Danald shoved a packet of food into his bag as he headed out. Leesa was a nice girl, she made sure he and their other sister Judeth had enough to eat, even if it meant stealing it from the OWON Council kitchens. Of course, being chief cook there made that a bit easier, but it tickled his fancy to know that his lunch was the exact same thing the Councilmembers had eaten. Of course, that also meant he ran the same risks of poison, but he trusted Leesa not to let anything like that into her kitchen.
He had taken a job to run a scouting patrol this morning, one of the many simple jobs that were available to anyone who had time to do them. They paid a little bit in the way of money and gave him a chance to get some supplies on his own, or for Leesa, or even Judeth the few times she’d asked. All in all, it was a good system, the citizens got first chance at the jobs, then the city workers did the ones left over, everybody wins.
Danald was a big man, just over six feet tall with dark brown skin, very dark brown. Close cropped brown hair that curled luxuriously if it was longer than an inch, which he made sure never happened. Pale brown eyes, and a hawk like nose finished off his features and all added up to a striking appearance, though nobody would ever call him handsome. At least that’s what his sisters called it, striking. Even thought they weren’t really his sisters they were still biased. The three of them had come from the same new clone batch, related only because they’d been in the same machines. But they’d formed a bond somehow in those machines. They were force grown and force taught with bits of memories from dozens of other people. The three of them looked out for each other and bickered and loved each other as siblings do.
Danald was also a strong man and very deadly with a blade. Other people looked down on his knife skills, but he’d paid for the training cards in bladed weapons and he was more than happy that he had. Let others use a rifle from hundreds of yards away! You couldn’t even see that far even with a scope on Rhyldan. Though he’d heard stories that it had been different back on Earth, something about the atmosphere here, or light refraction, or some such. It didn’t matter, all that mattered was that he was deadly with a blade. He never ran out of ammunition, didn’t have to lug around twenty pounds of gun, and knives were usually very quiet killing tools. Of course, he did have to lug around almost twenty pounds of knife and sword, but they were on his hip and back respectively, out of the way and leaving his hands free for other things.
These familiar thoughts carried him through town and past the walls. Enduring the cheerful insults of the gate guards about his ‘pig sticker’ whatever a pig was, he just laughed and waved them off. Half the gate guards got drunk in the same bar he did, they knew exactly how deadly he could be with a small knife, they didn’t want to even consider what he did to the alien Lesoo bodies with his sword.
The area around the city was mostly tamed and very few large predators remained since the animals they preyed on had been killed or driven off. The few that were left were ones that had developed a taste for human. Leesa had found one of those a little while ago, the nitwit. Danald grinned to himself as he remembered their trip back to get her ducks. She’d chattered and questioned and tried to learn as much as she could from him...finally. He’d been trying to get her to learn the basics of wilderness survival for a long time now.
They’d tracked Leesa’s path, Danald had to shake his head at the naivety of her ‘duck hunt’. Following the watercourse was bad enough, with predators just waiting for prey to come have a nice drink. Running straight as an arrow into the forest had been hairbrained, and leaving her PDA at home had been enough to drive him into a sputtering frenzy and start him questioning her sanity. Alright, continue questioning her sanity.
They’d finally found where it had happened and got her damned ducks. There was no sign of the thing that had killed her and the carrion eaters had destroyed the tracks long before they got there. Danald had wanted to look around more, but Leesa was showing definite signs of an oncoming panic attack as the evening light started to fade. She’d convinced him to just head back, with the damned ducks, and to come back later to track down the predator.
Judeth, their other sister had been ‘busy’ or he’d have brought her and continued her wilderness lessons at the same time. Danald worried about his other sister, she was one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen, and she worked directly with one of the most prosperous businessmen in the city. The only problem was, she refused to say what it was she did, and the few little bits of information that she’d let drop over time led Danald to believe it wasn’t filing reports and taking notes. Oh well, ‘confidentiality’ was her excuse for a lot of things and there wasn’t anything he could do about it. Even if it was what he thought. Even if he could figure out what he thought it was. Leesa was oblivious to the undertones between Judeth and himself, despite working in the Council’s kitchen and presumably aware of high level politics, though it was better that way.
Mentally kicking himself for his worries about his sisters, and his distraction in an area that could prove fatal, he took a deep breath and started his patrol. His PDA gave him general directions, and his instructions were to ‘see what’s out there, and kill the bad things’…he chuckled to himself. It might have been exactly those instructions for all the good the actual wordage did. Whoever entered these jobs in the database had zero sense of humor, but that didn’t prevent some of the descriptions from being hilarious by accident.
Danald started scouting, making notes of resources he might want to come back for, taking down a small ground rodent for its skin, and generally having a wonderful time. The air was cool and crisp, the sun was warm, the wind was light, he was at peace with the world of Rhyldan. Too bad it never lasted.
