The journey to the edge of the park was as uneventful as Sarge could have hoped for. The column, traveling along the white concrete gutter area, next to the looming wall of the curb, was sheltered from prying eyes as much as possible. The solid curb on one side, and the gently sloping black tar of the massive roadway on the other, provided a basic level of cover for the wary troops.
Though traveling on the smooth asphalt of the roadway would have been faster, lacking, as it did, the calf-high culverts bisecting the otherwise straight path of the gutter, its subtle convex curve would have exposed the entire column to enemy fire from the elevated sidewalks on both sides of the roadway. It was a hard lesson, learned early on by several unlucky plastic commanders in the new world.
Sarge had ordered the Blue motorbike scouts to screen the advancing force, and they'd sped up the length of the column, fanning out as they ranged ahead of the leading elements. Two had taken to the sidewalks on each side, while the remaining six covered the breadth of the road in front. Sarge's jeep radio crackled with their intermittent reports. All clear ahead. No signs of ambush.
The helicopter, too, called down reports to the Green leader, at one point peeling off from above the column to scare away a large, inquisitive squirrel. Slate's Gray halftracks brought up the rear of the force. Their machine guns swiveled slowly back-and-forth, watching the area behind the column for any sign of pursuit or attack. There was none.
The going was slow in the drainage gutter, but without encountering any resistance or attacks on the column, they reached the edge of the park by mid-day. Sarge hadn't expected any attacks, but the ease of the journey still unsettled him. He felt tense, like he was just waiting for the hammer to fall. From the nervous look on Ester's face, and the brittle, clipped status reports on the radio, Sarge knew the same tension was telling on his men. Whatever had happened to the earlier expeditions, he wanted to get it over with soon. This interminable waiting was worse than whatever might attack them.
But, of course, all the previous expeditions had made it this far without incident, too. Both the helicopter flights, and the men in the Willys jeep patrol had been in full radio contact up to the edge of the park, and for some unknown distance within it. It wasn't until they entered that they had disappeared, never to be heard from again.
The edge of the park was a forbidding, overgrown mess of thick grass and wild plants, gone to seed in their neglect. Midway along its length a wide opening yawned, a break in the jungle-like undergrowth that had once been a well-maintained bike path. Towering dandelions and other weeds now grew in patches through its cracked pavement. It was to be the expedition's highway through the park.
Sarge ordered the column to make camp on the sidewalk where the bike path started. He wanted a full day's worth of sunlight for their journey through the park. With any luck they'd be able to push through the entire area tomorrow and not have to spend a single night among the stifling overgrowth.
Tanks and trucks arranged themselves to form a protective perimeter around the campsite, and plastic troops began pitching tents, building fires, and stacking weapons. Ester saw to the posting of sentries, some along the lip of the sidewalk, others right up against the foliage of the park. Sarge watched the preparations from beside his command jeep until, satisfied by the purposeful flurry of activity, he shouldered his rifle and marched off to find the troop of Blue scouts.
They were mustered on the edge of the camp nearest the bike path, motorcycles arranged neatly beside the hulking shelter of a Green tank. The tank's commander, seeing Sarge approach, saluted him crisply from inside the cupola atop the turret. The Blues also saluted, but with less élan . They were performing maintenance on their shining Blue motorcycles, he saw, cleaning and oiling parts and refilling gasoline tanks from the supplies aboard a nearby Green truck.
Their commanding officer, Capitaine Émil Bouchard (Sarge pronounced it "Booshard"), stood up reluctantly, wiping his blue hands with a dirty rag before saluting Sarge.
"At ease, Capitaine ," Sarge nodded, overlooking the minor breach in etiquette, "How soon can you and your men be ready for a patrol?"
"Wee air ahlwaise reahdy Monsieur Prezident," came the haughty reply.
Sarge bit back a withering response. In a coalition army like this one it didn't pay to antagonize your allies. He'd learned that the hard way when founding the Confederation, after several houses threatened to pull out over what they saw as his draconian enforcement of Green military order across all the contingents in the Confederation Army. He'd never been one for tact, but he'd learned. A little.
"Good," he growled, "Then mount up. I have a mission for you."
After he gave them their orders, the Blue scout troop sped noisily out a gap in the camp perimeter, cut left, and tore down the old bike path. Sarge waited while the sound of their engines faded, then, walking back to his parked jeep, grabbed the radio and ordered the Green helicopter on standby, to provide some low altitude air cover if the Blues needed it.
He switched the radio off and turned to see Gunnery Sergeant Slate standing behind him. The Gray was silent as a shadow. No telling how long he'd been waiting there. The early evening sunlight caught the edges of the scars on his face, casting them in dark, alternating ribbons, almost like tiger stripes.
