I stared inattentively out of the front viewport of the buzzing transport. A slow, encroaching fog clung tight to the damp forest around us; however, our angled lights helped reveal the well-trodden path before us. Ever since we had crossed over from the dry flatlands into the swampish forests of Coalwood, I had felt a nagging at the fore of my thoughts and a dead weight at the center of my chest.
Movement out of the corner of my eye caught my attention – a hand from the back seat. I turned my head and my eyes onto the gloved hand, the knuckles of which were densly reinforced – in it’s grip, a small package, flipped open with thin edible strips lining the inside. My gaze trailed up to the man offering, his form likewise covered, from neck to toe, in a reinforced uniform.
In my hesitation, he flashed a gentle grin, the comfort of the gesture slightly marred by grafted replacement of his right cheek which remained motionless. I gave a scrutinizing glance back to his offer and he responded with a chuckle and rolled his eyes.
“It’s just a little pick-me-up we use – B12’s, amino acids – ” He moved to tap the shoulder of the driver of our transport, the Corporal, who reached a hand over his shoulder to take one of the clear wrapped strips. The last of our unit, sitting directly behind me, reached out her hand as well and sat back silently.
My squadmate, Davenstraite, continued, “it’ll keep you alert. If we run into any trouble, a little boost goes a long way; besides,” he grinned and chewed on his own helping of the energy supplement, “we leave the recreational stuff at home.”
I caught the glare and near silent sigh from the Corporal. “There won’t be any trouble,” wether he was simply attempting to console me, he seemed sure of that fact. “We’re just here following a rumour.”
“Trust me,” from the woman behind me, “if they’d expected any real trouble they’d’ve sent a Conveyor, not a sim-trained novitiate and chuckle-fuck over here.”
I saw the two glare at one another but the Corporal’s tone cut through the hostility.
“Enough! ETA in five. Leighfield – the rookie’s with you; ask around, but I don’t want you provoking them. We aren’t here to accuse them of anything, got it?” He cast an eye over his shoulder and Leighfield nodded in response, pulling her helmet over her head.
“I hear ya.” She practically grumbled.
The next few moments passed in silence aside from the clatter and strapping of equipment backed by the engines gentle purr. We slowed to a stop just outside the limits of the small town which was surrounded by a crudely crafted wall and a moat of sorts. A pair of search lights aimed down from the walls over the nearby land but nobody appeared atop the walls to greet us.
Our craft lowered to the ground and a depreciating hiss followed the ebbing engines and opening doors. We piled out with our compact rifles in hand. An eerie silence hung in the air as if all motile life had abandoned the area.
I stood, unmoving, my boots slowly sinking into the forest bog. My mind raced for an idea of what could cause a deathly quiet like that.
“Order’s withstanding, kid. On me. Now.” Leighfield’s sharp tone came muffled through her helmet.
What served as the gate into the town hung wide open in perfect condition with no signs of a struggle. The town inside, albiet a far stretch from the sterile sectors within Imperial jurisdiction, was likewise undamaged with no sign of any assault that may have been. The houses, propped and stilts and linked by elevated walk ways, appeared abandoned, doors hanging open and generators long since left unrun.
“Bandits would’ve at least left bodies…” Davenstraite’s near whisper picked up on our squad comm.
Leighfield and I had entered one of the quaint single story homes. The hut had been left mostly intact but stripped bare of essentials such as clothing or food. I knelt down and fished out a carefully crafted leather jounral from beneath a toppled over stool – it had seen little wear and, I imagined, was previously well-kept and guarded. A small lock held the cover taut.
“Got something?” Leighfields footsteps slowed behind me and she leaned over my shoulder to see what I had found.
I showed and handed the journal over, she gave it a once over before unceremoniously prying it open and completely tearing the lock from the leather. She flipped to the last page, skimmed, then flipped to the page prior before reading the passage aloud over the comm.
“Pa says she weren’t like any Pilgrim he’d ever met. He ain’t like her much and I could tell a bunch of the others around didn’t either. He didn’t trust her, he said. Says she was the reason all those folks were gone missing. But that didn’t make no sense. She says she was going to help us find them. I don’t know. She’s always been nice to me and teaches me how to stand up for myself. She even told me her real name before she was a Pilgrim. She lets me call her Kibby.”
“That fog is still hanging in the air. The sun ain’t been able to shine through it and the birds stopped chirpin some time back. Pa says its cuz of Kibby and called her a witch. I told him he was full of it. He ain’t like that. He gave me a thrashing and grounded me and forbade me from speaking to Kibby or going to the forest. He tried to get me to tell him about her cottage in the forest so that he in the rest of the big mouths of the town could have a word with her. I ain’t tell him nothing. I wasn’t going to betray my friend. I wasn’t going to let them suppress her.”
“I don’t believe it. I spoke with Kibby today! Pa woke me this morning and told me I had a guest and there she was sitting in our living room. She told me that he had gone to her cottage and they had come to an understanding. Many of the others seemed pleased with her as well. Pa and I are leaving soon to visit her and celebrate her acceptance into community so I’ll leave this off here and be back to jot down all the fun!”
“None of it is date.” Leighfield ended.
The Corporal’s voice came through next, his tone distant from his usual, “bring that journal to me, Specialist. It could be useful for the Empire.”
Daily Prompt: Bewildered
Word of the Day: lenity