Halfway through his patrol, Danald stopped for a snack and a drink. Not stupid enough to go to a watering hole to be jumped by something, he sat in a sheltered spot. He’d chosen one with a fairly clear view around that would let him defend himself from something that was looking for a snack itself. It was all about defense when you stopped and offense when you moved. He’d have to remember to make that point to the girls when he got them out here again.
Suddenly he froze, something was moving in the small stand of trees not too far away. There were birds making noises and then a single screech and they all got quiet. That meant that either something killed the bird lookout, or something was roaming around in the bird’s territory. Something that wasn’t a direct threat, or they’d have flown away. Something that was dangerous enough that the birds didn’t want to attract its attention. Something…stalking him.
Danald didn’t know how he came to that conclusion, a hunch, subliminal clues, the ghost of other people’s memories in his head, whatever it was he simply knew it wasn’t a random predator passing by a bush. He knew it was there for a reason because it had stopped, since the birds were still quiet. He also knew that it was woodwise too, since he hadn’t heard anything like footsteps or disturbed branches that would have alerted him in the first place.
He put away his sammich, and capped his water bottle, and just sat there. It may have been foolish to make a target of himself like this, but it was equally as foolish to leave his protected spot and run. Either way he was dead if whoever it was had a gun. On the other hand, if he waited until whoever it was came out of hiding to shoot him, at least he’d have an idea of who’d killed him once he got back to the cloner’s. Hopefully.
“You might as well come out.” He finally said into the growing silence. “You’re scaring the wildlife for a mile around and you’ve screwed up my hunt already.”
There was no reply, but a very, very faint sound came from Danald’s right. Without turning his head, just in case it was a trick, he addressed his stalker again. “If I’m trespassing, you just need to put up markers in the database, you know. Then things like this wouldn’t happen.”
“You’re not trespassing.” A low, woman’s voice replied.
“Good to know. Want a sammich? I’ve got a spare, and the filters on my water bottle are new, just this morning.” Danald still didn’t turn his head, but was able to follow the very soft sounds of the woman’s progress as she circled around him to the edge of the trees. He reached up and scratched his nose, then his ear, and then the back of his neck and with the flick of his thumb, loosened the quillion strap that held his sword in the sheath on his back. “What brings you into this area?”
“Are you alone?” the woman replied.
“What kind of stupid question is that?” Danald’s surprise made him turn at last to look directly to where the woman’s voice came from. “Either way you can’t tell if I’ve lied. I could have a dozen of my closest friends just over the next rise, I could be some criminal looking for his next victim to torture and kill. Sociopaths tend to start out on small animals, you know. Or I could tell you I’ve got a dozen of my closest friends just to make you nervous yourself in case you’re the sociopath.”
Danald’s babbling commentary seemed to put the woman at ease, as he had meant it to. She stepped out of the shadows and leaned nonchalantly against a tree, using a small knife to clean under her nails. Danald tried very hard to keep a straight face. Obviously this woman was nervous, possibly even scared. The thing that struck him was that she seemed to be afraid of him…not the surroundings.
“Alright, alright, I take your point. I’m not an axe murderer, I’ll trust you’re not either, and I’ll even take you up on your offer to share your lunch. But don’t get any ideas that this is some kind of seduction fantasy. I’ll gut you in a second if you try anything.” She stepped fully into the sunlight and Danald understood her nervousness.
She stood maybe five foot and six inches. Not tiny, but not exactly big either. She moved with a dancer’s grace, or maybe it was an acrobat. Assassin also came to mind. Her hair was deep midnight black with faint blue highlights where the sun hit it. Her eyes were a vivid blue, her complexion light, despite the obvious tan from being outdoors a lot. Her mouth was perfect, her nose just the right size for her face, and taken all together, she was a very, very beautiful woman. Little alarm bells started going off in Danald’s head.
“My name’s Ireene” she said politely as she crossed the open area to where his little rock seat was.”
“Danald” he replied shortly. He wondered what the hell she was doing out here. She wore the light armor that would give her some protection from the predators and still let her move easily. She also had a pistol on her hip and a rifle slung over her back. She moved like she knew what she was doing in the semi-tamed wilderness. But nobody makes a new clone that looks like that just to send her out to kill rabbits and ducks.
“I know who you are,” she said as she leaned one hip against a rock. It was interesting to note that she was not within easy reach of him even now. She had a wary, hunted look to her that instantly roused all his protective instincts. He ruthlessly crushed those instincts under the heel of cynicism and self-preservation.
“Do you now, and why do I get the feeling you’re going to be telling me something I don’t want to hear?”
“Because you’ve got an IQ higher than your foot size, because you’re suspicious, and because I am going to tell you things you don’t want to hear, but you’ll listen anyway.” Ireene gave a little smile and pulled out her own water bottle. Despite his offer to share his lunch, Danald had no intention of eating anything that came from this woman, and he doubted she would have actually accepted anything from him either. Their mutual distrust seemed to color the air around them as they sat there and watched each other warily.
“Well, get on with it then, I don’t have all day and I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than sit around posing.” That seemed to sting her, she straightened up and folded her arms across her **cough** impressive chest and glared at him.