"Where're we marching tomorrow," he paused, "Sir."
Sarge cocked his head, "You know that Slate; through the park."
"No, sir. Where're the Fists marching tomorrow?"
"With the rest—" understanding dawned on Sarge, "Oh. At the rear of the column again, Gunnery Sergeant," he raised an eyebrow, "Unless there are any objections?"
"Rear's fine," Slate saluted and Sarge nodded to dismiss him, returning the salute. The Gray stalked off back to his side of the encampment.
Sarge shook his head. The taciturn Gray was a mystery to him. Slate's face betrayed nothing of his thoughts. His words betrayed less.
"Sir." Ester coughed beside him, "Radio report from Bouchard, I think you'll want to hear this."
Sarge took the proffered radio from Corporal Ester's hand, "Thank you Corporal. This is Hawk. Report."
The radio crackled as the Blue commander replied, " Monsieur le Prezident, we 'ave found somezing."
"Our missing patrols?"
"Not exactly. Pehr'eps you should see eet for yourzelf."
It was a short helicopter ride to the Blues' position, marked by the scouts from the ground with a column of blue smoke. The smoke curled in dark whorls in the downwash from the 'copter's blades as it descended, landing lightly on a stretch of open pavement next to a break in the flora of the park.
Sarge hopped out, unslinging his rifle from his back and ducking his head to avoid the still spinning rotors. Two Green troopers, a bodyguard detail assigned by Ester, dropped down behind him, rifles also at the ready. Three Blues awaited them at the edge of the bike path's black pavement; what was left of the signaling smoke swirled about them.
"Theez way, Monsieur Prezident," Bouchard shouted over the sound of the helicopter, beckoning with his arm into a clear break in the towering grass and weeds behind him.
The light was starting to fade as the six plastic soldiers picked their way through the vegetation, but even so Sarge could see they were moving along a definite path. It was rough, to be sure, but tire tracks showed in the dirt, and the grass and thick dandelion stalks had all been flattened down along the route, as if something big had barreled through them. Sarge bent down; the tracks were too large to have been made by Bouchard's men with their bikes. And too old.
"Eet eez through 'ere," the Capitaine held aside some broken stalks of grass for Sarge, who walked past him and emerged into a little clearing.
The rest of the Blue scout troop was here, their motorbikes arrayed around the clearing with the troopers themselves standing watch behind them, rifles pointed outward into the thick, dark grass. But what stopped Sarge's plastic heart cold was the Willys jeep sitting unmoving in the center of the clearing. Even in the dusk light he could tell it was Green.
He approached it warily, as if afraid it might bite him. With a sinking feeling he read the vehicle's serial number on the hood. It was one of the two from the earlier expedition he'd ordered to link up with Nova Greenia. And in its side there were bullet holes.
"Ve 'ave found no sign of zee passengers," Bouchard said from behind Sarge, answering his question even before he asked it, "Or off zee ozzair jeep," he added.
Damn , thought Sarge. Finding the lost jeep like this created more questions than it answered. Where had his men gone, and who had they been running from?
He felt a prickling on the back of his neck. Was some unknown enemy even now watching them from the thick cover of the dark grass? He gripped his rifle tighter.
Night was falling fast now, and Sarge was suddenly acutely aware of their vulnerable position, far ahead of the expedition's campsite and able to easily be cut off and surrounded in the jungle-like foliage. He made a snap decision.
"We can't learn anything else here tonight. Back to camp at the double!"
"You 'ehrd zee Prezident, alons-y !" Repeated the Blue capitaine , making a circling motion with his hand.
The sound of ten motorcycle engines cut through the still evening air, and half the scout troop zoomed off, bumping down the rough path towards the blacktop and camp. The other half waited, their engines idling, as Sarge and his two bodyguards exited the clearing. Something glinted on the ground in the reflected light of one of their headlamps. Frowning, Sarge stopped to pick it up.
It was plastic, from the feel of it, but of a silver color he'd never seen before. He turned it over in his hands. The object was a roughly rectangular shape, almost like a radio, though somehow sleeker-looking, and smaller. At one end it tapered to a rounded point, and at the wider end, its base, Sarge traced a jagged break, like the object had been a part of something larger and been wrenched off.
Or shot off , Sarge thought, remembering the bullet holes in the Willys jeep. It looked alien, but also strangely familiar; not like anything the Orange Empire or the Galactic Alliance had ever used. He passed it to one of his bodyguards as he resumed his walk back to the waiting helicopter.
"Hold on to this until we get back to camp, son."
Maybe someone there can tell me what the hell it is.