thousand years from backup.
“Go to it. If Elks is there, bring him, if he’s not…” Pokere just shrugged and his glance spoke volumes. They all knew that their mikes and cameras would record all. Hami wondered what Markus’ and Elks’ cameras were recording now.
As one, Hami and Ngawa rose and sprinted in the direction of Elkington’s position in a clump of shrubs overlooking the village gardens. The location had been hidden from Pokere’s view by a few large trees and they ran with that spine-tingling realisation that they were watched. As soon as they emerged from behind the trees they surprised three Maori men, and the woman they had dubbed as ‘Marilyn’, who looked elated as they dragged Elkington through the undergrowth. Hami and Ngawa paused momentarily, for they were ordered not to interact with the locals.
“Oi!” yelled Ngawa. “Oi. Fuck off!” he jabbed his weapon at the villagers who looked up at them in surprise.
Hami fired a short three-shot burst above their heads. The shots tore at the still morning air and the locals jumped in shock, eyes wide with a look of almost comical terror on their tattooed faces. But rather than flee, they sprang into defensive positions, taiaha and clubs raised in threat. Even in his fury, Hami had to concede the courage of these primitive people standing in the chill, wearing only their reed and feather skirts. Their broad feet were bare, bearded faces savage and yet somewhat familiar, like Uncle Tui after a big night. Even Marilyn appeared more savage than afraid. She wielded her sharp digging-stick in menace.
At their feet lay Elkington. A quick glance showed him to be unconscious, possibly dead. His head had a messy wound on the side as if struck with one of the clubs. Elkington was normally sharp and alert, so these big lads must have been incredibly quiet to have surprised him like they had.
“Move! Move! Fuck off! Move!” the two soldiers yelled as they jabbed at their bare-skinned rivals in obvious threat. Hami suspected their own camouflaged faces would look mysterious, like spirits that had emerged from the forest itself. He fired another burst above their heads, but to no avail.
One giant of a man they had named ‘Slim’ because he was anything but, bellowed with grotesquely wide eyes of traditional threat as he launched his attack. He ran at them, his taiaha raised, ready to sweep all before him. He had barely run half a dozen paces when he died, three shots fired point-blank to the centre of his chest. Ngawa’s face was grim as the man collapsed onto his face with a thump. He had been so close they heard the bullets smack into his meaty body. The attacker’s companions looked on in astonishment, now comprehending the blast meant death. They were suddenly hesitant.
“That’s right! That’ll happen to you, you fuckers! Now back off!” screamed Hami. His blood lust was up. Despite their training and weapons, they could die if the villagers decided to rush them. They urgently needed to move.
Uncertain, the warriors and the woman backed away, their wild elation broken.
Without hesitation, Hami dashed to Elkington and grasped him by the webbing of his camouflage uniform. Hami was only scant metres from the villagers’ powerful bodies. He could smell them, their sweat and body odour mixed with stale fish and musty dampness. While Ngawa covered him, he dragged his friend, one handed, back some paces and then straightened to peer at the villagers and reposition his grip on his MP5. Cheated of their prey, the men and woman cried out in fury and glared. To Hami, they looked just like Maori performers of the traditional haka, the Maori war dance. Popular at football games, to a New Zealand sports fan the haka looked cool, but from the villagers that look, destined to intimidate enemies and wish death upon them, was a terrifying. If they got out of this, Hami was certain he would forever feel a chill when he witnessed a haka from now on.
The warriors coiled to attack. Ngawa saw their intent and fired more rounds into the ground in front of them, kicking up a burst of soil and leaves in a spurt that startled. They glanced, uncertain, at Slim’s body lying deathly still before them. Their pause was enough for Hami to shoulder his weapon and grasp Elkington’s webbing with both hands to drag him further backwards. Ngawa rushed to his side to grasp one of the recumbent man’s shoulder-straps while Hami held the other and they sprinted as fast as they could, laboriously dragging the heavy man to where Pokere and Dr Chow were hidden.
Seeing their prey flee, the villagers bellowed again and they ran in hot pursuit, heedless that they could be killed. Their cries rapidly drew closer. Dragging Elkington while trying to maintain vigilance and avoid stumbling, Hami looked up and narrowly dodged a stone thrown by his pursuers. That could have made a mess of his face. Ngawa fired another burst into the forest behind them, more to discourage than kill.
