Astronomicon 1: The Beginning

Chapter 13 - Subterfuge

Chris was woken in the early hours by a scuffling sound within the tent. It stopped before he was fully awake and he could not even be sure that he had actually heard it. He slowly opened his eyes and listened, but there was no sound other than Fletcher’s quiet snoring, breathing noises and a faint hum from the heater.

He remained motionless for a moment, not even breathing, straining to hear some trace of the sound he had heard before, but he could not. As his eyes became accustomed to the darkness he slowly raised his head and looked around the cramped interior of the tent.

There was no sign of movement but he remained suspicious. He sat up and rubbed his eyes with a gloved hand. The material felt abrasively coarse and unpleasantly cold on his face. Everything looked strange in the pulsating, dim red glow. Kate still lay on her side, curled up like a small child. Fletcher was stretched out on his back, his large chest heaving slowly as he snored. Both Amanda and Melissa had their backs to him but appeared to also be fast asleep. Lucy also lay on her side but facing him, apparently still unconscious.

He was about to settle down and doze off again when it dawned on him that the fronts of her two HEPOs had both been fully unzipped. She could not have done that if she were still unconscious. He reached across and shook her shoulder, to see if he could wake her, but there was no response.

The unzipped HEPO was virtually proof that one of their number was not working with the same aims as the rest of the group. His mind drifted back to the warning he had received before going into cryonic suspension. It seemed that the saboteur had survived and was amongst their little group. This could not go on, he knew he had to do something about it, but how?

He glanced quickly around the inside of the tent and then quietly refastened Lucy’s two zips and pulled the hood tighter around her pale face. For now, he had saved her but how could he ensure not just her safety but the safety of the whole group? It would not be practical for them to take turns watching over each other as to ensure the saboteur was kept from further opportunities they would have to keep watch in pairs. That was hardly realistic with only six people left in the group, especially when no-one was really getting enough sleep anyway.

He suddenly remembered something that he had not thought about since they had set off from the Elysian. He sat up again and unzipped the carrying pouch on Lucy’s HEPO. Positioned at the front, just above the waist belt, it was a large, zip-topped pocket for storing small items within the three outer layers of the HEPO. He checked again that nobody was watching him and then tentatively reached into the pouch and closed his fingers around the pistol he had given her the day before they set off.

He did not suspect her of being the saboteur, especially as she was still unconscious, but he could not risk someone else stealing the weapon from her. Soon the gun was zipped safely into his pouch with the other one. Hopefully, nobody else even knew about the existence of the two pistols.

Somehow, he had to establish the identity of the saboteur and put an end to the deaths. How difficult could it be? He only had five possible suspects and one of those had nearly been a victim. He set about reliving the previous couple of days in his mind, trying to find some clue as to the identity of the traitor. After a couple of minutes, sleep crept up on him once again.

 

- - -

 

Everyone else was already awake when he woke in the morning, including Lucy, much to his surprise.

“When did you come around?” he asked, shaking off the chill and accepting the food sachet that Fletcher was offering.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I just sort of woke up naturally about a quarter of an hour ago. One minute I was swinging on a rope, the next I'm waking up in the tent and everything hurts.”

“How’s your head?”

“Sore, and my neck is stiff, but I’m all right otherwise, I think,” she replied.

“Let’s have a look at it again.”

“I’ve already checked it,” announced Melissa. “It seems to be healing quite well. She’s been catching up on her rations, stuffing her face, so her appetite seems to be quite healthy.”

“Well, I’m hungry. I missed two rations of food yesterday,” defended Lucy.

 

After breakfast, they packed up the tent once more and continued their trek across the gravel. The dust storm was still exactly where it had been the day before, and now Chris was convinced that it must be artificial. He could not even guess at a sensible reason for it but it was too unlikely for it to be a natural phenomenon. He considered that it might be a form of camouflage for something at its centre, but what good is camouflage that sticks out for kilometres around, even if it does effectively obscure from sight whatever was lurking at the centre?

“Is it me or is it a little warmer today?” asked Kate, of no-one in particular.

“I reckon it’s been getting warmer as we get nearer that dust cloud,” replied Fletcher.

“Perhaps it’s some volcanic feature,” suggested Melissa. “Though I can’t think what would have these effects.”

“Well there’s something odd going on,” said Lucy. “It should be getting colder as we go farther north.”

“It’s not just warmer, smell the air,” said Chris.

“It smells funny,” said Kate.

“It smells good,” said Lucy.

“I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it good, but it certainly smells different. This dust storm is definitely not a weather phenomenon,” replied Chris.



Astronomicon

Edited: 01.12.2018

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