The transport settled down where wagon tracks ended in front of a large cave entrance. They were in the foothills of the mountains, above the valley cutting through the peaks the river made on its way to the sea.
Outside the cave a group of miners stood, shifting weight on their feet awkwardly.
Inside the transport, Curly stared at the men through the holoscreen. He turned to the ensign in the seat next to him.
“Something doesn’t look right, ma’am.”
Kilmeade said, “Why do you say that, Curly?”
He nodded at the men in the holoscreen and said, “They’re nervous.”
She shrugged. “Their friend got hurt.”
He nodded. “They should be showing anxiety, worried for his safety. They’re not. They’re nervous. I smell a trap.”
Kilmeade looked back at the screen and tried to see the situation through the older sailor’s eyes. She was young, fresh out of the Academy at 16 years old. One thing her instructors had drilled into her cohort was the need to trust the experience of people who have been around a while, even if they ranked below you.
“More than one ship has been lost due to the arrogance of her officers.”
The words of Dr. Colgate, one of those instructors, rippled through her memory as she recalled the lecture touching on this issue. It had been drilled into the future officers repeatedly. Take charge, but listen to what those you are leading are saying to you.
“Okay, Curly. Stay here with the ship. Don’t let anybody on it, of course. Keep Vargas onboard with you.”
She stood and addressed the others.
“The rest of you, arm up and be on guard. If we’re stepping into a trap, we want to go down with guns blazing. At the same time, don’t shoot anybody accidentally or unprovoked.”
Her statements were met with a chorus of “Yes, ma’am!”
She turned back to Curly and said, “Can you bring us up and turn us around? I want to walk out facing the cave entrance with the transport behind us so nobody can snipe us at a distance.”
The look on his face told her he thought that was a good idea.
He pulled up gently on the stick and the transport levitated a meter into the air, then he swiveled it so the door faced the cave. He landed again, the rails lightly bumping the ground.
When the door to the transport opened, the men in front of the cave looked surprised to see a young girl stepping out in a blue Navy uniform carrying a rifle. She looked both ways, scanning the mountainside, then nodded. Five more sailors followed out behind her, all armed.
She said, “Where is the injured man?”
One of the miners said, “Uh, he’s several meters inside the cave. If you all would follow me, I’ll bring you to him.”
Kilmeade nodded. She pointed at one of the sailors and said, “Yoo.”
The man snapped to attention.
“Stay out here and keep an eye out. The rest of you, follow me.”
She touched the implant under her ear and said, “We got neural net?”
From inside the transport, Curly said, “We do out here, thanks to the transport. I don’t know how far into that hole you can go before you lose it.”
Kilmeade said, “Stay on the line. Let’s burn the juice anyway, I think it’s worth it.”
She nodded to the three men in front of the cave and said, “Lead on.”
One of them gulped, but together they walked inside the yawning entrance. Kilmeade and the others followed.
The sailor named Yoo found himself alone, everybody else either in the cave or in the transport. He pulled out his blaster and held it with both hands, pointed up at an angle.
Before him, the mountainside stretched upward. At this height there was little vegetation, and he could see the timberline a few meters above, where nothing seemed to grow. The gray and brown rocks made for a pretty sight, though, stretching up to a bright blue sky. Something white further up caught his eye.
He squinted, wishing he had a scope on his gun, but it was only a pistol. He watched as the lump of white moved quickly. Then it . . . jumped from one outcrop of rocks to another.
“Huh. Mountain goat. Is there anything to eat up that high? Or is it just wandering around up there?”
No one replied to his query. He stood watching it for a couple minutes. It jumped again, and wandered off toward the left.
Yoo shielded his eyes with his hand and tried to follow the goat’s trek. It marched steadily toward the left. Yoo took a step sideways, then another, trying to keep the goat in sight.
The slug hit him in the back of the head, throwing him forward.
To the transport’s far left, 50 meters up, two miners smiled at one another. One man was older, the other one younger.
“That was a phenomenal shot, Mr. Hix.”
“I tell ya, Darrius, we got the best of both worlds here. You see, back in America’s early days you had all these German immigrants who knew a thing or two about gunsmithing. They knew that if you rifled the barrel of a musket, you could add spin to a ball and greatly increase its range and accuracy. They designed what became known as Pennsylvania Rifles, although some folks called them Kentucky Rifles.
“Anyhow, these things were just devastating in the American Revolution. They could pick off Redcoats with ease several meters away. This was back when all the guns were produced by hand, before Eli Whitney finished with his cotton gin and started mass producing muskets on an assembly line.
“Then a Frenchman designed the Minni Ball. He realized that a slug more cone-shaped did better flying through the air. It was widely adopted by the American Civil War. So, we got the best of 18th century arms here, and 19th century ammunition. Combine that with a modern electronic scope . . . and we can handle the Navy.”
Darrius nodded, smiling. He was not surprised by the lecture, but he knew that would be part of sitting up here with the older man, waiting to ambush the sailors.
He said, “I can’t wait to tell Mr. Darcy you got one.”
Hix smiled and said, “If they come out of there, we’ll get some more. Hand me that rifle and get to reloading this one.”