They sprinted the final exhausting metres to Pokere, who stood from his hide to fire a burst above the pursuit. Both Hami and Ngawa were winded, for Elkington was a big man and the up-hill sprint left them panting heavily on legs that trembled. Another large stone just missed Ngawa, bounced off a boulder and thudded into the ground by Dr Chow, who looked up in pale-faced shock. He clutched the video camera with which he had filmed their mercy dash. Pokere saw an attempt to make a flanking move by one of the warriors and fired a short burst so the 9mm rounds ricocheted off nearby boulders with an angry whine. The villager dived for the shelter of nearby bushes.
With a professional’s eye for a defendable position, Pokere had selected the observation post because it was surrounded by granite boulders decorated with furry, green-grey splashes of lichen. As the two soldiers bundled Elkington into a clear space next to Dr Chow, they formed a protective triangle with Pokere at the apex, each crouched against the boulders and aiming outwards.
“I’m out!” muttered Ngawa. He paused to change magazines, removing the empty clip to smoothly replace it with a click. Hami knew that was one of only three spares each had included as part of their kit. They hadn’t expected to need a lot of ammunition and, as the MP5 clips held only 30 rounds, they didn’t have a lot of ammunition to waste.
“Fuck me ehoa, you didn’t tell me you were running on empty,” muttered Hami without taking his eyes from the targets, two of whom had returned to stand fearlessly in the open only fifteen metres away. The woman wasn’t to be seen.
“Marilyn gone, probably to get reinforcements,” observed Hami dispassionately.
Pokere called briskly to Dr Chow, “Doctor, is Elkington alive?”
“Pardon?” asked Dr Chow. The flare of violence sent him into a mild shock. He looked dazed and thick-headed, as if freshly woken from sleep.
“Check Elkington! Check his pulse! Feel for a pulse at his throat!’ ordered Pokere sharply.
Dr Chow fumbled at the man’s throat. As his squad-mates had dragged him by his webbing, Elkington’s clothes were partially tangled up over his throat and the academic fumbled to loosen the cloth so he could feel for the carotid artery. “I can’t find a pulse!” he exclaimed in near panic. Hami watched as Dr Chow moved Elkington’s head to one side. There was a large crease in the side of the big man’s head from which bright red blood and clear fluid oozed. The fluid had already wet the ground where Elkington lay and soaked one of the elbows of Dr Chow’s camouflage combat suit.
Hami swore. This did not look hopeful. Elkington had been a great friend and a real joker.
“Ok. We can’t stay here or the locals will soon have reinforcements. One of them will get lucky with their rock throwing. Or we’ll have to kill the bloody lot of ’em,” explained Pokere in perfectly conversational tones. “We have the choice to take Elkington, or leave him here if he’s dead.”
“I’ll check him,” replied Ngawa and he dropped to his knees by his squad mate.
“Nope, he’s gone,” called out Ngawa angrily as he crouched. All of them were trained medics and if there was any chance to save Elkington, Ngawa would know.
“Okay, the longer we stay here, the more likely it’ll be that we’ll be fighting the whole tribe,” exclaimed Pokere. “We all ready?” He glanced at Ngawa, who nodded his confirmation as he stripped Elkington of any useful gear, ammunition, and identification, his dog-tags placed safely into Ngawa’s pocket. His camera was left in place. Ngawa’s face was wooden and the glance he passed Hami showed barely a flicker of his murderous rage.
Hami thought it ironic that poor Markus was momentarily forgotten, assumed a fatality.
“We all know the run back to the drop off. Dr Chow, you’ll run behind me, Ngawa, you lead and Hami, you take the rear.”
Pokere paused a moment as he carefully considered their options. “Shoot to kill if threatened. They have the advantage. This is their home. We just want to get home. Agreed?” His two remaining squad members gave their affirmation and readied themselves, dropping binoculars and food packs next to Elkington’s body. They would have to travel light and fast. To have no food for a few hours wouldn’t kill them, but to be hindered by excessive equipment could prove fatal.