“We’ve been watching you, Danald.” She started out simply, and paused as if expecting him to ask questions. But Danald had given out enough free information to this woman for one day. He merely nodded for her to continue. “I’m from the FPR.”
“Obviously, but come to the point, Ireene, or whoever you really are.” Danald said calmly. Ireene seemed nonplussed by his reaction. Evidently this was not going according to her script. Well, that was just too bad. She’d said it herself, they were not two star-crossed lovers in some stupid romance novel meeting in secret. This whole thing smelled of some elaborate trap and he was not going to obediently step into it just because some pretty girl batted her eyelashes at him.
“Haven’t you ever considered your place in OWON? Haven’t you ever wanted the freedom to do what you wanted without the Council slotting you into some little pigeonhole? Haven’t you ever wanted to live where you wanted to, go where you wanted to, see who you wanted to without some Council bigwig slamming sanctions on you for ‘conduct detrimental to public morale’
Don’t you realize you’ve been created in the Council’s lab? Put together exactly the way you are like some machine? Given the skills they think you need to do their tasks without questioning their needs or motives? Danald, think about it, you could have been anyone, an artist or a mechanic, you could have done anything at all, except the Council in their infinite wisdom decided that they needed a big, strong hunter that day.”
Danald crossed his own arms unconsciously, her argument striking closer to home than he was prepared to admit. He made a little ‘continue’ motion with his head and just sat there while she got her whole speech out.
“The FPR isn’t like that. Every person gets a say in what the needs of the city are. Every person can petition to have a new clone made, as long as they have the means to pay for it. Every single person supports the city as a whole. There’s no Council making decisions ‘for the greater good’. There’s only common sense and balancing supplies and population. That’s the only limiting factor, Danald. There’s no one to say who will or won’t be cloned again after they die. There’s nobody that gets ‘lost on patrol’ conveniently and then never exists again.”
“What does this have to do with me?” Danald interrupted finally.
“You’re good, Danald, you’re skilled out here, you’ve shown you’re smart, and you’re not afraid to do whatever it takes to get a job done. We can use people like you, people willing to stand up to the Council and stop taking their orders.”
“You’re looking at the wrong man, Ireene. You can make your own hunters, you said so yourself, so you don’t need me. If you’re looking for a spy, you’ve definitely got the wrong man. I know which way the wind blows and I know what would happen to an FPR collaborator. I like my intestines right where they are, thank you very much. You can take your little seduction play and your little spy games and toddle off back to your buddies. I’ll give you half an hour head start before I report you to the militia.”
“Alright, Danald. I didn’t expect to convince you today. You’re too smart for that. You say you know which way the wind blows, but there’s a lot of dark corners in the OWON that need a breath of fresh air. Once you start looking at those, I’m betting you’ll be knocking on my door within the year.” Ireene said with a bit of a frown. Obviously she had expected to convince him, or something. But he wasn’t going to be perma’d by the Council for sedition, no way, no how.
“Get, twenty nine minutes left.” He said gruffly, fingering the hilt of his small knife.
“I’m going, Danald…” Ireene headed off quickly towards the trees again. Danald wasn’t planning on reporting her, but he certainly wasn’t going to tell her that. “Oh, Danald? Tell Judeth I said hello.” Her voice drifted back to him after she’d gotten completely out of sight.
“Oh great, just like a woman, has to have the last word.” He said loudly, hoping she could still hear him.
Danald waited out the half hour, even though he couldn’t tell where the woman had gone after just a few moments. Then he continued on his route almost on autopilot. One part of his mind turning over Ireene’s comments again and again, especially the last parting shot. What was Ireene to Judeth? She obviously knew Judeth, that much was clear from her tone of voice. But how?
Then the penny dropped. Ireene was just as beautiful as Judeth, though in very different ways. They moved the same way, spoke the same way, even posed the same way. That was why her little seduction ploys hadn’t worked on him, he’d seen Judeth practicing all those little expressions and poses before. All the suspicions and worries about what kind of ‘duties’ Judeth had to do came flooding back to him and he stopped dead in the middle of the forest, his mind ticking over a million times a second.
It took the sound of a predator yowling to bring him back to a sense of his surroundings. Standing there was just asking to be eaten, he chided himself, better to finish his patrol and sit down with a beer or two and do some serious thinking. Yeah, and maybe poking into some of those dark corners that Ireene had mentioned. There was no way he was going to play FPR spy, but that didn’t mean he was going to let his sister stay in the situation he was afraid she was in. Not that he knew how to get her out, but now he couldn’t just ignore it. He may never go to the FPR, but there’s no reason why Judeth, or even Leesa couldn’t, if it meant they’d be safer.
“Bah, what is this? Some kind of horrible espionage book? Next thing you know I’ll be looking for spy bugs in my shorts and listening at doorways.” He said out loud as he continued down the path to the city. No, he wasn’t going to do anything stupid. But he definitely had a lot to think about before he did anything at all.