Outside the Cyrstal [ Chapter 1 ]

The monitoring relays alerted us that the caravan never arrived at the midway outpost. Michale went missing the same day the caravan left so it was almost certain he left on it.

Since I worked in the Operations Center, I was privy to the fact that he wasn’t registered on the journey. I was also standing there when the drone’s video was displayed on the central screen. The wreckage was a complete mess. It looked as though a giant toddler had come along and kicked over half the lead haulers, some were thrown off the road completely. It looked like most of the passenger haulers were intact. However, judging by the bones surrounding the wreckage there were very few, if any survivors.

The drones dropped down and started going through the wreckage. Skeletons were sitting in the passenger chairs, weighed down by fleshy legs where the moonlight hadn’t touched. Most disturbingly was seeing the feet tied to the chairs. These people were murdered. I looked away and looked around the room. Tears were streaking down a lot faces. I felt numb. I knew my brother was on that caravan somewhere. I knew he was still alive, somehow.

I turned my eyes backed to the screen. It was checking out cargo containers now. They were all empty, which would confirm our suspicion that pirates had done this. Our town’s supplies were rarely attacked, and this was the first time I’d heard of them wiping out an entire caravan and killing everyone. Usually they just take some of the cargo and everyone lives to tell the story about the pirates. It made no sense, why would they kill everyone?

There was blood in one of the empty containers. I called it out to the room and the drone’s camera focused on the serial number. My shaking fingers flew across my terminal while I looked it up. Was Michale on this container? Did he sneak aboard? It was a milk shipment. The hauler had recorded a nearly 100kg difference between when it was loaded up with milk and when it was set on the hauler. That was within tolerances so there was no alert, and also about the weight of my brother. If he’d had some supplies with him, then this was him. I was sure of it.

The drone had already moved on to the next container. There’d be a DART out to recover what could be recovered and investigate things more closely. I wondered to myself if I could somehow get on that team. I wasn’t trained for it, I just wanted to know for sure if it was my brother on that cargo container.

I heard footsteps coming towards my station, I looked up and saw it was Captain Denton. I waved and she came to a stop by me. She whispered, “So, I heard your brother might be on this caravan somewhere?”

“Yes ma’am, it’s possible. Either that, or he’s in the town somewhere,” I said a little louder than I meant to. How did she know? I hadn’t reported it yet. Some people glanced over, obviously listening at this point.

“I’d like for you to go on the DART and make sure,” I’m sure my face showed the surprise, but she continued, “He seemed to have purchased an abnormal amount of food the morning he disappeared. We’re pretty sure he’s not in town anymore. We want you to see if you can identify any of his remains.”

I nodded. The blood in the milk container played across my mind. I nodded sadly, “Yes ma’am. I think I can do that.”

“Thank you Jason. We’ll see you in the ready room at six hundred,” and with that, she turned and walked away.

That night, Mother and I ate in silence. I worked up the courage to tell her that I was sure he was on the caravan. That I was leaving in the morning with the recovery team. That I’d find out if he was still alive or not. But I couldn’t because she got up and left. Michale was gone.

I sat at the table staring at our barely touched food. After what felt like hours, I stood up, cleaned the table, and did the dishes. It required no thought, which was a welcome relief from the thoughts that tumbled through my mind.

I prepared to leave in the morning. I packed a spare set of clothing, some binoculars Michale got me for my birthday a couple years ago, and a few snacks from the kitchen. After everything was packed, I laid down to go to sleep. There was no preparing me for tomorrow. My mind raced late into the night before I fell asleep from exhaustion.

After what felt like a few minutes of deep, nightmare filled sleep, I woke up to my alarm invading my thoughts. I dressed, grabbed my pack and quietly left the house. The moon was just setting. I could hear the static of the Cyrstal protecting me from the light, filtering out the deadly rays that destroy living flesh.

I was one of the last people to come into the ready room. A few people looked at me and gave me a nod, some of them looked confused but accepting. I sat down in the back row. A couple more people came into the room and sat down before Captain Denton came into the room to stand at the front.

She looked at each of us, doing a mental roster check before she spoke, “Two nights ago, caravan Echo Six left our town with exports and passengers, heading towards Canton. They were scheduled to arrive at the midway outpost long before nightfall to refuel and stay within the cyrstal protection field there.

“We knew something went wrong when the monitoring relays didn’t report their arrival. We manually checked the cameras for several hours at the outpost just to make sure the relays weren’t damaged or malfunctioned. To make matters more interesting, it appears there was a stow away aboard on of the shipping containers. We have reason to believe it was Jason’s younger brother.”

She nodded in my general direction and a few people turned to look at me, now understanding what I was there for. She continued, “Jason will accompany you to help identify him should there be anything to identify.” I took a deep breath as I realized that yes, Michale might be dead. I didn’t think so, but rationally, that was still a possibility.

Caption Denton’s tone changed and I remembered she was still talking, “This is the worst pirate attack in our region’s history. We don’t know anything about them. We don’t know why they would kill for these supplies. Bravo team, I want you to split off when you arrive and see if you can follow their tracks. Alpha team, take Jason through the wreckage and collect any remains. We need to clear the road by nightfall because a caravan is coming back through tomorrow. Tonight is a dark night, so you’ll have maneuverability until oh’ three hundred. That means you need to rendezvous and return by midnight.

“Bravo team, if you happen to find their camp. It’s likely they have their own cyrstal. Tag their equipment with GPS if possible, but proceed only if there’s opportunity. Do not reveal yourself. Once the sun sets, radio communication should be possible. Please report in as soon as possible. We already have drones out there, but they’ve yet to find any living thing within a couple miles.

“The caravan is nearly 10 miles away from here and we’ve gotten your vehicles ready to go. Take half an hour to get some grub and I’ll meet you there.

The room jumped into motion. I wasn’t hungry so I stopped one of the guys heading by me to the door and asked him where the vehicles were. “The West Gate,” he answered matter-of-factly, and continued out the door. His name tag said Jones.

I was the last one out the door, behind Caption Denton. She slowed to walk beside me, “Jason. I hope you find your brother.” I opened the door to the outside, which was noticeably brighter as the sun was rising. I answered back to her, “Me too ma’am, me too…”

We both walked out the door and walked to the West Gate in silence.