Ngawa placed a farewell hand on Elkington’s shoulder and then cautiously emerged from their scant shelter. Hami watched as he scanned the scrub to their rear and then forward in the direction of the drop-off. The two visible warriors hooted in glee and shouted insults. Hami could clearly see the tattoos on their faces, sweaty despite the chill. They brandished their primitive weapons as Ngawa moved stealthily from the boulders and then jogged briskly through the ferns in the direction of the drop-off. Pokere and Chow were close behind as Hami followed. The warriors gave a yelp and started in hot pursuit, but stopped immediately they realised Elkington had been left. As he ran, Hami looked back and saw them eagerly drag Elkington’s body from the shelter of the boulders. Their mighty arms rose and fell as they beat his injured head again and again with their war clubs. One of the men, dubbed Max because of his similarity to a famous All Black rugby player, wiped bloody hands over his face and chest and laughed as they retreated. He waved his muscular arms with glee while his fellow warrior rummaged about the body to see what secret delights it might contain.
Hami could have, should have, killed them both right there, but orders were orders, so he again scanned the forest for unseen danger. He may need the rounds later and he wasn’t a murderer. They knew these people were hard, deadly, and violent. Each of the team had taken on this mission with that understanding.
As they ran, more villagers hurried from the hidden settlement. Emboldened by the flight of the strangers, they were instantly aggressive. Rocks were thrown while warriors dashed forward to make threats and posture their courage and ferocity. Two rocks narrowly missed Ngawa while one struck Dr Chow in the upper arm, knocking him sideways. This forced Pokere to fire a burst into the face of the thrower, the young warrior they had dubbed Junior. Until these villagers recognised the killing power and range of their weapons, they would be forced to fire into the enemy at close-range. Rose-like petals bloomed beneath the young man’s right eye and forehead before he collapsed backwards.
They had only fifty or so metres to their drop-off, the Transporter’s Area of Convergence. It was near to the top of the rise at the edge of an extinct caldera where the village was located. Even in the 21st Century, this area had no dwellings and scant vegetation, so had been relatively easy to set up for the project. However, it also had little or no cover and was next to the mountain’s peak while the rest of the mountain sloped away, through dense forest, to the village. Their pursuers began to crow with delight, for their prey headed for a dead-end from which there was no escape. The villagers’ smiles and laughter showed there would be no relief for these strangers.
Hami imagined the fate of Markus and Elkington, his friends and team mates. He had seen many a hangi; the traditional Maori earth oven, prepared for celebration feasts. He knew what was to happen to them. The thought of his comrades being carved up, cooked and eaten horrified and sickened him.
Though the fleeing team was slowed by Dr Chow, whose arm had been injured, they soon stood at the extraction area. The Area of Convergence was a bare, lonely spot that would normally attract no attention. The only indicator was the fibreglass rock in which the data collector; a portable computer with hidden antennae, was located.
Soon the remainder of the village men and most of the women stood or squatted only fifteen metres or so away, making hooting calls as they pulled faces and poked out tongues in traditional threat. They had lost two of their village family and Hami had the impression they were priming themselves for the satisfaction of torturous murders. Some men ran forward a few paces, waving clubs as they cried out in challenge, but for some reason they did not attack. Obvious admiration was directed to Max and his companion who were covered with the blood of Elkington. The two stood, laughing loudly at the four isolated men who crouched at the bare spot near the top of the lonely hill.
A figure walked leisurely from the village. He was a large, powerful man immediately recognisable as Elvis, his muscular bulk and mere frost of grey on his frizzy beard and temples identifying him from afar. He carried something bulky at his side and Ngawa groaned, “Oh Fuck. Is that what I think it is?” Hami watched and, despite his training, felt appalled as Elvis raised what was left of Markus’ head. They knew it was Markus, as his hair was shorter and spikier than Elks. Part of the head had been broken away and Elvis held the gruesome trophy by a braided flax chord that had been looped through holes pierced in the tops of his ears to make carrying easier. The face had been so battered it was barely recognisable.
Elvis bellowed out a threat and laughed at his enemies as he shook the dripping head at the end of his extended arm.
A short burst of fire struck Elvis in the face and the big man collapsed in mid-laughter, to hit the ground with an audible thump. By his side, the trophy bounced, its chord still in his meaty fist. Hami glanced at Pokere, whose face was as if carved from stone, his eyes iron hard. A man of few words and a quiet disposition, he was known for his intelligence and calm, but his smoking gun had spoken for him. He didn’t need any affirmation, though Hami nodded his agreement.
Elvis got what was coming to him.
The villagers surged away and screamed in primal rage. Hair greasy and unkempt, faces tattooed with glaring eyes and mouths agape, to Hami they were a vision from Dante’s Hell. A few threw rocks with terrible accuracy and, though they were barely dodged or blocked, the Travellers knew that it wouldn’t be long before one of them was critically injured. They were forced to fire at a couple of stone-throwers and a man and a woman fell, struck down by weapons they would never understand. The soldiers shot as a matter of necessity. The villagers had no fear, but the death of two more caused the rest to retire, dragging their dead with them.
