Though the grasses blowing in the wind seemed to imply that the land ahead was soft and smooth, the Jeeps bounced fiercely as they rolled up the long, gradual slope. Aging and in mixed states of repair, the three vehicles were groaning at the punishment – an irritant for their passengers, and a potential tactical liability.
But tactical liabilities were not a source of any great anxiety for the men carried by each of the small, open-top American trucks. Danger was all they lived anymore – so much danger that they were entirely numb to it.
Captain James Quinn sat in the passenger seat of the lead Jeep, his Marlin .30-30 lever gun in hand but held away from his body so that his arms could absorb the knocks and jumps communicated from the land through the chassis. He had one round in the rifle’s chamber, and the hammer was back – a dangerous way to drive, but again, danger didn’t matter. Being able to shoot with absolutely no notice was much more important, especially considering the noise.
“Slow us down, Gavin,” the Captain glanced at his driver briefly as the crest of the ridge approached, and without acknowledging verbally, the man complied.
All the Jeeps slowed, and then stopped just short of the crest of the ridge. Quinn needed only a second to swing his legs out through his vehicle’s open side, and to drop his boots onto some of the bumps in the grass that had made the ride so uneasy. He managed not to roll his ankle – an instinct for keeping good footing was something else that came with ample experience on the grasslands of the new world.
Without so much as an acceleration in heart rate, the veteran of the Hubrin War advanced towards the ridge’s crest, his Marlin coming to his shoulder as he listened carefully for snarls, hisses, or any other sounds of impending attack.
The wind was in his favor; the sea was forty miles behind his back, and a strong breeze was hitting his face, so it wasn’t likely that he’d be detected by scent. But his quarry didn’t just rely on their sense of smell…
Cautiously, the Captain came close enough to the crest to look over. With a few more careful steps, he exposed his head and shoulders to anyone who might have been watching for him from the other side… but, alas, there was no one. Instead, the land fell away into a slightly steeper slope that opened out into a wide valley. A river meandered its way through the bottom – a good watering hole that in past years had even possessed the new world version of fish.
Lately, the fish had disappeared, but there was always a chance that the water would be in use. Not today.
“We’re clear,” Quinn turned away from the ridge, lowering his Marlin so that its muzzle was safely pointed towards the ground.
With his hail, two passengers hopped out of the other Jeeps and moved around to the back of Quinn’s truck. A gas cylinder awaited them – massive and heavy – so together, both men carefully hoisted it out. Like everything else about the drive, this was familiar work. Quinn glanced to his left, and the shine of another, long-expended gas cylinder caught his eye in the sunlight. They’d been using this place for years, and it never failed them – just close enough to their coastal base, without being so far inland as to allow them to be cut off from home.
As the two men came forward with the cylinder, Quinn nodded to the right, “Find a spot.”
He didn’t need to tell them what spot, or how to set up – they were already eying the ground, choosing the perfect position. Wearing filthy tan safari clothes, broad hats as if they were Boers, and carrying immaculately-kept Enfields, they were past-middle-age veterans of the Hubrin War, just like Quinn.
This wasn’t work for young men. It wasn’t work for anyone with hope left in life.
Because as they pushed grass and debris aside so that they could plant one end of the cylinder into the dirt, Quinn’s toe kicked into the side of one of the bumps beneath his feet. Without thinking, he crouched down and set the fingers of his free hand around it, then lifted.
Holding it up into the bright sunlight, and turning it around in his hand as though it was a baseball, the Captain felt nothing. Eventually, he turned it so that he could look straight into what had once been eyes – eyes of a savage, before the bullet, represented by the third hole in the skull’s cranium – had taken away its life.
Beneath the grass for miles in every direction, there were piles and piles of bones – more than a decade’s worth of slaughter. The greatest bulk of the killing had been done in the early years, when men had been more plentiful, and systems hadn’t been as well-designed. But whether by machine gun then, or technology now, Quinn’s mission remained the same: Britain and the United States needed a supply of savage children, to turn into Champions. Only men who had seen the worst of savage destruction in 1919 and 1920 were fit to retrieve those babies, and they remained on the new world’s untamed second continent, with what savages were left.
Theirs was a dying hunt – the hordes of two decades prior were disappearing, just as the buffalo once had – but by the time they were gone, Champions would be having babies of their own. Soon, Quinn and his men could finish their work…
Though what they did afterward, he had no idea. He was strongly considering putting the muzzle of his Marlin rifle – the gun that had saved him in Farfield City – into his own mouth, and pulling the trigger.
Once the job was done.
“Sir, we’re ready,” one of the men who’d set the cylinder appeared beside Quinn, and prying his thoughts away from that hopeful future, the Captain looked back towards the river.
Winding up, he lobbed the skull towards the valley, then turned away before it clattered into more bones and grass far below.
“Proceed,” he said, and his haggard-looking men obeyed.
Returning to his Jeep and climbing in, Quinn waited until just one man remained with the cylinder, then nodded. That man turned the valve before hurrying away – leaving a hissing sound in his wake. Once he rejoined his truck, all three vehicles turned around and rolled down the slope. The wind would carry some of the gas after them, but when it inevitably shifted, it would hold the scent in the valley. When the savages came close to their water, the trap would be set.
Another cycle – maybe the last one. Quinn could only hope…
The radio man sitting in the seat behind the Captain interrupted his musing, and as the Jeep bounced to the bottom of the slope and started on the track back towards base, Quinn looked over his shoulder, “Harry?”
“Sir, I just called in our update… Max says they got a message from Fort Waller, by way of New World City. We’re going to have guests.”
For the first time on the long, dangerous drive, Quinn abruptly felt his heart rate climb, “What?”
“Yes sir,” the operator confirmed, sounding anxious as well. “Lady Alex Smith and a party are on the continent for war games. And they want to come visit.”
“When?” the surprise was more evident in Quinn’s tone than he’d have liked… not that it mattered, with these men.
“Tomorrow,” came the reply. “They come out with the transport tomorrow.”
Quinn’s chin sunk as he listened to those words. At once he wondered why they were coming, and whether he should drive back to the cylinder and stop its gas. Such short notice… what could bring the whitecoat here, and could operations continue while they were present?
They were questions that James Quinn didn’t know if he could answer, so he fell silent and let the Jeeps carry him back to his base. Behind him, the cylinder continued to spray its contents into the air, promising doom for many savages on the untamed continent of the new world.
And, perhaps, some of the Champions too…