Hami felt the stirrings of desperation as he crouched to examine Dr Chow’s injury. The academic’s right upper-arm was already swelling, indicating the bone was broken. Hami applied a sling from his field kit. Dr Chow looked surprisingly bright, though pale. The last few metres of flight, running with a broken arm, had obviously been the hardest in his life. He was plainly terrified but was doing his best to hide it, something Hami respected. He patted Dr Chow’s good shoulder in comfort.
“What d’you reckon they’re up to?” muttered Pokere.Dr Chow responded, grateful to finally make a useful contribution. They knew the villagers were watching them closely, puzzled as to why they didn’t flee further. His voice cracked with the strain and he had to cough gently to resume speaking, “I’m guessing that the demise of Elvis took them by surprise. I suspect that he’s been leader of the group for quite some time and the new ‘King’ will need to organise his way of doing things.”
“Hmph. So the King is dead, long live the King hey?” murmured Ngawa and there were wry smiles in response. They were all afraid and affected by the brutal deaths of their two friends and squad members, so the gallows humour was welcome. In a small unit like this, it was impossible not to forge strong bonds of friendship and trust. For a brother in arms to go like that was not right.
But it would be infinitely worse to be caught alive.
Hami glanced to Pokere. “That was a nice shot, by the way.”
“Damn right,” grunted Ngawa. “Thanks for doing that.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s 10am. Jesus Christ! We only have to last for two more hours!”
“So much for recon with no contact,” Pokere muttered and he pulled the camo-hood from his head. His camouflage paint was smudged and streaked as his normally placid face frowned in concentration. “Thank God the data download takes place twice a day. That means we have a chance to get off this hill.”
Hami grunted. The planned emergency extraction option at midday could save them. They wouldn’t last until their normal four o’clock return. No-one said it, but they all knew it. The requirement to be vigilant for so long would be exhausting, despite their training and experience.
Ammunition was now of concern. Twice they were forced to blast a few rounds over the heads of stone throwing warriors, causing the attackers to duck behind whatever cover was available. It seemed that the death of Elvis reminded them that these strangers could kill a lot more effectively than originally thought.
The hours passed slowly as the misty cloud thinned to have the dreary drizzle cease. Only minutes remained. At midday, the Transporter would be activated to admit a soldier from their squad who would collect the data store that would be immediately replaced with a new unit. Today, the activation would take Dr Chow and one of the soldiers, as the configuration could only accommodate two at a time.
They had drawn lots. Despite Ngawa’s objections, he would accompany Dr Chow home.
They knew that those left behind would be attacked. The soldiers watched as more of the villagers wandered up the hill, led by the blood-smeared Max. “Looks like our friend Max is the new chief,” observed Ngawa. The warrior looked grimly satisfied and he carried a pale, bone war-club in his left hand and the battered head of Markus in his right. He looked to the group huddled on the open ground and bellowed a long howl of mirthless laughter while he held the head aloft, daring them to strike him down.
Hami couldn’t help but notice he was a good deal further away than Elvis had been but, unknown to Max, was still close enough to kill if they opted to do so.
“Get into the Area of Convergence,” ordered Pokere who glanced quickly at his watch. “It’s due to Transport in a moment. Let’s hope they’re not bloody late.”
Ngawa helped Dr Chow back the few steps to the bare area which had heralded their arrival to this astonishingly beautiful and dangerous place. The steep, exposed drop behind them made it impossible for the villagers to attack from that direction, but Dr Chow and Ngawa were plainly visible to the gathering hostiles. Ngawa handed his squad-mates his remaining ammo clips and then slapped Pokere and Hami each on the shoulder as they faced their antagonists over raised weapons. He stepped back, his weapon also ready. “Only five rounds left,” he mused.
Hami watched as Max raised the head again to crow his challenge. “See you in a sec,” called Pokere with a smile.
And then they were gone.
I hope this part of Traveller Probo does not give too much away.
in the Traveller Universe created in my three books: Traveller Inceptio, Traveller Probo and then Traveller Manifesto, the world lobbies to use the Transporter for various politically motivated research journeys into the past. they don’t always fare well.
I look forward to having Traveller Probo published and included into the Traveller series.